Looking from the outside, The Lowry is sometimes perceived as a shiny, spaceship of a building at the heart of Media City, where people go to watch high art like opera and ballet. You can book to see a world class opera or dance premiere on any one of its three theatre stages. But step inside and you’ll find there is a whole lot more going on for people of all ages and from all walks of life.
For many years the Arts Council has prioritised investment to benefit all communities. There’s a lot of talk about how to make theatre more inclusive and diverse, but what start out as good intentions can sometimes seem an almost box-ticking race for funding, producing tokenistic and niche work. To make any art-form or venue truly inclusive takes time. You can’t do it with a single show or even a season of entertainment. There needs to be a genuine desire for change combined with commitment to a long-term view.
In today’s society it is rare to find such long-term commitment in any organisation, which is why The Lowry’s partnership with Salford Young Carers is pioneering. In developing this partnership, The Lowry has gone beyond a mainstream idea of staging minority voices that aren’t usually represented in theatre, to giving a platform to a group, so hidden in wider society that many don’t know they exist.
No-one knows the true number of children and young people under the age of 18, who have responsibilities for looking after a parent or sibling with a disability, a physical or mental illness, or a drug or alcohol dependency. Official UK figures put the number somewhere around 166,000 but if it’s true, as some think, that the reality is nearer 700,000 then this a hidden problem that desperately needs attention.
In Salford the youngest carer receiving support is four-years-old. When we hear statistics like this the figures can be shocking, but our minds generally go to thoughts of, what is the government doing about this or what are social services doing about it? Rarely do we think, what is the day-to-day reality of being a young carer and what could I do to help? Fewer still might suppose that support could come from a popular art’s venue, like The Lowry.
Six years ago, when The Lowry first linked-up with Salford Young Carers, I’m sure even those involved in the early discussions couldn’t have imagined where the partnership would lead. One of the first projects involved young carers working alongside a professional director, writer and film-maker to produce the film, ‘We are Not Different We Just Do Things Differently,’ in which young carers starred alongside actor, Maxine Peake. For the young people involved, the project was confidence-building and opened opportunities to make new friends and learn new skills. On a wider scale, the 15-minute film became a way to get their voices heard by those in a position to influence change, when the young people presented the film at a red carpet launch in Salford and also to the House of Lords in London.
By sharing their experiences in this way the young carers’ stories became a voice for other young carers. And the film’s impact continues today, being shown in High Schools across Salford as well as elsewhere in the UK, Ireland and Australia to start conversations, identify young carers and raise awareness.
Building solid relationships over time and the trust that comes with that, enabled The Lowry and the Salford Young Carers Service to take on the much more ambitious project, Who Cares? The work, staged in the 500-seater Quays theatre in November 2016, was the culmination of more than a year’s research and interviews with young people by verbatim theatre specialists, LUNG.
To produce a piece of verbatim theatre a company records people’s stories and then puts their words on stage. This fitted with what young carers said they wanted. They wanted more people to understand what it’s like day-to-day as a young carer, but were passionate that their lives weren’t fictionalised to create an interesting drama.
The script was crafted by LUNG’s artistic director, Matt Woodhead, from more than 75 hours of interviews with young carers, the relatives they care for, social workers, council workers and other people in authority whose job it is to identify children in this situation and to offer support. No artistic license was used in the phraseology so that all the words heard in the play were those spoken during interviews.
The play gives an insight into the lives of three young carers, whose stories were created from an amalgam of four testimonies from young carers in Salford. Reflecting the diversity of caring roles that young carers undertake the characters are: Connor whose mum struggles to cope with depression and bipolar; Nicole who has been a carer since the age of four when her mother had a stroke outside her playgroup; and Jade whose father was paralysed in a motorbike accident.
Being verbatim accounts from the youngsters, the play doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of their lives. The everyday challenges they face aren't glossed over, but neither are they exaggerated. In many ways, it is this truth and rawness that makes it so heart-breaking to watch. Sometimes it can almost feel too much, but everyone involved had several opportunities to read and change the script and this is what they want the audience to hear.
It’s clear that neither the young people nor their families want to present a sanitised view of their lives, but neither do they want sympathy. Rather they want people to understand, to see the humanity behind the statistics and that’s what this play has achieved. Yes, it is about being a young carer but it is also wider than that – just as these young people’s lives are more than their caring roles. It is a play about growing up, about living in the North, about living in Salford, and more than anything it’s a play about the love of a child for his or her parent – and a child fighting to stay with her mum is something everyone can relate to.
Structuring a play around a series of monologues where the language is fixed is a considerable challenge for actors. To get around what could have easily become a series of static talking heads, designer, George Leigh creates a revolving metal set that captures the playfulness and energy of youth as the actors nimbly climb up and down through scenes, as well as giving a sense of being trapped and isolated. It also gives space to the characters – who perche on different levels depending on whose story is in the spotlight at any one time.
Adding the voices of politicians and care workers who speak about funding cuts brings a wider political dimension to the individual tales. But it’s the human impact of these stories that will no doubt fuel the drive for change.
At the same time as this project was developing, a sister project, Behind Closed Doors was also in progress, to enable young people to perform their own work on the Quays stage as a curtain raiser to the premiere of Who Cares? For this project The Lowry teamed up with Gorse Hill Studios in Trafford and Stone Soup, an organisation which uses the arts to bring about positive change in communities. A group, made up of twenty young people from Trafford, ten of whom were young carers, created a piece about the challenges young carers face in building relationships with their peers. What later emerged was that six of the young people, not initially identified as having a caring role, through the process identified themselves as young carers.
The Lowry has clearly found a way to help identify children whose needs are still largely invisible in society, but what support is available once that’s happened? Ensuring sufficient support is in place for any young person who needs it, is something that takes time. Plans are underway for a regional tour of Who Cares? this year and a national tour in 2018. However, to ensure that the right support is in place The Lowry is working closely with organisations in these areas to make sure support is in place. They are also developing an education package to be used alongside the show so that after watching it people can take part in a workshop to explore the themes raised and find out how they might get support if needed.
These are authentic stories that not only deserve to be heard, they need people to listen and respond by asking what can I do to make these young people’s lives easier? When faced with the question, Who Cares? the answer is probably a lot more people than we might first think. A lot of support has already come forward from that one performance and it’s important that venues like The Lowry continue to give voices to people who otherwise might never get time to reflect on their lives, nevermind the opportunity to express what they feel.
Without projects like this I can’t imagine there would be thousands of school children in Salford every year talking about what it means to be a young carer. I hope that this life-changing work continues and that as well as seeing a shiny building, people looking at The Lowry recognise arts and culture is for everyone and has the power to be transformative.