Cardboard Citizens has been inviting people to step into Cathy’s shoes via an interactive stage adaptation of the hard-hitting drama about homelessness. We’re still so very far away from providing the right solutions, says performer Amy Loughton.
Being an actor is an incredible job. I get employed to tell stories for a living and none more important than the one I’m telling now. I’ve been fortunate enough to be performing on the UK tour of Cathy, with Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company that has spent 25 years working with people with experiences of homelessness to share vital stories that aren’t often heard.
I was drawn to this brilliant bunch through an urge to pair my art with my activism. I experienced life in a homeless hostel in south Wales aged nine, after having to leave our comfortable basement flat in Hampstead, so I know how easy it can be to find yourself without a home.
I joined Cardboard Citizens for their latest production Cathy, Ali Taylor’s modern re-telling of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home, which we’ve taken all over the country in the last few months. The story follows a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter’s spiral into homelessness.
It’s been 50 years since the heartbreaking TV drama directed by Ken Loach was first broadcast, and I’m ashamed to say while there have been changes in the system, we are still so very far away from providing the right support or solutions in the UK. This is where Cardboard Citizens hope to step in and effect change.
“Cathy is hopeful; it proves that we can find change when we’re calm, contemplative and united in that search. But the sad lesson is that we simply don’t have a system capable of supporting individuals when they’re at their most vulnerable.”
Cardboard Citizens was born out of Cardboard City, a community of rough sleepers in an underpass in Waterloo, 25 years ago. The theatre company was created to work to give voice to that community and tell their stories of the issues they face.
This mission remains at the centre of everything they do, particularly with their signature forum theatre style. Audiences watch the play, and then, as the cast, we have the joy of smashing down that fourth wall and chatting directly to the audience, asking them to think about what they may have done differently were they in the main protagonist’s shoes.
We then re-run a couple of the scenes and ask the audience to shout ‘stop’ at the moment they may have tried another tactic. Once they’re brave enough, the audience member is invited on to the stage, they become Cathy and we try the scene again.
Every night is fascinating and unpredictable. Whether in theatres, prisons or homeless hostels, we just don’t know what people are going to come up with. We’re kept firmly on our toes, acting alongside an unscripted, unrehearsed audience member. As fun as this may all sound, change is very rarely easy and Cathy is up against a lot.
In Cathy I play an overworked housing officer, a soulless landlord of a cockroach infested bedsit and a judgemental sister. These characters are often saying “no”, but through this forum game, we start to learn that there may be different ways to confront these challenges. It’s always made very clear that no blame is placed on Cathy; this life is tough, no question about that, and we are looking at things from the delightful viewpoint of hindsight.
The greatest lessons I’ve learned from this project have come from the audiences. From social workers to teachers, they often jump up to demonstrate other routes to seek help (Citizens Advice Bureau, Shelter, local Law Centres) or to highlight rights that help fight your corner (connections to the borough, priority to keep a child close to home for educational needs, Discretionary Housing Loans) as well as other ways to deal with a continuous lack of compassion from many sides.
Cathy is hopeful; it’s a genuine rehearsal for life and proves that we can find change when we’re calm, contemplative and united in that search. But the sad lesson is that we simply don’t have a system capable of supporting individuals when they’re at their most vulnerable.
When individuals are in crisis, deep in it, drowning in it and battling to get through the day-to-day, there’s very rarely time to gather thoughts, galvanise and scoop your self-worth back together. That’s the point where asking for help can be the hardest thing, whether it’s from family, friends, or an overworked housing officer. That’s the point where you don’t believe you’re entitled to anything, the system is failing you and each knock makes the next struggle even harder.
Through these past months it’s become abundantly clear that, as a country, we need a system that is utterly transparent about what is available to whom, we need to ensure a safety net to catch people at their most vulnerable and, as artists, we need to keep telling these stories until we have one. Thank goodness Cardboard Citizens continue to do just this.
Cathy finishes on tour on Saturday.1969 Views
Amy is an actor, storyteller & cat mam to Jingle & Bell. When not prancing about on stage she's Lead Agent at Actorum, Britain’s first co-operative acting agency.