Talking Theatre: Julie Benson Discusses Reality Theatre's Hate Crime Awareness Drama
This Saturday (October 14) Newport’s only pub theatre group, Reality Theatre will present a new hard-hitting play to launch The Crush Hate Crime Festival, a one-day event of drama, music and talks launching National Hate Crime Awareness Week.
The play, A Little Bit of Banter was commissioned by Gwent Police and is written by local playwright, Julie Benson and is a harsh, brutal, but honest drama with strong language. The play will explore the impact of everyday hate crime incidents.
Andy Howells puts questions to Julie about Reality Theatre and the theatre group’s latest presentation which will be featured across three Newport venues during Crush Hate Crime Festival Week.
Can you tell us a little about Reality Theatre. How and why did you come together?
I’d been lecturing for 17 years in a job I loved, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to teach effectively within an education system that I saw as ultimately being broken; I found myself constantly fighting against the system.
At the time, my now late mother was in hospital and on the same ward was a little old lady who would persistently try and escape the ward, concocting elaborate stories about being held against her will. Every day, we would chat with her and I promised myself that I would one day tell her story. That story became our first play, ‘Waiting for Harry’. I wrote the script, gathered up a small group of enthusiastic and like-minded actors, took the leap and left my job.
Our aim was simple: use social issues to tell the stories of people who may be disadvantaged, vulnerable or weak and present those stories to audiences who may never normally go to the theatre, by performing in a pub. Reality Theatre was born!
Since forming you have already got a few productions under your belt – how well have they been received?
Our first production, ‘Waiting for Harry’, was a sell-out, with people sitting in the foyer watching through the doors! We had a great response to what was a very difficult issue to present: Alzheimer’s and care of the elderly. Many in the audience had personal experience of the illness and found the content upsetting, which was our intention. We aim to always hold that mirror up to society and it seems to be working, for us at least. If we can make people react to a particular issue, then we have done our job.
Our second production was an experimental horror, called ‘Halloween Nightmare’, which was great fun, which we then developed and adapted into our third production, showing the impact of mental illness in a play called ‘My Condition and Me’. What was especially interesting about this play was the audience demographics with a male majority; some stayed behind to chat about the content of the play with the team, which I found especially gratifying, seeing these men share their experiences of mental illness so openly and honestly.
Our fourth play, Stand By Your Man’. showed the impact of domestic abuse within two relationships, one gay and the other heterosexual, as well as exploring the behaviour of the male offenders. This was a particularly brutal play with violent scenes that upset a great many in the audience. It was also the play that triggered the greatest after-show discussion, with an extensive Q & A with the audience and actors.
Your latest production Just a Bit Of Banter was commissioned by Gwent Police – how did that come about?
I’d been busy networking in local community and business events, and someone had fortunately passed on our information to Gwent Police, suggesting that our work involving social issues could be of interest to them.
A meeting was set up, and we jumped at the chance to work on such an important issue. Gwent Police wanted to do something different, something that could have an impact, for anti-hate crime week, and it was decided that we would go ahead with our typical gritty and realistic approach to portray the impact of hate crimes.
The police have organised a day of events called ‘Let’s Stand Together’, to be held at the Riverfront in Newport on 21st October. We decided that as well as ‘Let’s Stand Together’ we would launch anti hate crime week with a festival, to try and reach as many different people as possible by bringing together as many different groups of people as we could.
We like the idea of bringing together the music and theatre scene, something that we have worked on during the last year, and a music festival featuring theatre and guest speakers seemed like an ideal opportunity to highlight the issue of hate crime.
When writing the play how much research did it entail and were there any points that challenged yourself as a writer?
An enormous amount of research has gone into this play, particularly as I like to use as much verbatim or partly verbatim work as possible. We met with police officers and police focus groups; Rainbow Newport, who have been amazingly supportive, enabling us to meet and chat with their LGBT group to learn about experiences of hate crime;
I’ve interviewed victims of hate crime; read countless cases and articles and watched countless documentaries. This has had an impact upon me and at times I’ve felt incredibly sad, but it has also made me even more determined to present these horrific stories as a ‘slice of life’, to show how life actually is for many people in our society.
It was difficult at times to write certain scenes using such offensive language and content, but not as difficult as it was for the actors portraying both victims and offenders, some of whom struggled with the process. I think that one of the main worries for us all was that we present these characters with authenticity and compassion, which the actors certainly have done.
The play will be featured in The Crush Hate Crime Festival as well as further performances at The Pen & Wig and Newport Riverfront. What do you hope audiences will get from the performances?
We want to provoke the audience, to set them outside their comfort zones and to make them think about the issues we are presenting – issues surrounding race, gender, religion, disability, what it means to be British and what it means to be human.
The different venues will attract different audiences: the Crush Hate Crime Festival will attract a mixed but mostly younger audience of music fans who may never normally view a theatre performance; the Pen and Wig, our usual venue, tends to attract the pub goer rather than the traditional theatre-goer, which we shall see at the Riverfront.
As a pub theatre company, one of our main aims is to showcase our work to a non-traditional theatre audience and break down the barriers associated with the theatre, which we are certainly going to do in a music festival.
How can people find out more about Reality Theatre?
Performances of Reality Theatre's A Little Bit Of Banter
October 14: Warehouse 54, 2pm (as part of Crush Hate Crime Festival Programme)
October 19: The Pen & Wig, 7.30pm
October 21: Newport Riverfront 2pm (as part of 'Let's Stand Together' day for Gwent Police)