"The mission is to remind people what they have in them already": Common Wealth are making movements from theatre
Arts, culture and performance are always at the core of what we at A/UK think a reimagined politics and citizenship could be - because few other forms can convey human complexity better than these.
In that respect, and from two separate sources, we were delighted to discover the work of the theatre collective Common Wealth - which echo a lot of what we are trying to do in our "collaboratories".
Evie Manning is a theatre-maker from Bradford. Rhiannon White is a theatre-maker from Cardiff. Together they are the driving force behind the Common Wealth theatre company. For them, theatre is a vehicle for change, a powerful form that can, in its best moments, encourage accountability, make you feel less alone and bring you closer to yourself. Their company was set up as a “reaction against the status quo” of stale theatre for middle-class audiences at £35 a ticket (if you’re on benefits, you can see a Common Wealth show for £1).
“Theatre has created its own trap,” Evie tells me. “And all the theatres are freaking out, saying we want to get more diverse audiences, but they’re so keen to cling to bricks and mortar, and they’re so keen to stay safe and only put on the things they think are going to sell tickets and fill those seats, that no one will take a risk and think outside of what’s been prescribed.”
Over the past six years, Common Wealth has produced No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, a play about Muslim female boxers that went on in boxing clubs from Bradford to Perth; We’re Still Here (commissioned by National Theatre Wales), about the ongoing struggle of the steel workers in Port Talbot, staged in a disused factory in the shadow of the steel works; and Our Glass House, about domestic abuse, staged in houses in Bristol, Bradford, Edinburgh and London.
The plays were critically acclaimed: “Blazing with energy, absolutely beautiful” (Scotsman); “Powerful and triumphant … a celebration of the human will” (Independent). Our Glass House won a special commendation at the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award in 2013, and No Guts, No Heart, No Glory was shortlisted for the same award the following year.
John E McGrath, director of Manchester international festival, has said: “Common Wealth will be changing the way we look at the world for years to come.”
We are particularly interested in Common Wealth because they think very carefully and authentically about the need for their work to arise from the communities they locate their performances in - very reminiscent of our own A/UK method around the opening "Friendly" stage of our collaboratories. From an interview in Atlas of the Future:
The mission is to remind people what they have in them already… that innate sense of being human, and how even from birth we’ve all got a story to tell – and we can be the masters of our own stories. (RW)
We make work that’s based in the here and now, it’s responding all the time to the world we see around us. It always starts with stories, with interviewing people, with a conversation that we’ve had with someone. And it’s always really rooted in the place we’re in. (EM)
We spend a lot of time just making friends. The very first thing I’d say we do in our process is make friends, and we continue to make friends until after we leave. (RW)
We keep our rehearsal room open and always invite people in – because everyone is a collaborator. It’s really important that people we’ve interviewed throughout the process know they can inform the play, they can change and edit the script. Quite often we’ve bumped into someone on the street during lunch break, and then invited them to watch rehearsals and chip in. When we were making The Deal Versus the People about TTIP (The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership), it could have been very dry so we had to keep inviting people in and make sure what we were doing was connecting. (EM)
As a theatre company, usually the process of making work is quite straightforward, it’s flat – you have a start, a middle and an end. At Common Wealth, our process is circular. It continues and grows, and it doesn’t stop when the show stops. (EM)
For the audience to have agency is absolutely essential to our work. The audience are always moving, they’re always close to the action, the action is always spilling outwards. Many have said they felt like ghosts. Because of the atmosphere we create, the audience feel like they bear witness to something of that time, of the people in that place. Normally you go to the theatre and sit down and are fed the show; but for us the audience are up, they’re empowered, they’re making decisions. (RW)
We want to drive political action with our work, and I don’t think you can do that sitting down. You have to be ready. (RW)
Things don’t always make sense rationally but the work always seems to speak to people on an emotional level. And I think that’s absolutely key for social change: we need to be moved, we need to feel something before we take action or make changes. Theatre has a live audience, so you inherently get that feeling of a movement. It feels powerful to be with other people, connecting, and realising you’re not the only one who thinks how you do. (EM)
It's also interesting to note how Common Wealth feel the need to build new social spaces into the heart of their organisation. As the Observer piece relates about their Bradford HQ:
...Speakers Corner is a disused shopfront, once a money exchange store, now repurposed for making theatre and planning action, run by a group of women and teenage girls. The shop windows have been illustrated boldly in thick white paint – swallows in flight, singing women, slogans saying Free Kashmir. This is Common Wealth’s Bradford HQ, and also a base for a large group of girls and women to get together.
Seventeen-year-old Iram Rehman is a founding member of Speakers Corner and part of its core group. She explains: “Speakers Corner is a political/social space, which is open to everyone. We welcome different races, different types of people. It’s a safe space for us to express our opinions, but also for other people to come and express their opinions. We hold different events, from plays to yoga sessions with mums and little kids, and we like to involve every single person in the community because we believe as a collective we can empower other people and work together to make society a better place.”
She is focused when she talks, and engaging. “This place was a cash store two years ago, which was empty. Now it’s full of energy and we have transformed it into a place for people to come. It’s like a second home for some people. And to say it’s all run by women and girls is amazing!”
More on Common Wealth here.