BY HANNAH MORPETH
I have lost count of the number of theatre productions I’ve seen over the last few years, huge productions on a UK tour in a big fancy theatre and small intimate shows on make-shift stages, neither being any better than the other. My love for theatre however was born out of those small, contemporary productions. I had a traditional education of theatre through secondary school, my first experience being a production of Far from the Madding Crowd as a teenager who was just about able to make sense of such archaic language. I thought that’s what theatre was, old, for posh people not people like me. Then, I left school and discovered a whole world of theatre that I could instantly understand, theatre that explained concepts and feelings I didn’t think possible. I fell in love, cue half of my bank balance going on seeing everything that I could.
The first time I saw something that I truly thought this is right and perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it was a play called Weather to Fly by Alison Davies at Live Theatre, Newcastle. I would then see this for a second time at Customs House, South Shields. Weather to Fly is a beautifully tragic piece of theatre through the eyes of a child with a parent struggling with mental health difficulties. Since this moment I have seen lots more amazing productions but felt like this was the turning point in my experience of theatre, this was the moment I realised the power of spending my evening in a theatre.
I recently went to see a theatre production created by writers at Customs House, South Shields that explored child sexual exploitation using words from Operation Sanctuary interviews, words that some brave young people have given permission to be used – to tell their stories and educate other young people. The production was brave and emotional and raw but the best thing about it is how it is being used. Is This Your Story? was toured around secondary schools in the area as an educational tool, to open-up conversations amongst young people, the people most at risk of this hideous reality. This is a perfect use of theatre, giving it back to the people that it’s written about and being used to teach.
I feel very privileged to be able to afford to go to the theatre and I am aware of theatres that have reductions in place for people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford it however I can’t help but feel that the arts have a huge financial and often class barrier in the way of the people who need to see shows, being able to see shows. A barrier that is being smashed by people like the Customs House and Open Clasp Theatre Company. In 2015 Key Change, produced by Open Clasp with women from Low Newton Prison, won the best in Edinburgh. Key Change is a production I saw at least 4 times and encouraged everyone I spoke to to do this too; Key Change can change perceptions of people who offend. Open Clasp worked with women in Low Newton Prison to tell their stories, these stories were then presented back to them through Key Change. This is the way to use theatre powerfully.
This year as with every other year I saw and experienced lots of amazing things at Edinburgh Fringe however I couldn’t stop thinking about only two of those things. I saw Eat Me and Living with a Dark Lord, the kind of theatre I really believe in the power of. I believe that good theatrical representation of mental illness could and should be used to educate others. I, and I’m sure many others could have done with having seen Eat Me when muddling through supporting someone with anorexia nervosa. Just like I am sure there are lots of other siblings of someone with autism that could have done with seeing Living with a Dark Lord to validate their feelings and experiences; it would equally help professionals to be more considerate to the impact of conditions such as autism spectrum disorder on siblings.
I love theatre, it is probably my most favoured art form and I sincerely hope the world starts to use the power that I see. Theatre has the power to educate so many however first the accessibility has to improve. Theatre needs to be reaching the audiences that need it and people like Customs House and Open Clasp have started this, here’s to more following in their footsteps. I would love for Eat Me and Living with a Dark Lord to be given the platforms they should have to spread important messages.
I have no idea how industries come together to maximise on the power of theatre but they 100% need to. Training courses are all well in good but theatre can bring a whole other dimension to educating, one which we must harness.