Since its conception on the Bristol student theatre scene in 2016, Things We Do Not Know, a piece of verbatim theatre exploring the lives of street based sex workers in Bristol, has already existed in a variety of iterations, including a run at the Bear Pit, an open area in which the audience could come and go.
A total of ten cast members have been involved during its short life, and during a very chaotic Facebook messenger voice call in which I could hear director Davina Chao and producer Cassandre Pouget of Process Theatre but they could not hear me, it became very clear that every one of them had left their mark on the piece, reinforcing its collaborative nature. I’m told that the play's physical sections used to be more sexual in tone, but the team chose to change this in favour of focusing more on the sex workers’ lives. To me, this suggests a definite commitment to framing the subject matter without resorting to shock factor.
It’s definitely important to recognise that the cast and creative team of Things We Do Not Know have never asked to be seen as fountains of knowledge. They’re not inviting us into their space so that we can be enlightened or somehow reborn. Of course, it’s inevitable that every audience member will bring their own knowledge and experiences into the space. For example, I can’t disregard the fact that one of my flatmates is a sex worker, and that my relationship with him plays into my wider understanding of the industry. This isn’t something I can leave at the door, it’s simply another lens through which I’ll experience the piece. We all carry our own lives into every show we see, presenting a particular challenge for such a sensitive topic.
Happily, we’re all coming in to learn. They’ve been given access to certain knowledge and stories as a result of their collaboration with One25, a charity which aims to support street based sex workers with dangers relating to their work and with problems in their wider lives, and that knowledge isn’t something that should be kept secret. The sense I got was that it doesn’t necessarily matter why people enter a space or choose to watch a show, once they’re there, that’s an opportunity to educate or to bring to light different angles that they may not have considered.
Additionally, there are things you can’t understand just by reading them, and there are experiences that are all but impossible to recount through words, which is clearly a challenge for a piece of verbatim theatre. The team mentioned to me that they plan to use moments of more experiential performance – inviting the audience to physically share in certain small sections of the play – and I’m intrigued to see how this works in practice.
There are interesting little aspects of this piece to watch out for: for example, the all female front line team at One25 inspired the decision to have an all female cast. All of the testimonies used in this production were given on the clear understanding that they could be used and made public, on the condition of anonymity. Going into my conversation with the team, I had concerns about the use of testimonies with a charity acting as a middle man, but it’s pretty clear that the team has gone to some significant lengths to ensure that their work is produced ethically: all the providers originally gave consent for their words to be used in the creation of educational material and other work.
While it’s obviously not something I would hold against the production at this stage, I am a little curious of how a lack of contact can be replaced through research. Although this show is built around the words of some of Bristol’s street based sex workers, that’s as far as their insight goes. The creative team have met frequently with their contacts at One25, and made sure to build their feedback into the play itself, but contact with the sex workers themselves has not taken place. It’s definitely easy to see why: the women's anonymity is of vital importance, and involvement with a project like this would be impossible to maintain.
A question my mind has returned to a few times over the last day or so is: whose story is whose to tell? In my efforts to compile my preliminary thoughts on Things We Do Not Know, I’ve been finding it ever harder to get past this hurdle. It's difficult to say that I don't know if this is Process Theatre's story to tell, because I can't say I'd prefer for the story not to be told at all. Probably not. It’s of such obvious importance; in my personal experience, I’ve never come across any other shows taking this particular angle on this particular issue. All too often shows about sex work seem to be exercises in shock and horror, so if nothing else it’s refreshing that Process is placing such emphasis on the people behind the headlines and storylines.
I’m extremely aware that I’ve offered you more questions than answers here, but I think that’s okay. I’m happy to wait, with my mind open, and to share in what they’ve built.
@noffmag // firstname.lastname@example.org