We’re no strangers to a lively crowd at CPT. But we’ve never before held a festival where it became pretty much the norm for audience members to interrupt, protest, and speechify; to join in and demand to be heard. All of which was, of course, fantastic: it’s what we wanted. It wasn’t called ‘Whose London Is It Anyway?’ by accident. It’s a question, and it begged responses. Now it’s all done, and we’re wrung dry but super-excited by the answers that question elicited, the audiences it drew, the conversations it sparked – and indeed the faultlines it exposed between theatre for the many and theatre for, well, rather fewer than that.
If the festival (re)established one thing, it’s that diverse audiences of, ahem, normal people (you know, that holy-grail constituency we theatre bods keep chasing) will come if the shows onstage openly reflect their lives. The title and subject of ‘Whose London…?’ demanded we get Londoners of all stripes through the door. We worked hard to do that, and (thanks in no small measure to the London Community Foundation and Cockayne, who supported the whole event) we succeeded: 33% of the total festival audience told us that they’d experienced homelessness, ‘vulnerable housing’ or lived in social housing. (With apologies for the crude conflation of those three categories.) Night after sell-out night, we encountered electrifying atmospheres in our theatre – the kind you get when audiences attend who haven’t yet been browbeaten to sit respectfully in a darkened room. Who’re seeing stories borne of their own struggles, stories that grapple with the life-or-death issues they face daily.
I won’t quickly forget how it felt to be in the auditorium when Changing Face staged their hot-off-the-estates account of the gentrification of Brixton, Where Will We Live?, or when FYSA celebrated the Focus E15 housing campaign in their verbatim show, E15. These weren’t just theatre performances, but lighting rods for palpable popular rage, frustration, grief – and fervent hope. My colleagues who saw You Should See the Other Guy’s Land of the Three Towers (image right) – performed off-site on the Carpenters Estate in Newham – report the same feeling: that somehow the lines between (excellent) theatre and protest and communal catharsis were collapsing before our eyes.
Not all of the work in our festival required that the audience sit and watch. Hobo Theatre’s The Lowland Clearances staged the real-estate history of Camden as a live-action roleplay event, inviting participants to commune with their inner property baron. One performance was – quite coincidentally – attended by both a Tory councillor and a member of the Green Party with a housing specialism. The two are now in dialogue about housing policy, we hear, as a direct result of Hobo’s show. Meanwhile, on the streets outside our building, our unwitting audience of passers-by engaged daily with artists living in our windows – each of whom ‘performed’ their occupancy in ways that raised sharp questions about shrinking London living space. This project – ostensibly an oddball live-art happening – was seen by more people than everything else in ‘Whose London…?’ combined.
At CPT, we’re constantly debating and exploring the tensions and overlaps between contemporary theatre (i.e. the innovative, ‘experimental’, cross-disciplinary stuff that’s our bread and butter) and ‘people’s’ theatre. We don’t believe they’re necessarily separate things. The ‘Whose London…?’ festival – chock-full of formally novel work alongside more conventional verbatim or political theatre – shored up our sense that this is a vital endeavour. The tastes don’t always overlap: some of those most familiar with CPT’s work strongly disliked the political (and indeed aesthetic) directness of our own in-house show This Is Private Property (left) – and yet those were qualities its large, mainly new-to-CPT audience told us they very much appreciated. Many who visited us for the first time to see TIPP came back to other festival events. Many of our artists told us they were performing to audiences unlike any they’d experienced before.
I spent the final evening of ‘Whose London…?’ in a discussion co-presented with the Londonist website – this one entitled simply ‘How do we solve the London housing crisis?’ Attend an event like this, and you can no longer doubt that political directness is the very least we require to resist the government’s all-out attack on the very principle of social housing – and indeed on the idea of London as currently constituted. The Housing and Planning Bill now passing into law is, said panellist and Camden council leader Sarah Hayward – with no trace of hyperbole in her voice – the most scandalous legislation ever put before parliament.
It was a salutary reminder of why we held this festival, why these artists (representing so many styles of theatre-making and walks of life) are compelled to dramatise these questions. We’re losing our homes, we’re losing our city, the London we love is under blatant attack. Yes, we’ve had a fantastic time over the last month and seen some extraordinary shows. But we also hope we’ve helped – in our own small way – to raise awareness of what’s happening, inspire much-needed opposition to it, and conjure with some better ideas of how we might house ourselves and how we might live.