Last week saw us begin the process of making a brand new show. A show about difference and how the fear of those ‘other’ to us can spill into hate. And what a week we chose to begin that process.
It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Like many others, I’ve been feeling really sad about what I’ve been seeing and hearing in the news: the shootings in Orlando, the murder of Jo Cox MP, racist hooliganism at the Euros, the fear mongering of both sides of the Brexit debate and the scapegoating of immigrants, refugees, and the most vulnerable of people.
All of this has been driven and created by fear. Fear is the instinctive reaction we feel when the chips are down, we feel threatened or our backs are against the wall. It’s particularly natural when life gets tough, you aren’t sure how you will make ends meet, or you face uncertainty. But fear also sells newspapers, polarizes the population and, unfortunately, can be used as a tool to win elections – sometimes with the most seemingly unlikely of outcomes.
I’m frustrated and upset that all this fear and hate is slowly dragging the West towards the far right. In particular, I'm concerned that Britain’s reputation for openness and tolerance is being eroded. I’m worried that the ‘British Values’ and the call to ‘Make Britain great again’ are really just xenophobia and racism masquerading as patriotism. What exactly are these ‘values’? And when precisely was this ‘great’ time we are yearning to return to? It’s all fear mongering.
Imagine what our world would be like now if the EU Referendum or the US Election had been fought on the basis of hope and not fear? If authentic leaders had sold us their inspiring vision for the future instead of force feeding us their rose tinted (and often racist, sexist and homophobic) nostalgia of the past?
It is against this backdrop that we began the research and development (R&D) process of creating our new show. The new production has the working title of Us and will open at Half Moon Theatre in London in October 2017, before touring nationally later that year. We don’t know exactly what this show will become, but we know we can’t sit back and be quiet any more. We feel the need to make a difference and to influence young audiences across the divides into finding compassion again. But our first week of R&D completely changed the direction of the production… and not just because of a certain Mr Trump.
We spent our first week in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. A former mining town; Barnsley has been a firm Labour territory since 1935. But recently the town swung towards Ukip, with the party winning almost a quarter of the vote at last year’s general election, up from 5 per cent in 2010. The town then voted two to one to leave the EU with a 70% turnout. It was this background that made us choose Barnsley as one of the places to R&D the show; we wanted to understand working class communities such as Barnsley and tell their, often unheard, story.
Based in The Civic, we spent the week getting to know the town; we spent time watching and chatting to the community whilst also trying to create the show. We came looking for young voices, the voices of our audience. Having researched the town, I’d assumed that we’d discover young adults who were disenfranchised, probably angry with the political elite and, well, a little bit racist. But I couldn’t have been any more wrong!!!
We ran sessions with young people from Horizon Community College. The group came from right across Barnsley’s economic spectrum, with a quarter of them having been born outside of Britain. What we discovered were young adults with the most incredible sense of equality, openness, tolerance and humanity. They didn’t agree on everything, in fact some were particularly fiscal in their opinions. One young woman even praised Margaret Thatcher – a voice I never thought we would hear in an ex-mining town. But despite their differing opinions, they were able to speak their mind whilst listening and understanding those in opposition to them. If only we saw more of that kind of debate in our actual Politicians!
They told us stories of the disagreements they'd had with their parents about Brexit and their frustration at the xenophobic stance of the generations above them. On the whole they were proud to be from Barnsley and recognised that the mining heritage was a part of their story. But they were equally fed up of that history defining their future. They were united in their anger at the Press caricaturing their town as uneducated, close-minded and racist. Here were a group of young people eagerly waiting to step out and make their mark, to redefine the future of Barnsley and the world.
You see, too often we hear the argument that young people and children can’t contribute to the political debate. We’re told they aren’t mature enough to make an informed decision and they couldn’t possibly be trusted with something as important as a vote. But our findings in Barnsley couldn’t be further from the truth. Young people have a voice and are passionate about sharing it; all it needs are people to stop long enough to listen. And do you know what? It’s a voice that actually makes sense!
On the day that Trump was announced as the President-Elect, we asked them what they wanted from their leaders. Their request was simple; just be authentic. They didn’t want establishment carbon copies or crass caricatures like Farage who they couldn’t take seriously. They just want someone to be like them: real, honest, optimistic and compassionate. We asked them to write their own manifesto for the future; sure, their policies weren’t all fiscally sound, but their words were full hope, love and compassion. They talked of housing the homeless, saving the NHS, welcoming the immigrant and empowering children and young people through Education. These were British Values to be proud of!
We’ve heard similar voices in the news this week as young adults across America stood up in protest to declare that Trump isn’t the President for them; echoing the young voices we heard in the aftermath of Brexit. Some corners would say that they should accept the democratic vote or that they were crying in the corner because they didn’t get their own way. Too right they didn’t get their own way! Here in the UK, 75% of under 25’s young voters wanted to stay in the EU! How many more young people also wanted to make that call but were deemed too young to vote? Here we have a younger generation who didn’t want to leave the EU, who identify as European and yet will have to live with Brexit the longest!
For me, meeting these young people was an inspiration. Not just creatively, but personally too. It lifted me to know that my own children would one day be living in country ran by young people just like these guys. As I woke on Wednesday to discover that Trump has been elected, I somehow didn’t feel jaded, because I knew Trump wouldn’t be the end of our story; I had hope. The fear we are currently feeling is nothing compared to the optimism and openness of the generation that are rising up. The future is in safe hands.
Creatively, these young voices have completely changed my perceptions of what this show would be. It’s turned it from a production that feels the need to convince people into being compassionate, into a show that will fan the flames of what is already there. Our job is to now unpack the situation, help them understand the political and social forces that shape our world and then send them off to change it.
But it also made me think. Pretty soon these guys are going to leave school with all their optimism and big dreams to discover the Neo Liberal world is a tough place of winners and losers. Life continually throws us all real challenges; and if you’re from a working class background, those challenges are even more real. And this is where fear can take its grasp; “Fear engages animal instincts, not the rational mind, because when survival is at stake then worrying about others is just a distraction.”
We need to start sharing a different story. Our press and political elite would have us believe that things have never been worse than it is right now. But watch the video and you’ll discover that there’s never been a better time to live on planet earth:
- We live around 40 years longer than last century
- Less then 10% of the world’s population live in absolute poverty
- We are now in school longer than ever before
- For the first time ever there are more democracies then dictatorships
- And there is less war than ever before.
So, next time you read a headline telling you that 'Immigrants are coming to take your jobs', or you hear a Politician saying we need to 'make our country great again'; remember that they are using fear as a tool against you. And as we’ve seen, fear leads to hate, hate leads to Xenophobia, and Xenophobia leads to you choose smallness over greatness. Greatness is not in our past, one thing the young people of Barnsley have taught us this week is that greatness is very much in our future.