Reading Sara’s blog last week, I was pleased to learn that iceandfire have already received further requests for their new Outreach script, Getting On. At the Almeida Theatre on March 12th, we had been privileged to see a collection of nuanced and tender performances from the six-strong company brought together especially for the launch of this new piece. When Getting On is performed again in the coming months, it is likely that the cast will be composed of an entirely new cohort of actors; such is the dynamic of iceandfire’s Outreach programme, Actors for Human Rights. Now with over 500 members on their books, the Actors for Human Rights’ product is portable and agile, responding directly to requests for their documentary scripts, assembling impromptu casts and companies as they crisscross the UK, opening up the human rights debate and asking us to comprehend, and extend our compassion for, the human materiality behind reported statistics and newspaper column inches. AfHR is a flexible and fleet-footed initiative, their rapid-response delivery does not permit the luxury of a lengthy rehearsal period, and, as the professional actors that form the AfHR network perform on pro bono basis, it is often the case that the cast only has a few hours to consider their roles, assimilate the staging demands, and coalesce themselves into an improvised company.
The idea of ‘company’ is one that functions in an interesting way for Actors for Human Rights. It is expressed in the collective undertaking of the actors, forming an ephemeral ensemble, who apply their skill and experience in order to campaign for a universal and inalienable social justice, but also in the wider sense of a ’company’ – a coalition, a congregation. This is a concept which seems fundamental to the communal spaces that are created for disempowered voices in the performance of the AfHR scripts. In a performance style that mirrors and connects to many of the other Outreach plays, the characters in Getting On acknowledge one another, offer supportive encouragement, listening and responding to one another, creating an on-stage community of people who for the most part will never have met in real life. All characters—or perhaps you might prefer the term ‘voices’ for a dramatised reading approach—are composed from personal accounts, life-writings and testimonies. Typically, the scripts are created using edited interviews conducted by iceandfire. These are interviews that have been conducted at different times, in different locations, and usually take the form of detailed, intimate conversations that might range over a whole host of planned and unplanned topics. Yet, in the performance of these plays, here are the characters talking together, sharing stories in concert – side by side.
Thereby, the audience perceives that, even if just for now, all the characters are inhabiting the same world, and there is the offer of a moment of mutuality and companionship– a counterpoint to the isolation and peripheral status that some of the characters in Getting On document. According to the ‘Agenda for Later Life 2010’ conducted by Age UK, around one in ten older people identify that they often—or always—feel lonely, and over one in twenty said that they only leave their home once a week, if at all. Studies into ageing have shown links between longevity and good health, with companionship or actively belonging to a community. The melding of the voices in scripts like Getting On, generates a light conversational style which allows the audience to see connections and comparisons between the stories; thematic parallels are placed concurrently in the script, so that amongst the characters on stage remarks and observations resemble a responsive dialogue. These plays create the capacity for conversations between people who share similar experiences, or who have been placed together in groups, unsolicited collectives, by circumstance or by social categorisation. In stringing together the stories, a web of campaigning material is drawn together, and the political potential, agitation for change, is confirmed. The same phenomena can also be observed in The Illegals, where an initial wariness and reticence between the characters, is replaced by the liberation of the disclosure of their undocumented migrant status. For the audience, the construction of dialogues from monologue voices helps us to see patterns of abuse, neglect, but also of survival and triumph.
It is a fictional encounter, aspirational and idealistic, rendered just for the moment of performance, but here the theatre acts as a transcendental space, an imaginary forum of friendly and reciprocal exchange, a secure space that welcomes the voices of the dispossessed and those confined to the margins – all made real before the audience through the flesh and blood bodies of the actors. In this forum the characters join together in a collective moment where the polyphony of their voices gives potency to their argument. The voices are distinct, this is not a blur of homogeneity, but as the stories stack up on one another, the questions raised become inexorable. Another striking example of this is in the AfHR piece Listen to Me, where the stories of nine children from distinct global locations and very diverse backgrounds, are weaved together to place focus on their equivalent desires for education, safety, and agency -an exponential multiplicity of voices asking for their human rights to be observed. In ‘company’ together, there is solace and there is strength. Perhaps this might be seen as shifting the boundaries of documentary theatre, but these composed conversations framed by AfHR allow us not just to access the socio-political aspect of the plays, but perhaps also recreate some of the initial interview conditions. Therefore the communal conversations on stage re-play the shared moments of humour, wistfulness, mischief that exist in the ‘source’ interview, the light and life of connection, but otherwise might not get aired in the performance of the pared down narrative. Arguably, this provides us with a closer ‘truth’ of the real-life person, a more rounded view as they are revealed in animated banter and impassioned debate.
The human rights agenda (forgive my short-hand) has occasionally been criticised for privileging the ‘Self’ at the expense of the ‘We’, as a rationalist ego-driven initiative that protects the individual in every conceivable scenario, but says little about the community. Therefore, I am interested in the possibility for the work of AfHR to stand as a rejoinder to such criticisms – and that in creating a company both off and on stage, a small ad-hoc community, as part of the fundamental architecture of their Outreach human rights plays, they are (re)working the ideas of collectivity, fraternity and solidarity back into the debate.
Annecy Lax, PhD Student at the University of York working on a doctoral project which focuses on theatre and human rights