Truth to Power Café is a new kind of theatre – a combination of memoir, music, poetry and testimony

Truth to Power Caf at the Conway Hall in London; it comes to Doncaster next week.  Picture: Sarah Hickson
Truth to Power Caf at the Conway Hall in London; it comes to Doncaster next week. Picture: Sarah Hickson
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It’s October 2019 and I’m on my way to an ethical place.

I mean literally; I’m heading to Conway Hall, a building renowned as a hub for free speech and independent thought and the home to the Ethical Society’s collection, the largest and most comprehensive humanist resource of its kind in the country.

Truth to Power Caf was launched in Yorkshire and returns to Doncaster next week. Picture: Jeremy Goldstein

Truth to Power Caf was launched in Yorkshire and returns to Doncaster next week. Picture: Jeremy Goldstein

I’m at Conway Hall to do something very personal. I’m going to go on stage and share a story of being bullied at school. It’s the first time I’ve talked about the experience in public like this, and I’m not entirely sure how it’s happened.

It began when I was approached by an exuberant man called Jeremy Goldstein, who told me his father Mick was part of the Hackney Gang, a group of six friends whose most famous members were Harold Pinter and Henry Woolf.

Goldstein is a fascinating man, a creative producer who is touring the world spreading a particular and specific brand of inspiration through theatre.

When he contacted me it was to tell me about Truth to Power Café, a production that is particularly difficult to describe.

Lyn Gardner in The Guardian said thatTruth to Power Café showed ‘the revolutionary potential of theatre at its best and most direct’. Yorkshire artist Jenny Wilson, who took part in the production, wrote to tell me: “It was a fascinating experience, an unusual platform for a range of voices to be heard.”

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It was enough to pique my interest, unfortunately Truth to Power Café only stops off in venues for one night at a time and when it was in Yorkshire last year I couldn’t get along.

Impossible to deter, Goldstein invited me to take part in the Truth to Power Café in London, which is how I found myself in Bloomsbury in October last year, heading towards Conway Hall.

The instructions were fairly simple: write up to 500 words, to be spoken on stage to the person or thing that has had power over me. That was it.

I wasn’t entirely sure where to begin, but once I brought to mind the name of my particular bully, the words flowed.

In Conway Hall, a place whose history of intellectualism feels seeped into the fabric of the building, I meet the other people who Goldstein has invited to speak truth to power. An 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, the co-founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a former resident of Grenfell Tower and a queer trans Muslim who wanted to speak truth to the divide-and- rule narrative in which we all live.

We head into a rehearsal room and almost immediately photographer Sarah Hickson asks us to take a seat while she photographs us individually, head on, thinking about the speeches we will make on stage that afternoon. A couple of hours later the doors open to Conway Hall’s lecture theatre.

Goldstein takes to the stage and talks about his father, the Hackney Gang, he talks about the power his father had over him and the fact that he was never able to say to him what he truly wanted to. He talks about living as someone who is HIV positive and he watches images of his father and his father’s friends look down on him from a screen above the stage.

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A George Michael song plays out as Goldstein looks out at the audience with a stare of almost defiance. Then it’s our turn. One by one we’re invited to the stage. I’m first up.

Standing behind a mic, I speak my truth to the power a bully has had over me for well over half my life. It is far more cathartic than I expected it to be.

Taking my seat on stage I watch as participant after participant gets up and speaks their truth to the thing that has had power over them. Errol, a former rough sleeper, prisoner and member of Cardboard Citizens relays an impassioned poem, Bryony-Ann speaks powerfully on the link between poverty and depression, Laura is a midwife and birth activist. At the end of the show there is a moment where all the participants stand together and I swear every one of us appears to have grown about two feet since we first met that morning.

The photographs taken of us that morning are displayed large on the screen behind us. For the participants it is deeply empowering, but it’s clear from the reaction that the audience have found the whole experience perhaps even more moving than we have.

Who knew speaking a personal truth to power was so, well, powerful? Jeremy Goldstein did.

The project has been taken across the country and Goldstein has just returned from Australia, where the project was just as well received as it has been here in England. The next stop is America, where the Truth to Power Café will make its US debut in June at the Crystal Bridges American Museum of Art in Arkansas.

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And the most impressive – and relevant – thing about all of this? Truth to Power is Yorkshire made.

“We originally made and premiered the show at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford in 2017. In Yorkshire alone we’ve played Leeds, Hebden Bridge, Hull, Barnsley, Halifax, and Bradford and Doncaster twice,” says Goldstein.

It’s little surprise that Theatre in the Mill, one of our most risk taking venues, birthed this particularly idiosyncratic piece of difficult-to-define theatre.

That it did means – and I appreciate this is a drum I bang regularly – that’s the Made in Yorkshire stamp being taken around the globe thanks to another piece of locally grown theatre.

Powerful stuff.

Truth to Power Café is at Cast at Doncaster, February 6. Tickets and details 01302 303959 or via castindoncaster.com

To find out more or to take part in Truth to Power visit truthtopower.co.uk