Real street theatre gets gala backing from the stars

With the support of Kate Winslet and other luminaries, a theatre troupe of homeless people is getting rave reviews for its powerful plays

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The Independent Culture

It started as an experiment: to see if theatre could spark debate among those living on the fringes of society. Two decades later, the UK's only homeless people's professional theatre company is hot property.

One of the UK's leading Hollywood stars backs it. One of Britain's best young poets writes for it, and its shows are being performed at some of the hottest theatres in the capital. Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company made up of actors who are or have been homeless, largely tours hostels, day centres and prisons. Next month, its new show, written by poet and playwright Kate Tempest, will also be performed at public theatres, including the Roundhouse in north London, where around 30 per cent of the audience will have experienced homelessness. Tickets, for them, will cost £1.

Kate Winslet, an ambassador for the organisation, will hold a gala for the theatre company later this year wearing a dress designed by Stella McCartney. She told the IoS she was struck by the "unique nature of what the company does", immediately understanding "how theatre can be a way of helping those affected, and even those unaffected, by homelessness".

"As an actor, you often wonder what impact your performance has on the audience," she said. "[The first time I saw one of their shows], I saw very clearly how theatre can engage people and provoke them to reflect on their lives, present and future."

Adrian Jackson, founder, artistic director and chief executive of Cardboard Citizens, said his company was experiencing more demand than ever before: "When we started, it was considered very odd. Now there are all sorts of artists who engage directly in debate with their audiences. "People now realise this is not just a frivolity, it's not a pointless luxury distracting from the main issue. It's a place where people can explore and find themselves when they're lost."

Cardboard Citizens will be touring their new production, Glasshouse, to more than 40 spaces in the next few weeks and will reach more than 1,000 homeless people. The play, which focuses on three members of the same family in a dark and gritty London, will use interactive techniques known as forum theatre to invite the audience to engage in the story and change its outcome through the performance of alternative scenarios. The first half of the play poses a question, which the audience answers in the second.

Tempest, whose debut play, Wasted, was lauded as "electrifying" by critics, said she got involved with the theatre company because she liked the idea of "going into places where people are generally not cared about by the arts". She added: "So much of theatre and the arts are driven by egos. But Cardboard Citizens is for something. Some kid living in a shelter isn't going to shell out £30 for a theatre ticket. But they should see theatre; they could be the best actor in the world."

And it is usually members of the audience, or those who attend the theatre company's workshops, who eventually become its actors. Last year, the charity reached 1,800 people, with almost 500 of those attending a workshop. More than 140 accessed advice from Cardboard Citizens' support workers. Over 70 achieved a qualification and 60 entered education, employment or training. The company reached more than 6,000 audience members in total.

Jo Allitt, a 42-year-old from London, is starring in the theatre's new show. Before she first attended a workshop in 2009 at Crisis she had been living in a hostel for about a year; she acted in her first tour when she was still homeless. Ms Allitt said her involvement with Cardboard Citizens helped get her nominated for housing, because it proved she was able to cope with commitment and structure. As a performer, she was paid rates approved by the actors' union Equity.

"[The theatre] gave me paid work, advice and guidance. We're treated as professional actors, but I was also supported in coming off benefits and working out my next steps. We're known as actor-mentors because, as well as performing the piece, we talk to people from the hostels; tell them about workshops we run, let them know we've been, or are still, in their shoes. We connect, and encourage them; it's life-changing."

While the theatre company's popularity is booming, the issue that Cardboard Citizens seeks to address shows scant sign of improvement: the number of rough sleepers in England increased by around 23 per cent from 2011 to 2012, a "more dramatic growth dynamic than anything seen since the 1990s", according to one recent report. "Their stories need telling more than ever right now," Adrian Jackson said. "There is a danger we're going to forget about a whole [lot of] people, who have moved out of cities and our lives. Some of us have a responsibility to ensure those stories continue to be told to a wider audience."

'Cardboard Citizens provoke incredibly lively debate in audiences'

"My journey with Cardboard Citizens started over five years ago, when they approached me about becoming an ambassador. I was struck by the unique nature of what the company does and could immediately understand how theatre can be a way of helping those affected, and even those not affected, by homelessness.

"My first experience of Cardboard Citizens in action was on a visit to Holloway Prison. The company presented three short plays, and the actors all had personal experience of homelessness. The women in the audience immediately identified with the story and the characters, and an incredibly lively debate ensued. The inmates got involved, vigorously discussing the options open to the characters in the play, how they might make other choices and have a better chance of success.

"As an actor, you often wonder what impact your performance has on the audience. That evening, I saw very clearly how theatre can engage people and provoke them to reflect on their lives, present and future.

"After our Holloway trip, we plotted how I might be able to help the company to achieve its mission. Out of this came two fundraising dinners that I attended, which raised over £200,000, enabling Cardboard Citizens to move to a new home that houses all of the company's work under one roof. A highlight for me at the last dinner was sharing the stage with the members of Cardboard Citizens in a short scene written for the event.

"My last visit to Cardboard Citizens was just a few months ago, days before they moved into their new space, so I really got a sense of the company moving forward and I feel proud of my contribution. That day, I also attended their youth theatre project, and met a few of the young people involved. I was really impressed by the warm sense of community among the group.

"Right now, I'm working with them on our third fundraising dinner, and really hoping that this one will be the best yet. I am excited about Cardboard Citizens' future and want to make sure they are around for years to come."

Kate Winslet CBE and Cardboard Citizens' ambassador