Volume 19 Number 6
A Walk on the Wild Side
01 December 2006

When he died, Terry O'Leary was left without money, without a job and without a home, since she was not allowed to go on living in her brother’s council flat.

TERRY O’LEARY’S brother was doing a PhD when he discovered he had a life-threatening disease. O’Leary dropped everything in order to take care of him. When he died, she was left without money, without a job and without a home, since she was not allowed to go on living in her brother’s council flat. She suddenly found herself living in a hostel. ‘There’s a whole life before homelessness,’ she says.

She was ashamed to call her friends and tell them that she didn’t have a place to live. The only thing homeless people have is time, and nothing to do with it. She tells me they can’t go to a pub because they don’t have money and they don’t have access to most things, since they don’t have an address. And let’s not forget that it also gets cold out there in the winter. This situation creates a sense of camaraderie amongst homeless people. ‘They tell you where to go in order to get a free meal, or if they have a sandwich or a fag they just share it with you,’ says O’Leary.

On the streets of London, she was exposed to many things, ‘I’m fortunate not to have an addictive personality; I never got hooked on drugs. I remember that I tried smoking heroine with some people and I threw up all the time because I couldn’t stand it. I don’t know where I would be if I had liked it.’

Nine years ago, she met Cardboard Citizens, a homeless people’s professional theatre company, directed by Adrian Jackson. With them she found an outlet for her creativity. Today they have employed her as a workshop leader and she directs plays based on true stories.

When I arrived for a performance of Cardboard Citizens’ play Birds, directed by O’Leary, I expected to find only homeless people in the audience, but I was surprised. People of different ages, ethnicity and social background were sitting in a circle looking at each other. This was most unusual since audiences generally don’t face each other or have to interact; all they have to do is sit as quietly as possible in front of the stage.

The host, Cardboard Citizens’ Tim Arthur, asked us to introduce ourselves by saying two things: one that was true and one that was false. I chose to say first that I was a famous actress in Greenland (I am from Mexico) and second that I had climbed a hill on stilts. I was amazed to see that everyone believed my first, untrue, statement rather than my second one.

The second exercise consisted of persuading someone to stand up or being persuaded oneself. Arthur asked us to be convincing and use valid arguments in order to achieve our aim. ‘Persuasion is an art,’ he said. ‘Think around a situation and be truthful.’ This is a premise of the Forum Theatre genre, where the audience is invited to actively participate in the solution of a problem shown in a play. The genre was developed by Augusto Boal, from Brazil.

Birds is about Don, who as a young girl is persuaded to carry drugs to the Caribbean, in exchange for a holiday. She gets caught at Heathrow and is given eight years in prison. After she gets out of jail, her stepfather opposes her mother’s plan to help her. Don ends up living in a squat with a man who provides her with drugs, cheats on her and gives her a sexual disease.

The actors performed the 20-minuteplay. Then they performed it again allowing the audience to stop the action whenever they thought Don could have taken better decisions. Each actor had to do their best to keep things the way they were originally, unless the person who intervened was persuasive enough. A woman stood up and argued that if Don was nice to her angry stepfather he would be more understanding. She acted it out and it actually worked. Everyone burst out laughing at her extreme patience and at the man’s change of attitude.

‘We want to raise the difficulties that exist around the groups that are oppressed,’ says O’Leary. ‘I have to confess that I hate to go to the theatre and see things that I don’t believe. It is liberating to see things that are true.’ One can see that raising awareness about homelessness makes O’Leary feel satisfied. ‘We are working to improve the rights of the homeless. All we ask is little bites.’

At the end of the interview she tells me that she has a pet rabbit, and I ask her why she chose to have an animal that is practically impossible to domesticate. ‘I like wild things,’ is her answer.
Andrea Cabrera Luna