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Jeremy Goldstein on Truth to Power Café: ‘It’s never been more important to give a voice to the disempowered’

The notion of speaking truth to power has come into sharp focus in 2020. From the global pandemic placing restrictions on lives and livelihoods to Black Lives Matter protests shining an uncomfortable spotlight on continuing racial inequality, the need to give voice to the voiceless feels newly urgent. 

So it’s with prescient timing that Jeremy Goldstein is bringing back his acclaimed participatory show Truth to Power Café, which invites audiences to speak their own truths to people who hold power over them. Inspired by Goldstein’s difficult relationship with his father Mick, a close friend and collaborator of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, the show directed by Jen Heyes was hailed by Lyn Gardner as “theatre at its simplest and most direct”.

Goldstein, who is also an HIV+ campaigner, lived for much of his life in Australia working as a producer, but is now based in London. In 2012 he was the recipient of an h. Club Award, and in recognition of his political theatre work, he was named by Time Out as being among the 100 most influential people in UK culture.

Truth to Power Café’s upcoming No Borders World Tour opens with the North American premiere streaming from Montgomery College Cultural Arts Centre. It takes place on 10 October, what would have been Harold Pinter’s 90th birthday, during the run-up to the US presidential election. One week later, Truth to Power Café will form part of Power Play 2020: Invisible Lines Singapore and stream live from London’s Conway Hall with 10 UK participants.

The event marks the start of a two-year residency for Truth to Power Café at Conway Hall. Dr Jim Walsh, CEO of Conway Hall, said: “Conway Hall is the oldest freethought organisation in the word. We nurture community locally, nationally and internationally and our work spans politics, art, music, science, ethics, philosophy, and literature. The Hackney Gang hung out there in the 1950’s and Harold Pinter himself spoke from the stage on numerous occasions. We are proud to be the London home of Truth to Power Café.”

Theo Bosanquet: What prompted you to make Truth to Power Café originally?
Jeremy Goldstein:
I’d spent a long time working as a theatre producer before I made this show, which is my debut as a writer/performer. I’d got to a point in my life where I felt like I’d gone as far as I could go as a producer and wanted to spread my wings. Also I’d gone through quite a major life change in that my father had died. We had quite a difficult relationship growing up, and this project became a way that I could reconcile my feelings about him.

My dad, Mick Goldstein, grew up with Harold Pinter, they were lifelong friends. Just before dad died his letters were acquired by the Pinter archive at the British Library, so I was able to read their private correspondence for the first time. This let me find out a lot about him that I didn’t know, and allowed me to meet him as a young man in the 1950s. Their friendship group became known as ‘The Hackney Gang’, and they shared a belief in speaking truth to power and taking the side of the occupied and the disempowered.

In the show I talk about the power my father had over me, and explore his friendship with Harold and the gang. I also invite people to respond to the question, ‘who has power over you, and what do you want to say to them?’ On a personal level it’s become a way for me to continue the legacy of my father and the Hackney Gang, but also a way to enable participants to speak their truth to power. We’ve had over 300 people take part so far, from all sorts of backgrounds.

 


Theo: Do you find people are comfortable sharing their own stories? How open do you find the participants are willing to be?
Jeremy:
In general I have found they are comfortable, and I think that’s partly due to how the question is phrased. You can’t come into this without knowing you need to be honest with yourself. It can only illicit a very truthful response; there’s nowhere to hide. I think it does give participants an opportunity to voice their subconscious, to say something they may not have had a chance to talk about before. When you’re doing that in front of a live audience, it empowers you, because the audience are bearing witness to what you’re saying.

People have spoken about very personal things, on a big range of subjects. Often participants who may not have engaged with the arts much before are able to relate to the question and talk about things in public that they’ve never been able to before. It inspires a great deal of ownership and empowerment.

We find people through a combination of open callouts and invites issued on behalf of the venues that we work with. Normally we start looking for people around four months out from each performance. I then follow up with the submissions and speak to them individually to talk about their piece, and then decide who takes part in the live show. We have up to ten participants in each show, so a lot of work goes on during the build-up.

