Inside the 'Glasshouse': Week 1 of the Hostel Tour

Posted on: 08 February 2013

Written by: Adrian Jackson MBE

A night at the theatre, Cardboard Citizens style.

We are in a room the size of a large kitchen in a middle class home – but the room we are in is a kitchen-diner , shared by some 20 residents in the rooms above and around in the homeless hostel which is our venue for the evening. We are performing Kate Tempest’s Glasshouse, a fairly searing poetic depiction of the fragmentation and subsequent (unsatisfactory and partial) reunification of a modern family: mum, 18 year-old daughter, and mum’s boyfriend, Paul.

The play offers us three perspectives on a row that happened ‘that night’, the night both Daughter and Mum moved out of Paul’s house, the former stamping out banished after an argument, the latter grabbing a few essentials and decamping to a mate’s in response to a petulant and threatening outburst from Paul. As the play progresses, we start to discover the underlying causes of these behaviours, as we learn of the difficult lives of all three protagonists – and it becomes clear that all three are candidates for homelessness, unless something gets done differently.

Last night our audience was 40 or so, for the premiere of the show in a large North London hostel once visited by George Orwell – tonight, in this tiny space, with barely room for set and audience, we have a fluctuating population of five to eight people watching the play. My immediate neighbour is a lady has only recently become homeless, and is still grappling with the realities of her new life; as she puts it, you can be up one day, right down the next, you have to take it day to day. This is only her second hostel, the first as chaotic as many hostels are, frighteningly packed with drug and alchohol users, and assorted other types.

The hostel we are in presents an aspect of greater calm, though there is no doubt that barely below the surface are as many tensions and as many stories, all unique, of how each resident ended up being brought low. My neighbour is hoping for an early release from the hell of homelessness, but I daren’t talk too much about her prospects, knowing as I do that so many people have to wait several years for housing to become available. She is at least being housed now in her own borough, the borough she lived happily in for 30 years before whatever series of accidents befell her. Another younger woman speaks resignedly of the priority given to those with special circumstances of whatever kind – as she puts it, if you are single and childless and without apparent extra needs, you fall way down the list for re-housing.

Our set barely fits and our actors cope extraordinarily, as always, with the special circumstances of performance. They commit to performances of the same standard as would be expected on a stage a safe distance from a nice quiet audience, with comfy dressing rooms and an orderly queue of admirers at the stage door; here the audience contains people who may not even be aware that they are talking out loud through tense moments of performance, who may be addressing important internal voices demanding attention.

Other audience members may come and go, however much they enjoy the play, dealing with everything from the pressing need to nicotine, to mobile calls from the outside world. Who knows what important matters they are dealing with – we are in their space, we have little right to demand quiet, we simply hope that the power of our art will win their attention, especially as they discern that the work on stage may reflect or shed light on the dilemmas they are dealing with off stage – though of course here, those conveniently delineated terms hardly apply, as we are literally and metaphorically in a shared space. A elegant middle-aged man, clad only in a pale blue silk dressing gown and socks, makes an early appearance, and is clearly delighted to discover some theatrical types have rocked up at his hostel. After some pre-show chat (and a little committed rocking and rolling to the pre-show Tina Turner) he leaves only to return more than halfway through the play, stepping right across the stage, in the middle of the action, having been away to get dressed up for the theatre – and now he is in fuller regalia, a hastily applied smear of lipstick topping off an ensemble of which Oscar Wilde would have been proud, albeit on a lower budget but no less Earnest in his clear belief in the importance of being well turned out.

My neighbour is in tears within minutes of the start of the play – but her attention is as rapt as the actors’ concentration, ignoring or riding over all unexpected audience comings and goings and vocalised opinions. She later explains that it was vivid for her – not, as I understand it, because the play exactly reflects her circumstances, rather that the intensity of the situation and the potential consequences of the ill-conceived actions of the characters have strong echoes in her recent history. Another neighbour, who leaves after fifteen minutes and returns to watch through the glass door ten minutes later, also sheds some tears, and vocalises some anger at one of the character’s behaviours.

