A scene from an earlier show by the ACT NOW ensemble

If you were to ask me what issues young people face living in youth hostels, I would stare blankly back at you. Having been brought up in a closely guarded middle class white family the notions of youth hostels and unemployment seem an odd concept for me. Yet for the young ensemble of Cardboard Citizen’s ACT NOW project, it is a real concept –  a challenge that they do or have faced in their lives.

Up On The Roof is a performance piece that takes on the form of Forum Theatre, a concept brought into communities and groups by the late Augusto Boal. Through the act of performance, an audience meets with the actors to assist, change, and direct the possible outcomes of given situations in the performance to new directions. It is about exploring other means to avoid unwanted circumstances, but most importantly it is about a coming together of everyone within a theatre space to offer alternative outcomes to the situations evolving within the play. The impact of Boal’s methods is to alter the perspectives that we have on an issue that affects the group, in this case, homelessness.

In the ACT NOW group, there are 10 young actors (to call them anything but actors would be wrong) who along with Tony McBride have devised and scripted over the course of several weeks Up On The Roof. We see the protagonist Frankie (played by Billy Shields) grapple against bullies in the youth hostel he lives in. Feeling that everyone is against him, and the pressure to pay debts his anger and frustrations get the better of him. It’s a viscous cycle Frankie goes through, with the same anger answering the injustice he feels he is served at the job centre, the youth hostel and at his mothers house. He wants to survive, to regain control of his life to live ‘normality’ but in this cycle, little can be done.

Shields as the protagonist of the play is edgy, and bursting with energy for the character he plays – it is clear that the work he has experienced with Cardboard Citizen’s has fueled a natural talent of acting in him. There are some other brilliant performances by this young ensemble such as Alysha Ali as the mum, Melissa Etheridge as the Job Centre worker and also Mohammed as Freddie, the younger brother, who each bring a willing enthusiasm to take to the stage.

ACT NOW is about the collective, and with true and brutally honest acting and often an excellent use of improvising it would be wrong to not mention Jamai, Terry Sheehan, Sarah Bensayed, Hason Barton, Markus, and Cliff. From being an unknown group of young people, they have worked to such a level that the friendships and commitments they have for ACT NOW and the Cardboard Citizens is clearly evident in Up On The Roof.

The use of Forum Theatre at the end of the performance is really what lifts this work to a rewarding and educational experience for me. Terry O’Leary as the director and facilitator for the Forum engages us into discussion and prompts us to take to the stage to explore solutions to Frankie’s situations. Whilst I never took to the stage, the sense of collaboratively working with those around me to assist in the ACT NOW groups work left me uplifted.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t have direct connections with the backgrounds of the young ensemble – I have in many ways had a very privileged upbringing – but what I left with was a sense of understanding. Up On The Roof and it’s Forum afterwards allowed me to explore situations far from my life, and one I’d never given consideration to. It showed me that if a group of young people could be so willing to expose their experiences, real experiences on stage to people they’ve never met before – then I too can be more willing and open to helping those around me who truly need it.

Taking to the stage in Up On The Roof the ACT NOW ensemble show that the spirit of a group isn’t in the troubles or hardships they have faced, but rather in the determination for change, to better themselves and those around them.

To find out more information about ACT NOW and other projects led by Cardboard Citizens, see their website here.