Livestream: How much has society changed since 1966’s Cathy Come Home?

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Cathyinspired by Ken Loach’s seminal 1966 film Cathy Come Home, has played in hostels, prisons and traditional theatre spaces across the country since premiering in October 2016. Tonight (18 January 2017) from 7.45pm, this evening’s performance live-streamed free from Cast in Doncaster by Pilot Theatre.

Forum Theatre invites audience members in the theatre to discuss the production they’ve seen and then take to the stage to affect the action and attempt to change the outcome, in a ‘rehearsal for real life’. Those watching from home can join in a live debate on a dedicated comments board – via www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk/CathyLive – and by using #CathyLive.

Cathy is directed by Adrian Jackson, artistic director of Cardboard Citizens, the company that makes theatre with and for homeless people, and written by award-winning playwright Ali Taylor.

A note from director Adrian Jackson

In 1966 Ken Loach’s ground-breaking film, Cathy Come Home, outraged its audiences, with its depiction of a world unknown to many, and inspired a generation of activists and organisations to campaign for better housing and rights for homeless people. In 1991, Cardboard Citizens was born, a theatre company employing a similar mix of carefully researched testimony and artfully crafted fiction to tell powerful stories from the world of homelessness, with the goal of stimulating much-needed debate and action.

To mark respectively the film’s 50th and our 25th birthdays, we commissioned Ali Taylor to write a Forum Theatre play imagining what a Cathy de nos jours might look like – to explore and give our audiences a chance to see what has changed and what has not. Like Ken Loach and his team, Ali and his key researcher, Alison Cain, spoke to people at the sharp end of homelessness in London and beyond.

These included the many Members of Cardboard Citizens with their own stories of hardship, as well as hard-pressed housing staff at councils who find themselves in the invidious position of judge and jury when people ‘present’ as homeless (on the day of their evictions, usually), dispensing what limited resources they have to support people, the housing stock available to them having been drastically reduced by decades of ‘right to buy’. This play is the result.

“The realities of the housing game and its vicious dependence on ‘market forces’ mean that families are still driven out of stable communities and often end up separated, emotionally and geographically.”

Happily, we no longer live in an age where children are brutally ripped away from their parents by stern-faced agents of the state and homeless people warehoused in segregated institutions little changed from the workhouses of the 19th century. Attitudes have changed, what was normal then would not be acceptable now; hostels, though still unsuitable for the length of stay which many have to endure, are better places; there is more understanding of the pressures facing homeless people.

But sadly, as this play testifies, the realities of the housing game and its vicious dependence on ‘market forces’ mean that families are still driven out of stable communities and often end up separated, emotionally and geographically; the shortage of housing stock results in scapegoating and resentment, and warped perceptions of outsiders usurping local people’s entitlement feed divisions in our society. The endless bubble of housing speculation hollows out parts of our cities, especially London, driving the poor further and further out, literally marginalising them. The spectre of Rachmanism is back, with unscrupulous private landlords legally able to exercise almost unlimited power over their tenants in substandard accommodation.

Social housing, for much of the post-war period considered a normal human right, an appropriate way to deal with a necessary responsibility of the state, has been shrunken and shunted sideways to the very housing associations set up in the wake of Cathy Come Home – and even they are now forced into the game of developing and selling so-called ‘affordable housing’ to subsidise their core functions.

As for council housing, it is now the province only of the very neediest in our society, and to earn the ‘right’ to access it requires people to prove that need in competition with one another in a squalid race to the bottom. It is difficult to see how this circle can be squared without enlisting the public (and ultimately those in power) to change the terms of the debate about how we view housing in this country – and enact whatever changes of policy are needed to rectify the situation.

“It is a provocation to see how all of us, however little power we appear to have, might confront the powerful institutions and mind-sets that surround us, to bring about change.”

One purpose in our staging of Ali Taylor’s powerful and tender portrait of a family dealing with these pressures is indeed to open our audience’s eyes to what is going on all around us, and, as in Cathy Come Home, hopefully to stoke up an anger which might lead to change. In a Forum Theatre presentation, after showing the play to an audience which has a stake in the issues, a discussion ensues, as to what might be different – how, in particular, the protagonists of the play, in this case Cathy and maybe Danielle, might have dealt with the oppressions that confront them in other ways, to try to overcome their problems. This is in no way intended to suggest that they are responsible for their situation – rather it is a provocation to see how all of us, however little power we appear to have, might confront the powerful institutions and mind-sets that surround us, to bring about change.

It is a very generous act on a playwright’s part to create a play suitable for Forum Theatre. At the same time as telling a story, s/he must create a locus which provokes its audience to take the stage and imagine another way of ending the story – without descending into the realms of fantasy or wish-fulfilment. Having created a world on stage, s/he must effectively invite others to destroy and reshape it. The audience members do not merely discuss their ideas – they physically take the stage, replacing the central character, and enact their ideas, which the other characters resist or collaborate with, according to the reality of their motivations – this ‘intervention’ is already a form of action, and the hope is that it is a prelude to the enactment of similar changes in ‘real’ life.

This is Ali Taylor’s second play in this mode for Cardboard Citizens, and we look forward to reporting at a later date the thoughts, interventions and actions that it generates when it tours to homeless and non-homeless audiences in hostels, theatres and prisons across the country. As with Cathy Come Home, the text presented here will be interpellated with video and sound recordings of testimony and vox-pops to prove that what is presented in the play is not a sentimental fiction, rather a report from the front.

We are often led to believe that the stories we are told – the inevitability of the market, the inhumanity of human to human, that notion the poor are the agents of their own catastrophe – are the only stories. A Forum Theatre play like Cathy invites us to invent other, better stories.

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Guest Bloggers on Twitter
Guest Bloggers
MyTheatreMates welcomes submissions from guest bloggers and other occasional contributors, including theatremakers commenting on aspects of their shows. Please email your suggestions to Mates co-founder Terri Paddock or submit them via our Contact Us page.

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