In May 2016 I had the privilege of joining Open Clasp women’s theatre company who were undertaking a week-long workshop in a Direct Access Hostel for women in a northern city. I joined the group Thursday to Saturday bringing a walking/walkshop and photography session to the programme. The invitation was to support Open Clasp’s work with the women, as part of the development of their next major production ‘Promise.’
Invited by the creative director and writer Catrina McHugh, it was a pleasure to get to know and work with the women, the support workers in the Direct Access Hostel and with Open Clasp. Open Clasp developed a script with the direct input of the women, developing characters from the ground up, in a very ethnographic way.
Deeply respectful, participatory and ethical work it was both an incredible learning experience to work alongside Open Clasp and women in the hostel. Connecting with the women in a purposeful, participatory way was both troubling and life-affirming. Troubling given the need for homeless services and support and that the women’s lived experiences could have been otherwise but for chance, choices made in circumstances, not of their choosing, the austerity cuts and what looked like an exponential growth in women’s homelessness, since my last visit to the city. The women’s humour, strength and resilience, in the face of what Jan Haaken calls ‘hard knocks,’ was life-affirming.
I arrived on Thursday evening straight from conducting fieldwork in London on an esrc/ncrm project with Umut Erel, Tracey Reynolds and Erene Kaptini using participatory, performative and theatre based methods for building knowledge and understanding about the lives of migrant mother and girls. This project uses forum and playback theatre as well as walking as methods for conducting research.
Travelling North and to the Direct Access Hostel was part of a trajectory of working with women using creative methods and the importance and usefulness of creating space for the telling and sharing of women’s stories and biographies.
The benefits of working in participatory ways using the arts are that they can help to claim a space for voice, raise awareness of relations of marginalisation, exclusion as well as inclusion and challenge exclusionary processes and practices. Arts-based methods can support the articulation of identities, strength, resilience and belonging for those situated in the in-between spaces of cities. This is vitally important to the development of dialogue around women’s issues and needs, recognition, challenging the reduction in services and support for women and ultimately reinforcing cultural citizenship and promoting social justice for women.
The Leverhulme fellowship focuses upon using walking methods to understand borders, risk and belonging and to explore the method of walking with women to conduct research that is participatory and collaborative.
The visual essay below tells one woman’s story. Faye, not her real name, led us on a walk around her city, taking us to a special place and pointing out important landmarks along the way. In the walk, we get an insight into her biography and the lives of women living in Direct Access. We hope that telling this story may move official readers and enable others to connect with, attune and better understand the lives of women in direct access accommodation.
A number of women drew maps from the direct access hostel to a special place in the city, marking along the way the landmarks that were important to them, for whatever reason. Faye guided us along her walk. The images below and accompanying text are from Faye-and this is her walk!
Fig.1. The map of my walk, from the hostel through the red light area, to the town centre, past tent city.
Fig.2. A picture featuring Laura (Open Clasp) and constructive random ideas by the women in Direct Access Accommodation.
Fig.3. The first official experience here at DA. This is the reception. I’d like to note the protective screen. Newcomers would think of violent residents because I did wonder why it was in place.
Fig.4. The door of salvation, because no matter what you think of this place, no one can enter to hurt you. Once you are in, you are safe.
Fig.5. The long path, hopefully ending the long journey of other kinds and where I get a ‘finally here feeling’.
Fig.6. Ahh, the cut through, used for a quicker access to important punters or dealers…The car park that is crossed, it’s behind a derelict block of flats. Shame really as I see it being a lovely place.
Fig.7. Waiting place for dealers and the girls to wait. It’s worth pointing out that the meeting place borders a school that is often full of children playing outside.
Fig.8. The Apollo roundabout is an important focal point to my entire story really, each turn off represents 9 times out of 10 what a person in this (kind of) life, what they are doing: grafting; using; scoring.
Fig.9. A place that houses down and out men only over 55. It’s not uncommon to have one to two people a month die here through alcohol abuse. I know this is a fact. I personally can recall at least 5 men left to die here. An often last port of call for poor men who have no support. They are left to wither in misery; heart-breaking…
Fig.10. The walk to the beat brings you to shady spots, especially at night, it looks totally different.
Fig.11. The place I always take a deep breath and think ‘here we go I hope it’s over soon’.
Fig.12. Another shot of the road that leads to the beat. Although it (the beat) extends further… I always feel that I have reached work at this point.
Fig.13. Each day I go to work I have to walk across the roots of this beautiful old tree and I thank it for allowing me to walk over its leg.
Fig.14. My tree, our feet, ah…
Fig.15. Walking Women…
Fig.16. A quiet or intimidating view of the back streets of this red light area, this is in the day.
Fig.17. The red light area on the walk towards the town centre, often quiet, a haven when it rains…
Fig.18.The same tunnel from the opposite end it looks dark at night. God knows I hate this place.
Fig.19. First of two shots of Tent City; street homeless often find themselves spending time in one of the setups like this. I can only imagine what happens here.
Fig.20. Another of tent city opposite a Hotel
Fig.21. An empty beggars spot. Very dear and rarely unoccupied.
Fig.22. So many people saw the good-looking man in the red t-shirt as the subject for this shot, but it was, in fact, the bridge! How diverse things have got.
Fig.23. A shot of the city centre gardens where our journey paused for posh coffee ?
Fig.24. Deep in conversation as we were all day.
Fig.25. A special bracelet I’ve had for many years caught the eye of my new friends and so I thought I would take a shot.
Fig. 26. Sharing my walk…
Fig.27. Women Walking…
Walking with Faye
Walking with Faye reinforced the experience of walking as a ‘method on the move’ as relational, revelatory, sensory, and absolutely embodied/material. During the walkshop we attuned to Faye’s story, her experiences and reflections on border spaces and places, both real and imagined, in a sensory way and connected to her bravery and resilience and search for belonging as feeling /being ‘in place’ and ‘at home’, albeit ‘on the move.’
Open Clasp’s forthcoming performance and current work in progress will be a huge and important intervention speaking with and through the lives of women in Direct Access Accommodation. I am personally and politically committed to their work and the importance of arts-based research in creating work that can reach the broadest possible audience, to challenge myths and stereotypes and to recognise and acknowledge the life stories of women.
One thing is certain, in these turbulent times marked by poverty and austerity and that is that the characters the women in the hostel built, in the theatre workshops with Laura and Catrina, will absolutely be represented in Promise; representative of the women entering, leaving, moving forward with their lives and for some dying as a consequence of ‘making out’ not in conditions of their own choosing.
I want to close with a word of thanks to the support workers in the Direct Access Hostel – some who have spent entire careers working with brave and resilient women experiencing homelessness, addiction, lack of care, well-being and poverty. Amazing work, knowledge and experience – Amazing Women!