17.05.2024

Triggering Schools to STOP THE TRAFFIK

Blog by Mark Wheeller, playwright

The Guardian recently praised the TV drama, Mr Bates Versus the Post Office for bringing proper attention to a UK scandal. “The greatest political dramas have the power to do this. They present a reality that is so emotionally honest that it gives a moral framework not only to the events portrayed, but also to everything that comes after.”  Plays (on stage or screen) can have a “quick and positive impact in the real world”. It’s something that motivates me and comes with a great deal of responsibility.

My play, Missing Dan Nolan, changed the status of Daniel Nolan’s disappearance from a missing person’s case to a criminal investigation following a performance by Oaklands Youth Theatre (Southampton) in our 150-seater theatre.

My decision to dramatize real life stories stemmed from wanting to motivate my youth theatre group without resorting to the standard fare of popular musicals. The tactic worked for the young actors—and the impact reached well beyond the stage.

In 2008, I witnessed a short, powerful presentation by STOP THE TRAFFIK. Sponsors of the new Oasis Academy chain (who had taken over our school/youth theatre) wanted to elicit ideas for new campaigns. I offered one: An awareness-raising documentary play.

Two years later, after winning the All England Theatre Festival against 350 other adult and youth groups, we presented One Million to Stop The Traffik at the Oasis Church, Waterloo with Cherie Blair and representatives from the UN attending. The play, written in verbatim style, uses the words of real-life protagonists to tell true stories of people who have been trafficked. Sunni and Whinney, at just six and eight years old, were sold by their parents and their story, which inspired the formation of the charity STOP THE TRAFFIK, takes centre-stage in the play that has a cast of 20 actors.

One Million to STOP THE TRAFFIK goes on to share the charity’s determined quest to get one million signatures to enable them to go to the United Nations and call on governments to fight human trafficking.

A drama teacher from The Westgate School Winchester reviewed it, helping promote it to other schools:

“I was blown-away. One Million to STOP THE TRAFFIK teaches compassion and hope in its dramatisation of the 21st Century’s most inspiring global grass-roots campaign. It was like watching ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ only this was live theatre… the young actors’ hearts are beating and breaking in front of you. This should be recognised as Mark Wheeller’s most far-reaching, insightful and accomplished play to date.”

The play was immediately adopted by UK schools and performed by the Prague Youth Theatre. Its potential was spreading, however, in 2020 after the closure of the play’s publisher, the play became unavailable. And, for two years, it remained impossible to get hold of.

When publisher Salamander Street agreed to take on One Million to Stop the Traffik along with other plays of mine, a review of the text led me to discover that I had missed a crucial part of the story. I had never been introduced to the charity’s co-founder Ruth Dearnley OBE. Including Ruth’s story was a must!  This meant it needed a major re-write. My son Charlie (who had performed in the original OYT production) was based at home during lockdown and was keen to do some writing projects. He took on the rewrite and went on to deliver a play which left elements of my original but improved it and incorporated Ruth’s story.

In 2023, MAST (at the Mayflower) Youth Theatre (Southampton) premiered the new version. It can be seen on my YouTube channel alongside the original OYT production.

The play, which can be performed by young or adult actors, highlights issues around human trafficking. Schools putting on a production can raise money from ticket sales and book sales, with a percentage of royalties paid directly to STOP THE TRAFFIK.

Productions trigger change. Cast members benefit from passionate engagement in a campaign and by investing in presenting potent theatre. It’s thrilling to realise people are affected by this play.

“I have only seen a few pieces of Brechtian performance that the man himself would have been proud of.  One Million to STOP THE TRAFFIK was the best by far. Even now, after many months have passed, I have changed and eat only Fairtrade and broadened the Fairtrade products I buy. Leaving a theatre changed and determined to change.  Bertolt would have liked this.”

Neil Phillips – Head of Drama – Bitterne Park School Southampton.

 

Plays have the potential to change the actors and the audience. By spending time with a complex subject and learning about the individuals affected, deeper understanding and empathy can grow which, hopefully, can motivate activism and support.

It’s my hope that One Million to Stop the Traffik impacts schools around the world.

Gwyneth Hughes, the writer of Mr Bates vs the Post Office makes the point when she says that drama has the power of “direct visceral appeal” to audiences. “It’s for reaching out across the stage or through the screen, grabbing you by the throat and saying: care about me… If you want to really get people’s attention, tell them a story.”

The creation of STOP THE TRAFFIK, the people who inspired it and the people still experience devastating human trafficking makes one hell of a story.

One Million to STOP THE TRAFFIK by Charlie Wheeller is available from SalamanderStreet.com

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