Blog: Ailin Conant

The director of Theatre Témoin discusses The Marked, a new show using mask, puppetry and physical theatre to share real-life stories of homelessness

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Homelessness is on the rise. There has been a 133 per cent increase in rough sleepers between 2010 and 2017. Homelessness has more than doubled, with the cuts to services and more and more people falling through the widening gaps in the social safety nets. For context, homelessness had been steadily decreasing in the years leading up to 2010, so these figures are appalling, and are direct evidence of the impact of seven years of social failure under a Tory government. This is what “austerity” means: more of society’s most vulnerable in harm’s way. I don’t know if theatre can make a difference. I do know that as theatre-makers we need to, at the very least, try to make a difference. So that’s what we’re doing.

Theatre Témoin was founded in Toulouse in 2007 by graduates of the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA) as a forum for creating new works of theatre that are both socially engaged and fun. We tell under-told stories in a visually and physically compelling style, with direct input from the communities whose stories we present. We are passionate about developing a canon of exceptional quality that includes under-represented voices, builds bridges between communities and brings a diverse range of people to theatre in a meaningful, lasting way.

Our latest show, The Marked, was built off of the back of an 18-month mask workshop programme delivered in partnership with St Mungo’s and Cardboard Citizens. The piece explores the psychological journey of a young boy sleeping rough who is grieving over the loss of his mother. The characters draw on the advice and stories of many of our participants but aren’t “based” on specific people. Touring the piece to hostels and day centres, however, it was powerful to see how many people connected with Jack and his experience. We learned that there are some universal themes to the experience of homelessness, and with the consultation and advice of over a hundred people with experience of homelessness, have managed to capture and communicate a few of them in this piece and its characters.

We worked with people with experience of homelessness, first through mask workshops and then more directly, with two consultants who worked with us as advisers in the rehearsal room. We them took the piece on a tour of nine hostels and day centres to gain additional feedback before we finally premiered. It was a long and involved process – we wanted to make sure to get it right.

I don’t think you can change someone’s entire world in an hour. But I do think you can plant a seed, and that’s what we hope to do with The Marked. I hope audiences will take away an expanded awareness, a curiosity about the stories of the people they pass every day, and I hope this awareness will lead to an empathetic discomfort, and that this discomfort will lead to action.

Physical theatre is our aesthetic as a company. It can be powerful way to get beyond what I like to call the social dimension – the external reality of a situation that you share objectively with someone – and move into the emotional dimension – the subjective experience of something, the enormity of a personal journey lived from the inside.

Touring The Marked to homeless shelters has certainly been a career highlight. For me the career highlights are subtle. They are the moments when you feel like you’re doing something really different, something people aren’t doing yet, and therefore maybe – just maybe – you’re actually making some kind of difference. Here we have this show that we know thousands of theatregoers have appreciated and been moved by, and we know that before it even premiered it was seen and debated and shaped by groups of people who had never been to the theatre, but who knew more about how to tell this story than us or anyone else. It feels like serving something bigger.

The Marked comes to The Lowry, Salford, 20 May and The Hub @ Slung Low, Leeds, 4 June. Photo: Idil Sukan

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