Words: Dawn Kingsford
The Paper Birds will be serving up another thought-provoking feast of after-dinner conversation matter when the company return to The Marlowe Studio next week with Broke.
Personal testimonies and harrowing first-hand accounts of hardship make this piece of verbatim theatre pack a mighty political punch as it gives an unclipped voice to the debt crisis in Britain.
I spoke to Artistic Director Jemma McDonnell about The Paper Birds’ quest for ever-more inventive ways of presenting political theatre after both its productions of Blind, performed by UK beatbox champion Grace Savage, and Broke, returned rave reviews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
With Blind you worked with Grace Savage on a solo show, but here you’re returning to your core company?
Yes – we’d heard so much about Grace Savage and wanted to use her skills in a more theatrical way. Blind leant itself so well to being a one-woman show because it was Grace’s story about growing up.
Broke will see the regular Paper Birds team back on stage, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ll be acting alongside Kylie Walsh, and Shane Durrant [the company’s composer and musician] gets an even bigger part than last time. We felt his personal experiences growing up deserved a voice in their own right.
So where did your research take you this time?
We spent weeks talking to people up and down the country; we visited food banks, Salvation Army halls and ran an online questionnaire that received 200 responses in two days. People were incredibly honest, telling us how much they earned and spent and their views on debt and the poverty trap in Britain.
I gather the banks come in for some particular stick?
The British banking and finance system was of particular interest to us and the way it works, essentially encouraging debt. The view is, as long as everyone’s spending, the economy is good. We felt very strongly that desperate people are being backed in to a corner to borrow more and more, with few perceived alternative options, and at some point this has to stop.
The play sets out to expose some of the lies surrounding poverty. What do you mean?
There is a lot of tabloid scaremongering and misconceptions about the welfare system and people abusing this. The play sets about undoing those misconceptions with the facts, which include: of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK, over half are from working families.
You willingly admit your scripts are politically charged, but was this your original driving force?
When we first formed The Paper Birds, we were a group of students studying at Bretton Hall, keen to make theatre and hone our skills. We graduated in 2003 and about three or four years later we began to realise that we were fortunate in that we had a stage on which to tell our stories but were not necessarily telling the stories we wanted. It was then that we decided to look at the issues we wanted to talk about. Making political theatre is now our driving force.
How important to you are the issues you choose to highlight?
Kylie and I spend about a year of our lives making a show, so we have to do something we are passionate about.
Since meeting at university we’ve worked really hard to build the company and now people are starting to respond and we are very proud of that. But, it’s been a long slog, during which time we’ve experienced times when we haven’t been paid and had no rehearsal room, so, for us, the word Broke really resonates.
Even now, Kylie and I are always broke compared to our other friends. We have to really watch our money as individuals and as a company because we are funded from project to project.
So how does your life influence your political agenda?
We tend to want to discuss issues that feel relevant and current to us at the given time – at the moment we are working on a trilogy about class. Before that, it was about the binge drinking culture, with Thirsty, and, who knows, in 10 years’ time it could be about care in the community.
So what social issue will The Paper Birds focus on next and what ideas have you for it?
Our next production from the trilogy will look at social mobility. We never look closely at the content until nearer the time because we want our scripts to be as responsive to what’s happening socially and politically as possible, so watch this space!
Broke is at The Marlowe Studio on Tuesday 27 (with post-show Q&A) and Wednesday 28 January.
The production is co-commissioned by and developed at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Greenwich Theatre. Funded by Arts Council England. Supported by The Marlowe Theatre Development Trust.