We spoke to Jeremy Goldstein about his internationally acclaimed Truth to Power Cafe which is live in London as part of our opening weekend on 16th October at Conway Hall.
Tell us a bit about what Truth to Power Café is, what can audiences expect?
Truth to Power Cafe is a 60 minute performance event combining memoir, community activism, image, poetry, music and live and spontaneous testimony from participants rising up in response to the question ‘who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?’ I’m also cast as a participant. I talk of the power my father Mick Goldstein had over me when he was alive. He was a member of the Hackney Gang – a group of six friends that included the Nobel Prize winning playwright Harold Pinter, and the actor and poet Henry Woolf, with whom I’ve co-created the show. For sixty years the Hackney Gang maintained their belief in speaking truth to power and remained firmly on the side of the disempowered, the occupied and their allies. It is these people we invite to take part in the show, which is a reflection of the passions, interests and concerns of local communities expressing themselves in response to the question. Unlike verbatim theatre, the stories we hear in the show are totally real from people like me, who believe our stories are as important to you, as they are to us.
How did you come to be involved with Bloomsbury Festival and Conway Hall?
Last year I wrote in as part of your open call and thankfully for us the proposal was well received, and the show was such a success that I’m delighted to say we’re returning to Conway Hall on Friday 16th October. This performance also marks the beginning of a two year residency for the project at Conway Hall, which has special significance for us. Not only has it been a hub for independent thought since 1929, but the Hackney Gang hung out there in the 1950’s and Harold Pinter himself spoke from the stage on numerous occasions. When I enter the Hall and stand on that stage, I become the real-life son of the Hackney Gang.
How did Truth to Power Cafe start?
As an artist, producer and activist I’ve championed underrepresented voices and new forms of artistic and political expression for over three decades. Truth to Power Cafe is the place where these worlds collide.
On a more personal level I had a very difficult time with my father, and when he died in 2014 it triggered a rigorous enquiry into our relationship, during which I learnt a lot about myself, the nature of power and occupation, the importance of truth and reconciliation, and the freedom you get from confronting your demons, and being at peace with yourself and the world around you. Ultimately the show has become a love letter to the memory of my father and his friends of sixty years Henry Woolf and Harold Pinter.
Have any particular participants stories stood out?
A real strength in the show lies in the diversity of voices we hear, so we have different participants in the show every night who are all cast in advance so there’s no audience participation.
Last year at Conway Hall we had 10 participants including Errol, a former rough sleeper and prisoner who went on to become 2019 Spoken Word Artist of the Year; Ruth who was on the Kindertransport and spoke from her lived experience of what it was like to survive the Holocaust, Joe a former resident of Grenfell Tower, first time speaker Bryony who spoke powerfully on the link between poverty and depression, and Erkan, a queer gender non-conforming activist of colour whose speech ‘Dear Empire’ brought the house down.
In Australia I met Robbie who spoke openly about his HIV for the first time with his family in the audience. At Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester I met Lorraine in her sixties, who spoke of the time she failed her high school audition for the choir and purged the experience in the show by singing her audition piece ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ which was a knock out.
So far I’ve worked with over 300 participants, many of whom have been first timers, and all of whom have their own unique and inspiring stories to tell.
What have been some highlights of the event to date?
We live in the post-truth age of the demagogue where fake-news is the new norm. In politics the oppressed often have to fight for the right to simply say what they are experiencing, and in personal relationships that artificial barrier is also in place. If you have an approach to allowing the conversation to happen, then the chances of change occurring are much higher. I’m proud of the fact we’ve created a space where these conversations can happen, and that four years into the project, we’re now at a point where we believe an entirely new theatrical genre is emerging called truth to power theatre. In a recent conversation with the director Jen Heyes, she said “the uniqueness of truth to power theatre is contained within its humility, the carefully chosen symbolism, collective artistic exchange, and the sheer audacity of inviting 10 strangers into a theatre space and giving them permission to become authors, and performers of their own true stories in front of a live audience”. When you combine that with my own story it becomes a very powerful cathartic journey.
How have you responded to the limitations of lockdown and the COVID-19 crisis?
Lockdown has been extremely challenging and interesting in equal measure. It’s given me time to think how we as artists can contribute to community renewal in the connected space of theatre, live and online, and how important it is to acknowledge our desire to listen and tell true stories about our lives. As lockdown took hold we took the view that nothing, not even COVID-19 can stop us from being in each other’s thoughts and imaginations. Our own immediate response to the crisis was to set up a digital platform where participants can be heard online. Since we went live with the platform in April, we’ve published 60 videos, which have been viewed over 70,000 times on Facebook alone.
And what is next?
World peace – we have to live in hope right? In the meantime I’m determined to make our Bloomsbury Festival show our best yet. After all it’s our first live show post-lockdown, so I’m sure it will be a very special and emotional occasion, after which we have residences at Conway Hall and Norwich Arts Centre to look forward too, and dates in America and Australia as part of our upcoming No Borders World Tour 2020/21.
Image (c) Sarah Hickson (Truth to Power Cafe, Conway Hall London 2019)