“Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has the right to be heard” is the mission statement of Theatre Versus Oppression, a Wales-based charity run by Jennifer S. Hartley. Its performance, SOLD, is currently touring Wales, educating audiences about the reality of human trafficking and how close it is to home. It is a group which uses the directness and immediacy of theatre to harness the power of audience’s imaginations and tell stories that need to be heard. Hartley isn’t interested in “an audience sitting there feeling comfortable for an hour and fifteen minutes” but in the power of theatre to educate people, “a way to show things that otherwise people might not be aware of”.
Trafficking is an issue we tend to think of as being far from home, but when Hartley and her team were working on last year’s project about domestic abuse they realised that a lot of the people they were talking to were actually victims of trafficking. Listening to their stories, Hartley says, “was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve done and that’s saying something. I’ve worked with gangs in the states, torture victims, people in post-war zones. What really hit me was that it was happening here, and I always thought it was a problem somewhere else.”
Using methods drawn from applied theatre and steeped in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed – Hartley worked and trained with Boal – Theatre Versus Oppression makes work that is “always based on true stories and developed with the people who went through those experiences”. Applied theatre is “a kind of theatre that’s intended not necessarily for performance but to use theatre in social situations to look at themes or issues within society”. Actors with Theatre Versus Oppression rehearse using Boal’s methods which “requires them to also be educated on the topic”. Despite, or perhaps because of, all of this, Hartley is keen to address the description of their work as “Political”.
“What we do is political with a very small p. What we set out to do is try to understand human behaviour through the stories we work with, and we very much take a strong stance on trying to look at the wider story from every angle.” The emphasis is placed on nothing being black and white, presenting the audience with all sides of the story and allowing them to make a decision. In last year’s project about domestic abuse, the group worked with victims, prisoners convicted of domestic abuse crimes, those convicted for other crimes but from families where domestic abuse had occurred and also children from a domestic abuse background. “If you’re really going to change human behaviour,” Hartley explains “you have to look at the different sides”.
So how do you work with real people’s real-life stories and weave them into a work of theatre? It must be, one imagines, particularly difficult when the stories and experiences are so horrific, and you’re trying to be objective. Hartley explains how the aim is always for the audience to feel a “desire to know more and help them [the characters]”, and that “with all stories there’s usually a point with one person where they’re telling the story and you suddenly realise that’s going to be the launching point for a play.” With SOLD, Hartley was struck by six stories that all mentioned being at a bus shelter in Cardiff, and this recurrent theme was the launching point for the narrative. Whilst all the stories told are true, there remains an amount of creativity in the writing of the work, creating the interaction between the characters at this bus shelter and working their stories together. Hartley emphasises how, as a writer, she is always “trying to be true to them and the people they are”. This means not just showing one aspect of that person and their life: “yes, there’s the horror, but there are moments of laughter and watching that character still develop, and realising how complicated it all is”.
Theatre Versus Oppression’s work is about human connection and education; it chooses theatre as a medium because it allows for “the more personal way into a lot of issues”. The work it does is “very different from a normal theatre experience in many ways. It’s very simple in terms of presentation because the heavy focus is on the actual story.” Audiences of these performances will often see things that aren’t there, scenery or characters for example. The group works with this idea of the strength of the imagination when putting its work together because “if you leave people to follow that story and process it, then they’re creating a new story from their own experiences and how they interpret it”.
The stories presented in SOLD only give “a fraction of the horror of what we heard”, as the company worked to the fact they weren’t going to be fully graphic in a play. Better to let the audience’s imaginations do the work and make them feel “immersed enough to realise that if they walk away and ignore this then it’s a choice”. For Hartley and the Theatre Versus Oppression team theatre is a language everyone can speak, it’s a way to give everyone a voice including audience members, and to educate and discuss issues. Hartley’s final word on SOLD is “I want an audience to leaving wanting to talk about it”.
SOLD is touring Wales until 9 November. For details, visit Theatre Versus Oppression’s website.