To preach or not to preach?


How do theatre-makers convey social issues to a middle class audience?

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“That feels a bit preachy” – a phrase that is so often bounced around in script readings and rehearsals, a phrase that always fills me with an acutely uncomfortable feeling. Normally, I am the person saying it. My worst fear is that an audience member could come out of a show that I have created and feel like they have had a moral shoved down their throat, even if it is something they are in total agreement with.

When I say, “Maybe we should cut that section about her Job Seekers’ Allowance”, what I’m thinking is, “Am I trying to teach the audience something that they don’t want to be taught?”, or perhaps that I don’t have enough knowledge or authority to tell them. This is something theatre makers should be acutely aware of as an industry made up of misfits who are constantly being probed, questioned and even attacked from many different angles. Do we want to say something concrete about a particular issue, or do we want to produce the most interesting, theatrical telling of a story we can muster? I know what I’d rather do.

However, as an emerging theatre maker I feel under a certain amount of pressure, from a number of different sources, to make work with a social conscience. This is actually a great thing; it forces us to research certain injustices which may otherwise not reach our stages. But the problem we face is how not to make these pieces of work a lecture. The politics can be there, but at the core of the piece there must be a heart.

When picking the topic for the two shows I have created, I have chosen the thing that is buzzing around in my mind the most – not necessarily as a theatre maker, but as a human being. With my first show, To She or Not to She, the subject was the difficulties I had, and would continue to face, as a woman entering the theatre industry. With my new show, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, the topic is homelessness, an area I began to research after living in London for over a year and wondering what the lives were like of people who are street homeless. I wanted to unpack the homeless stereotype of a middle-aged man with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier drinking a can of K cider and leaning up against a cash machine begging for coins.

The subjects I choose are those I connect with on a personal level, the ones I feel passionate about and am able to research. But, on top of this well-meaning anarchic passion, feminism in the arts and youth homelessness are admittedly both issues that I know are going to be popular amongst Fringe audiences, reviewers and journalists.

When you decide that you have passion about a topic, and you know it’s going to fit the zeitgeist, how do you progress into making it? How do you make it a fully living, breathing play, not a piece of Theatre in Education? In some early drafts for What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, I wrote a character who was trying to do a week sleeping rough because “I just wanted to understand what it was like to be homeless!” Although this kind of “poverty tourist” character went on to confess some things that would never come out of my mouth, such as, “I’m sorry right, this is probably really big headed but like, it would never happen to me”, her voice was not too far away from my own.

The co-writer/director Calum and I have found that keeping as close to the story as possible is the best chance you have of realising your own social activism, without ramming an opinion down an audience’s throat. Perhaps it’s more difficult depending on the form. Within a traditionally formed play it’s easier to hide. In Ella Hickson’s Oil, the issue is in the title – the depletion of the world’s source of oil. However, you don’t view it as preachiness. You see a play about a mother and daughter spanning hundreds of years and their careers and their relationships.

In a solo show, you are making a pact with the audience to spend an hour alone with them, so you feel like you have to expose your own views, not just the characters’. In To She or Not To She, although I had been playing myself at different ages throughout the play, there is a section at the end when I completely dropped any character and just spoke to the audience. I told them, “We need to be our own Shakespeares.” It sounds like I’m preaching, right? However, I had earned it. They had been with me on the whole journey. Of course, you can still keep your cards close to your chest, and just let the audience come to their own conclusion. This is very much the road we have gone down with What Goes On In Front of Closed Doors, which is perhaps a sign of our work as a company maturing – we don’t need to spell out the activism because we trust the audience to engage with the characters and make their own decision.

Once you have created your show, you then reach perhaps the most important part of theatre – how will the audience react to it? Who is in your audience? Do they know anything about the issues that you are tackling? Is this story everyday life to them or are you teaching them something new? If I were to see What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors two years ago, before all the research and volunteer work I have done, I would not have known anything about what would happen to a young homeless woman with no support network. My viewing of the show would have forced me to confront a reality that I was not aware of. I am not sure for how many of the Edinburgh audience this will be the case. If they are city dwellers they will have certainly experienced homelessness from an outsider’s perspective but they probably will not know much about the homeless sector or have had first-hand experiences of homelessness.

However, my concern is not based around this one Fringe majority. I am more concerned about representing those who work in the homeless sector, or those who have actually experienced homelessness themselves. What if this does not match up with their experience, or if there is something that is offensive and unjustified? Then I’ve made a “preachy” show that the very people whose story I have tried to do justice to, are unimpressed and offended by.

To do it all justice, I guess I just have to make a brilliant show. Despite all the activism and purpose, the reason those middle class audiences are going to sit up and listen, is if they really invest in Molly. It is the story, the character of Molly who is going to get them thinking about these problems and, hopefully, do something towards change. We are not expecting miracles but even if it makes a few more people stop and talk to someone on the street, donate some money or sign an online petition, we will have made a difference. If the audience have felt like they have been through something collectively, have shared empathy with a character they connect with and will go onto feel passionate about it, then the real work can begin.

What Goes On In Front of Closed Doors is @ Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, from Wed 2 Aug

Emma is a writer and performer. She trained at LIPA and is a member of the all-female Shakespeare Company Smooth Faced Gentlemen and of Soho Young Company, currently taking part on Writer’s Lab. She is a volunteer for the homeless charity St Mungo’s and also assists workshops for the theatre company Cardboard Citizens. She is also a member of the Homeless Theatre Forum.


1 Response to To preach or not to preach?

  1. Tom Jeffcote says:

    Interesting , well thought out article that, as a theatre writer I identified with. Would love to have seen the show.

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