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How LUNG Is Breathing Radical Joy into Theatre in the United Kingdom

I caught up with Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks, co-directors of LUNG and partners in life, to chat all things LUNG. LUNG has been growing and metamorphosing as a verbatim campaign theatre company in the United Kingdom since 2014 when, fresh out of Sheffield University, their breakout show, The 56, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (The term “campaign theatre” is used by the company to describe themselves as they produce targeted work which acts as a vehicle for social change.) Most shows will have campaigns attached to them, which will run for years after the play has finished. They have won many awards, including the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the Sit Up Award for Social Impact and their educational packs have been distributed amongst more than 275 schools. I became aware of them with their show E15, which was about the national housing crisis and which collaborated with the focusE15 campaign.

During our conversation we talked about LUNG’s shows and the campaigns attached to them. For reference, there is a short descriptor of each below.

The 56 (2014) is LUNG’s first verbatim show about a fatal fire which broke out at Bradford City Football Ground’s stadium, Valley Parade, during a game in 1985. E15 (2015) is a documentary theatre piece about a group of women, many of them single mums, in London in 2013 who refused to be bullied out of their homes by Newham Council and skyrocketing rents without a fight. Chilcot (2016) was jointly written by Matt Woodhead and Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor and is a documentary verbatim play based on the Chilcot inquiry about the Iraq war. Adapted from real-life testimonies, Who Cares (2017) examines the tough and unsupported world of young carers (under the age of seventeen) in the United Kingdom. Trojan Horse (2018) is based on real events where Muslim teachers and governors were falsely accused of plotting extremism in Birmingham Schools. Woodhill (2023) is a verbatim dance piece giving voice to three male inmates at HMP Woodhill who took their own lives and a critique on the increasingly privatized prison system in the United Kingdom.

I met with Matt and Helen on Zoom. Helen was in a hard-to-reach location, and so joined us later when she could get a WiFi signal.

Five actors in suits stand in front of TVs reading The Iraq Inquiry

Thomas Wheatley, Gary Pillar, Jonathan Coote, Souad Faress, and Sanchia McCormack in LUNG’s Chilcot by Richard Norton-Taylor and Matt Woodhead. Directed by Matt Woodhead. Produced by Sarah Georgeson. Sound design by Owen Crouch. Scenic and costume design by James Donnelly. Video and lighting design by Will Monks. Photo by Joe Twigg. 

verity: Matt, you were born in Penistone in Yorkshire, England, which is down the hill from Silkestone, where I come from. I think that being from the Barnsley area has impacted me in terms of my politics. Can you talk about if and how where you have grown up has had an influence on how you make theatre?

Matt: Penistone is an interesting place because it is a farming area, but also you are surrounded by people who are political and people who contradict traditional narratives about what it means to be in an ex-mining community. But what has more meaning for me is that my family were artistic but did not have the same opportunities as me to pursue it. So now in the work that LUNG does, we believe we have a responsibility and a duty to find people who may not feel that the arts is for them—not just because of their class but because of other characteristics too.

verity: LUNG’s focus on verbatim campaign theatre was not so straightforward, was it?

Matt: No. We formed at the University of Sheffield as an initial response to arts cuts in the area (and nationally) and started going into schools to run workshops on Lord of the Flies. The workshops were a work in progress, but it felt like the things the young people were saying in them were more interesting than the things being put on stage. Then our producer Gemma Wilson said, “There’s this thing called verbatim theatre,” and I said, “What’s that?”

At the time we were aware that the anniversary of the fire at Bradford City Football Club was approaching, and Gemma was aware there was a story to be told about this, but people didn’t necessarily want to speak about it. This is how The 56 came into being, commemorating the 56 fans who died and using verbatim theatre to do it.

It was a formative show for us for different reasons. There was a Bradford City Fans Forum that was shut down because people were saying, “how dare you tell this story?”—even though Gemma was born in Bradford and her family were regulars at City games and knew some of the people who were affected by the tragedy. There were death threats and nasty comments aimed at us. This made us realize the power this kind of work has. We learned a valuable lesson: there is no one way to make a verbatim project that is community driven. In the end it was a woven tapestry of sixty voices that was embedded in the community.

We believe that verbatim is not a tool to present one side and then the other and then you make up your own mind as an audience member—that is creating an illusion of balance. We want to platform the voices that aren’t being heard and create a campaign that runs alongside it. 

verity: The campaigning did not begin until E15, did it? How did this change your relationship with the audience, given that the audience coming to see E15 probably already knew about the campaign?

Matt: E15 was already a movement and already had a call to sign the petition and join the campaign. And there was a change in us; we became more overt in our intention about why we were making this piece of work and how. We believe that verbatim is not a tool to present one side and then the other and then you make up your own mind as an audience member—that is creating an illusion of balance. We want to platform the voices that aren’t being heard and create a campaign that runs alongside it.

verity: So, are you saying that you do have a political standpoint before you start a show, or does that standpoint and the campaign come out of your research?

