Benefit cuts are hitting disabled people the hardest. Half of people in poverty are disabled or live with a disabled person. The future looks grim, so how can we get people to sit up, listen and care and not keel over with empathy-fatigue?
Award-winning poet and theatre-maker Jackie Hagan’s way has been to make a new solo show that features the real voices of proper skint disabled people she knows. Jackie has conducted interviews with people from all over the country living on the fringes and the spaces in between. They are not sob stories, they are fully rounded lives full of the spiky humour and the complicated weirdness of being human. Jackie weaves these narratives together with poetry and anecdotes, celebrating the weird, the wonky, the unruly, and the resilient.
Expect audience interaction, DIY puppetry, poetic comedy, comedic poetry, and one underclass amputee steering the show.
Read our Q&A with Jackie Hagan.
Q: Can you tell us about your experiences interviewing people?
Jackie: I saw a lot of living rooms, drank loads of tea and heard touching, funny, grim and lovely snippets of people’s lives. It made my head messy. I learnt to be silent and hold space for people instead of nodding my head manically and saying “yes, yes, yes” to try to validate people. I had to get over my fear of dogs. I learnt to listen to what people were saying rather than the words they used.
Q: What impression did that leave on you?
Jackie: We need to sort out this mess and start helping people again.
Q: What process do you go through to ‘convert’ the interviews into a performance?
Jackie: Humans don’t think in linear stories, we think in snippets and reoccurring images. It makes absolute sense to me to collect voices and stories and for me to keep on writing and writing and then to siphon it all down into central questions that I want the audience to think about and eventually get it right down into the essence which is the hour of the show.
In real talk that means A1 flipchart paper, post-it notes, about a thousand gallons of tea and one amazing sound producer (Dave James, he sat in a room and listened to 16 hours of interviews with me several times!). I eat when I make stuff, I put on about two stone. But I’d rather be a fat writer than frustrated and at my ideal weight!
Q: What message is at the heart of This is Not a Safe Space?
Jackie: One person’s trying doesn’t look like your own.
You don’t have to feel guilty for what you have, it’ll get in the way of you wanting to help.
Classism is constant and as abhorrent as racism. sexism and homophobia, learn to recognise it.
Q: What do you want people to take from seeing the production?
Jackie: Disabled people and people on benefits are represented in the media one-dimensionally. Benefits claimants are shown as sinners and Benefits Street as if we’re stupid and should just try harder; disabled people are saints, we’re superhumans and Paralympians. Real people aren’t like that.
If you ‘other’ us, then you can feel less empathy, which means you can feel less empathy, it gives people a free ride, it makes the problem go away because it means we don’t matter.
Not right, is it.
Q: Are you looking to empower people and if so, in what way?
Jackie: I was interested in empathy fatigue for a long time. I found that the cure is looking into someone’s eyes, or hearing the way they laugh when they’re nervous or experiencing the smell of their home.
I needed to make people real, so I went and found real people and put their actual voices in the show.
I was looking to empower in two ways:
Most people don’t want to have empathy fatigue. So, first of all, assuage the guilt – it’s okay that you have nice things, it’s okay that people are worse off than you and you can’t help them all or don’t want to. You don’t need to give your best shoes to a homeless person. It doesn’t make you bad. Just have a look at your views, are they based on reality or on rubbish the media have shown you? Then I show people real people, and you can alter your views because you have the opportunity to understand without being judged.
I am delighted and amazed when a disabled person off a council estate is on stage. That’s because we are massively under-represented. I wanted to redress the balance.
Q: Where do you go and the production go from here?
Jackie: I’m currently working on a sitcom based in my hometown Skelmersdale with Hattrick productions and writing a kid’s play The Random Disco Bears.
This Is Not A Safe Space will be at Camden People’s Theatre, London, from 17th to 21st April. All performances will be BSL-interpreted. Part of CPT’s Common People Festival (running from 17th to 28th April).
Camden People’s Theatre, 58 – 60 Hampstead Road, London, NW1 2PY
17 – 28 April 2018