Benefits-time to change the conversation

Sarah Woods' 'forum theatre' raises awareness on the punitive nature of today’s welfare system vis-à-vis benefit claimants.

Michael Chandler
14 September 2015

Cardboard Citizens/ Richard Davenport. Some rights reserved.

The shockingly high figures around deaths of benefit claimants barely registered on national news or even on social media. But the experience of Cardboard Citizens’ national tour of Sarah Woods’ play BENEFIT suggests that, far from not caring about the issue, many people just don’t fully understand what life is like on benefits – and once they do, they want change.

Months after the original Freedom of Information requests were made, after the DWP appealed against their publication, and after over 200,000 people signed a resulting petition, the figures around deaths of benefit claimants following ‘fit-to-work’ assessments have been released.

Whilst the DWP is at pains to highlight it is difficult to draw any direct correlation due to no specific details of these deaths, with over 4,000 deaths occurring within 6 weeks of the decisions, it’s hard not to be very alarmed. Those of us that work on a daily basis with people currently navigating the changing welfare system know the impact it is having.

However, the release barely registered on the national news. Nothing on the BBC or Channel 4. And unlike the previous week's hashtag #fakeDWPstories, the news item didn't trend on Twitter (#NationalBurgerDay was clearly far more important).

So – does the general public just not care about those on benefits? Far from it, based on the responses from people across the UK to our recent production of Sarah Woods’ carefully researched play Benefit.

Benefit told three interwoven stories about people interacting with the Kafkaesque welfare system of today – focusing on issues around sanctions, complications for those on zero hours contracts and tests for personal independence payments (PIPs). These fictionalized stories were based on the real-life experiences of Cardboard Citizens’ homeless and vulnerable Members and others, and were interwoven with news stories of people tragically falling foul of the benefits system. The production was both challenging and timely.

Cardboard Citizens is the UK’s leading practitioner of ‘forum theatre’. This is where the audience has the opportunity to watch a story, identify the situations where they feel the characters might usefully have done something different and shout 'stop!' - getting on stage to show how the situation can be improved through taking a different approach. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, allowing audiences to discuss the issues the characters are facing, step into their shoes, and work through how the character can act differently to improve the situation – and in turn, allowing the audience to reflect on what they may be able to change in themselves.

The play elicited a passionate response from audiences across the country. The tour’s 65 performances to theatre audiences, hostels and prisons in 20 cities reached nearly 2,800 people, and a live-streaming of the performance reached people in 28 countries across the globe.

Over 1,000 audience members fed back to us in detail after the shows. Audience members that had experienced the system, either themselves or through family and friends, were incredibly grateful for the honest portrayal of life on benefits. But a surprisingly regular comment from other theatre-going audience members was, 'we had no idea it was this bad'. Audiences from Cumbria to Oxford, Glasgow to London, Peterborough to Aberystwyth, didn’t understand the punitive nature of today’s welfare system. And prison audience feedback was a mix of both anxiety about the changes they would face upon release, and gratitude for increasing their understanding of the system they no longer knew.

But why would people know? Second only to migrants, benefit claimants have been the victim of the most negative rhetoric over the last five years of ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’. The sensationalized approach of reality TV programs such as 'Benefits Street' and 'Jay wick', whilst not wholly unsympathetic, inevitably adds to this negative stereotype. It has fostered an ignorance amongst many that sanctions are generally okay. But this rhetoric is clearly damaging. A year ago the Who Benefits Campaign estimated 200,000 benefits claimants may have faced physical or verbal violence as a result of the growing negative feeling against them.

The rhetoric desperately needs to change now we are seeing the impact of these decisions. This change in perception is something we saw happening as part of our tour. And once people were confronted with the real life impact, far from not caring, audiences got very emotional.  Asked after the show how the audience felt, by far the most popular responses in audiences were ‘angry’ and 'frustrated'.

The frustration was justified. When asked to get involved and change the action, the biggest challenge for the audiences of Benefit was how can individuals change the situation when it is not just the individual but mainly the system at fault? How can you improve a situation when most of that situation is out of your control?

Some suggestions were quite radical. ‘Activism’, ‘campaign’ and ‘protest’ were regularly mentioned. As one audience stated, ‘There are just things, at the individual level, that can't be changed, that's when the political mass movement is required.’ Many audience members felt every MP should see the show. Some felt the show should be on TV in place of ‘Benefits Street’. One person was so overwhelmed their feedback simply read ‘shoot the government’!  And at one performance the audience jokingly fed back they would blow up the benefits centre. It transpired afterwards that, a few months prior to the tour, someone in Manchester actually had planted a fake bomb outside a benefits office when his benefits were stopped.

We heard stories across the country of how people had been penalised – people on zero hour contracts, people that had experienced sanctions, people struggling to appeal their ‘fit to work’ decisions. And these feelings were unanimous across political allegiances. In Cumbria, audiences from a Labour candidate to UKIP supporters all agreed that what was being presented to them was ‘not right, not fair’. Half of the tour occurred prior to the general election, the other half after it. Pre-election, audience members were talking about voting and changing the government. ‘We have to hold future politicians to account! Vote (tactically if necessary!)’. Feedback was noticeably less optimistic directly after May 8th. One audience member simply wrote ‘We’re all f*cked’.

However, as well as the frustration, there was also real hope. When allowed to explore how they could improve the situation, many audience members stepped up and became empathetic advocates for the character with mental health difficulties, jumping to their aid when confronted with difficult ‘fitness to work’ assessors.

Audience members fed back they felt ‘empowered’, ‘motivated’, and ‘inspired to help’. Audience members that were experiencing the difficulty of the system felt reinvigorated to fight on, felt hope. Someone in Glasgow stated ‘I’m about to have appeal hearing on my PIP but solicitors and welfare rights have said not enough evidence to support my appeal. I was going to give up but after seeing this performance I feel I will go on with my appeal. Never give up.’ Others simply appreciated the opportunity to share their own stories with a wider audience. A particularly creative Belfast audience member wrote a poem which concluded:

“Benefit street mile, a lonely walk

But it helps for someone to let you talk.”

Other audience members that had little awareness of the system stated their eyes had been opened. Someone in London wrote ‘Thank you for exposing me to the human side of benefits and sanctions’; another audience member stated ‘I want to find out more about the benefit system. There's a lot more to it than I know about.’ They intended to be more supportive, get involved in their community, understand the system and help out those that are less fortunate. ‘I want to find out about the mental health system and speak to people more in the street, give people more time’, wrote one person. Others stated they would now volunteer in food banks and at other charities. Human nature is not hard-wired to turn the other way.

Now the true impact of the welfare reforms is starting to come to light, it is time to revisit and reframe the benefits conversation. As theatre audiences across the country have proven, it is a conversation that we desperately need. And if we cannot change the system - which we may not be able to for some years to come - then we can at least change how we act towards those struggling with it. As an audience member in Peterborough stated, ‘Thank you for opening my heart’.

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