The man who gets hoodies to talk about love

By SUZANNE MOORE
UPDATED: 19:00, 15 October 2009

I am, I must admit, not a natural ‘theatre’ person. This was brought home to me by that wonderful scene in Peep Show when the obnoxious Mark and Jeremy go to a fringe show in order to impress their would-be girlfriends. Within five minutes they are whispering to each other in horror: ‘If this was on television we wouldn’t be watching. Oh God, why aren’t we watching television?’
Things get even worse when they work out they could be watching a film starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for less money. I know exactly what they mean. So a little while ago when I found myself in the National Theatre to watch a play called The Boys devised by young people from Fairbridge centres, a charity that works with so-called Neets (Not in education, employment or training), it was with some reluctance.

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Uncompromising: Jamal Downey in The Boys with Isabel Onyemere

 

Sure these kids should be encouraged but did I really need to sit through some earnest explanation of troubled youth?

I guessed it would all be about gangs and guns and knives because, well, isn’t that what we all think ‘urban’ youth are about
these days?

But it wasn’t like that at all. Yes, there was a drug dealer and violence and a pregnant young girl – but what was truly shocking was that this was a play about love. About wanting the wrong person.

The audience was certainly not the average National Theatre audience, it was young and racially mixed.

Afterwards, the cast stayed on the stage, legs dangling over the edge and talked to the audience.

The chief complaint from all was that the adult world and the media do not see young people as anything other than bundles of issues to be dealt with. We do not see, as one cast member put it, ‘that everyone has to deal with love no matter what age you
are’.

It was touching indeed to see teenage boys, ‘hoodies’ if you will, discussing so openly this really taboo subject. Love.

Afterwards, I met Jeremy Weller, the director, with his crew and cast as well as some of the parents of kids he has worked with in the past.

This was theatre, but not my usual experience of it. It was produced out of reality, but I saw it was also able to alter the reality of those who produced it.

The only suspension of belief required is just quite how abandoned some children are, children who live in our very midst.

There were grandees at the National who found it too raw, I was told. Weller said he would have preferred it twice as raw.

But then Weller is not a typical theatre director. He started off as a painter at Goldsmiths College during the BritArt years, with a studio next to Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, but he found painting lonely and the art world elitist.

‘I wanted to work with people, to tell their stories, to use art as a functioning thing. I wanted to go ground-level and ask, what is the truth of people’s experience?’

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Acting up: Rising star Jamal on stage

With little formal education Weller described himself as a sponge, soaking up a degree in philosophy on the way. He knew society forms us, but what fascinated him was what he calls ‘the unchartable. Everyone is an exception’.

He found himself drawn to working with the homeless, the abused, addicts: for want of a better word, the underclass, and by the early Nineties wanted to make plays about their lives.

His realisation was that instead of using actors to communicate their experiences they could do it themselves. After studying in Warsaw, Weller was in Edinburgh to make Glad (a theatre production in the early Nineties about homelessness) and met Terry Rigby, to many a homeless alcoholic, but to Weller an itinerant philosopher.

Rigby told him: ‘There is a glass wall between me and the rest of the world. I live in a separate world of the homeless and the lost and the damned. ‘What you want to do is put a hammer through that wall so through that chink the audience can peep and see me as a human being.’

This insight has taken Weller all over the world to work with prisoners in Northern Ireland, Brazilian street children, people in Gaza. Right now his work is with young people here in Britain and it feels essential.

He and his team are working with the very kids most of us cross the street to avoid. These kids have been given up on for most of their lives and they do the most awful things.

There are girls who maim for money, boys who stab and shoot, teenagers who have been selling their bodies since they were very small. Some of these kids had parents who were too drugged ever to feed them, never mind love them.

Getting them to tell their stories is Weller’s aim: ‘to get the view from below’. It isn’t always pretty and even to get these kids together in the same room is quite a feat.
Jenle Hallund is Weller’s associate director and has worked with him for 12 years. I ask her if she is ever afraid. After all they have worked in prisons with murderers and with drugged-up girls who were threatening to push another girl under a train.

She was scared then, she said, because the drugs had made the girls ‘uncontactable’ but she is remarkably honest about the process and the frustrations of working with these kids.

‘If I hear the expression “vulnerable young people” one more time, I might shoot myself,’ she said. ‘Because then they will never take responsibility. They will never NOT see themselves as victims.

