Being presented with an opportunity to say exactly what you want to say, how you want to say it, to the people you want to say it to – how could anyone ever say no? In truth the theory of that is far easier to grasp than the reality. As an organisation that serves and represents a silenced and marginalised minority, the responsibility to say something meaningful that will fit into three minutes was a difficult prospect to narrow down. That’s the opportunity we were given, to be part of Wanted, a new show that’s part of Transform Festival.
Simon on the Streets is a small charity that supports rough sleepers or those at risk of rough sleeping, in quite a unique way. When we talk about homelessness, we are less interested in houses (although they are obviously a vital piece of the puzzle) and more concerned with the idea of home and what someone needs to feel at home – in themselves, in the space that they occupy, in the community in which they live. We offer emotional and practical support to our clients, who we target due to their multiple complex needs, for which they are not meaningfully engaging with any other service. They have lived incredibly tough lives, rooted in childhood trauma; they remain ostracised and at risk as adults.
We are the last port of call for those who have slipped through the many nets that are set to catch us should we fall. Our clients are those that you see on the street, head down, hoping for loose change. They are very often victims of verbal and physical abuse, extending to how they are portrayed and misunderstood in the media and popular culture. People can easily get their heads around the practical support we offer – we signpost our clients to specialist services and advocate for them with those services. The emotional support, which is our highest priority, is less tangible and more complicated to articulate. In the simplest terms, we listen and empathise – a powerful and transformative offering.
When we were selected to take part in Wanted we were absolutely thrilled and simultaneously struck with a dilemma. The more obvious use of this time on stage might be to orate about the injustices in the world that equate to homelessness. An audience would no doubt nod rigorously and agree absolutely that homelessness should not exist. But what Wanted suggests is that in three minutes you can take what you want to say in any direction imaginable. Art is such a powerful medium through which to discuss socio-political issues. We spend so much time thinking about issues and a lot less time seeing, hearing, feeling or experiencing what those issues mean to us as human beings. When we see someone suffering, someone who is down and out, someone who seems to have hit rock bottom, what does that do to us as people? And how can we reach out?
When we met Jennifer Tang, our director for Wanted, we proposed that what we really wanted was for the audience to have an experience of empathy and then to be challenged by that experience – not the most specific remit! Jen has thoughtfully questioned and disentangled this and our three minute offering is something we are confident will deliver what we really want.
Most profoundly, being involved in Wanted has given us an opportunity to engage with others in our community. As a small charity we often have our heads down in the business of doing, pedalling to keep up with the demands of funding and to make sure that our clients are getting the service they deserve. Wanted has given us a unique chance to be a voice for those we represent, amongst many other voices, with equal opportunity and equal value. Leeds is incredibly lucky to be at the centre of such an experiment and we hope that audiences will be thrilled with 72 minutes of the city’s most Wanted.
Wanted is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, 22 and 23 April and is part of Transform 16, a weekend of performance and events in Leeds venues