Cardboard Citizens: the Geography of Homelessness and the Art of Outreach

by Katy Rubin

in Global Connections,New Models

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(Miguel, from the Street to Stage troupe which is a part of Cardboard Citizens)

The second half of this Global Connections English odyssey has involved an immersion in London’s homeless theatre scene. I’m hanging with Cardboard Citizens, a 20-year-old nonprofit theatre organization presenting plays by and with homeless and displaced people. Now in the last few days of my exchange, I have experienced many of the Citz’ diverse programs and projects, seen one of their touring shows as well as taken part in various workshops and assisted with the casting process for an upcoming original play with non-homeless as well as homeless professional actors.

Three Blind Mice, Cardboard Citizen’s original forum theatre production starring actors with experience of homelessness, is currently touring London’s youth and adult shelters, drug and alcohol programs and prisons. In the show, the character of a rat narrates and provides a through-line to the three stories of people losing their public housing apartments due to relationship struggles, unlivable conditions and lack of support. This rat bemoans the poverty of the tenants, and the fact that the apartments keep being vacated–because without human residents, he and his family don’t have access to leftover chicken and chips, and what’s a starving rat to do? At the end of the play, as the humans are forced into the streets, so are the unhappy rats.

Don’t we sometimes say that the rats run New York?  If knowledge is power, then maybe those who know about the hidden city, the nighttime city, the underground city: these fellow citizens have something to teach us about our own geography, and therefore our own psychology.  I’ve been pondering the geography of homelessness….I’m thinking about homelessness as both very rooted in place and also lacking roots.  The homeless and formerly homeless actors are the experts on London but also the invisible Londoners. What if every Londoner, or every New Yorker, could see into, and fit themselves into, all the little nooks and crannies that a person who sleeps outside must explore daily? What would we see, what secrets would we uncover? The homeless artist has a unique perspective on her city–a perfect vantage point from which to make compelling and original theatre. My new challenge is to use our upcoming productions in NYC to explore some of this secret geography.

The homeless artist is also a serious artist, and Cardboard Citizens is a serious theatre company. They are preparing to mount a large production of an original play by Artistic Director Adrian Jackson, called A Few Man Fridays, about the Chagossian people from the Chagos Islands near Mauritius who were evicted from their homeland to make space for a foreign military base. A mix of actors will fill out the cast and the story very much addresses forced displacement and its after-effects; it will engage the general theatre-going audiences in this dialogue.

I’m also thinking about the geography of nonprofit, socially-engaged theatre. How is the theatre using their local geography? And how can organizations from very different places learn from one another? Cardboard Citizens has gotten their outreach model down to a science (or to an art). We read so much about community engagement, and reaching the difficult-to-access audiences, and my question often is: where and how is this outreach really happening?

Left to Right Claudio, Wahida and Mashihar (standing), all from the Act Now troupe (under 25s)

Cardboard Citizens has an incredibly inviting and efficient cycle of engagement that begins with performing for shelter residents, inviting them to become members right after the show, offering information and guidance to work and housing alongside the art and holding open workshops after the tour so that audience members who’ve caught the bug can jump right in. After taking the plunge, members journey from training to performing in small productions to volunteering for the organization, to becoming, sometimes, an actor in the professional, paid touring shows.

From this perspective, at the close of the Global Connections project, I see that the theatre may not survive if these kinds of international exchanges do not continue and multiply. The value of gathering both new and proven ideas from outside one’s own country, which removes the element of competition and provides the framework for an incredibly generous relationship, cannot be measured.


Katy Rubin, Founding Artistic Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, has facilitated the creation of Forum Theatre performances in New York with homeless adults; LGBT homeless youth; people living with HIV/AIDS; and recent immigrants; and has both trained and developed theatre in Brazil, India, and Nicaragua.


The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.