Not Quite Blind Date', written and performed by City University journalism graduate Akshay Patel, based on his investigation into racism on the queer dating scene. The piece, reimagined as a dating gameshow for performance, featured verbatim quotes from Patel's interviewees. Performing (l-r) Akshay Patel, and actors Ben Wickramasuriya, Caleb Cura, Eliott Swan.
In an age of headline-skimming and bottomless social media feeds, the connection between journalists and their audience is crumbling. Town criers became smartphone notifications and readers often do not understand how the news is created.
This is not about nostalgia for the newspapers of yore. The lack of human connection between journalists and their readers affects trust in the media because it dilutes the sense of familiarity that is so important in a trusting relationship.
To restore some of this connection, theatre company The News on Stage Project developed a 90-minute show called News Cabaret, that brings together journalists and actors who narrate unpublished stories to a live audience.
"We need to bring journalism closer to people if they drifted away," says one of the producers, Catherine Adams whose day job is being a senior lecturer in journalism and communications at Nottingham Trent University.
"Live journalism", as this approach became known, has been successfully trialled in the US and Finland, where newspapers staged sell-out shows in big theatres. This was obviously impossible during the pandemic, but the UK producers were not discouraged and they streamed their first show on Zoom, attracting around 100 viewers.
As the restrictions are easing, the News Cabaret is finally staging shows in physical venues.
The stories are as varied as the formats. Jacob's Housing Ladder, by Luke Williams and Jacqui Kerr - both journalists from Radio Jackie - is a satirical monologue indictment of a residential property market that conspires against millennials. Williams, who performs on stage, is progressively driven to distraction by estate agents and landlords over a telephone.
More serious topics, like racial profiling on the dating scene or body-shaming of overweight women, also feature. In Shaping Up Theatre, a piece written by third-year City, University of London student Jessica Battison, a performing actor tells horrific testimonies of women who were cast as a whale in an improvisation or ate toilet paper for dinner.
There is also the Plague Doctor in the full medieval outfit who gives the audience up-to-date figures about the coronavirus pandemic, and a monologue from a travel writer and former war correspondent James Ruddy who talks about how a journalism career has changed over the past four decades.
To give the spectators a bit of a breather, three improvisation actors take suggestions on the day's stories from the audience and weave them in spontaneous performance.
All in all, nine journalists, four actors and three improvisators take part in the show, which is co-produced by Glenda Cooper, senior lecturer at City, University of London.
"We wanted to bring together a community of readers that was disintegrated by the internet, and also create space to discuss the stories and ask journalists questions," she says.
Although covid restrictions only allowed them to offer 30 tickets, they sold out within a couple of weeks.
The producers surveyed attendees after the show and found that their trust in journalism increased. "I feel now I know you well," said one of the attendees. This circles back to that sense of familiarity - we tend to trust people we know.
To help journalists prepare their performance, the producers hired a voice coach and there was also a lot of rehearsing over Zoom.
"We live in an era where we need to adapt to new forms of storytelling and this is one of them," says Adams.
The only downside, she continued, is that live journalism is time-consuming and it does not generate enough revenue.
"In the future, we want to encourage news organisations [to create their own shows] and do small budget popup theatres." These could be telling local stories by the council building or narrating crime stories by the courts.
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