Friday, 24 March 2017

Matt Trueman talks to Rufus Norris, director of My Country; A Work in Progress

Brexit has split this country down the middle. Last summer’s EU referendum wasn’t merely a difference of opinion – 52% vs 48% – it exposed a rift running beneath. Britain seemed a deeply divided nation. The morning afterwards, heading into the National Theatre building, Parliament to the left, the City to the right, Rufus Norris knew the National Theatre had to address the issue.

But how does a national theatre – "a theatre for everyone," as it defines itself – deal with a divided nation? Who does it speak to? Who does it speak for? How can it cater for everyone?

"Generally, my tactic is to listen before I speak," Norris starts. That seemed like the only approach: "A listening project." Instead of commissioning a big Brexit play, some state of the nation drama, the National would ask people what they thought and how they felt. The result, only eight months later, is a new verbatim play – My Country; A Work in Progress.


National productions are usually cooked up over years. Merging journalism with theatre, verbatim plays allows a more rapid response – a mark of the urgency of this issue. Norris is, understandably, nervous. "By its nature, this has to be a bit rough and ready, but people are coming to see a piece of theatre. They – and we – want it to be as good as it can be."

My Country’s roots are in another project. A week after the referendum, soldiers took to the streets – not a coup, but a coup de théâtre. Marking the centenary of the Somme, The National worked with artist Jeremy Deller to send squadrons of young men in World War One uniforms into Britain’s town squares and railway stations. Commuters and school kids came face to face with history’s ghosts. People on both sides ran into a shared history. A divided Britain saw men that fought and died side by side. After the rancour of the referendum campaigns, We’re Here Because We’re Here provided a moment of reflection.

Not only did it seem to bring the country together, it showed that small interventions on a local level could achieve a national impact. What’s more, it meant Norris had the means to reach out. "We realised that one thing we had in our favour was all these contacts around the country," he remembers. Not to mention 1,400 volunteers "all of them saying ‘Alright, what’s next?"

The National put together a team of interviewers to engage members of their communities. It was vital that the project worked locally. "If I’d just rocked up and started asking questions, people would have told me where to go," Norris says straight-faced. He needed "people who could find a way in."


Their task was to engage a broad cross-section of society in conversation: men and women, young and old, leave and remain. "It was an open brief," insists Norris – no agenda. Find out what individuals really feel, not just how they voted; what’s important to them, what they want, what’s at stake; how they see their country. "It’s the personal stuff that’s really powerful," says Norris. "Where someone’s got a real connection to the politics they’re discussing."

That came surrounded by received information and misinformation. "Bullshit," Norris says, not mincing his words. "When you got onto subjects like the EU – what it pays for, what it doesn’t – nobody really knows." Dramatically, he says, that’s white noise. "You just switch off."

It’s a mark of the level of the debate: partisan media coverage with its own agendas, two sides spinning against each other, making promises, sowing Project Fear. It was nothing on the Scottish referendum, Norris reckons. "That felt like a very grown-up approach by comparison."


In theatre, the personal is political. My Country proves the point. "There are some fantastic analogies," says Norris. A Leicester pensioner describing a city changed beyond recognition. Derry residents discussing borders and division. Northumberland hill farmers who cut costs to keep up with globalisation and EU regulation. "They can still compete with New Zealand, but only if they use motorbikes to herd their flock. There’s this beautiful phrase: ‘You go up the hill and the sheep don’t know who you are.’" Norris reflects momentarily: "As an analogy for government, that feels spot on."

Throughout the campaign, one thought kept recurring - albeit only rarely spoken out loud. It's a position that puts quality of life above economic strength; services and infrastructure over GDP. "There are all kind of arguments," Norris explains, "but beneath them all it's about the breakdown of community."


Theatre can do community. It can work like an amplification device, giving volume to voices that might go unheard, but it can also bring people together in the same room. "It can do what bingo does; what school concerts and churches do. People congregate and when you congregate, you’ve got to deal with somebody else." For a society split down the middle, stuck in echo chambers online and in the real world, that’s a political act. It means, quite literally, sharing a space.

After a stint on the South Bank, My Country; A Work in Progress goes out on tour. It’s a step-change for the National: a shift from large-scale tours of big hits like War Horse or One Man, Two Guvnors, to something more intimate and conversational. "Partly," says Norris, "it’s about encouraging audiences to go to their local theatre, but it’s also about using theatre as a place of debate." Post-show talks will open up discussion and debates. Local communities will talk amongst themselves.


The first thing, though, is to listen. Norris insists that listening can be a gesture of leadership. "One thing everyone agrees on is that we’ve had poor leadership," he says, though, this being unchartered territory, he’s not surprised. "Who knows where we’re going? Maybe politicians need to admit that more. Maybe they need to listen more and to listen better."

Matt Trueman, February 2017

28 MAR - 1 APR

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Citizens is #boldforchange This International Women's Day

The Citizens Theatre has long been celebrated for its bold theatre programme at its home in the Gorbals. But the work we do extends out across Glasgow and beyond thanks to the dedicated Citizens Learning team.

Every week of the year the Citizens Learning team provides a range of opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds in Glasgow and beyond to get involved in the creative life of our Theatre and develop skills and self-confidence in an inclusive environment.  The team work with people with additional support needs, with people in prisons, in marginalised groups and disadvantaged communities.

To celebrate the Team's work and mark the Citizens' support of International Women's Day 2017, we'd like to introduce you to Elly.



Elly is a member of the Citizens Learning Team and works with lots of different groups, from young people in a school setting, adults experiencing homelessness, to those in the criminal justice sector and women seeking alternatives to custodial service.

One of the groups Elly works with is based in Garthamlock and their project, A Family Sentence, explores the impact of incarceration on family members.  Mothers, sisters and daughters come together with members of the Citizens Learning Team to explore the issues affecting them, and are encouraged to put their experiences into words. These words have been developed into a script which will be shared in performances both in the families' local community and at the Citizens Theatre itself in June.


 "We use theatre as a mechanism to give a voice to groups of people who are often unheard" Elly.






The group in Garthamlock is one of many projects in which Elly and the team are involved. Tomorrow`s Women, based in the Gorbals, is a unique Community Justice Centre for women who have been involved in offending behaviour. The service aims to ‘reduce reoffending and bring about behavioural change’ and offers individual and group support and a range of activities, including gardening, arts and crafts and a Theatre programme in partnership with the Citizens Theatre which will culminate in a performance at the Citizens Theatre in June.

Women who have participated in this programme have gone on to become volunteers within the centre, demonstrating not only the programme's effectiveness but also the desire of its participants to give something back.  Talking about the project, Team Leader Anne Gallacher said; "Our evidence demonstrates a clear pattern of positive outcomes with significantly reduced reoffending, reduced court appearances, reduced prison time, reduced A&E attendance, reduced drug and alcohol use, improved physical and mental wellbeing, improved access to accommodation, re-engaging with families and access to learning and employment"


For many years the Citizens Leaning team have worked with women's groups in the community and have continued to be encouraged by the possibilities that the theatre process can bring to an environment.


Elly adds "We generate a safe space within which the women can air opinions, so lifting the lid on important topics that affect them and therefore reinforcing a shared female commonality. By sharing our stories and life experiences through the power of Drama, our work encourages group members to reconnect with play as an adult andtapping into the power of creativity"


The Chara Centre is a respite centre offering shelter to vulnerable women experiencing complex needs and homelessness. The Citizens Learning team has delivered a series of weekly creative sessions in the centre since June 2012, nurturing women’s creative talent and supporting the women to develop transferable skills to help them back into independent living.



Female residents of the centre meet with Elly and other members of the Learning Team twice a week to take part in song writing, textile print-work, visual art, creative writing and drama. “The Citizens Theatre people have been great. They’ve brought me out of my shell and they help people relax and be themselves.” (Chara Centre participant).  Sharing their performance work with invited audiences has become a highlight and regular feature at the centre and the group recently published the second edition of their magazine, ‘The C Word’, written by and for women experiencing homelessness.

We believe that our artistic intervention has generated positive change and personal development and it continues to explore the relationship that the women have with the Citizens Theatre. We are very pleased to say that quite a number of our participants regularly attend main stage shows at the Citizens. 


"It is vital that the arts are fully recognised for the part they have to play within our communities, for the tools they provide to those who seek to take charge of and rebuild their lives. It is important that we see people as people, and not defined by the restrictive labels we often assign to them. These projects and performances have shown that the women we are fortunate to collaborate with, are capable of truly astonishing and inspiring journeys in personal development, making themselves better placed to step forward into self-determined life paths filled with positivity, and hope", Elly.


Everyone is welcome to take part in Citizens Learning projects, classes and productions including people from minority ethnic backgrounds, those seeking asylum or refuge, those out of work or striving to recover from drug and alcohol dependency.  We warmly invite you to take part in the creative life of the Citizens Theatre.

The work the Citizens Theatre Learning Team does is generously supported through funding from:

·      Chara Centre supported by Comic Relief
·      Tomorrow’s Women supported by Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Community Justice Authority, Glasgow Housing Association, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and the Scottish Prison Service
·      A Family Sentence in partnership with New College Lanarkshire funded by Creative Scotland Open Fund

Thursday, 2 March 2017

We're a beastly family and I hate us!

Our co-production with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh of Noël Coward's riotous farce Hay Fever opens at the Lyceum this week. With that in mind, we thought it was time to introduce you to the outrageous and bohemian Bliss family...


Hover over the characters in the image below to find out more. 





















Find out more about the origins of this eccentric family and why Artistic Director Dominic Hill loves this Noël Coward farce so much 




Book now

HAY FEVER

ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE EDINBURGH 10 MAR - 1 APR

CITIZENS THEATRE 5 - 22 APR