Cardboard Citizens – Terry O’Leary

Terry O'Leary in action

18 years ago, Terry O’Leary, one of Cardboard Citizen’s principal facilitators and a much sought after international trainer, had been living at a hostel – a residential facility in London for people experiencing homelessness -when Cardboard Citizens came to perform a play about ‘the homeless’.

It was a play that changed her life.

‘To be honest,’ says O’Leary cheekily, ‘I went to the show to cause trouble.’ At the time, the idea of actors performing a play about being homeless at a homeless shelter seemed quite outrageous to her, she explains. But O’Leary didn’t cause trouble. Instead, impressed and moved by the performance, the attention to detail and ‘the nuanced story’ presented, she began to participate in some of their programs.

Today O’Leary helps to change people’s lives

Terry O'Leary

On the brink of its 25th anniversary, Cardboard Citizens is one of the UK’s best-known social theatre organisations.
With a focus on homelessness, the company has produced participatory social theatre created and performed by those who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness, displacement, exclusion and inequality. And O’Leary has been at the heart of it, facilitating, directing or ‘jokering’ Forum Theatre performances in the UK and internationally.

Forum Theatre is one of the principal tools in Theatre of The Oppressed, a social theatre methodology developed by the Brazilian activist and social theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, and one of the powerful approaches we employ at Act Out.

When we spoke a few weeks ago O’Leary was looking forward to the upcoming production of Cathy Come Home – a stage production of Ken Loach’s controversial 1966 drama about the alarming housing situation in Britain that lifted the UK housing issue out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

‘What’s shocking, is that it’s still totally relevant today 50 years later,’ says O’Leary about the housing situation in the UK.

As rehearsals begin for a one-off performance at The Barbican in London on July 5, O’Leary, was also excited about the Forum Theatre version of Cathy which will be touring day centres, crisis centres, hostels and theatres in London and around the UK from October 2016 until Spring 2017.

‘ Theatre matters because it’s immediate and raw … there is something magical about a live audience, how it affects you…a community of people witnessing on a stage a reality they’ve been living,’ says O’Leary passionately.

A few days after we spoke O’Leary and Adrian Jackson, Cardboard Citizen’s founder and one of the first European theatre practitioners to train with Augusto Boal, were leaving for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to collaborate with local practitioners at the Centro De Teatro do Oprimido, Boal’s original company.

This year, O’Leary will also be running trainings in Forum Theatre and other TO techniques as part of the various courses offered at Cardboard Citizens.

When asked about a memorable moment in recent years O’Leary recalls affectionately a project from three years ago at a health centre in East London that was struggling to engage Bangladeshi women about their personal and reproductive health.

‘At its most basic level, anybody can engage in theatre,’ says O’Leary as she remembers the transformation that took place in the women who went from being ‘…quiet and reserved to performing about the challenges they faced at home and in a new country in front of hundreds of people from their communities,’ she recalls.

‘They learnt about trade unions and started mentoring newly arrived migrants…they even choreographed a pap-smear dance! It was a total transformation,’ adds O’Leary.

If you are in London CATHY COME HOME will be performed at the Barbican on July 5. Booking info here.

Reclaiming Hope with David Diamond

David Diamond as he appears on the January issue of Many Peaces Magazine

David Diamond as he appears on the January 2016 issue of Many Peaces Magazine

‘Hope is a verb’, says David Diamond, the founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Theatre for Living. As the company celebrates 35 years of creating award-winning, interactive community theatre, Diamond reflects not only on what it takes to keep hope alive but also on what has effectively become his ‘life’s work’.

‘Nobody is more surprised than me,’ he jokes as he recalls the loose beginnings of the company in 1981 when it was ‘a group of writers, actors and directors frustrated by the housing problem’ who created theatre that toured the country addressing that issue.

35 years later Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre) has a remarkable body of work of over 550 projects and trainings not only in Canada but also throughout the world, addressing complex issues such as climate change, globalisation, rampant consumerism, endemic violence, substance abuse and addiction.

Influenced initially by the radical pedagogy of social educator Paolo Freire, Diamond later trained with Augusto Boal, adapting Forum Theatre and other Boal methodology.

Boal called Diamond’s work ‘extraordinary and groundbreaking’ referring in particular to his adaptation of Forum Theatre for TV and the Internet and most notably, his highly acclaimed work with First Nation communities throughout Canada.

Diamond, who, among many awards, has received an honorary PhD from the University of Fraser Valley, the Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre and the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Harmony Award and the Mayor’s Award for Culturally Engaged Art, attributes some of the success to the company’s approach when working with communities.

‘We are not engaging with those community people because they are broken and we are going to fix them…they have expertise that nobody else has and we are employing them, paying them for their time…this is not therapy’Important too, is the premise that he makes about those who enter the space of the theatre, both in the audience and on the stage. In his book Theatre for Living, Diamond explains his break away from the binary of oppressed/oppressor of Boal’s approach and what he feels is the responsibility that interactive theatre has to ‘represent the complexities of life.’

At the same time ‘we have got the responsibility to make the best art that we can,’ Diamond stresses from Vancouver where he is preparing for the next project Reclaiming Hope.This is a series of ten events across Vancouver that will be asking audiences ‘how are you being asked to be afraid?’ He explained that the project aims to make visible the ‘voices of fear that are encouraging us to do things against our value systems … to change our relationship towards those voices so that we can reclaim hope.’

The work is being hosted by different organisations including a joint Jewish, Christian and Muslim organisation and environmental groups. For our North American friends you can find more information on www.theatreforliving.com.

Later in the year Diamond will be joining the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he has been asked by the Dean to help change the culture of the teaching environment using the Theatre for Living approach.

At the same time fund raising has already started for a large 2017 project that is examining the reality behind ‘reconciliation’ in Canada, ‘what does reconciliation really look like in today’s society?’.

David Diamond rejoices in what he considers a great privilege ‘ I get to have crazy ideas and do them…and work with incredible people in intimate and interesting ways!’