Matt: There are three existential questions that we ask ourselves before we embark on a project: why this play, why now, and why us? Before we begin, we always have a hunch as well. So with Who Cares we already knew that young carers in the United Kingdom needed more support; Chilcot was about how devastating the war with Iraq was; with Woodhill the question was, why are all these young men dying in prison?

In terms of the campaign, it evolves when you pick at the scab and realize how deep something goes. More and more we are really shifting into how we can serve the vision of the groups we are working with and what they want to campaign for.

verity: Helen, join us. We are talking about political stances and campaigns.

Helen Monks: I finally got a connection!

One of the gifts of what we do is that the show is one element and the campaign is another that continues and carries on beyond the show. We have always aimed for campaigns to be part of and generated by the shows, but also able to stand independently.

We toured Who Cares after we had done Trojan Horse, and so we were able to talk to the same teachers and governors we talking to about Prevent about young carers as well. It is definitely an aim of the company to connect people more. We keep in touch with everyone, and it makes sense that those people from different community groups and activists are aware of each other.

verity: Helen, you are from Birmingham and went to school there. I’ve already talked to Matt about being from Yorkshire and how that influences him. Can you say how it influences you in terms of what you want to make a show about?

Helen: I think that there are two approaches we employ. One is where we know a specific story, like Trojan Horse, which took place in Birmingham Schools and their communities and which was already in the media, and we examine it with a worm’s eye view to see if it speaks to a wider issue. The second approach is that we want to make a show that is about a wider issue with a bird’s eye view, like the housing crisis, and then explore who has the life experience to inform and work with us on it. We aim for all our verbatim pieces now to reflect something live, active, and continuing to have impact.

The idea that politics is twinned with hope runs through our projects.

verity: In two of your shows, the team had strong connections to the communities and issues they were about –you, Helen, with Trojan Horse and Gemma Wilson with the Bradford City Fire. Would you say you are closing the gap between theatremakers and the work on stage?

Matt: It depends what you mean by “connected.” You sometimes don’t realize you are connected until you investigate it yourself. Woodhill is all about grief and losing someone, so a pop psychologist might say this is Matt’s play about Matt’s dead sister (she died before I was born) and the impact that had on my parents. Or you could say Who Cares is about me having the privilege of caring for my grandparents when I was growing up. I think you find pieces of yourselves naturally in the work anyway. There are so many overlaps you don’t see.

Helen: We don’t go, “What are the big issues of the day?” Instead, it is a really personal and emotional response to something, and the plays are an extension of our response. Just on a personal level, every project we do totally changes my life through the people we meet and work with.

verity: Yeh. And the personal is political as well, isn’t it? Artists I talk to say you should not mix art and politics, but you are a very political theatre. It is at the heart of what you do…

Helen: The art is one part. It shows the reason, and then the campaign shows the hope. The process of meeting people who are campaigning for social justice is a deeply political act. The United Kingdom gets very easily depressed about the state of the nation, but we would not be talking about the campaigns or the shows if we didn’t believe that there was hope for change. The idea that politics is twinned with hope runs through our projects.

Matt: “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality." I love this quote from George Orwell. I think you have a responsibility as a British (and English) person in theatre to be political, because our country has a lot to be ashamed of… Otherwise, you are in some ways complicit in the horror show of the last thousand years.

verity: Have you seen positive change from your campaigns?

Matt: With Who Cares over 200 young carers were identified and signposted to support from their local young carers services. During COVID we orchestrated Digi Fund, a project to support young carers facing digital poverty. More than thirty of them received laptops and phones, things for schoolwork. With Who Cares, one of the young people whose stories are included in the play decided he wanted to study political science at university as a direct result of it. The impact of the young carers speaking their truth in that show is still rippling.

Change is a long game, and you don’t always get credited for that change when it happens.

verity: You’ve performed Who Cares and Woodhill at the Houses of Parliament. Have you seen any impact from this?

Matt: Barbara Keeley MP invited us for Who Cares, and Lord Toby Harris invited us for Woodhill.

In terms of Who Cares it was a mistake that we did not go with an ask, and so we’re not sure about the political impact in terms of policy. The profound thing—and we saw this with Who Cares—is that when change happens it is far more subtle than a change in policy. For policy you need consultants and the right people in the room and change makers and parliamentarians to go on that journey with you as well. Sometimes you need to force their hand.

But with Woodhill, we are actually meeting the prisons minister with the families, and we have our list of demands. We have a clear timeframe of what we want to achieve in terms of our aims and ambitions. We are getting smarter as we get older. Change is a long game, and you don’t always get credited for that change when it happens.

