Guest Blog: “Where did you find them?” – Working in communities by Common Wealth

“Where did you find them?” People always ask us where we find our casts, sometimes in incredulous voices as if they can’t believe they’ve been walking amongst us all along. Common Wealth truly believe in the potential everyone has to make theatre, to tell their stories and speak of their experiences so we usually work with people who are new to theatre. We’ll have an idea for a show – a message, or a theme that we want to explore and then we think who would be best placed to explore and communicate that message.

In our most recent piece The Deal Versus the People we’re looking at TTIP – the Trans-Atlantic Trade Investment Partnership, a trade deal between the US and the EU that not many people have heard about (we’re not supposed to – it’s being negotiated in secret!). It’s widely renowned amongst campaign groups and trade unions (people who fight for our rights as workers, citizens and consumers) as the ‘End of Democracy’ so we thought it would be interesting to explore what this big economic decision being taken by our governments meant to people who are most affected by austerity.

At Common Wealth we have an ethos of paying people Equity rates no matter what their professional training. We knew we needed proper rehearsal time (four weeks) and that we would need actors full time, so in total with performances, the actors will get paid nearly two and a half grand each. Straight away this is a much more attractive opportunity to advertise. We worked with our existing contacts (and made some new ones) at community centres, disability groups, refugee groups, food banks, children centres, libraries and youth centres across Bradford and advertised extensively. We went to coffee mornings and job clubs to chat to people and tell them about the workshop auditions coming up.

The workshop auditions were two hours in length and took place across the city in diverse locations at various times of day to attract different people: one in the morning at a Children’s Centre for parents with small children, some in the day for those who were unemployed or who had kids and others in the evening for people in part-time work. In all different parts of the city – across all different communities. It was a wide open call out for people of all ages, the only direction on the flyer was that people ‘had experiences of unemployment.’

Over 120 people came to the workshop auditions across the city – 95% of them had never acted or tried acting before. We facilitated eight workshops and made a decision early on that we would treat these workshop auditions as an opportunity to generate material – almost a mini R&D week – so each workshop would be different and focus on different themes. The result was some very emotional and powerful workshops with people very honestly sharing their experiences of how politics made them feel – ‘abandoned’, ‘scared’, ‘overwhelmed’ were words that kept coming up. We were bowled over by how generous people were, many people went away from the auditions saying they didn’t care if they got it, it had just been good to release some emotion. I know it sounds corny but it really felt like we’d demonstrated how powerful theatre can be. We’ve kept in touch with everyone and are offering £1 tickets to everyone who came to the workshops.

From these auditions we’ve selected four main actors who are with us for four weeks rehearsal and four supporting actors who will join us for the last week. It feels great. The four main cast are generating incredible material based on their experiences and creating a powerful world that is honest and immediate. For Wahida who is a Muslim mum of four when we asked how she felt on the first day of rehearsals she said:”‘liberated – to be doing something for myself that no-one I know has ever done – it’s just so exciting.”

I think that excitement is infectious and an audience is going to feel it – feel that potential that it could be them on stage, that their experiences matter and that people are listening.

The Deal Versus the People is at Bradford City Hall 21-24 October.
Photo credit: Christopher Nunn