Steve Toase, author of unsettling fiction and one of the lead writers of the Haunt project, takes time out of his busy schedule to talk about homelessness, collaboration, and a ghost walk with a difference…
Hi Steve. For anyone who hasn’t come across Haunt yet, please could you explain what it is?
Haunt is a project which explores how the lives of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing are haunted by the identity of Harrogate. It is about bringing the stories of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing to the fore, and including them within the voice of town.
How did the project start?
I’ve been carrying around the seed for Haunt since at least 2009. Then, in 2014, Tessa Gordziejko from Imove Arts contacted me to ask if I had any project ideas. I suggested that if we could get a bit of funding I’d put together an anthology of stories based on my own experiences. If we could get a bit more then I wanted to bring Becky Cherriman on board and run writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness. What I really wanted was to create a performance and installation inspired by these experiences, and the idea of people being haunted by the identity of the town. Imove liked the idea and agreed to produce the project.
Who else is involved in Haunt?
Many, many people! I’ve been working with Tessa and Becky pretty much since day one. We’ve worked with Harrogate Homeless Project and Foundation UK (who help people aged 16-25 threatened by homelessness in Harrogate). Throughout Haunt we’ve worked with a vast number of participants. Some only came to one session, others to every one.
We’ve also been working with Paul Floyd Blake, who has taken photos for the project. Bean & Bud hosted an exhibition of Paul’s photos, alongside writing from the workshops, which can now be seen at Harrogate Theatre. Harrogate Royal Pump Room Museum included work from Haunt in their Harrogate Stories exhibition and we’ve held pop up readings at Corrina’s Community Café, and Bean & Bud.
For the latest stage we’ve been joined by physical performers Zoe Parker and Tom Hunt, Kwah, who is responsible for sound design, Al Orange working on the projections, and Steph Jones who is assisting with production. Harrogate Theatre have included Haunt in their 2’s Company Festival, and have been fantastic during the development of the performance.
Why was the focus on homelessness so important to you? And why in Harrogate?
The main reason for Harrogate is because it ties in to my own experience. I was thrown out of home when I was 16, just before my GCSEs. I found myself living in tiny bedsits inside large townhouses, where I felt haunted by the physical presence of Harrogate’s identity within the physical structure of the building.
Harrogate is perceived as a rich place to live and has a history of opulence, yet there is a high level of homelessness. Up to twenty people a month are referred to the local homeless hostel but in a recent survey over 60% of people thought there was little or no homelessness in Harrogate.
In addition, the bedsit type of accommodation isn’t really separated as it is in some places. A street may have a five bedroom family home, a house of flats, and a house of bedsits. Often these can only be identified by the multiple doorbells. This creates a very distinct experience that I felt needed to be brought to a wider audience.
Were you surprised by the quality of work produced by workshop participants?
I was surprised by the range of stories and experiences. We had people coming to the workshops who wrote regularly and at least one who hadn’t written anything beyond a shopping list since school. Every participant wrote work of a high enough quality to be included in the anthology.
What were your aims in setting the project up?
There were a number. One was to show that homelessness is present everywhere, not just in urban centres. That anyone can end up homeless: it just needs family breakdown, or a run of not covering bills, and then the floor falls away. Another aim was to show that each person who is homeless has their own story. They are not an amorphous whole, but individuals with aspirations and hopes. We only see people at one moment in life. If you’d met me in March 1992 the perception of who I was/where I was going would have been very different!
Hand on heart I can say we’ve achieved far more than I ever hoped. Changing perceptions of homelessness is a long process, but if people who read the anthology or come to the performances maybe take a moment to think about the person sat begging who they pass every morning, take a moment to pass the time of day, then we will have succeeded.
Congratulations on your Saboteur Awards shortlisting! Why do you think Haunt has struck a chord with so many people?
Getting onto the Saboteur Awards’ shortlist was amazing! I was a bit overwhelmed when I found out, but so pleased we were shortlisted for Best Collaborative Project. Collaboration is at the heart of everything we’ve been doing.
I think Haunt has struck a chord for several reasons. Firstly, I think that hearing people speak about their own experiences of homelessness is very powerful. It’s a subject that is discussed a lot (particularly in light of recent attempts to impose Public Space Protection Orders, which would have criminalised rough sleepers in specific areas), but normally by people outside looking in.
Secondly, that challenging of perceptions carries over into confronting how Harrogate is seen. Even if people are not personally familiar with the town they will know its reputation. I’ve had several conversations about towns such as Oxford or Bath which are perceived to be wealthy, but also have a lot of people experiencing homelessness.
Having already published a Haunt anthology (which is excellent, by the way), you’re now in the process of creating a public performance of the work. What made you decide to do that?
Thank you! We put a lot of thought into the anthology. The book is small enough to fit into a pocket, so someone experiencing street homelessness can keep their copy with them. The font is Windsor, used in a 1920s brochure for Harrogate, and of course the back cover is one of Paul Floyd Blake’s excellent photos.
I wanted to put on a performance as a piece of site specific theatre to take the stories to a different audience, and to make it a full sensory experience. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be a ghost walk with a difference…
The performances will take place on June 30th, July 1st and 2nd at 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. The 2pm performance will be slightly different and family friendly. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/Haunt