Three actors sit on bleachers onstage.

Danielle Phillips, Will Taylor, and Tom Lodge in LUNG’s The 56 by Gemma Wilson and Matt Woodhead. Directed by Matt Woodhead. Produced by Elon Scholfield. Lighting design by James Bailey. Scenic design by Edward Cramphorn. Composition and sound design by Sam Pope and O>L>A.  Photo by Joseph Priestly

Helen: There is something in the work existing outside the show—the preshow work, the campaigns, the meetings in parliament, etc.—and there are connections that come from it.

Matt:  I do think there is a role art can play in shifting the dial. Sometimes you never know the ripples your play can have.

Helen: The biggest thing for me is that we are making incremental change, small and personal.

verity: I want to move onto aesthetics very briefly. Woodhill was the most emotive play I’ve seen of yours, I think.

Helen: We push the form when we use verbatim, and we are just as artistically ambitious as we are politically. It is our dream for both to be doing a good job.

Matt: The way the interviews of subjects take place also informs the form. With E15, for example, interviews were done very much on the move, when people were campaigning, so the piece itself was a very active form of physical campaigning. During the research and interview process for Woodhill, someone said, “I feel like I have been dancing in grief,” and that is a gift of a line. It informed the form: it had to be a dance piece, too, as well as verbatim. Also, voice was always talked about a lot, and so the piece investigates how, no matter how hard you scream, you are still unheard. So the voiceover style really fitted, using form to critique or amplify what we are trying to tell.

verity: Today’s world looks very different from even five years ago. What are the particular challenges you foresee for LUNG in the “theatreverse”?

Helen: It is bad at the moment, but there is a lot of solidarity. And there is a vein of hope that runs through our organization.

The biggest worry for me is seeing how arts opportunities are disappearing in schools. When Matt and I were growing up we were taught the value of storytelling, we had the arts, but in some schools now it is completely non-existent. There is funding in private schools, though. Who is going to take over when I’m too tired? I want to hand it to someone who is really exciting, not someone who has had opportunity.

Matt: There will come a point where we will run out steam. It has not come yet, but it is important to name it. Our issue is that the more people we work with, alongside being committed to long-term legacies, is how to sustain that when the need constantly grows. There is only so much we can do, and I wish I could do more, basically.

verity: Yes, you are such a small staff too. And what can theatres do, realistically, about this very urgent situation, that there is no arts for kids in schools?

Helen: I swing between opinions on this. The arts are being cut in schools, but if you create a really good system outside of schools to make those opportunities, then it is evidence for people to use to say arts aren’t needed in the curriculum. External organizations can fix it, but in the end, is it perpetuating the problem?

Circle back to the worm’s eye view of things I talked about before: with arts and education, we dedicate our lives to the grassroots. So I wish that art as a trade could be seen as a viable and sustainable career path. When we were growing up there was more opportunity and visibility, and it has been disappointing to watch that be stripped away.

A woman in a hijab leans over a cell phone onstage.

Gurkian Kaur in LUNG’s Trojan Horse by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead. Directed by Matt Woodhead. Lighting design by Will Monks. Sound design by Owen Crouch. Photo by Ant Robling

verity: I have to ask this amazingly simplistic question: might a change in government help things?

Matt: It is an amazing question that no one is going to answer. For me, a change of government might help incrementally, but I mean we have the leader of the Labour Party, Kier Starmer, saying in the Sunday Times that Margaret Thatcher was wonderful for setting “loose our natural entrepreneurialism.” The Labour Party has no policy. It is a disaster, and the party is completely unrecognizable from what it was first founded for.

Brexit has irrevocably changed the landscape, irrespective of who we have as prime minister. We only now get fed an Anglocentric diet of theatre, and we have no international perspective at a time when, arguably, we need it the most.

verity: So, if some young or emerging theatremakers were starting out now wanting to do similar work to yours, what would your advice be, as a company that is nearly ten years old?

Helen: It is okay for the process to take a long time for you make something, because in the long run it will be much better. It is really important you try and forge the career you want. The easier option is to lack self-belief. My mum always said to act like a big public schoolboy who deserves a seat at the table. So, the only way in theatre is to bring your own chair to the table.

Look to who is front of you, find those people who are at your level where you can raise each other up. That’s how I feel about Matt and the reason why I have stuck around him. Find the person on your level going in the same direction who doesn’t pull you down and you don’t have to pull up.

Matt: It is such a privilege to be an artist. My biggest takeaway is that it has to feed you. It has to have a profound impact on you. I always advise people to look outside the arts for partnerships—look to charities and politicians and places where the work can have the most impact. But it should be enjoyable and fun. We talk about radical joy a lot. It is important to remember that political work can be fun and full of joy. Sometimes the most radical thing you can do is to laugh in the face of the people who are treating you like shit.

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