Who are you? How do you see yourself? What has formed your identity, and how does that identity affect your opportunities and the way in which you experience the world? Big questions, yes ; and yet these big questions – among others – are tackled and explored in one very small caravan in The Paper Birds’ immersive show, Mobile.
Performed in a caravan to an audience of eight, Mobile is a one-woman verbatim piece focused on the issue of social mobility and everything that it entails in today’s society. It is comprised of testimonies that have been collected in a multitude of ways: in community workshops up and down the country, in collaboration with sociologist Doctor Sam Friedman and, in the sharing of company members’ personal lives. “For me, it’s really about addressing a deep inequality that we have in society at the moment,” Artistic Director, Jemma McDonnell tells me, reflecting on the way in which people continue to be made to feel as though they should be embarrassed of coming from certain places or if their parents have certain jobs, and yet are consistently told to reach high and achieve, regardless of their background or how limited their opportunities may be.
As a self-proclaimed “highly political” company, The Paper Birds tend to make shows focused on topics that are intensely relevant to the time. Although at first glance social mobility didn’t seem to be something that was “news-worthy”, McDonnell describes the way in which, after talking with Doctor Friedman, they were interested to find that “actually it was exactly what all of our politicians were talking about.” From Nick Clegg calling for “a more socially mobile society”, to Theresa May’s declaration that the Conservative Government “will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you” in her first speech as Prime Minister, the subject continues to be hotly debated and is something that affects us all in different ways, shaping our thoughts and sense of self. “Here, social class really affects people’s sense of identity and belonging; who they are comes so much from their parents and the start that they’ve had in life,” McDonnell reflects, mentioning the impact that things as simple as “the family holidays that people did or didn’t go on, the trainers that they could or couldn’t afford, the food they ate, the jobs their parents did” have on the way that different people experience the world, regardless of how successful or affluent they may eventually become.
After reading the testimonies, McDonnell and the rest of the company began to realise just how complex the issue was that they were exploring. It’s easy to think of upward mobility as a purely positive force, especially in a modern context in which social mobility is championed for its potential to bring about a fairer society. Yet McDonnell tells me that the research involved in this project opened her eyes “to the fact that it’s a lot more complicated than that”, speaking of a “real isolation and guilt” that these social shifts can entail. Despite the security that money can bring, and although “when people think about someone being really successful and quite rich, it’s easy to just assume that those people are really happy,” McDonnell explains that “what was really interesting was to read the transcripts about how people were struggling with that social mobility… what they found was that they felt a disconnection from their family and their roots, because it wasn’t as if their whole family could now afford to live somewhere else, it was just them.”
Through its myriad of real-life experiences and carefully conducted research, Mobile explores the positives and negatives of this complicated issue in an immersive and personal way, all the while remaining entirely accessible and intensely entertaining. Though highly well-informed, the show is far from dull or lecturing. “If you tried to sit many people down and say ‘read this article about social mobility’, a lot of people wouldn’t be engaged,” McDonnell accepts, “but in the theatre, you get to tell stories and you get to make it human, and it’s our job as theatre-makers to make it interesting and accessible.”
Making Mobile as accessible as possible has had a place at the heart of the company’s efforts from the start. Beyond simply trying to broaden the outreach of their shows in terms of audience, The Paper Birds also recognise an accessibility issue in the arts, in general. “I think that there’s a big problem in the arts with there not being enough opportunities for working class actors, and it’s something that we think needs addressing,” McDonnell tells me, as well as speaking proudly of her own working class background and that of Kylie Perry, the Creative Learning Director of the company. “We don’t employ a lot of people,” McDonnell admits, “but when we do we try to give an opportunity to those who don’t have the financial backing to go to drama school or that kind of thing.”
Especially in the context of a play about social mobility and the experiences of everyday working class people, it was essential for the company not to alienate the very groups whose stories they are telling. McDonnell explains the importance of acting on the idea that theatre should be accessible for everyone, saying that “it’s one thing to say it’s important but then you’ve actually got to try to do something about it.” With Mobile’s affordable ticket price, compact nature – the running time is just 40 minutes – and unique locations, The Paper Birds have done everything within their power to appeal to a broad audience, especially those to whom the theatre may not usually appear attractive. “It’s our job to try to make sure that people come out of that caravan feeling like their head and their heart have been challenged,” McDonnell explains, and the audience responses that the company have already received – most notably from those whose own lives and experiences mirror those explored in the piece – speak volumes about the success of their efforts.
Mobile will tour from 9 September – 22 October. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.thepaperbirds.com/