Telling stories

15 April 2019

Lucy Thompson reflects on the authenticity of Things We Do Not Know


If Things We Do Not Know simply aims to raise awareness for One25, a charity supporting sex workers in Bristol, then it succeeds. And they do a fantastic job. But if it also aims to grasp those women’s experiences, their characters, the reality of their situations, and make the audience feel – I’m not so sure.

Process Theatre are aware that these are not their stories to tell, and it’s honourable that they’re opening a dialogue about our (or: society’s) attitudes to sex workers, who are often denied a voice. Even so, perhaps they aren’t the right people to portray these narratives. Or perhaps they haven’t approached it the right way.

How can you tell someone’s story if you don’t meet them? The point of this play – if I’m not mistaken – is to humanise a group of women who are forgotten about or demonised within our society (sex work itself is legal in the UK, but despite a government investigation and recommendations in 2016, soliciting is still not). Process Theatre draw out harrowing stories in their piece. We’re told it’s part verbatim theatre and part based on real events, but the words feel disembodied and it’s hard to get a clear sense of character. Haunting music weaves the monologues together beautifully, hitting home about how deeply certain attitudes to women, sex, and sexual violence are embedded in our culture, and the play gives a comprehensive idea of sex work in Bristol – but individual voices get lost.

Part of this is because the actors have worked from anonymised written testimonies, and character development hasn’t been delved into. Part of it is because, for young university students, it seems hard to convey the painful lived experiences of women who have done sex work. The audience are given statistics – 99% of Bristol sex workers are addicted to one or more Class A drugs and 92% suffer from malnutrition – but we aren’t shown how that really feels. Maybe Process Theatre feel safer sticking to figures than extrapolating, but a challenging subject requires challenging yourself.

Things We Do Not Know just doesn’t feel connected enough to the stories it tells. The actors say, "we don’t know if [              ] reconnected with her children" or "we don’t know what [              ]'s father was like." The candour is important, again acknowledging that they have never experienced the life these women have. But ought we not know? These women are much more than their profession, but that’s all we hear about. Is it helpful to tell a story if you don’t know so much?

It might be better to converse with these women, and retell their experiences with their involvement. There are, of course, issues with confidentiality in making parts of these women’s lives public, and they might not be able to speak about it, but it can be possible: Open Clasp Theatre in Newcastle create plays in collaboration with the women and girls whose stories they explore.

Things We Do Not Know does a thorough job discussing the work that One25 does. But its content lacks a deeper emotional connection to share with the audience.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Image credit: Beatrice Debney