The Great Austerity Debate
Dr Mia Gray and Professor Susan J. Smith, working with Patrick Morris of Menagerie Theatre Company, have developed an innovative way to increase the impact of their research. The project - a collaboration between scholars, artists and a public that includes you - takes the shape of a play entitled A week in the life of Megan K. It is, however, no ordinary piece of theatre...
In the play, Megan K finds herself caught in the maze of austerity Britain - bouncing between precarious work, a contracting benefits system, and the sharp end of financial hardship. Her fate is partly shaped by the script, which is rooted in research, and partly by the public - by 'spect-actors' drawn into the fray of the Forum Theatre using participatory methods developed by the Brazilian director Augusto Boal. 'A week in the life...' thus encourages audiences to engage with actors and academics explore the justification for, and impacts of, austerity.
Menagerie Theatre Company and its Associate Artistic Director Patrick Morris are experienced in this medium and have played an important role in developing the forum theatre approach within academia and the third sector. Gray and Smith have published widely on issues like housing, precarious work, and social care - topics which, strangely, are often considered separately by scholars and policy makers alike. Forum theatre is a way to bring it all together, translating painstaking research into an engaging interactive theatrical experience that might, in its way, make a difference.
Political debates around austerity tend to hide the public issues driving budget cuts in bland statements that give little sense of lived experience. As "A week in the life of Megan K' unfolds, however, the impacts of austerity are clear. It is, moreover, the often-unexpected ways in which austerity measures combine that cut into individual and community wellbeing. The characters in the play lay bare the cultural and political tensions that drive austerity, and the limited control that individuals have over the bureaucracies that shape their lives. Audience interventions address further crucial questions. Can individuals divided over cash be united by an ethic of care? Is low paid and precarious work better than nothing at all? Does a more "flexible" benefits system promote independence or entrapment?
One aim of the play is to offer audiences the tools they need to join a debate that is too often dominated by politicians and bureaucrats. The hope is to encourage greater engagement with topics that are hard to articulate in formal or conventional settings, and to create new channels for information exchange in public affairs. Forum theatre is a power-filled space in which professional boundaries are, temporarily, broken down and crossed over, exposing truths that may be too complex to write about or too invisible to see.
After launching at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, the play's first tour was to non-theatre venues in Cambridge, Great Yarmouth, County Durham, Walsall, Norwich and London, in October and November 2016. Performances took place in a church hall, a community centre, a former miners' reading room, a university lecture theatre and a trade union office: places intimately connected to the everyday life of each locale. After the play was presented, audiences were invited to 'rewind', enabling them to guide the characters' actions and responses, or even to get up on stage in place of (or alongside) the professionals and change the plot. Collaborating with local people in safe, familiar spaces gave audience the confidence to be bold, even daring, in introducing new options and articulating hidden concerns. Every single performance generated a high level of public debate and a host of new ideas.
The play is an exercising in widening participation in public debate - it reached not only professionals and care workers, but students, retirees, part-time workers, and the unemployed.
"Fantastic at getting the audience to think for themselves, listen to each other, disagree with each other. I felt like part of a community of people wanting to help each other by the end."
"Great acting! Really interesting exchanges with audience, very entertaining. "
"Brilliant piece of writing backed up with superb acting certainly most thought provoking"
"I wasn't sure how it would go for the second half, but everyone got straight into it, that's really a testament to the performance and the way it provoked people to want to do something."
"it's really exciting to see people so engaged and thinking about what's going on"
One of our hosts, Unite the Union, said of the performance "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."
Some of the partners who hosted performances are keen to continue the collaboration: to get involved in a larger UK-wide tour of the play, for which funding is currently being sought. This would allow the project to tap into the sentiments aroused by budgeting for Brexit, and draw the widest possible cross-section of the public into debates central to modern Britain.
All photos by Andrew Wilkinson.