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Social housing not social cleansing: the theatre group touring London estates to resist evictions

Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.

January 30, 2017
6 min read

An all-female theatre group has been touring their play across London housing estates facing demolition. Rather than stick to the confines of a traditional theatre space, You should see they other guy have held performances of Land of the three towers at estates in Newham, Brixton and South Kensington to draw attention to housing struggles at these sites and encourage audiences to fight for “social housing not social cleansing.”

Land of the three towers tells the story of the Focus E15 campaign, a group of young mums who in 2014 faced eviction from their hostel in Newham and relocation outside of London. Instead of accepting this fate, they occupied four council flats on the Carpenters estate in Newham. The estate was earmarked for demolition, yet had lain empty for years so the Focus E15 mums called for the homes to be repopulated.

While the play concentrates on the Focus E15 campaign, directors Emer and Nina recognised that their story would resonate with communities facing housing struggles. Housing estate regeneration is set to lead to the loss of over 7,000 social homes in London despite the chronically short supply of social housing in the capital. Councils are also likely to be forced to sell-off even more high value social housing to fund extensions to the right to buy scheme. Yet in the midst of the housing crisis the Focus E15 mums won a rare victory and persuaded Newham council to house 40 families on the abandoned Carpenters estate.

“Even though the council pulled lots of really horrendous dirty tactics, Focus took matters into their own hands, they changed things”

“The Focus E15 mums’ occupation and all their other actions have been incredibly celebratory,” Emer explains. “Their story goes to show that if you’re angry about housing evictions you can do something about it.”

Emer and Nina were conscious to get across the fact that the focus E15 mums were not seasoned activists and had never taken part in direct actions before they were served eviction notices from their hostel. “I think maybe the most important line of the play is at the end, when someone says ‘We didn’t know what we were doing, we’ve never done this before,'” Nina says. “And I think that is the point, even though the council pulled lots of really horrendous dirty tactics – they turned off the water in the flat and took the mums to court twice – Focus took matters into their own hands, they changed things.”

To reflect the celebratory nature of the Focus E15 occupation, Land of the Three Towers is punctuated with songs and tongue-in-cheek lyrics such as “sorry to be cruel but we’ve got luxury flats to build.” There are many humorous moments in play and a particular highlight is the inclusion of a suit wearing sock puppet to depict the Mayor of Newham. The performance spaces on the estates were decorated with bunting and colourful banners baring slogans such as “This is the beginning of the end of the housing crisis” and “Repopulate the Carpenters estate.”

At the same time Emer and Nina are aware of of their responsibility to accurately depict the events of the occupation. Emer has been an organiser with Focus E15 for nearly 3 years and Nina and several of the cast members assisted with the occupation. Other members of the cast are also young mothers and some have experienced homelessness. The play itself is verbatim and the script was created from the transcription of documentary footage of the Focus E15 occupation.

Cast members of Land of the three towers

By honestly relating Focus E15’s story to various audiences across different housing estates, Emer and Nina hope to inspire audiences to get involved in housing struggles in their own communities. Simply by drawing audiences to different estates, they were able to bring greater attention to campaigns against the demolition of these estates.“Lots of people had no idea what was going on at the estates” explains Emer. “They’ve been really surprised about Cressingham Gardens in Brixton for instance; it’s one of the most beautiful estates so it’s insane to think that it might be knocked down.”

To fulfil their dual role as both theatre-makers and activists, Emmer and Nina ran two workshops alongside the plays. “How we will resist” explored the tools that can be used by campaigns to stop buys offs, demolitions and evictions and “Art as Action” was a protest song workshop. The intention of the workshops was to connect different housing campaigns across London to share experiences and strategies.

Emer talks about the experience of one woman living on the Silchester estate, where the campaign against the demolition of the estate has only recently got underway: “She came to the the performance and workshop at Silchester in West London and felt really uplifted so the next day she came to the workshop at Cressingham to build those connections. It’s really great to see that because the Silchester campaign is quite isolated, most of London’s housing struggles are happening in the South and East.”

Emer and Nina are planning to continue holding performances of Land of the three towers and run accompanying workshops in order to further connect and support housing campaigns across London. As well as touring more estates, they are hoping to stage several ‘guerilla’ performances of the play after the success of their secret performance at Stratford shopping centre.

As an increasing number of people rely on social housing as the only truly affordable option in London, it is more vital than ever to fight against estate demolitions and social housing selloffs. Emer and Nina are determined to continue challenging the sense of despair surrounding the housing crisis and encourage communities to draw inspiration from the Focus E15 mums to defend social housing.

“Good art can really help encourage empathy and the understanding of an issue” Nina explains. “The housing crisis can just become a statistic and it’s important not to let the regeneration bullshit become the norm.”

Find out about future performances of Land of the three towers here.