A critical mass of multi-commissions and performances that respond to 21st century life.

Humanistan: Artistic Premise


As we complete our 10th year at the Shop Front Theatre (SFT), here in City Arcade, Coventry, we are excited to begin a new project inspired by our last work ‘Are We Where We Are’, (AWWWA) which saw 15 works commissioned over an 18-month period.

When that concluded in November 2018, we felt sure that our approach to multi commissioned work sparked by a central provocation was a rich seam to mine. Creating a critical mass of representative voices and responses to social, political and personal provocations, and putting that work in front of audiences so that we might allow conversations and connections to occur and reverberate, feels like our most useful standpoint as theatre makers in these turbulent times.

Gone are the days when we made plays written by and large by myself for Theatre Absolute, into which we put a singular energy and resource for the privilege of travelling an arduous touring circuit that brought little artistic satisfaction. Over the last 10 years at the SFT we have been on a thrilling journey of transition. These days, through performance, we are focused on collaboration, interventions, visits. If this be by writers who aren’t performers, or performers who aren’t writers, or by some who are neither, or by some who are both, then that feels like a worthwhile approach. Some of the work in AWWWA lasted 20 minutes, some of it an hour. It wasn’t the length, but the intent and the response of the artist that drove the work, and the chance to explore it afterwards with audiences.

So what is Humanistan?

Take a look at the word:


The definition of ‘istan’ means: place of, country.

Thematically the work is inspired by the words of the poet Benjamin Zephaniah: “what are you prepared to give up for a more equal society?” and also by the words of Francois Matarasso, who says “… societies belong to people, not governments. They are built through relationships, not treaties, (they are built) in what we DO, not what we say.”

Equally, we are struck by the words of the writer Ben Okri:

“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings,”

Humanistan will consist of 8 commissions over three years, and invite the artists/performers involved to create and tell positive stories, provoking us to consider that the social and political systems that surround, and arguably are currently failing us, should not be allowed to define our experiences of ‘being human’.

What is the new story we tell to ourselves?

We’re really interested in the dynamics of local and large scale activism. Where can we currently look to see this activism? The Shop Front Theatre is a micro example of activism – taking control of the means of making art, pushing hierarchy to one side, building a broad base of representation and voices that over 10 years have allowed it to evolve and become so many things to so many people.

Let’s just throw this open to many variables:

There are visible examples of the political landscape being changed in small rural towns that have traditionally been ruled at council level by the expected parties, each swapping control over the years. In far flung places like Buckfastleigh, in Devon they have changed the face of party politics and local councils. See below:

How to take over your town

Consider the story of Grenfell Tower and the way that communities came together to help each other when the state was slow to react to the tragedy that paralysed lives in the Grenfell community.

Benjamin Zephaniah – Frankie Boyle – New World Order

Zephaniah talks about anarchism, and that we shouldn’t wait until there are tragedies before we choose to work together. Why aren’t we doing it anyway? Hence his question we quote above: what are you willing to do to create a more equal society?

How hard is it to say yes to someone, when it’s easier to say no. Of course, too often. But should it always be? How do we organise for ourselves, and take power back from the systems and the people, and the authority that is failing us?

We’re interested in what it means to think independently. That’s really worth chewing over.

To decide for oneself about how you want to live your life, and the principles that are important to you and the kind of world you want to live in. If someone offers a room in their house to someone who is homeless, or begins a movement called Refugees At Home and gives up some of their home to a newly arrived family, and asks that others do the same, does that mean that person identifies as odd, as crazy, or does it identify them as a free thinker, as someone who is thinking about the new story?

These are just some of the thoughts we put down in a thinking document. What will be created and put before our audiences we don’t yet know. It is a way of working that invites risk; we don’t overly prescribe to those responding, rather we begin a discussion about what THEY feel about what WE feel, and allow a pathway to open up.

We were all born to live in this place called Humanistan. Sometimes, too often, it’s so hard to spend time there.

We want to try harder.

Chris O’Connell – Artistic Director, Theatre Absolute

Further reading:

Francois Matarasso – A Restless Art
Ben Okri – A Way of Being Free, published by Phoenix; Ne Ed edition (1 June 1998)
Benjamin Zephaniah

Back to Humanistan



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Audience Comments

“Impressive work by Theatre Absolute.
Brilliant theatre in Coventry.”
“Very relatable. Felt the words. The truth projected.”
“…what an amazing writer and fantastic piece of writing.”