Tackling issues in society through collaborative theatre

Dr Kim Wiltshire – Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing
Billy Cowan – Lecturer in Creative Writing

Theatre has the freedom to ask difficult questions, the ability to make people feel heard and the power to affect social change. To stir passion and action, playwrights must co-create with those who live and breathe the issue. They must seek out an audience invested in the problem, not one content with sitting passively in the dark.  

Through workshops, playwriting and performances, Dr Kim Wiltshire and Billy Cowan tackle some of the most pressing issues affecting young people today, from the impact of online pornography to homophobia.

Their aim is not simply to make stark political statements; it is to use the whole process of theatre to affect change. It is about giving young people a voice and the chance to be heard by teachers, health workers and others in authority. Only by those in power acknowledging and understanding an issue can behaviours, practices and policies change.

Dr Wiltshire and Billy have been researching 50 years of political theatre theory, practices and techniques. They have published a book on their findings and applied them to their own theatre-making. The result has been award-winning plays, multiple commissions from public bodies and performances at national and international conferences.

While the subjects have varied, their focus has remained constant – ensuring empowering, thought-provoking experiences for contributors, performers and audiences.

“Political theatre is more about the process than the end product. It’s about working with a group affected by the issue from the start, not helicoptering yourself in as an artist with preconceptions and a ready-made storyline. You want the people involved to call it ‘their’ play and see it as ‘their’ experience. You want it to be truthful.”

Dr Kim Wiltshire, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Creative Writing

The theory behind the theatre

The stark realism and affecting nature of Dr Wiltshire and Billy’s plays is grounded in years of research that culminated in their book Scenes from the Revolution: Making Political Theatre 1968-2018. Their theatre-making, from scripts through to production, is based on the book’s three major findings covering issues, processes and audience.

A new take on the big issues

Dr Wiltshire and Billy’s three most recent plays have been performed to almost 9,000 people across 24 venues.

Project XXX by Dr Kim Wiltshire and Paul Hine

Close up of someone's hand holding a smartphone

The play was inspired by one of the playwrights witnessing students watching pornography on their phones unashamedly. At the same time, the media was full of reports about young people’s easy access to it.

The project began with a question: What if, when Romeo met Juliet, he wanted to film their first time and upload it for the world to see?

More than 40 young people involved with community youth theatre took part in the workshops across Manchester, Bolton and Crewe. They also involved Manchester’s sexual health services.

Interestingly, the ‘scratch performance’ failed to get the adults recognising that these were the experiences of the young people they knew. The play was subsequently reworked to strengthen the association, highlighting the iterative nature of the creative process.

The play inspired commissioning organisations to do things differently. One local authority in Yorkshire contracted the show and a workshop to explore the issue, and one in the northwest used the performance as inspiration for the design for sexual health and body image leaflets.

The Value of Nothing by Dr Kim Wiltshire

A man drinking a cup of tea with a cat next to him

Dr Wiltshire decided to explore perceptions and experiences of young men out of work after being angered by a comment she heard on BBC Radio 4 during the 2015 election campaign. David Cameron claimed that the ‘hard-working British taxpayer’ didn’t want to fund ‘worklessness.’

In a project supported by Bolton Octagon theatre, workshops were held with young men on benefits, families in social housing, young people in supported housing and community artists. The script and production were devised and improvised around the findings, with a tour during 2017.

“This is a performance with a genuine social conscience which seeks to address some major issues around unemployment, poverty and the opportunities open to us dependent upon social class and education. It certainly provides food for thought.”

Review of “The Value Of Nothing” from Live Art Alive

Care Takers by Billy Cowan

Care Takers was a new take on homophobia in schools. While student to student homophobia in the playground was a common topic, institutionalised homophobia, or that amongst teachers, was yet to be tackled.

The play built on the findings of a 2014 Stonewall report. It suggested 36% of secondary school teachers had heard homophobic language from other school staff, and only 17% of teachers had training in how to tackle homophobic bullying.

The play highlighted the risks of homophobic teachers and ineffective anti-bullying policies and procedures for young LGBT secondary school pupils. Interviews with teachers and pupils across Manchester, Rochdale and Macclesfield helped shape the content and structure.

Care Takers was later redeveloped to reflect the impact of the government’s push on teaching British Values as part of its anti-terrorism Prevent Strategy. The play acknowledged teachers’ lack of time and resources to address all the issues they faced, particularly in inner-city, multi-cultural schools. It highlighted how this balancing act often led to problems like homophobic bullying being down the priority list.

Care Takers has reached far and wide. The play has been performed for young people in Greater Manchester in closed ‘safe spaces’ and at conferences such as the NUT’s events for newly qualified teachers and the International Health and Humanities Conference in Seville. It also won a Stage Edinburgh Award at the Edinburgh Festival.

A living legacy

The impact of Dr Wiltshire and Billy’s work shows itself in many ways.

Scenes from the Revolution: Making Political theatre 1968-1918 has become the ‘go to’ text both for the history of political theatre and those seeking a practical guide on how to do it effectively and gives a lasting voice to those impacted by theatre censorship, abolished in 1968.

Their plays are also published works. They are free for anyone to perform, helping them raise awareness and push for change in their own communities. A teacher in Canada recently led a production of Care Takers after seeing it performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

For Dr Wiltshire and Billy, the process of theatre is arguably more important than the end product. Giving young people a voice, so the play becomes their play and their experience, builds confidence and self-esteem. It shows what teamwork can achieve.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Wiltshire and Billy’s experiences have influenced the way they teach. Many Edge Hill creative writing students have been inspired to explore issues affecting communities and society, from toxic workplace culture to the behaviour of politicians. Several students have been accepted onto the coveted young playwrights’ course at Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse.

Like their approach to theatre, Dr Wiltshire and Billy are letting the process guide them when it comes to future projects.

Dr Wiltshire sees potential in the work emerging from the creative writing sessions she is leading with NHS staff as part of a wellbeing project for LIME (part of Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust).

Billy is looking to explore the stories behind the ‘gig economy’ and the refugee experience – the theme he tackled for the 2019 Manchester International Festival.

What is certain is that there remains a whole range of challenging issues that would benefit from the exploration, engagement and empowerment that collaborative theatre brings.

Our research means that…

Educational and health professionals have a better understanding of key issues facing young people and can reflect on their own behaviours and practices.

Young people have the opportunity to be heard, with teamwork boosting their confidence and self-esteem.

People interested in political, collaborative theatre have the tools to be able to do it effectively.

Find out more about Dr Kim Wiltshire and Billy Cowan’s research by viewing their profiles on Pure:

Dr Kim Wiltshire Billy Cowan