They may be flawed but we expect a lot from them.’Jenle, like the rest of Weller’s team, does not promise to help anyone but they believe in the ability of art to transform their lives.

This may sound wishy-washy liberal do-gooding stuff but the more I saw of them the more I see this is the exact opposite of the way they work.

And that is why they can get results. The kids they cast may have chaotic lives but they are expected to be responsible for themselves and for each other during the process of making a theatre production.

During The Foolish Young Man, produced at the Roundhouse in 2006, 15 young people who had not acted before worked alongside David Harewood, an established actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the cast members didn’t show up because he had been shot in the leg.

Jeremy Weller (Black Top).  Jenle (woman)  Jamal ( cap, gray top and black top

Raw talent: Jeremy Weller and his associate director Jenle Hallund, who has worked with him for 12 years

A BBC documentary made for the Imagine series features Weller desperately talking on his mobile trying to get his cast to show up, never mind perform.

The triumph is that they do at all. And part of that triumph was Jamal’s monologue about growing up without a father.

Jamal Downey is now 20 and oozes charisma both on stage and off. He has continued to work with Weller’s company, the Grassmarket Project. He laughs knowingly when I ask if the softly spoken Jeremy is ever hard on the kids.

For Weller is deeply dismissive of organisations that set out to help but ‘give the kids a certificate for just turning up’. He actually asks for huge commitment.

Jenle told me: ‘We don’t pretend to save people. Their mothers and fathers couldn’t save them. Why are we expected to?’

Yet the whole ethos demands that the kids take a lot of responsibility for themselves and see that they can contribute. Weller is adamant.

‘I ask so much of young people. I ask, “What are you going to do for me? What did you do? Did you stab someone? Then face up to it.”

‘I confront them with facts and the moral consequences of what they did.’

Sometimes change comes in small increments. They get back into education. A girl who would have previously stabbed someone, hits them instead. A boy who used to beat others to a pulp sees that he is hitting another person, a person who also
feels.

The need to put the pain these kids feel into others is somehow accessed. They see that the constant performance that survival on the streets requires can be made real and rewarding on stage.

Jamal, born in Liverpool of mixed descent, is an example of the way Weller’s working methods can alter the course of a life.

Clearly bright, as a child his interest in books was disparaged as him ‘trying to be white’.
He was diagnosed, as so many boys are, as hyperactive. He is incredibly articulate about how he has had to cut off parts of himself to survive.

In The Boys, he plays a boy who beats a pregnant girl then cries. Jamal says he is crying out of self-hatred. ‘Damaged people attract damaged things,’ he says, wise beyond his years.

Now Jamal is on the board of Weller’s Grassmarket Project and one of the cleverest, coolest young men you could ever hope to meet.

Art is not only about redemption. Indeed this seems a rather old-fashioned notion, but this kind of theatre has been a catalyst so that now Jamal mentors others and would like to study law.

The methods Weller is using come from his own personal experience.

He had little formal education. Art opened up everything for him so he believes strongly that it can encourage others at least to experience free will.

Britain right now is the place for him to make plays as we are an increasingly stratified society.

What he says to even the most deprived is this: ‘OK, whatever has happened to you, you are the driver of your own life, to some extent.’

He is agitated by the issues of the day: ‘We all say we want to know why young people stab. Do we really? If we wanted to know why people feel let down and are unable to feel empathy, we would simply ask them.’

Jamal says it’s simply ‘hatred for what we have been through’.The knife and gun crime epidemic is ‘a form of extended suicide for lives they feel are worthless anyway’.

The company is seeking a warehouse space in which to do more work and funding is always an issue.

Its members are not social services or therapists and yet somehow they are able to shift some lives through their visceral theatre.

No one gets let off lightly. They are not interested in victim culture. They want to tell the stories of damaged lives to help those who possess them make new stories.

Weller, a seemingly gentle man, laughs when he says: ‘We bring it all straight back to them and smack them in the face with it.’

This is not art for art’s sake, but for life’s sake; from the heart, but not for the fainthearted. It is dramatic, powerful, difficult and life-changing.

And if theatre can do that, even I have to say it’s better than television.
• For more information on Jeremy Weller’s company go to http://www.grassmarketproject.org.

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