Back in October colleague Fidelma Hanrahan, from the Department of Psychology, contributed a post on her involvement with The Girls theatre production. This was a powerful production about young people’s social exclusion and much more, that a few of us from CIRCY, staff and students, had been to see in London. As such, we were delighted to hear that the play was being performed for one night only at the Brighton Dome in December. The play was received very positively and attracted a number of young people, including quite a few Sussex students. Below are some of their responses to and reflections on the play.
Loneliness in the eye of the storm
Suzanne Dash (Psychology)
This weekend I was privileged to attend a performance of ‘The Girls’, on stage in Brighton for one night only after a successful three-week run in London. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – all I knew at the start was that the play featured four young people talking about their lives, and that these young people had at some point attended a Pupil Referral Unit. The cast stood mere metres away, faced the audience, and honestly and openly took us on a tour of their lives. I was faced with the stories of the teenagers I’d watched films about in my PSHE lessons at school: sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental health problems, drug use, gang war, knife crime, and teenage pregnancy. But these weren’t fictional tales in an educational film. These were the true stories of young people growing up in our ‘Big Society’; four young people trying to develop meaningful narratives against a set of poverty and neighbourhood deprivation, with a ‘supporting’ cast of abusive, or at best, absent parents.
The struggles and frustration resulted in heated, emotional outbursts and rages on stage. But what resonated loudest with me was the loneliness. Amid the noisy chaos of their lives, there was a real sense that these young people were alone. A cast member cycles his bike on an empty stage as he single-handedly battles his fears of losing the right to see his daughter; a teenager sobs on the floor outside a club after being attacked and faces the realisation no one is answering her calls; meanwhile a young mum can’t tell anyone her whereabouts living in a safe house to escape the abusive father of her child; and a young girl is forced to perform sexual acts she has no desire to partake in because there is no one for her to run to for help.
As a psychologist researching mental health, I am familiar with the detrimental impact of loneliness on well-being. What we know about children who experience trauma is that, while some young people will go on to show lasting psychological scars, many show remarkable resilience to these experiences. We know that one of the strongest predictors of a child emerging unscathed from a challenging childhood is the presence of a supportive, guiding figure in their life. This may be a family member, a teacher, a key worker, a friend – or in the case of the initiative ‘THE PROJECT’, which supports ‘The Girls’, this guidance can come in the form of a theatre project.
This project culminates in a final scene that is a stark contrast to the earlier lonely monologues. Two cast members sing together as the lights dim. They sing about promising to keep secrets. Thankfully for those of us who attended the show on Sunday night, these brave young people did not keep their lives a secret. Through speaking out, and engaging in the theatre project, they offer an alternative plot, one of healing, escape, personal development, and hope.
The act of being heard
Rebecca Graber (Psychology)
It is a fundamental act of human kindness to listen to one another. “Kindness” meaning not only an act of decency and goodwill, but of a kind: a defining feature of what makes us human.
“The Girls”, crafted through the life-stories of the young people bringing it to stage, is not a performance in the traditional sense – though it is a production. “The Girls” is a call to listen.
It takes a humbly remarkable courage to truthfully listen to oneself, accepting one’s vulnerabilities, recognising one’s strengths and striving to make sense of events which overwhelm sensibility. Some would call this resilience. The young performers opening up their lives-so-far take this authenticity as a challenge, throwing down a gauntlet for the audience.
And you can’t help but listen.
You recoil at a punch, your heart wrenches and your gut drops at yet another raw disappointment. You laugh at absurdities and asides, move with beats and melodies. You recognise yourself, your neighbour, your friend, your social worker and your parents in these narratives of victims, survivors and perpetrators (and it becomes clear – at times shockingly so – aren’t most people a little bit of all these things?). It is this recognition that demarcates the stark divide between the immediacy of people’s lives on the one hand, and the distant stream of statistics, news-stories, and stereotypes. If meaningful “doing” of socioeconomic policy, government practice and academic research is to take place, “The Girls” makes it clear that this will only work effectively if we listen to each other on a genuinely equal level. In listening, in enacting this great kindness, we acknowledge that other most fundamental human need: that of being heard.
On the virtue of arts-based interventions
Sarah Handley (Social Work)
The Project’s performance of ‘The Girls’ makes a convincing argument for the role of arts based intervention for individuals who, for various reasons, have disengaged from mainstream education. The piece, based on true accounts of the cast enables the performers to make sense of their personal stories, share and relate to each other. Perhaps most poignantly, to consider each other’s lived experience; illustrated by scenes of flashbacks to past incidents.
The process has clearly stimulated reflection and collaboration among the company, encapsulated in the fast paced script and positive rapport between cast members. This is tangible with positive risk taking on stage, demonstrated by energetic vocal delivery and physicality, as well as at the curtain call when the cast members accepted their standing ovation with a friendly acknowledgment of one another.
The impact of the cast’s story-telling however does not exist only within the company as its reach into the audience is evident. Silenced by video footage of the 2011 riots and shocked into jumping at the sound of a gun shot the audience are left a gasp that this compelling performance is in fact a true story, delivered by those who were seemingly held responsible for ‘the recent eruption of civil unrest’. Audience members are challenged to consider their assumptions of what it means to be educated as they are presented with outstanding performances from individuals who have arguably spent more time surviving than in a classroom.