Cardboard Citizens – Collective theatre for collective change

“But is this progress!?” yells Terry O’Leary. The Associate Artist at Cardboard Citizens stops a performance that’s struggling to keep its head above water, to ask two questions in one. Firstly, is this play worth continuing? And secondly, are the characters in the play bettering their situation? The former at least is asked by many an interval opportunist and it’s refreshing to hear it from a theatre maker exposing the form and utilising it unashamedly for a direct, focused purpose without shedding any of its art.

The answers Terry elicits come from us, the audience, in this forum theatre production of Bola Agbaje’s Three Blind Mice. Agbaje has created the first act of a play that follows three characters on the fringes of society struggling to make their lives work, having been placed in housing after living on the streets. The funny, versatile actors have all had experiences of homelessness and the challenges their characters face are as disconcerting as they are enlightening. As a collective, the audience select one storyline to explore further.

Tonight we choose to see what will happen to alcoholic Sean whose co-dependent relationship with an abusive, domineering friend hinders his chances of shaking up his stagnant life. When asked how the play should progress, I feel stumped. Terry asks us to think about the resources Sean could use, the people he could turn to and the assertive action he might take himself. I don’t have a practical answer for any of this but my fellow audience members are willing to take a chance. Up on stage, they give their suggestions and take on the role of Sean while the other actors improvise their way through the suggested scenes.

On this occasion, the suggestions put Sean in counselling, they see him pretend to hook up with a woman before comes on to his best friend and finally see him remove himself from an ugly situation before turning to a housing officer for help. The audience and the superb actors take us through scenes that are awkward, difficult, hilarious and finally satisfactory.

Terry’s question about progress celebrates forum theatre’s strengths: its ability to be funny,entertaing and simultaneously open about utilising theatre for social change. Cardboard Citizens’ plans to take the play on a hostel tour is simply a practical, artistic use of theatre that highlights successfully the audience contribution as much as the theatre makers and their chosen subject matter and it works brilliantly.

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