Janine Waters, artistic director of The Edge in Chorlton, writes for Northern Soul.
A cry of “it’s behind you!’ is currently being heard in theatres up and down the country as pantomime season gets into full swing.
At The Edge, we’re also preparing to stage our annual Christmas show. But while we’re putting on an entertaining festive treat with all the traditions of a classic panto, ours has a key difference. It’s Behind You is performed by a company of adults who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness – and it’s transforming lives by providing an opportunity to participate in high quality theatre.
I co-founded The Edge in 2011 to create an art space that offers something unique within Manchester’s world-class cultural landscape. In addition to being a receiving and producing house for small scale theatre, bringing companies and artists such as Paines Plough and poet Luke Wright to our little venue in Chorlton, we prioritise a participatory programme.
Giving people opportunities to make great art is at the heart of all we do. This activity runs throughout The Edge: from our work on stage with vulnerable adults, and adults and young people with learning disabilities, right through to our café, The Dressing Room – which recently received an Observer Food Monthly Award for its hospitality programme for adults with learning disabilities to develop skills in a busy working environment.
Together we create theatre which is complex, entertaining and fun – taking people outside of their own lives for a moment to imagine something new, work towards something positive and develop skills that have a transformative effect on their lives.
There are 15 people in our company for It’s Behind You. It’s made in association with the Booth Centre (a homelessness charity), and many of our cast are returning for a fourth year. Ranging from their 20s to their 70s, company members are from diverse backgrounds and each come to us with their own set of circumstances and challenges. But in spite of their situation, there’s an incredible sense of warmth, fun and ownership as these individuals join together with a team of professional artists to make our Christmas show.
Rehearsing for the pantomime means making commitments on their time and relationships with one another, just as a professional cast of actors. Our company works extremely hard to make great theatre despite the adversity that they face in other areas of their lives. Speaking and listening are skills which the majority of us take for granted – but many people struggle with this. We work with them to develop their literacy through the process, giving them tools that can be used in other areas of their lives. Some people will be sleeping rough and then turn up the next morning, ready to work with their fellow cast.
Many vulnerable adults sleeping on our streets have been victims of exploitation and abuse – and carry anger with them, causing problems for themselves and for others. We put a great deal of emphasis on working together as a company, to find ways to resolve conflict. Some of our company who don’t have or aren’t in contact with relations now class this as their own family set-up, where they gain support and trust and take collective responsibility for themselves and each other.
Working in partnership with the Booth Centre means that we are able to provide a holistic approach to improving people’s situations. Of course, housing, access to healthcare and employment are vital, but in order to address some of the issues that might have made people homeless in the first place, so too are the skills developed by being part of The Edge’s theatre company. Our work is vital – now at Christmas, which can be such a lonely and challenging time for year – and all year round, as we work to devote our time, skills and art space to supporting vulnerable people from our communities in Manchester.
Taking part in It’s Behind You and all the work we create at The Edge is an incredibly powerful tool to help people begin to see themselves in a new and positive light. You just have to sit in the audience, watch them perform and you’ll see what I mean.
By Janine Waters, artistic director of The Edge
It’s Behind You takes place at The Edge on December 13, 14 and 15, 2018