Blog: Kim
Wiltshire

The playwright on changing the narrative about benefits claimants in her new work

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My new play, The Value of Nothing, opens on 10 October at Edge Hill University’s Arts Centre, and will be published by Aurora Metro on the same day, before a short tour.

This play has taken around two and a half years to get to this stage, with a lot of creative ups and downs, but I kept going with it because the subject matter means so much to me.

I began to work on this piece when I heard a news report on Radio 4 in the run-up to the 2015 general election. It was suggested that “hard-working taxpayers” did not want to see their tax “wasted” on people claiming benefits. The whole tone of the report divided our society into us and them – if you work, you’re paying tax and you’re contributing to your society, the politicians were telling us, but if you claim benefits then effectively you’re scrounging off the state. It was totally black and white, not nuanced at all, no grey areas – and it absolutely appalled me.

I’d been doing some work with young men who were living on benefits and they were not living the life of Riley, watching massive plasma screens that the unsuspecting tax payer had provided them with and living it up on expensive holidays abroad. No, these stories were ones of insecurity, living off food banks, genuine choices between putting the heating on in the midst of winter or feeding their kids. And these people were not lazy. They wanted to work but there was no work out there for them. They wanted a better life and they wanted a better future for their kids, but at every turn it seemed that someone was putting up barriers, preventing them from living a better life.

So I make theatre about this. And I try to make theatre that is a good night out, but gets the audience thinking and asking questions. I try hard not to provide answers to those questions because I want a debate to happen – I want people in the audience to challenge each other in the bar afterwards. And I make theatre that explores these issues because that is really the only way I know how to raise awareness about the things I care about. And theatre can provide a really great forum for facilitating discussion. If you watch a piece and you like a character but don’t like her actions, then it gets you thinking – what might I do in that situation? Did they have an option or is that the only way they could act? I like creating these situations – in this play the character that I hope the audience is most sympathetic to actually does make an odd decision, one that I hope is questionable.

Rehearsals start this week. This is the point where I find out whether all the work I’ve done over this quite long period of time will actually pay off! It’s exciting, and frightening, scary and terrifying – but hopefully the show will provide a little food for thought. We’ve got a great cast and a great director in Joyce Branagh so please, book your tickets and let me know what you think.

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