Programme Director, Cardboard Citizens
Michael’s interest in social issues began as a child, growing up with a mother who made human rights documentaries. Working as a DJ on a pirate hip-hop station and studying Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) cemented this interest, particularly with respect to the issues of homelessness and marginalisation.
In recent years, Michael has been exploring ways to document and raise awareness of these issues in an artistic way. At Shelter, back in 2007, he ran an animation project with children affected by homelessness, creating pieces that Shelter later stated were some of the most powerful audio-visual work they had produced. Volunteering in Sierra Leone, he was inspired by the power of music to genuinely give voice to the voiceless and to catalyse political activism. This led Michael to co-found WAYout, a charity that uses arts and media to support vulnerable young people to move away from the streets and get their voices heard.
It felt like a natural progression for Michael to join Cardboard Citizens in 2013 – an organisation that works to genuinely improve the lives of those affected by homelessness, as well as raising awareness and changing perceptions among the wider public.
Michael oversees Cardboard Citizens programmes and feeds into strategies on productions such as Cathy, Benefit and Home Truths. Sharing stories and challenges of those experiencing homelessness and marginalisation, these productions often have a political edge. Cardboard Citizens productions have always had the intention to influence change, either on a personal level through participation, or at a social level through raising awareness and inspiring change in audiences.
“At the core of our work is the importance of sharing stories. An understanding that these real-life stories – told by those that have lived them – is incredibly empowering, and more powerful than any statistical report or analysis” says Michael.
The ‘forum theatre’ element of Cardboard Citizens work – part of the wider Theatre of the Oppressed methodology ‘which uses theatre as a tool for liberation and empowerment to people in all stations of life in all parts of the world’ – is a powerful way of creating change. It creates debate and puts audiences in the shoes of the protagonists. Michael explains: “By ensuring our audiences are a mix of people with lived experience and the wider ‘general public’, people also get the chance to meet and break down barriers, again affecting perceptions of those on the ‘other’ side.”
The production of Cathy was toured nationally, using interactive ‘legislative theatre’ sessions to offer audiences the chance to contribute new housing legislation ideas – creating their own Cathy Laws.
The tour generated more than 600 suggestions and provided the opportunity to reach out to MPs, councillors and politicians across the country. Audience members included then Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, Leader of Manchester Council Richard Lees, and John Healey, MP for Barnsley and Shadow Secretary for Housing. The production also cemented Cardboard Citizens’ relation with national housing and homeless organisations.
An invitation to perform Cathy at the House of Lords in February 2017 culminated in the presentation of ‘Cathy Laws’ to Lords and MPs, coinciding with the final readings of the Homelessness Reduction Bill. A live-streaming forum theatre event of Cathy also took place, with a strong focus on social media: thousands of people tuned in live, more watched on catch-up, #CathyLive and #CathyComeHome trended on Twitter, and many commented they felt inspired to take action as a result of watching.
“Cathy was then taken to Edinburgh Fringe, where it received five-star rave reviews and opened up relationships with Shelter Scotland, who are now going to support us to pull the Cathy Laws together from the Edinburgh audiences. We also took a special performance to the Grenfell-affected community,” says Michael.
In September 2017, Cardboard Citizens was invited to the Labour Party Conference, where Cathy was the key element of the launch of Labour’s Homelessness Network. “We performed to an over-capacity venue of MPs and councillors, received a standing ovation, and gained lots of Cathy Laws which will subsequently feed back to the new Homelessness Network” explains Michael.
Michael attended the ‘Influencing Change’ training in London in 2014. “I gained a lot more understanding about elements of campaigning I hadn’t even considered – from starting a ‘movement’ to engaging MPs and All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs),” he says. “But I also gained confidence and assurance that the way we ‘campaign’ – using Forum Theatre and the arts to increase awareness and inspire change – is powerful and has massive potential.”
The course has also solidified Michael’s passion and belief for ‘artistic activism’ – utilising the arts to help inspire change and galvanise movements.
It also taught him to highlight and be proud of previous campaigning-related successes – for example, public-debate-provoking invisible theatre piece It’s Public; enabling members to tell their unheard stories to the media from their own perspective, and to become undercover mystery shoppers for Crisis, feeding into their Turned Away report, which led to Crisis’ campaign to create the Homelessness Reduction Act (most recently replicated for Channel 4’s Dispatches).
What was the best thing about the ‘Influencing Change’ course?
“Understanding what a campaign is, and isn’t. I think I struggled with this for a while, trying to think what we would campaign about – before realising and accepting that each performance and project was a campaign in itself, and part of our overarching work around raising awareness and changing lives.”
Why would you recommend this course to someone else?
“It will make you think differently about how to approach your work, give you greater clarity of what you want to achieve and how; and you’ll meet other inspirational people that will help drive you on.”
Your one piece of advice for someone else trying to achieve change?
“Think creatively about your campaign – the more unusual and eye-catching a campaign is, the more its likely to be noticed. Don’t give up, and have realistic goals. It is always useful to break a campaign down into achievable chunks!”