Theo: You have made the show digital in light of the coronavirus restrictions - how have you found that process?
Jeremy:
I was wary about doing it, because I’m quite old school and believe theatre is a live, ephemeral artform. When Covid-19 hit we had a whole tour lined up, and unfortunately had to cancel it. But I wanted to try and keep the project alive, so have adapted it to a digital form. It’s actually really opened my eyes to the potential of digital work within a theatrical context.

When lockdown started we launched an online platform inviting people to send us one minute videos in response to the question, and since April we’ve published around 70 of these videos which have been seen by over 70,000 people. That’s more people than I could ever hope to reach in a live setting. I really felt when Covid hit and lockdown took hold that it was the marginalised communities that were going to be left without a voice. So any opportunity we had to try and give them a chance to be heard was really important.

We’re now preparing for our North America premiere on 10 October at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Centre in Maryland.  It’s not too far from the White House so it’s a really unique opportunity to present the show there in the run-up to the US election. We’ve filmed my monologues at Conway Hall in London, where the show is going to be resident, and are just in the final process of selecting the participants. I wanted the film elements to be really cinematic, not a low-tech stream, and I feel we’ve achieved it. I think it’s going to be quite spectacular.

We’re also collaborating with an artist in New York, Migguel Anggelo, who’s a Latino queer immigrant who makes work from his lived experience. So the event will feature videos from Maryland, London and New York. It’s a really exciting international collaboration.

 


Theo: One of the Hackney Gang, Henry Woolf, has also contributed to the show. Could you tell us more about your friendship with him?
Jeremy:
Henry’s a legend. He’s 91 now and lives in Canada. I started meeting up with him in 2015; at that time we lived close to each other in London. I found a script that my father had written in the 1970s about his friendship with Harold, and I asked Henry to respond to it. He started to send me some original poetry, some of which I incorporated into my monologues in Truth to Power Café. We are hoping to present my father’s script at some point in the future.

As an actor Henry has worked with some incredible people. He was in Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade on Broadway, and appeared in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros directed by Orson Welles at the Royal Court, alongside Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith.

I honestly don’t think the project would have happened without him. He’s brought a great deal of authenticity to it, and also really helped me come to terms with some of the difficult things I was grappling with to do with my dad. Henry and my father knew each other even before they met Harold, in 1947. The show has his fingerprints all over it.

Theo: Has the show helped you find closure, or peace, in your relationship with your father?
Jeremy:
The show has taught me that our relationships with our loved ones continue to evolve, even after death. Even though they may be invisible they are not absent. So I suppose for me Truth to Power Café has been a path towards reconciliation between myself and my father. To see someone go through that and come out the other side feeling good in yourself is a positive experience to have. I think that helps people to agree to take part in the production, and tell their own stories.

Theo: Alongside your work you are an HIV+ campaigner. How has living with HIV influenced you as an artist?
Jeremy:
I’ve certainly encountered a lot of stigma around it. I’ve been HIV+ for around 20 years, but even before then I was a founder member of ACTUP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in Melbourne, which really helped change the perceptions around HIV. Like all civil liberties it has had to be fought for, these things are not handed to us on a platter.

Like a lot of people who are diagnosed it initially came as a shock, it took time for me to adjust to it. But now I’m open about it and believe in being visible, because it can cause all sorts of problems both mentally and physically, even today when it is no longer a death sentence. I make work based on my lived experience, so it is only natural that I talk about it in Truth to Power Café.

 


Theo: How have you found the last few months, dealing with the coronavirus restrictions?
Jeremy:
It’s been challenging. Being in isolation is not all that new to me, because I tend to spend a lot of time on my own anyway. But with this it’s different because our usual freedoms and choices have been removed. I feel that acutely in London at the moment - you go in to the West End and all the theatres are closed. It feels quite desolate. But I’m lucky I’ve had my work to keep me occupied. I’ve been working on it pretty much full time since lockdown started, and I find it extremely rewarding.

It’s been a hard time for so many people, but somehow you have to keep going. I think that’s the central message of the show, actually. No matter what life throws at you, the journey is always worth it. That feels as important to remember now as it has ever done.

Register here to watch the North American premiere streaming for FREE on 10th October

Book now to see the UK premiere streaming from Conway Hall as part of Bloomsbury Festival on 16th October.

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