Key workers will be literally centre stage in a new cycle of nine short plays celebrating roles that are crucial to society but often underappreciated by those in positions of power and influence.
A “community cast” of 80 people aged between 16 and 96 will join professional actors on stage for The Key Workers Cycle at the Almeida theatre in north London in March.
The 30-minute plays will be performed in groups of three, with all nine plays performed on the final day of the run. They feature teachers, funeral directors, care workers, refuse collectors, midwives, delivery drivers, women’s centre workers, supermarket staff and public transport employees.
The plays take inspiration from medieval mystery plays that told stories from the bible and were often performed in cycles that could last several days. Moving from town to town, the pageants drew local people into performances.
Francesca Beard, who has written Face the Music: The Social Care Workers’ Play, drew on her experiences of working with All Change, a community arts programme, in a north London care home.
“I’ve built relationships with care workers, the people who give us dignity at the end of our lives, people who have a great calling for caring, but are rarely honoured by society,” she said. “If we’re lucky, we will all be old one day and we’re all going to need help. We’ll be vulnerable and in need of care just as when we were children. Not having a proper conversation about this in society is madness.”
Her play was akin to a tone poem, she said. “It’s about age, kindness, values, society, beauty, gracefulness – and anger. I didn’t feel I could do that naturalistically. I want people to come out with an emotional understanding of the play.”
Five care workers will take part in the play – three on stage and two whose voices have been recorded – plus 10 to 12 people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who are involved in Well-Versed, All Change’s company of older people.
The Full Works: The Funeral Directors’ Play was written by Josh Elliott after conversations with a local family firm. “I became fascinated by what they do, it’s so multi-skilled. They’re scientists, make-up artists, barbers, stylists and therapists,” he said.
His play focuses on a veteran funeral director teaching his grandson the skills of the trade as they prepare a body for burial. “It’s the last moment of caregiving. It made me think about my own death, and it’s good to know there is someone right at the end to be there for you and your family.”
Eno Mfon has written More Than We Can Bear: The Women’s Centre Workers’ Play, which emerged through conversations with workers supporting women who have experienced the criminal justice system.
Mfon partnered with Clean Break, a women’s theatre company that works in prisons and in the community. Her play centres on a support worker “trying to set boundaries, to separate work from personal life, but who has a never-ending sense of responsibility,” she said.
The play has “lots of different threads, strands that weave together to become a testament to these women and how important their jobs are”, said Mfon. “The play tries to acknowledge that the load we’re carrying is heavy, but we’re carrying it together.” Ten members of Clean Break appear in the play.
Stephanie Bain, co-creative director of the Almeida project with Dani Parr, said: “During the dark days of the pandemic, while everything around us was uncertain and precarious, one thing emerged with clarity: that when the theatre finally reopened, we needed to find a way to celebrate those people who kept the country afloat throughout the lockdowns and who continue to keep the world running.
“Now the brilliant anecdotes, the sense of humour, the stories of struggles and joys that came from writers’ conversations with key workers will be brought to life on the stage.”