The Great Austerity Debate. Photo: Unite Community
The Great Austerity Debate: Using the power of theatre, unions and communities to explore social policy
The words “an interactive play” would strike fear into the hearts of most people. However, last Friday Unite hosted an initiative at its London and Eastern office that combined the skills of theatre with trade union experience and the voices of communities to explore the pressing social issues facing the country and the potential for change.
‘The Great Austerity Debate’ is set around a new play, ‘A Life in the Week of Megan K’. It is the result of collaboration between the Menagerie Theatre Company and Mia Gray and Susan Smith, academics from Cambridge University. The play centres around Megan Knowles, a single mother of two, as she tries to cope with working on a zero hours contract, a deficient social security system and financial hardship.
The first half consisted of watching the play which featured powerful and moving performances from a trio of actors: Bianca Stephens, John Shields and Caroline Rippin.
Then something remarkable happened. Under the deft handling of director Patrick Morris, the audience is invited to get involved.
Firstly, to share their thoughts and observations on what they have just seen. Then, the actors return to the stage – still in character – and the audience asks the characters (not the actors) questions that help gain an understanding of their respective situations and personalities. Finally, scenes are acted out again and the audience has the opportunity to raise their hand, shout “Stop!” and suggest a different course of action (I wonder if any of the audience will continue this practice when they go to their next, more traditional, theatrical outing?)
In this case Unite Community members and their guests played their part (and in the case of one audience member that of one of the actors too!) What was played out in front of us was an exploration of the impacts of public policy, the way people respond and the potential to imagine and influence a different future. It becomes clear that the characters and their circumstances are shaped by a combination of political and personal choices.
But the experience not only opens up opportunities, it presents challenges too. At one point one of the characters is asked by the audience “Why don’t you join a trade union?” She replies “What’s a trade union?” reminding us not just of the need to communicate our message in a way that’s relevant, but of the difficult environments we have to work in.
There is also a level of democracy and engagement one doesn’t usually get in traditional forms of theatre. This not only applies to the audience’s active involvement but the venues used. These performances take place away from traditional theatres and in community centres and workplaces (and in this case a former workplace of my own).
What has this got to do with the work of a trade union you may ask? Unite is keen to explore different ways in which we can reach beyond our traditional bases and extend our message to new constituencies in new ways. Unite Community is part of that and this event, using the power of theatre to stimulate debate around issues of austerity, the social security system, low pay and precarious work, was an innovative and stimulating attempt to consider and develop alternatives.
It was powerful and inspiring stuff. I’m proud Unite was part of it.