A third woman with a pronounced Australian accent watches keenly throughout, ignoring all distractions, only to applaud vigorously at the end of the play (before the Forum), pronouncing to general agreement that all the performances were spot on. She opines that money is at the root of the problems facing the family – a discussion is sparked, and the forum starts, jokered with her usual aplomb by Terry O’Leary.

Various interventions attempt to pour oil on troubled waters; some take the mother’s part as she struggles to persuade her partner that she might have the right to go on a nursing course. One suggestion is that the quiet of the local zoo might be a better venue for such a conversation than the hurly burly of the family home, so we decamp to the zoo, and members of the company provide local colour becoming a small family of passing penguins.

We finish up – we haven’t cracked the problem, but we have made a decent scratch of the surface. The Forum aspect of this new play is still undiscovered, we are playing around with different formats, trying to find the best way to engage as many as possible of our audience; last night a spect-actor wanted to talk about the Liberal Democrats, tonight its more about the need for tolerance and love. Pretty much all our tiny audience find a reason to chat to us as we are clearing up, and give us names and details to receive information about participation in workshops and becoming members of Cardboard Citizens. Another night, another dollar.

Before I have finished writing this, we are into our next show, this time at a South London hostel, almost on my doorstep. Tonight I am jokering, my first time with this show. My heart sinks as I enter to discover that our playing area is right beside the front door, which will mean that anyone coming in will run pretty much slap bang into the action. The set wont fit in, yet again, the actors work out a hasty rearrangement of the blocking. We have an audience of 12 or so. One guy with a pronounced American accent is having great difficulty negotiating his way to the sofa and needs a helping hand to travel back to the can of Special Brew he left the other side of the room. As always, we chat beforehand. A man who spent a long time in Australia tells me about his career working in special effects in the film industry.

We play the show, it runs amazingly well, and once again earns respectful attention and laughter in all the right places from our audience. My friend who worked in special effects positioned himself by the door at the start, presumably for a quick getaway, but stayed throughout, kindly counselling quiet to any incoming residents unaware of the theatrical invasion of their hostel.

Pre-show we talk about the meaning of family, the different shapes and sizes, the qualities required to make it work. During the forum, the American guy slouched almost horizontal with his can of brew, comments that the family in the play is just like his own, hell at times. And he ponders the bleakness of separation, when someone in a family has addiction issues. His is the first comment after the show – a less than acute observer might have assumed that he was comatose throughout, but he was a hundred percent (well maybe 90%) there, and moved to self-reflection.

The Forum is scrappy, but participation happens. A woman expresses the need for the lady of the house to stand up to her partners, and demonstrates this. My friend with an interest in special effects intervenes as a mate in the pub, advising Rhea how she might get what she wants. A member of the staff intervenes to show how she might counsel a man who found that he had overstepped the mark in his interest in a step-daughter (as happens in the play). A man with a dog called Asbo doesn’t intervene, but is keen to get involved afterwards (for those not familiar with the British judicial jargon an ASBO is an anti-social behaviour order restricting someone’s movements). He explains the dog was named before he acquired him and saw no reason to change the name.

Many of the residents help with the get out. My special effects friend tells me he liked the show, but has ideas as to how more special effects could be used during the show; I ask him what specifically he thinks might work, and he suggests the odd dollop of dry ice might add atmosphere. He promises to tell me when he comes over for a workshop the following week. Forum is a kind of magic. Cardboard Citizens’ actors are sometimes magicians, especially in their resourcefulness when improvising – but equally in their total commitment to high quality performance whatever the venue, however many in the audience. I love my job sometimes. The rest of the tour awaits, every day a new experience. I wish I could be there every day like in the old days.

Glasshouse is touring hostels, day centres, prisons and theatres until March 28th 2013. For tickets to the public showcases click here.


With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded