“What’s the point in us fighting against it? What difference can we make? Who listens to people like us anyway?”
It’s October 2017, and we’re in rehearsals for Fog Everywhere, the show CPT is making with teenage students from Westminster Kingsway College. That show addressed the effects on young people’s physical and mental health of London air pollution. Which mattered to the eight-strong cast – although it wasn’t always clear to them what impact their marginalised voices, even amplified by a theatre show, could possibly have on the public conversation.
I did my best to persuade them (and indeed myself) that, yes, they had the power to effect change, and yes, theatre can make a difference. But in some instances, doubt persisted – as we later dramatised in the show. (“You say we can make things change,” as sceptical William, 17, says in the show’s rap battle sequence. “I say that ain’t the rules of the game”.)
Fast forward to December, and our producer Alison receives an email from Camden council’s Cabinet Member for the Environment, Adam Harrison. Can you come and perform an excerpt from Fog Everywhere at a meeting of Camden councillors, in the town hall’s oak-panelled council chamber, in January? Uniquely, this ‘full council’ meeting is dedicated to a single topic – air quality. Again uniquely, Cllr Harrison thinks Fog Everywhere would be just the thing to set the agenda before legislators debate the borough’s policy on clean air.
And so it happened, earlier this week. Labour, Tory and Green Party council members took up their seats in this stately arena. Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden council, stepped up to welcome our cast name by name: Pele, Aleks, William, Juan, Tobi, Emily, and Phoebe. Then, the floor was ours. For the next ten minutes, the same company who until recently felt disdained by the powerful now had the local authority hanging on their every word.
The performance went well. We played grime music in the corridors of power. We hijacked councillors’ little desk microphones and used them to say outrageous things. We performed a panic attack dance to the sound of the Fuck Buttons. Afterwards, Cllr Harrison called our show “the Blue Planet 2 of Camden”, because it’s great entertainment that could also change how people behave towards their environment. Then one of our cast, Tobi Bakare, addressed the council meeting proper as one of five local people invited to share their personal experiences of Camden’s air quality. He’s 17, he has no claim to expertise other than having engaged with the subject through theatre. But when he spoke, every one of Camden’s councillors paid him close attention.
And then, the following day, the local newspapers lead with the following: Camden council has become the first local authority in the UK to adopt strict World Health Organisation (WHO) targets for air pollution. Next sentence: “The motion followed a performance on air pollution by Camden People’s Theatre, and a debate on air quality by councillors.”
CPT spoke; progressive legislation followed. (That’s what I call feedback.)
The cast went their separate ways, but memories of Monday evening won’t so easily disperse. It was such a satisfying night for CPT – because we helped these young people, and they helped us, to play an active role in local democracy; and because our performance helped persuade Camden councillors to take radical measures against air pollution. Big thanks to the councillors – Adam Harrison and Rishi Madlani – who invited us, and to Cllr Gould for her warm welcome. And a reminder – to ourselves, not least – never to doubt theatre’s civic role, and the power of seven unknown teenagers to make power listen and the world a better place.