‘What’s past is prologue’ Act II, Scene I, The Tempest
It’s so cold in the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft that we can see our breath hang in clouds in front of us as we take our seats. One of the cast members circling the intimate, in-the-round performance space hands us a blanket to drape over our knees with a smile and gives us each a piece of paper. On it is written ‘I am worth...’, and we are encouraged to fill in the blank. What am I worth? What are any of us worth? It’s a question that is to echo through this performance.
Statistics about a profession as stigmatized and misunderstood as sex work are hard to come by, but by recent estimates there are as many as 146 women working as prostitutes in Bristol, with the city reportedly hailed as the ‘worst place’ to operate as a sex-worker. But statistics can only paint the sketchiest outline of a situation, and after a while figures cease to have any meaning. What this emotive and deeply personal production does is fill in the rest: it gives these women a voice, and a name.
The Things We Do Not Know began as a project when Process Theatre contacted One25, a charity who provide outreach, drop-in and casework services for sex workers in Bristol. Taking firsthand accounts from women who have worked as prostitutes in Bristol and creating from it a successful piece of theatre is no mean feat, and we sit rapt for an hour and a half. Punctuated by hauntingly beautiful acapella singing from the eight-female strong cast, the piece tells in all its uncomfortable rawness the individual stories of women who have found themselves in need of the services of the incredible One25. I am impressed by the way a production - which could so easily have been a series of mournful monologues - manages to be endlessly inventive, keeping the audience on its toes as it slides from verbatim to conversation to interview to dance. There is always a risk when telling other people’s stories, especially those of the vulnerable, that the people themselves become eclipsed by the stories told of them. However, this production keeps its feet firmly on the ground, with actors spray painting the name of the woman whose story they were telling for the audience to see, and in the final moments admitting the things they do not know about the woman whose story they speak. Lighting and sound work well in such a small space, with sudden colour changes helping to punctuate some of the stories. Movement too is well-executed: motifs of dance and song pull the production together as a living, breathing piece.
There are moments of audience participation, which function as meaningful moments of connection between the public and the private lives of the women. As a recording of an interview with a former sex worker about her experiences upon leaving prison plays, members of the audience are invited to sit in the center of the stage and have their hands washed by the cast. One thinks of Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet but if the Christian imagery is intended, the message is far from that of judgement and evangelicalism. As the bowls of water are cleared, we hear on the recording a woman voice her simple desire for nice toiletries and we are reminded of the luxury of our everyday lives.
When sex workers, drug-addicts, the homeless community, or those living in poverty from selling drugs, or involved in gangs - when these people who our society have so poorly failed are swept aside and written off as failures or in some way responsible for their own misfortunes, we seem to sleep easier in our beds. The Things We Do Not Know is not comforting – you will come away filled with awe at the courage and strength of these women and One25, but you will not be reassured that the issue is being completely resolved. The power of this production lies in the fact that the stories of these women have not been used to construct a digestible narrative arc of fall and redemption – rather, they tell a truth that we would often rather not hear. It is in hearing this truth, in acknowledging the agency and personhood of these women, in giving them our time and our respect, that we can begin to change minds, communities and policies for the better.
If you want to read more about One25 and how you can get involved, please click here