Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Shared? Exploring the complexities of the NI social housing sector through theatre (Partisan Productions until Friday 23 September)

A murmur of recognition spreads across the Ormeau Park audience seated in a big top when one of the cast mentions “the list” (aka the Common Waiting List which is drawn up and sorted using the points allocated when you apply for the Housing Selection Scheme).

Shared? is based on interviews with local residents at The Port Building on Annadale as wella s people working in the housing sector. Fintan Brady’s script explores the issues facing people living in, living near, and working to support social housing. It’s been staged by Partisan Productions in partnership with Clanmil Housing as part of Good Relations Week 2022.

The cast of five quickly jump into issues of noisy neighbours, poor maintenance, placement priorities, and feelings that communities are changing. 90% of social housing is currently situated in single identity areas, at odds with the 2019 Good Relations Indicator report [indicator 2.2b] finding that 77% of respondents would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood. But it’s soon obvious that ‘shared’ can have a wide and multi-factorial definition, with residents coming from a variety of circumstances and backgrounds.

There’s a working mum paying rent for a leaking flat, with a daughter who finds nothing to do in the area, and a neighbour who holds noisy parties. There’s the homeless young girl who has been in care and is now fending for herself with a housing officer who’s rushed off her feet and has no time to stop and provide support with the basics of running a home or operating household appliances. A father who grew up in the area looks out and sees a revolving door of people moving in and moving on and wonders where the community he once knew has gone.

A team of architects are planning to build a utopian palace of hope: it feels like they’re about to burst into song to underline the wonderous nature of their proposals. The live score from the band to one side of the stage turns discordant when their vision of a better society hits the fan of reality. A young couple with moderate dual incomes don’t realise that their liberal-minded desire to live harmoniously and bring up their future children in the local community won’t win them any points in the list that governs their chances of finding a home.

And that’s before uncovering a debate about culture, community gatekeepers, the role of politicians, agenda-ridden agitators and a well-oiled rumour mill, and many of the staff who feel trapped in a rigidly defined system whose processes and policies are not designed to work in the interest of the residents.

Once the formal performance finishes, the cast stay on stage and ask the audience for ways in which what they’ve seen enacted on stage could be improved when it happens in real life. It’s a technique known as Theatre of the Oppressed, part of Augusto Boal’s style forum theatre that gives the audience and actors the power to stop and change a performance, giving influence and voice to the disempowered, even after a script has been written and rehearsed. Scenes are rerun to see how there could have been less negative experiences and better outcomes. The discussion and the improvised scenes only serve to underline how the relationships and processes are orders of magnitude more complex than we’ve realised up to now.

Cathy Brennan-Bradley, Sorcha McElroy, Orlaith Larkham, Shannen Lofthouse, John Travers and ringmaster Rachael McCabe switch with ease between roles, aided by on-stage costume changes and the mood music of the band (which unusually features a melodica). The noise of the traffic outside the park’s perimeter and the sound of planes overhead are reminders that what’s on stage isn’t divorced from reality.

Creating more cohesive communities may be a priority for government departments, arm’s length bodies and housing associations, but Shared? makes it clear that a lot of effort and trust will be required to make it happen.

Free tickets can be booked for the 7.30pm shows every evening until Friday 23 September.

Photo credit: Twitter @PartisanNI

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