Sarah Clough, Head of Participation spoke to Jeremy Goldstein about his internationally acclaimed ‘Truth to Power Café’. So far over 20 Donny participants have taken part in the project at Cast and their new digital platform is giving people a voice during COVID-19.
Can you tell us what Truth to Power café is and where the idea came from?
Truth to Power Café is a performance event combining memoir, image, poetry, music and live and spontaneous testimony from participants rising up in response to the question ‘who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?’
I’m also cast as a participant. I talk of the power my father Mick Goldstein had over me when he was alive. He was a member of the Hackney Gang – a group of six friends that included the Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter, and the actor and poet Henry Woolf, with whom I’ve co-created the show directed by Jen Heyes.
For sixty years the Hackney Gang held firm in their belief in an independent media and speaking truth to power . They remained firmly on the side of the occupied, the disempowered and their allies, and so it these people we invite to appear in the show as participants.
I had a very difficult relationship with my father to the point that we were estranged when he died. For me personally, I’ve been able to reconcile the relationship through making the show, which in itself has been life-changing, and a path towards truth and reconciliation.
Ultimately the show has become a love letter to the memory of my father and his friends of sixty years Henry Woolf and Harold Pinter.
Who or what inspires you to produce this kind of work?
As an artist and producer, I’ve championed underrepresented voices and new forms of artistic and political expression for over three decades.
I’m also a long time HIV+ activist with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) who are one of the most successful campaign groups of all time. ACT UP formed in response to the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the late 1980’s, proving beyond doubt that community activism and direct action works. People really do have the power.
Why is speaking truth to power important?
We live in the post-truth age of the demagogue where fake-news is the new norm. In politics the oppressed often have to fight for the right to simply say what they are experiencing, and in personal relationships that artificial barrier is also in place. If you have an approach to allowing the conversation to happen, then the chances of change occurring are much higher.
Even though speaking truth to power is a non-violent means of conflict resolution, doing so, can put you at risk so it takes courage. Build up a survival kit of fact, friendship, and allies. Make sure you’re on solid ground and work with people you can trust. Read Dictatorship to Democracy – A Conceptual Framework for Liberation by Gene Sharp, which includes 198 Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion. There is always something we can do.
Can you tell us about the cathartic nature of Truth to Power Cafe, and why it’s such a powerful journey for both the participants and audiences?
Four years into the project, we’re at a point now where we believe an entirely new theatrical genre is emerging called truth to power theatre.
In a recent conversation with the director Jen Heyes, she said “the uniqueness of truth to power theatre is contained within its humility, the carefully chosen symbolism, collective artistic exchange, and the sheer audacity of inviting 10 strangers into a theatre space and giving them permission to become authors, and performers of their own true stories in front of a live audience”. When you combine that with my own story it becomes a very powerful empathetic journey for participants and audiences.
We’ve also just published a 34 page Impact Study by Ruth Melville Research. 88 participants took part in the study, and among its many findings, are that participants experience positive change in wellbeing, felt empowered, and took steps to change their lives and went on to empower and to help others.
You’ve been doing Truth to Power Cafe for nearly four years, do you notice any themes within the subjects that people choose to speak about?
The nature of the question is conceived to challenge notions of power and give a voice to people who don’t normally have a chance to speak out. People from marginalised communities tend to want to talk about progressive change, whereas those with privilege and power, tend to want to maintain the status quo and have more power.
Above and beyond the politics everyone has their own unique story to tell, and it’s often the more personal stories that I find the most effecting, especially from first time speakers.
We document everyone taking part in the project by way of Sarah Hickson’s photo portraits which capture empathetic images to add poignancy to the personal testimonies of participants. These can be found in our online archive.
Has this changed since the Lockdown?
Everything’s changed since lockdown.
As it took hold I started to think how we as artists can contribute to community renewal in the connected space of theatre, live and online. Our desire to listen and tell true stories about our lives is more important than ever so we took the view that nothing, not even COVID-19 can stop us from being in each other’s thoughts and imaginations. Our own immediate response to the crisis, was to set up a digital platform. Since we went live with the platform in April, we’ve published nearly 50 videos which have been viewed 50,000 times on Facebook alone.
The platform will now run indefinitely and from now until the end of June we’re expanding the platform through London Festival of Architecture whose theme this year is power. LFA offers a great context for us to think about the impact of the global pandemic and what we’d like to see in a post-COVID world.
If someone would like to make a 1 min video what advice would you give them when choosing a subject and creating their piece? What makes the most powerful talks in your opinion?
Taking part in the project is an opportunity to express your true self, and say what you’ve always wanted to say, so put any fears you might have to one side, and think about what this really means to you in the context of speaking your truth to power.
Also the best speeches tackle the question head on and come from your own lived experience, be it from the personal, political and/or the professional.
Most people record themselves on their camera phones, and we ask everyone to follow these simple steps:
Finally get straight to the point and don’t feel you have to apologise or explain yourself. As we say at the end of the show…
BLOW OUR TRUMPETS ANGELS!!
BLOW OUR TRUMPETS ANGELS!!