I'm Maddie Wakeling and I am an actor and theatre maker living in Manchester. I work as the Arts and Community lead at RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research) facilitating theatre workshops with a group of people seeking asylum. This work has come to a halt due to the current situation and I am now working within RAPAR and MRRC (Manchester Refugee Rights Collective) to coordinate support for people with no recourse to public funds in Greater Manchester. I am also using the time to focus on future projects for Kahlo Theatre - we have one play in development and are having regular phone calls to try to write and create remotely. We have also written a short piece of film in response to the current situation and are working to produce this soon. It's not easy working in separate homes - so much of the magic of theatre making happens in the space and can't just be thought up. I have, so far, found more time for writing though and am grateful for that.
Kahlo Theatre was formed by myself and Gerogina Russell when we graduated from the Manchester School of Theatre in the summer of 2018. We left drama school desperate to make work, work that was rooted in the exploration of a political or social issue. We wanted to play with form, tired of the conventional plays favoured by drama schools. So we created Kahlo Theatre. Our work blends movement and text. We use music from the beginning - finding and creating songs that move us from the inside.
Kahlo Theatre were due to bring a reworking of our debut play ‘Life Between Yes and No’ to the Kings Arms in Salford on the 2nd and 3rd of April.
Those dates have passed us by and we were far from performing on stage. We were instead isolated in our separate homes, both on hold as we tried to get through to the DWP along with the one million others also left unemployed by the Covid-19 crisis.
I had expected to be on the other side of the line, our play - Life Between Yes and No - is all about the DWP. It was specifically about Anna, a woman working on the front line of austerity cuts in a Department of Work and Pensions call centre, working for minimum wage, answering phone calls and following a strict script. They have to get the form filled and the person off the line in the allotted time, or they’re at risk of losing their job. As callers argue, shout or even cry down the phone, the workers’ job still remains: to get through all the questions before their time is up.
I did try to smile at the irony, instead of playing a DWP call handler I was desperately waiting for one to answer my call.
In Life Between Yes and No the voice of the caller is played by different instruments which reflect their character. Personally, I'm not sure quite what I'd be - in the play there's a violin, trumpet, piano, guitar and drums. We did this, in part, to explore the dehumanisation that happens in our welfare system. Where all our personal problems are funnelled in tick box answers.
Our welfare system, along with our asylum and immigration system, is designed to fail those who need it most. In February this year a government watchdog found 69 suicides could have been linked to problems with benefit claims over the last six years. In 2015, 3 people were dying every day after being found ‘fit for work’ when they clearly weren’t.
Around this time last year I read an article in the Guardian written by a DWP call handler which became the inspiration for our play.
“When you cry down the phone I feel like crying too, but if I speak to you for longer than 23 minutes and go off-script I risk losing my job”
Austerity is a choice, it's poverty created by policy. Our Tory government has presided over 10 years of cuts and closures to vital services. But our ministers don't spend hours listening to the cries of those that have been the worst affected.
It made us think about this huge disconnect. The decisions made from within the bubble of Westminster which day after day destroy the lives of people up and down the country - and who's manning the complaint lines? A person earning minimum wage with next to no employment rights. We become each other's soundboards so often in the world of work. It's encouraged and the systems are designed so our rage only reaches the ears of a neighbour.
As the corona virus escalates our politicians encourage us to blame each other - the people in the park, the woman on the bench, the teens hanging out on our street. At times like these it's vital we remember who got us here - who cheered at blocking a pay rise for the nurses they now applaud? Who has been shrinking the budget for social care year on year? Who maintains a system where our essential workers are paid £8.72 an hour, on zero hours contracts, while their bosses sit at home on salaries?
Lets keep hold of our anger and aim it higher.
Watch the trailer of the show on the link below: