7 April 2020

The cast of Seen, one of the selected shows for NSDF this year, are still hopeful, says Annie John

There is trepidation as the cast step on stage to perform Seen in front of eighty year 10s in a secondary school in Plaistow on a cold morning in January. It’s still a work in progress. We have no set. Or lights. Just some bodies in a room. And eighty expectant faces waiting for something good to happen. 

It started in autumn 2019 with a provocation from Zest theatre company to create a short response to the concept of ‘Youthquake’, the subject matter for their upcoming (and brilliant) production. After sharing a short scratch performance with Zest in October, we developed the piece and by February we had toured it to hundreds of 14-16 year olds in and around East London.

We are based in a sixth form college in Newham, which has both the youngest as well as the most ethnically diverse population in the country. Over five years of extreme austerity, Newham was forced to reduce its spending on youth services by 81%. The fallout from this was our starting point. We had no idea how personal and angry (and sweaty) the show would become.

In the early stages we play games. We make lists. We tell each other stories. We listen to Kendrick Lamar and Nina Simone. We laugh (and sometimes cry). And then the piece is pulled into sharp focus by external events.

In November, Moses is late to rehearsals because he has been stopped and violently searched by two police officers on his own street. It’s not the act of searching him that upsets him, it’s the disapproving looks from the neighbours' windows that hurt him the most. Brexit rolls on as Boris describes Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’ and black people as ‘piccaninnies’. We meet the morning after the Tory landslide. There is genuine shock and despair at the result. We create a scene in which two actors just fight and keep fighting until they can’t go on. It’s durational and sweaty and painful to watch but it ends in an embrace that is tender and full of hope. And that’s what we hold on to. We want to tell our stories but not just through the lense of the victim or the voiceless or the violated. We decide to end the piece with a moment of cleansing, kindness and hope (and some very loud Kanye West, obviously).

Halfway through the show in Plaistow, George plays ‘Never Have I Ever’ with the audience. He picks up strips of paper at random from a pile on the floor. ‘Never have I ever lied to my mother’. There is laughter as hands go up in the audience. ‘Never have I ever tripped in public and acted like it was intentional’. More laughter. ‘Never have I ever been followed round a shop by a security guard’. There is a silence as the majority of hands are raised in grim recognition.

After the show in a feedback session, a boy says ‘I felt like you were speaking just to me. I’ve never seen a show that talks about our lives like that’. The teacher asks the group to summarise the show in one word. ‘Hope’ comes the response. We would have loved to have performed this show at the NSDF, but for now, this is enough.

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Photograph: James Shaw