Theatre

Theatre helped Jonnie Barton come to terms with his history of homelessness

Jonnie Barton documents his time participating in Cardboard Citizens three week theatre residency Cardboard Camp.

Cardboard Citizens is an award-winning charity that makes theatre with and for people with lived experience of homelessness. Since 2019 they’ve run Cardboard Camps, partnering with local theatres in cities up and down the UK.

At the heart of each camp is a three-week intensive residency for local people with experience of homelessness. The residency combines training, events and workshops, and culminates in a performance created by the participants, drawn from their collective stories.

Recently, Jonnie Barton took part in a Cardboard Camp in Coventry. He kept a journal for The Big Issue explaining his thoughts and feelings about taking the stage…

Cardboard 1475
Johnnie Barton Image: Joe Bailey @ fivesixphotography

Week One

Theatre – a word many of us associate with Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov, but how many of us associate theatre with your average Joe?

Cardboard Citizens not only aims to educate people about homelessness, but the people performing and devising the theatrical piece have a personal knowledge of homeless living.

Week One at Cardboard Citizens’ Coventry Camp was a lot of “getting to know you” exercises, such as the Name Game, which involves trying to say an individual’s name three times while chatting before they say their name. Trying to remember a whole group’s worth of different names was definitely stressful but trying not to seem like I’d forgotten became second nature really fast.

We’ve been doing a lot of improv activities, including acting with only noises and movement. As a very musical person, bringing instrumental sounds (using my voice) helped me further convey the emotion of my character.

One of my favourite things so far has been developing a short piece of Forum Theatre with a few of my fellow actors and performing it in front of the group. When we perform Forum Theatre to an audience in a couple of weeks, they will be invited to make changes and “improvements” to the piece. Even though I missed the initial development process, the other people in the group took my input – such as how a character spoke or moved – and changed a few things.

I’m excited to see what the coming week has to offer.

Week Two

While being fun, week two has been emotionally draining.

This week we’ve been developing scenes and characters for the main public performances. We have been split into two groups. One is covering the story of a single mother and teenage daughter, and the other tells the story of a single male with no dependants. The latter story resonated with me as I have been a single man on the streets.

Idea development was stressful as everybody wanted their ideas to be included. Our first idea for a story (about a man with autism who is kicked out by his parents) was scrapped as we realised that he would receive help from the council with his housing needs because of his autism diagnosis.

It’s also been an excellent way to come to terms with what happened in my pastJonnie Barton

Luckily, Terry (our director) came in with some brilliant changes – she told me to tone down my character and suggested giving him some “friends” to cause some tension for him, too. My character, “Jonny”, is the protagonist and his story is very much like what happened to me when I became homeless. I feel the emotion I portray is parallel to what he would be feeling.

It’s been rather draining playing a story so close to home, but it’s also been an excellent way to come to terms with what happened in my past and move even further on from it.

The week ended with us having four to five scenes prepared. In the final week we will hopefully have scene five done quickly and we can use the three days remaining before our first public performance to perfect the little things, like using all of the stage space.

I’m starting to feel quite nervous about performing in front of an audience. I can only imagine the stage size, but I’d bet it’s big, which just adds to the nerves, but I’m told nerves are a good thing. I’m looking forward to our final week.

Week Three

As we started week three, you could feel a tension among everyone. It seemed more serious now the performance was only a few days away.

We devised the final scene on Monday morning, and then it was run-through after run-through. On Monday afternoon we saw the performance space for the first time, which was especially daunting: over 100 chairs facing the stage. I could tell people’s nerves (including my own) were getting to them.

As there were two small groups each doing their own performance we watched each other’s play a few times. Watching the other group’s play about a mother and daughter showed many similar situations and obstacles to our play – with scenes in the council housing office and in hostels. It became more apparent that show day
was lurking around the corner.

The day of the open dress rehearsal (a performance for an invited audience of family and friends to help us get our bearings) was very exciting and nerve-racking. Everyone was all abuzz and nobody could stop talking.

A photographer joined us for pre-show rehearsals and the show. He took some photos of me, which was pretty cool as it made me feel almost famous.

The show I was in was called Little Boy Blue – about a single man (named Jonny) and his struggle with being kicked out, first by his parents and then his friends, with his mental health eventually deteriorating while he is in a hostel environment.

The show went great with only minor mistakes, and although there was a crowd watching us I barely noticed them.

The final show that evening was to be live-streamed. And as we walked in for final rehearsals three cameras were being set up. We rehearsed repeatedly and then it was show time.

My nerves skyrocketed and I was almost sick. But both shows (Circles and Little Boy Blue) went
off with no issues. It felt amazing.

The audience gave us a standing ovation, and I recognised a few faces in the crowd from past hostels, the council and the previous night’s show.

After the show came the Forum Theatre part, where the audience gave us some ideas of what they would do differently, which was fun. And then, as we had a panel of people who work on homelessness in Coventry, including council members, the Legislative Theatre took place, with people throwing ideas for change at the panel. At the end, improvements to mental health streamlining and help within the housing sector were promised.

It has been an incredible three weeks, and I would happily go through it all again. It’s been amazing to meet so many talented people and build new relationships. Hopefully, we all made a difference for homelessness in Coventry.

To find out more about Cardboard Citizens, visit cardboardcitizens.org.uk

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