This Is What Inclusivity Looks Like: on What Do You See? in Wigan

by Chandan Shergill

A theatre show about unconscious bias? Taking place in a fairly homogenous town? Not the usual fare, but how intriguing. I was curious to watch the show, but as a woman of colour perhaps I’d have to steel myself to be uncomfortable, or even for confrontation. Sounded a bit heavy.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. What do you see? was full of energy, infectious and joyous, in parts funny and in others moving. The show had it all: skilled performers singing, dancing and playing instruments, a catwalk, and even games with audience participation.

Although the Old Courts arts venue have their own site in Wigan town centre, they are still updating their beautiful listed building to improve accessibility: not just for audiences but performers too. So they found another more accessible venue to house the show, the wonderfully brutalist Turnpike gallery in nearby Leigh. And what did I see? I saw the challenges of an arts organisation trying to be as inclusive as possible – and making the right choice. Venues can choose to embed inclusivity in their practice, and reach out to marginalised identities to have their seat at the table. Or the stage, so to speak. 

This is how the PappyShow work: with inclusivity, as well as joy and bravery at the heart of their practice. The performer call out for the show makes clear that they aim to platform marginalised voices in each place they tour: so far it’s played in London, Jersey, Stoke, and now in Wigan, each time in a different iteration with local people.

Getting comfortable with vulnerability

Four artists from Wigan and Leigh – Shaun, Ruth, Zha and Joyce – joined the London cast to devise the play based on their lived experiences, with the performers not playing characters as such, but rather a version of themselves. Working together in a safe and creative space they could explore and collaborate with freedom – although this was challenging at times, as the material was so personal that they had to learn to get comfortable with their vulnerability.

It has been a journey for all of the local performers. Joyce has a dance background and Zha is a musician, so creating a theatre show pushed them both out of their comfort zone – but in a positive way.

The show was very physical with lots of movement and dance, which initially made Wigan poet and wheelchair-user Shaun uneasy. He said: ‘Trying new stuff like dancing and moving, which has always been something where I have lacked self-confidence – I’m aware I don’t move in the same way, and it can be difficult. I’ve struggled with it being so physical, as a poet I find my strength in words.’ Despite his reservations, watching Shaun on the stage I can see he is a natural performer, and by the end he agrees it was challenging, but worth it.

Although the show deals with some heavy topics, and the cast had only one week to devise and rehearse, the camaraderie was obvious on stage. Ruth said: ‘I didn’t expect to feel so close to the other cast members after just a week together, it feels like we’ve known each other years. They’ve all been a joy to work with.’

Kindness, not blame

It was easily the most diverse cast I’d ever seen on stage, by miles. And encouraging to see a show that centred the narrative of otherness, with those people telling their own stories which is disappointingly still so rare and refreshing. If it’s always the same kind of people, then it’s always the same kind of stories, and we’ve got a long way to go.

The skits showcasing the micro-agressions, violence and dehumanisation that often come with racism or ableism were troubling to witness, and I saw familiar and relatable scenarios – especially the scenes with Helly’s frustrations, repeating the refrain of ‘it could all be so simple…’ But there were also fun moments where the cast lined up and asked the audience to guess the significance of the order. The line kept changing, the cast jostling one another playfully, as they ordered themselves by height, privilege, race, niceness. It was this balance of light moments against uncomfortable moments that set the tone for the show.

Craig’s letter from a black boy to a white boy was one of the most poignant in the show, with Joyce playing devil’s advocate and highlighting the view that it’s not our job as POC to teach other (namely white) people about race. 

This really struck a chord, as post-George Floyd’s murder the discourse often comes back to whose job is it to do the work. Should we as POC (I actually prefer the term Global Majority but getting into that would be a whole other text) teach others, or should they read books, find resources and seek out the answers for themselves?

Probably a mixture is the most ideal, and in the show these questions were framed in a novel way for me, coming from a place of kindness, and not blame.

A springboard for dialogue

Could the show have been more confrontational? Absolutely. Would I have enjoyed it as much, or would it have been as impactful? Probably not. What Do You See? was full of optimism, and despite the weight of the challenges there were moments where it felt like one day, all this might be possible to overcome.

The post-show conversation in particular was an affirmative moment, bringing the audience and performers together to share and consider the wider context of what we’d all seen. Artistic director Kane Husbands explained the show is a journey of multiculturalism. Having spent two years researching and studying communities and groups, he is interested in how to create a room where many identities can thrive, and by touring the show he is forcing theatres to seek out their most marginalised communities.

This is something I have never been part of as an audience member. Rather than a straightforward Q&A, it was a really open and non-intimidating discussion to consider the issues covered in the show and expand the conversation. After every PappyShow performance the company hold space to unpack and give the audience tools to go home and continue the dialogue – the work is a springboard for that, with Kane even going so far as to say that is the real important part of creating the show, not the show itself. Theatre can often include snobbery, so this openness was a revelation to me. Nate from PappyShow also mentioned that when taking the show to Jersey, the audience were really appreciative of the information shared as it is not a very diverse place.

I had thought this discussion might be full of friction, but actually it opened a lovely dialogue considering those big questions and the implications of performing such a personal work – the duty of care of Old Courts to the cast, and of them to one another for sharing deeply personal trauma, which they mined to create the show.

Discomfort is part of the journey

I’ve seen first-hand how diversity and inclusion has been rolled out as tokenistic quotas surrounded by a lack of care, nuance or depth in addressing the key issues – and watching this was the opposite. The show dealt with stereotyping and judgement with a lot of compassion, understanding that people make mistakes and can learn, grow and change.

The show also made me think about my own bias and not judging others by what you see. It made me think differently about having those difficult conversations, that sitting with the discomfort is part of the journey and continuing regardless can lead to better understanding and inspiring people to think differently.

So whose responsibility is the work? It’s all of ours, together. Have those difficult conversations, and get through them to come to a better, more compassionate place.

After all,  why focus on our differences, when we have so much in common?