Feature: Cardboard Citizens mark 25 years with ambitious series Home Truths

Winter 1991, London: “Cardboard Cities” containing communities of up to 250 people living in temporary structures scatter across the city – including the very spot where the infamous IMAX Cinema near Waterloo Station now stands. This snapshot of the past demonstrates the vast reality homeless people endured not so long ago. Homelessness was considered a taboo 25 years ago. Awareness was low and the cardboard stood high.

Adrian Jackson, Founder of Cardboard Citizens saw this and decided then and there to do something about it. “We wanted to do theatre in a way that helped the general public make sense of their lives” he began. Cardboard Citizens describe themselves as ‘making life-changing theatre with and for homeless people for 25 years.’ But before becoming the company it is today, it initially started up as a project based outside of London “trailing the methodology of Augusto Boal‘s concept on Forum theatre; because nobody was doing that at the time.” Cardboard Citizens soon flourished – gaining the support of organisations and people who were skilled in helping on a specialist level. They also received funding from The Arts Council, National and Heritage Lotteries – to become the well-established organisation they are today.

“I’m proud of all we’ve achieved,” says Jackson.

“We’re doing exactly what we started 25 years ago just on a larger and more efficient scale. You don’t really think what started off as something small would become your life, but I am proud we have stayed true to our ethos and have been able to make such a big difference”.

Having paved the way for other UK-based organisations focused on using the arts to impact the lives of the homeless such as The Streetwise Opera and Choir With No Name as well as influencing similar creative companies in Australia and New York – there is no doubt that the impact made by Cardboard Citizens over the last 25 years has been major. “We just want to help people rebuild their lives through theatre – because even now, homelessness is an alien thought to some. Over the years we have encountered people who have become involved with the company – have kept in touch with and  how they are doing now – others I don’t, but  all have grown as a result of the work we do”.

In honour of reaching their 25th year; Jackson and his dedicated team have arranged a monumental season piece of performance Home Truths – which consists of nine plays which span the story and development of social housing in the UK over the last 100 years.

The plays are divided into three cycles. “I wanted to have something which focused on the historical context of homelessness and the need for social housing to make people realise that this has all happened before” Jackson explains. Each cycle consists of three plays, set in the early 20th century, mid to late 20th century and in the 21st century. “We approached a lot of writers and eventually commissioned the nine you will see to stage,” he says. “As there were a number of historical events and topics I wanted to include, we gave each writer a time period or an event and gave them the freedom to write what they wanted.”

This of course led to challenges during the rehearsal period. “It has been tough,” Jackson admits. “Because new plays need a lot of work. Having to combine these different styles of plays and the actors learning all nine of them simultaneously over the eight weeks was a struggle.” The performances also includes “stitches” – material between each play in the form of movement, song or spoken word pieces which allow the plays to flow and connect.

Having recently opened; the preview shows went down well. It’s obvious the hard work put in by Jackson and his talented team seems to have paid off. “A fair chunk of our homeless audience have seen the work and have been particularly touched – there were points where the whole project seemed unachievable but here we are,” he says with relief.

Although each cycle will give you insight into the general history and intended story, Jackson states that his real excitement is for the performance of all three cycles in one day. These “all day affairs” take place in one go on April 29 and May 13.

So what’s next for the company? Jackson jokes that his next play will be in one location, by one writer with two actors and a simple storyline. However, you will be able to see more of Cardboard Citizens at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival where they will be performing  Cathy  – a play based on the film Cathy Come Home which they toured earlier this year. “Fundraising also plays a large part of what we do” Jackson concludes. As well as an upcoming fundraising event to be hosted by Kate Winslet this autumn, and an organised run to raise funds, the company will be focusing on raising the £1,000,000 they need every year to keep up the work they do.

Home Truths by Cardboard Citizens is at the Bunker Theatre on various dates until May 13.  

Image: Pamela Raith Photography