Storytelling Insight

Counting the Cost of Living: A different kind of conversation

When things always seem to get worse, it can be hard to see how things will ever get better. We need to find new tools to make sense of the world, because the ones we have are broken.

As part of National Theatre Wales’ multi-layered project, “The Cost of Living”, I set out to create a space in which we could have the kinds of collective conversations that we want and need. Somewhere to learn, share and connect through stories. We called it, “Counting the Cost of Living”.

As we worked with our community partners, EYST and the Grange Pavilion Youth Forum, it became clear how disconnected many of us feel from power, but also how deeply the many costs of living are felt. It’s easy to focus on the financial costs, but systemic sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, transphobia…all these and more…mean that, for many, there is a constant and corrosive price to pay just to get from day to day.

We wanted to thoughtfully explore those wider costs – the ones which have always been there – whilst also seeking out answers and creating connections with some of the people who have the power (and responsibility) to change things. But how best to do that? The “Question Time” format can only ever create heat, rather than light, and when was the last time anyone learnt anything from Prime Minister’s Questions – the forum in which our government is supposed to be held to account, but never is. 

The answer turned out to be simple, although not easy! We realised that we could create a new and more interesting dynamic by flipping roles. Instead of people in power answering the questions, of course they should be asking them instead. Our community partners represent some of the most marginalised communities in Wales, so by enabling them to share their stories, hopes and fears we hoped we could create the kinds of connections that might lead to genuine change.

Equally as important as who’s asking the questions though, is what questions they’re asking. For those we leaned heavily on the practice of Generative Journalism, which essentially seeks to directly represent people’s experiences and intentions without interpretation and bring something new to life. It draws from practices of counselling to reclaim journalism as an agent of healing and social change. You might be starting to think that seems very different from how we generally experience journalism but I’ve used “reclaim” very deliberately here – because I believe (or at least hope) that most journalists choose their path because they want to make the world a better place through storytelling. It’s the systems, rather than the individuals, which means they rarely get to do that.

The easiest way to understand what Generative Journalism seeks to explore is to look at the kinds of questions we asked our “people in power” to put to our community participants and the audience.

You can see that these open up discussions about how things could be, rather than simply how they are. That’s something that regular journalism largely shies away from, but by thinking about how things could be different, we start to open up the possibility to inspire agency instead of embedding hopelessness.

We started each evening with everyone (audience included) sharing their response to the question, “What crossroads do you find yourself at right now” in small groups – simply speaking for a few minutes, with their partners simply listening. It was striking just how powerfully people felt this. People shared how unusual it felt to be truly listened to, with no attempts at intervention, interpretation or fixing. Many reflected on how they’d shared things they hadn’t even talked to family or friends about. Of course we know there’s something transformative about being able to tell our story, and have it listened to,  but the crossroads question also proved particularly good at helping us access parts of our own story that we might not even realise are there.

Each night that release of emotion, sparked by connection, continued into the section of the evening where our “people in power” asked those generative questions to members of the EYST and Grange Pavilion Youth Forum communities. Our mix of politicians, police chiefs, commissioners and activists all brought their whole selves to the conversations, and more than one was moved to tears by the stories that were brought to the surface. Those included how the true cost of rising prices is paid by many not getting to spend time with their families because they have to work longer hours or multiple jobs. Or the daily “tax” levied on disabled people because they don’t have the opportunity to engage with society and culture on equal terms. None of this is inevitable – all of this is the result of decisions made by people in power, and by having conversations in a different way, perhaps we’ve found one way to change the context in which those decisions are made.

From my own perspective, I was struck by how anxious I was about the potential for chaos or conflict in holding the space. That was particularly acute on the night when Jeremy Vaughan, the Chief Constable of South Wales Police, was our guest, because so many of the EYST and Grange Pavilion Youth Forum community members have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system. However, it became clear to me that we need to have spaces where that discomfort and tension can be held, and in fact a theatre-led event is perhaps the perfect space to explore those feelings. Having said that, credit is due to the people – perhaps especially the Chief Constable – who were willing to engage with these conversations in new, and potentially much more exposing ways.

When we asked them our final question, “What promise are you prepared to make now that represents a real shift for you?”. All our guests shared things that they would change about their work or their approach in response to the stories they’d heard. Those ranged from being braver, to being quieter, to giving their teams more time, to redoubling their efforts to drive change and make a difference. All of those pointed to how things could be rather than how they are, and that was always the aim.

Clearly, we’re not going to solve any of the multiple, intersecting and growing problems of that broader cost of living crisis we sought to explore in an hour or a week, but we wanted to make a start.

The tools we have to make sense of the world are broken, so we need to find new ones.

Following the conversations, we screened this short film, “my name is joseph k” a moving portrait of today’s real Joseph Ks, telling the stories of some of the people across Wales most affected by the cost of living. 

The film was directed by Mathilde Lopez in partnership with Ethnic Minorities & Youth Support Team (EYST) and Grange Pavilion Youth Forum.

It’s also available with captions and BSL.


All Photos: Diyan Kantardzhiev – iNNOVATION Photography

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.