Blog: Janine Waters

The artistic director writes about a panto challenging perceptions of homelessness

Hero image

It’s Christmas!

For people who are homeless, vulnerable and alone, this can be a particularly complicated and challenging time of the year.

Our partners at the Booth Centre, Longford Centre and Reach Out to the Community (and other excellent organisations in Manchester) are doing the urgent work needed to improve people’s life chances: with food, essentials, accommodation, advice and friendship.

But there is other, equally urgent work: to provide opportunities for people to find moments of joy – without which we don’t live, we just exist. Engagement in cultural activities can provide people in a terrifying ocean with not just a life raft, but a life.

At the Edge we do this through high quality theatre. As Manchester’s award-winning theatre for participation, alongside being a receiving and producing house for theatre shows, we run a core programme of participatory performance, prioritising opportunities to transform lives through the arts. More than 640 people actively take part in a creative activity every week in our little venue in Chorlton, and a further 60-plus people a week engage through our outreach work. We run an eclectic mix of activities for the general public and a highly successful participatory programme for vulnerable adults and children, which includes a range of projects for people with learning disabilities, people with drug and alcohol addictions, with mental health issues and people who are (or are at risk of being) homeless.

In association with the Booth Centre, we run a theatre company made up largely of people with lived experience of homelessness. For 48 weeks of the year we run singing and acting workshops twice a week at the Booth Centre and twice a year the company performs in productions to sold out audiences at the Edge.

The relationship between the actors on stage and the audience in a pantomime is like nothing else

This includes staging an annual pantomime. This year’s It’s Behind You is performed by a company of 15 adults who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness.

About four years ago we made our first panto together, and we discovered that at least part of Christmas could be a time of joy for people, despite experiencing homelessness. The relationship between the actors on stage and the audience in a pantomime is like nothing else. The warmth, the love and respect that flows in both directions is palpable.

A core part of this is creating a theatre company who trust and respect each other. Simon (musical director and resident composer) and I (artistic director and writer) use a range of theatre techniques to foster trust and respect throughout the process. As a result, some of our actors are now finding a new family.

Our panto is an entertaining night out with all the fun you’d expect from this Christmas theatre tradition, though we aim it at people aged 16 plus rather than family audiences. The productions are never about being homeless. The actors do not want to be defined by their circumstances but by their imagination, creativity and talent.

In 2017 we made A Spanish Adventure, a play set in a family-run arts centre in a small village in Catalonia at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The play explored the rise of fascism and how the far-right turned neighbour against neighbour and divided families. Earlier this year we made a show to celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS. A loving tribute of a play, but also a stark warning.

We don’t shy away from the big issues. We have plenty to say.

The process of making our pantomime and theatre productions opens up people’s imaginations to see other worlds beyond their own, with alternative storylines and endings. It also gives people something that they can work for, a goal to reach as they overcome obstacles, achieve success and are rewarded for their efforts with respect and applause.

Some of the people we work with have little experience of this in their lives. Being part of our theatre company helps develop people’s confidence and self-esteem. It helps some people learn to read. It improves their speaking and listening. It helps people with anger management and encourages conflict resolution. It develops empathy and emotional literacy.

It’s Behind You will be our fourth pantomime and we’ve made upwards of 20 productions with the Booth Centre. The skills of all involved improve with each production. The audiences, many of whom are regulars, have a real invested interest in watching our shows. They remember the performers and are amazed at how they are progressing. Every now and then we have to say goodbye to someone as they’ve progressed all the way into employment, accommodation and a new life.

As we get ready to perform It’s Behind You there’s real joy in the rehearsal room and even more on stage. How can we prove it? We can show you.

It’s Behind You takes place at the Edge on 13, 14 and 15 December

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Blog: Janine Waters

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.