Cardboard Citizens is a unique theatre company working with people who have lived experience of homelessness to create productions that activate social change. Co-ordinator Rosa Stourac McCreery started working with the InterAction Drop-in in 2020, along with other local organisations as part of their Cardboard Camp North East programme.
The aim was to put together a piece of theatre focussing on the experience of accessing healthcare for people who were homeless. The arrival of the pandemic meant the project had to go digital, but this didn’t stop the group from creating an emotive performance with the power of Zoom.
‘I love to try something new’
InterAction Drop-in Volunteer Lily was one of the performers who brought her own experiences to the play. Originally from Eritrea she was living in a hostel in Wakefield during the first lockdown before moving to Newcastle about nine months ago while she waits for her application for asylum to be processed.
“When I first came to Newcastle it was difficult to understand the accent. It’s difficult without my family and it’s hard to keep in touch.”
“Rosa came to Drop-in and told us about a theatre project. We chatted about it. I didn’t think for a minute I was going to do it. But I love to try something new. They just kept saying ‘Lily you should do it.’ It was amazing!”
Lily is softly spoken but really lights up when she talks about the project. “It was my first experience of theatre. English is my second language so I’m not very good at expressing myself, but they encouraged me to do it. At first I just had one scene to try, then I ended up in three scenes!”
We asked Rosa, who led the process, how the piece of theatre was created…
“We used the stories which came out of the Health Now research and the experiences of the participants to begin to create characters and scenes. We then built a story, showing what someone’s life was like when times were quite good, and then how things were going now that there are some problems and obstacles to overcome, and the difficult experiences of accessing the right kinds of support.”
“We added more details and textures through improvising the scenes and different people trying out the roles. We thought about what information our audience needed to know, and what details and textures helped to create the human and emotional connection for the audience.”
‘It has an impact’
Lily was keen to use her own experiences of what it’s like to try and use the NHS as an asylum seeker struggling with the language.
“In one of the scenes I’m at the GPs as a patient who can’t speak very good English and needs an interpreter. That is the one part I did that really relate to as I have this life experience. Asylum seekers in GP practice you need an interpreter as the medical terms are very difficult to understand.”
“It has an impact. The video was shown at an NHS meeting. There were many important people in the meeting, many researchers, 50 health professionals were there. We show some of the defects in the system and how it effects homeless people and asylum seekers.”
Rosa added that the performance has led to discussion about different parts of the health service, from mental health to hospital discharge, from support with addictions to GP surgeries, and what needs to change.
Rosa also spoke of how Lily’s commitment and willingness to rise to the challenge was truly inspirational. She told us: “Lily was amazing!!! She started out as one of the quieter members of the group, and she was also busy studying and had exams during the project too. She was always there, listening and taking in all of the information.”
‘It made me feel more confident’
“As the project continued, Lily’s confidence grew, and it was clear that she was putting to use all that time spent listening and taking on board the discussions and information that was shared in the group. She was a great improviser, and brought in her own ideas for costume and props to help make her characters come alive.”
“Lily was also a real support of the whole process, and of the other members of the group. She shared some of her own experiences, and it was important for these to be reflected in the story, so that the experience of people who have arrived more recently in the UK and in the North East, and who are trying to access the health services, is included.”
It’s clear that the project has had a big impact on Lily…. “It made me feel more confident. They taught me how to make it right and it was very good experience. Never in my life had I done anything like this, I didn’t believe I was an acting person at all. But when you get a chance to try something new and you have a person encouraging you to do it.”
Lily may have been quiet when she first started the project, but she’s clearly an ambitious young woman with a strong childhood dream of going to medical school and becoming a cardiologist.
“I thought I was in a very stressful situation, I thought I had the worse life experience, but when I spoke to others about theirs, mine is nothing compared to them which makes me feel very strong.”
You can find out more about Cardboard Citizens on their website: cardboardcitizens.org.uk