Blog: 5 things I’ve learned working with Cardboard Citizens

Posted on: 23 July 2018

Written by: Charlie Marshall

This week we will present Trespassers Welcome at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans; the result of a two week Citz National Residency with local homeless and recently homeless residents. Here Assistant Director Rosa Stourac McCreery tells us what she's learnt so far from working with Cardboard Citizens.

Rosa in rehearsalsI’m a theatremaker and facilitator based in the North East of England, where I run Dynamix Indoor Skatepark, Circus and Performance Centre, and also work as a Clown Doctor. I first did some training with Cardboard Citizens back in 2000, and I have followed the company’s work with interest ever since. I have used Theatre of the Oppressed and Forum Theatre work throughout my life, including when I worked with street children in Ghana and Senegal; using theatre to give a voice to and validate their stories and experiences, and to advocate for their rights. 
Over the past few years, I had been looking for an opportunity to do some in-project learning with Cardboard Citizens and, in particular, their Associate Artist Terry O’Leary, to see how they lead a process of creating a piece of Forum Theatre with a group. The Squatlife Trespassers Welcome project in St Albans came along just at the right time.

Here are my top five things I have learned on the project so far: 

1. The material – the ‘story’ – is all there in the room.
It’s ‘just’* a matter of creating an environment where people feel comfortable to share; playing games and improvisations which tease out the stories, and keeping your eyes and ears wide open to catch the golden nuggets.
2. The devil is in the detail.
Sometimes it’s what seems like a throw-away comment or a little aside that throws light on an issue or situation, and helps us to understand it differently; often offering up a great idea for an aspect of the story or moment of theatre. The break time chats, or ‘out for a fag moments‘ can reveal just as much as the workshop exercises.
3. Never forget how much you don’t know.
We have the ‘Experts of homelessness’ right here. They might not have written the guidebook yet, but they have lived it. They know a lot about the systems they have to try to interact with, and the bits that don’t work. Our work is to keep asking questions, to help give the wealth of their knowledge and insights a shape, and think about what will be most useful and challenging to share with our audience to get them revved into action.
4. When you think its going well, it is, but don’t get cocky!
Anything can happen, and possibly will. This work is with people who are living and have lived through extremely difficult circumstances, and that difficulty will find its way into the work; sometimes in quite challenging and unexpected ways. More so, it actually has to, because this reveals the reality of what we’re all up against.
5. Checking in with the group throughout is really beneficial and important.
It can help highlight something we might need to watch out for, makes people feel safe, cared for and listened to, and gives us a marker of where we’re at and how it’s going.
*I say ‘just’… that is the carefully honed skill that facilitators/directors like Terry have developed over years, and also comes through deeply caring about the work and the people involved, and being ready for anything and prepared to take the odd risk too.
Thanks so much to Terry and the Cardboard Citz team for allowing me to be part of this.

Book to see the performance at Abbey Theatre on 27 July here. The performance is free and there will be a collection on the night for local homeless organisations.


With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded