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Orwell’s Down and Out: LIVE

4 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

In 1933, George Orwell wrote “Down and out in Paris and London” as a first-hand account of destitution in both cities, drawing on his own experiences of sleeping rough and working on what would now be called zero-hours contracts in hotel kitchens. With a shocking 60% rise in homelessness since 2012, “Orwell’s Down and Out LIVE” will use the powerful medium of theatre to bring to life the topic of rough-sleeping and hidden homelessness in an immersive, live theatrical event in both London and Paris. The performances will be live streamed to libraries and community hubs across the UK. London Calling talked to director Hannah Price about modern poverty and giving a voice to homeless people.

London Calling: George Orwell’s book is from 1933 and yet it seems like nothing has changed, has it?
Hannah Price: Some stuff has changed quite a lot and some it seems hasn’t changed at all.  There is a lot in the book about how the press writes about homelessness and a lot of that seems uncannily the same: dehumanising, talking about masses not individuals, with a lot of blame to it. It’s quite strange that has not changed since then.
LC: What interested you first about this project?
HP: I was fortunate enough to work on the live-reading of Georg Orwell’s 1984 last year, which I think everyone can see is a book that is really relevant right now. The Orwell Foundation and UCL were looking at what we could do next and to mark the anniversary of the setting up of the Welfare State wanted to talk about destitution. Exploring what has changed, what hasn’t changed and why there has been such an upswing over the last few years in the numbers of people who are homeless either on the street or hidden homeless, as they are called living in temporary accommodation. Orwell was a person that really wanted to dive into the human stories and that urge is the basis for the whole project, trying to understand on a micro level as well as a macro level what is happening. When I was asked to do this and work with organisations such as Centrepoint and YMCA, The Connection and Crisis, that felt to me to be really important.

 1984 LIVE at Senate House. Photo: Robin Boot

LC: George Orwell immersed himself for his research, he slept on the street himself and wrote about his first-hand experience. You are also working with actual homeless people who are giving first hand experiences. What can we expect to see, is it a semi-staged reading?
HP: We want to be as sensitive as we can. We have been courageously given testimonies written by homeless people or people who’ve had experiences with homelessness. Some of the people involved want to read their testimonies themselves and other people find that very exposing, because it is a big event, in which case we are working closely with them and actors who read out their words. The backbone of the project is the book enacted, intercut with some other Orwell texts and punctuated with script and text from people who have experienced homelessness and a couple of artistic responses from poets to illuminate that even further. Hopefully we have a wide range of voices represented, but it is really important to us is that the voices of homeless people are very prevalent, they are very much the main part of the project.
LC: And the project is running in Paris and London simultaneously?
HP: We are in London on 6 June and open in Paris in September.
LC: What are the main differences between Paris and London, because Paris actually has quite a lot of social aid, rent protection and worker’s rights in place and yet, they have similarly high figures for homelessness.
HP: There is quite a big difference in the way that homelessness seems to manifest between the two countries. Paris has a lot of interim workers and immigration that works in a different way to us in the UK, they have more open borders. That is a big drive of homelessness there. They also have a large population of hidden figures like we do. One of the things that the Paris part of the book looks at is how insecure the job market was in the 30s and that is still very prevalent in both cities, driving various problems. That is why homelessness is on the rise. And that is something that Orwell talks about even at that time.

George Orwell, 1903-1950

LC: Modern poverty doesn’t necessarily come from unemployment, people have jobs but they have precarious jobs, low wages you can’t live off, resulting in precarious home situations.
HP: Renting works different in both countries as well and that is interesting. Why is there an obvious rise in people living on the street in the UK? Partly because of the way we are moving towards more of a rental market.
LC: There is a Finnish model based on the belief that the housing situation needs to be sorted out first before you can address unemployment or mental health or addiction or crime.
HP: There is a similar model in America where they guarantee you a home. Living long-term on the streets creates its own enormous set of problems around health and mental health, trying to live like that. So they guarantee you a home as the starting point to the solution rather than the other way around. Whatever you do then you cannot lose that. It is quite successful outcomes. We’ve come across some people who have been homeless on and off for years or even decades and they have difficulties adjusting and there is something about being able to say: that is yours.
LC: What do you think can be achieved through a project like this?
HP: I run a theatre company that does a lot of political work and there is always a question about whether or not it actually makes a change. Bringing attention to anything is always useful, and on a smaller personal level, working with people who’ve experienced homelessness has really illuminated me. And they seem to be very pleased to have a platform, which is also humbling really. As this is part of UCL and their Festival of Culture, there will also be a seminar with some policy makers so it does link up to a larger overall conversation. In terms of raising awareness and building an audience, we do have some brilliant people reading for us, like Jon Snow, Bonnie Greer and Jack Monroe who has been so involved in talking about poverty. It’s great that they’re lending their voices to us.
Down and Out: LIVE will be free to the public. The London event will run on Wednesday 6 June, 2pm-6pm, with a panel debate to follow at 6.30pm. Both the show and panel will take place at Stone Nest 136 Shaftesbury Ave, London W1D 5EZ. Registration for the show and panel can be made via UCL’s Festival of Culture. Audiences are encouraged to bring sleeping bags to sit on and then leave as a donation to a homeless charity.

The performance will be streamed online and screened at Poole Central Library, Grants Hill Library, Fulwell Cross Library, Kidderminster Libraries, Idea Store Whitechapel, Jersey Library, Winchester Discovery Centre and Glasgow Libraries.


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