Feature: The State We’re In – The Importance of Telling Local Stories

Theatre503 has always strived to create innovative theatre that supports emerging artists – particularly writers. As such their latest production The State We’re In sees upcoming writers Afsaneh Gray, Christopher Hogg, Sherhan Lingham and Jenny Stark take on major national issues for our society today. The writers have been immersed in different local institutions in the Battersea and Wandsworth area, from police stations to the NHS, to find stories that are relevant and tasked with turning these stories into plays.

‘When I first joined Theatre503 a few years ago I was really keen to connect with the local area more with the theatre’s work. The idea of embedding playwrights in different institutions in the area came out of discussions based on that idea’, explains Theatre503’s Literary Co-ordinator Tom Latter. ‘But also I felt like the work that the theatre created, some of it should be about the local area – and because Battersea and Wandsworth is such a fascinating area of change and development at the moment it felt like we had to address that.’

Latter is passionate about the importance of telling local stories saying that, ‘Through telling local stories we can actually address the big stories.’ He explains how the instinct was to use local stories as a ‘lens’ from which to look at bigger stories. ‘I think the more specific you are with a story the more people will read universal themes into it. The more truthful the human beings are the more likely we are to connect with them and ourselves and own issues in them.’ However, he does say that three half hour plays cannot be fully representative of all front line services: ‘All the four writers have talked about how they could write dozens of plays from all the conversations and meetings they’ve had and the things that’ve learnt about frontline services in the area. I wouldn’t say that we are able to cover all the background but I’d like to think that even people outside of Battersea and Wandsworth would come and see these plays and recognize some of their own local stories in what we’re showing. A lot of these places are experiencing the same challenges and that’s how these specific local stories can seem to have more of a universal appeal.’

To get these local stories Theatre503 set up meetings for the writers within different institutions. Latter explains that the process for the writers at the beginning was to give them a lot of freedom ‘without any pressure to start thinking about what the plays they were going to write would become. We wanted them to soak up as much stimuli as possible before settling down to write.’ Then after giving the writers plenty of time to write their first draft they then receive feedback from the whole artistic team at Theatre503. ‘So, one is leaving the writers to it for much of it and a lot of them went out and added to the meetings we’d set up for them and found more of their own because of what they wanted to explore. And now they’re in the properly writing phrase it’s about being really hands on in the theatre to support them’ says Latter.

This interesting process has definitely lead to some interesting plays. Latter explains that they expected the plays to have a political dimension based on the nature of the work: ‘On one level I suppose what we’ve got is plays that definitely explore some complex territory in terms of social and political issues.’ Yet, they were surprised by the common threads that have appeared, ‘A really common thread all the way through all the four pieces we’ve got is looking at the excluded. How people are excluded from community, from society, from financial stability or from physical ability. That’s a thread that’s come out running through all of the four plays now – which I think is something that underpins four very different pieces of work.’

Seeing emerging writers’ work is always an exciting experience in the theatre. What makes this project even more exciting is the interesting process behind it, along with the important and relevant themes – both locally and nationally – that it will touch upon. All of which contribute to The State We’re In being a not-to-be-missed performance!

The State We’re In is on at Theatre503 from 12 April – 16 April