Cardboard Citizens

Refusing to put the homeless in a box

In its smart new Whitechapel home, Cardboard Citizens is looking anything but destitute. The place is bright and spacious and buzzing with activity, not only of a theatrical nature but also in terms of providing support and guidance for its members.

Despite all these positive vibes, founder-director Adrian Jackson is feeling stressed because one of his actors has dropped out of rehearsals two weeks before Cardboard Citizens' new show, Benefit, is due to begin a four-month UK tour.

"She found the pressures of rehearsing too difficult," he says. “We always do a risk assessment to check where someone is in their life before we cast them. But at the end of the day, you win some, you lose some.

Cardboard Citizens is different from other touring companies in that most of its actors have had some experience of homelessness, whether temporary or long-term, being on the streets or living in a Department of Health and Social Security hostel.

Its actors are selected through open workshops, paid the Equity minimum for as long as they are with the company, and play their part in the evolution of work that is always based on real-life experiences. It is about as far removed from agents and directors flicking through Spotlight in search of perfect casting as it is possible to get.

"People come to us for lots of different reasons," says Jackson. “Some to play around, some because they want a healthy, supportive community to be part of, others because they have a genuine aspiration to act, and many because acting helps with their confidence and growth.

“Very few have sufficient acting ability from the start to do the job that is required at the professional level we demand. So for many it is a long journey, during which we get them involved in community projects and slowly raise the bar until we feel they are ready to do a big, professional tour, like Benefit.

“The demands are intense. The last thing I want is to put pressure on people who can't take it. We need to be sure they are in a good place because acting is a surprisingly hard game. You have to be realistic about where people are in their lives.”

Cardboard Citizens was set up by Jackson, former associate director of the London Bubble, in 1991 in response to the growing number of homeless people on the streets of London. In its early years it took performances into hostels and day centres for the homeless, but it has gradually morphed into something more interactive and supportive. Its 15-strong staff now includes two full-timers whose job is to offer advice to those with housing, social or mental health issues.

Jackson insists that theatre and performance still lie at the heart of the company’s activities, because it can “reach the parts other disciplines can’t”, but that everything it does is about generating debate and change.

Indeed, this is very much the purpose of Benefit, written by Sarah Woods. The play is inspired by people who have fallen foul of the government's welfare reforms for one reason or another.

"It looks at people living precarious lives affected by welfare changes, benefit sanctions and zero-hours contracts," says Jackson. “By taking the show to the very places where people are most likely to have been touched by the issues it raises, we hope to have a positive impact in those communities.”

After each performance, the company devotes an equal amount of time to what Jackson calls “the forum”, in which members of the audience who choose to stay can comment on and even change aspects of the narrative, according to their experiences. “It is our way of unpacking what is there,” says Jackson. “I expect those taking part to be proactive. Was the show credible? Was it too predictable? Then say so, and maybe suggest alternatives.

Cardboard Citizens has produced innovative collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Pericles, Timon of Athens) and the English National Opera (The Beggar’s Opera), and it now has a thriving youth contingent called Act Now, based at the Whitechapel HQ, which has taken on a life of its own.

We reach out to young people who are maybe lost or homeless by offering weekly drama workshops, enabling them to learn all aspects of the theatremaking process,” says Jackson. Once a year, the company works towards a full-scale production devised and performed by its members. Often those members go on to further education, employment or the National Youth Theatre. “It is often quicker to turn young people’s lives around than it is to help older people with problems.”

In terms of funding, Cardboard Citizens has multiple streams, from Arts Council England (it is a national portfolio organisation) to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to training workshops for city corporations.

You have to become skilled in these things to survive,” says Jackson. “We can employ the same skills we use with our homeless people to help professional and corporate people with their public speaking and presentation skills. We’ve become a lot cannier at reeling them in.”

The company has secured the services of Kate Winslet as its “celebrity ambassador,” luring the rich and the starstruck to fundraising dinners where Jackson shows potential donors what Cardboard Citizens is made of.

While Benefit is on tour this spring, he will be planning the company’s next big thing: a play cycle under the general heading Home Truths, about housing issues. “I want selected writers to look at different aspects of our housing history, from the philanthropic housing projects of the Victorian era right through to the future of housing in the UK,” he says. “If all goes well, I’m hoping to produce the season next year.”

The above article by Nick Smurthwaite first published on in 2015.