The power of the imagination –an artist stands for election

Yesterday my clever friend Ros Philips (from Sphinx Theatre) reminded me that what we are doing with #WE is changing the narrative… that phrase has buzzed around my head all night.

It’s the best bit about my day job: changing the narrative; making the familiar strange, so that we can look at it in a different way and decide whether a new perspective is interesting, exciting, liberating, transformative.

I’ve been helping people change their narratives through theatre for a long time. Working with young people in some of London’s most challenged and deprived schools and PRUs – creating and performing stories written by and for the young people with some of UK theatre’s brightest talents – and staging them at the Almeida Theatre, at the Young Vic Theatre, and in their own backyards. My teams have given those young people a route into seeing a new possibility for themselves and challenged in the act of performance the perceptions of their teachers, their friends and their families.

Last year in a former mining village, I met and worked with over 100 residents inviting them to imagine a better future and as a result we celebrated their present. Of course, no-one wanted to do that to begin with – what was I thinking? No-one thought they had anything to contribute to that. But slowly, gradually, building trust, listening and learning, exchanging stories and challenging assumptions, we had more material than we could use and an invitation to come and do more.

I’ve sat on steering groups with Councillors, emergency services and businesses working towards events which change the narrative about a locality. For the last two years, I’ve been part of What Next? a cultural movement seeking to place arts and culture at the heart of public life, and to persuade all political parties to preserve the public sector.

Every year since 1997, whenever I’ve been directing or putting a team together, I have looked at gender balance. I have employed culturally diverse casts and production teams. Every year, I attend debates about increasing diversity in the arts and for me the answer is simple. Just make it happen in your context. If you don’t know enough people or aren’t getting applications from people of different cultural, gender, financial, social backgrounds from yours, and you are in a position where you are responsible for recruitment, you need to get out more.

Go and meet people, find people, make sure people know your door is open – there is no excuse not to. Lack of time isn’t an excuse. People make time for what they really care about.

Saltash DR

Pic: Sarah Malin as Doctor Stockmann in An Enemy of the People adapted by Rebecca Manson Jones from Ibsen, performing in Saltash, Cornwall.

From 2011 – 2013 I wrote an adaptation, produced and directed a touring production of one of theatre’s modern classics – An Enemy of the People (by Ibsen): A world famous play focusing on a Doctor and a Mayor- brothers. So, what if the Doctor becomes the Mayor’s big sister? Apart from moving the play forward in time, a play for 9 male actors (and 2 boys) with 2 women in minor roles, became a play for 7 actors including 3 major roles for women from 3 generations in 3-dimensional roles.

We changed the focus of the narrative and feminized it – we expected to be told off.

The most glorious thing happened: hardly anyone mentioned that this very well known role was being played by a woman (Sarah Malin).  And when they did talk about it (and it was usually a woman who made the observation), they did notice the pressures that she was under which would have been different had she been portrayed as a man. People looked at the dilemma in a new and just as rewarding way. No-one was threatened by this  equalisation. It just felt true. It could be true.

Imagination: it’s more than fun and make believe –the arts provide a mechanism and a safety net for a serious discussion in the sphere of the imagination amongst disparate people across gender and generation about the things which really matter to them.

The imagination or vision- as politicians prefer to call it because for some reason that seems more grown up – once called into action, offers opportunities to step into a different story and then to turn it into a reality.

If you can’t see it – you can’t make it. If you can see it, you are the first person who can take us there.

This is why I believe what #WE is doing is visionary. I want to change the narrative about Equality – it will make things better for everyone. I want to get away from the notion that women need help. Women aren’t helpless: we are resourceful, brilliant, belligerent and brave. We aren’t a minority or a special interest group. We are half the population and together with men, we can imagine a better future.

Using imagination is a first step in changing the narrative and that’s why I believe more imagination and more artists are needed in our schools, in our working lives and in our politics.

Rebecca Manson Jones is standing for selection as a London Assembly member representing the Women’s Equality Party.

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