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Alex Howarth- interview

Exploring what it means to be a family, Cassie and the Lights is a show at the Edinburgh Fringe depicting the lives of children in the care system, and what they must undergo to stay together. Using the words of those with direct experiences linked to this and inspiration from a genuine court case, this piece is authentic in its telling of these stories.


The writer and director, Alex Howarth, has told us a bit more about the origins of the powerful themes approached in this production.

 

Please may you tell us a bit about Cassie and the Lights?


Cassie and the Lights is an original play with live music based on a true story and interviews with children in the care system. It tells the story of 17 year old Cassie, who goes to court to get custody of her two younger siblings to keep her family together; examines the challenges faced by young people in the care system, and what makes a family. It is playing at Underbelly Cowgate at 12.30pm daily, and has been longlisted for the Popcorn Award for New Writing in association with the BBC Writers Room, and shortlisted for the Sit Up Award for social change.




How was the piece developed, where did the title come from, and why are the themes featured important to you?


I developed the piece in 2019, working alongside the organisation Participation People who introduced me to children in care homes, who have been fostered or adopted, or who were care leavers, mostly in the Woolwich area of London. At the same time, I read an article in the Metro about a 17 year old who had been in court trying to get custody of her siblings. I immediately thought that this was a story that raised a lot of questions around family, and the ethics of splitting up siblings (adoptive parents have the right to prohibit access between the children they have adopted and their siblings) and who gets to care for who. I used the basic facts of the court case as well as the wealth of information I’d gained from the interviews to write the play, which then opened at Vault Festival in 2020 before transferring to Adelaide Festival.


The title came from one of the characters’ love of outer space and the metaphor that runs through the play of lights- to say any more would be a major spoiler! As someone who has worked with disabled people both in and out of care for almost 20 years, my biggest goal as a writer is to amplify the voices of those who are less represented in art and the media, to work with them to ensure their authentic voices are heard and that they see themselves truly represented on stage.




How have you used the voices of children from the care system, and amplified these using theatre?


We’ve not used the real voices of the children, but there are many direct quotes from the interviews in the play and the court verdict in the play is taken from the real case. I couldn’t believe the incredible degree of honesty and generosity of spirit that was shown by the children to me- a total stranger who’d just rocked up and asked them questions about their lives, purely on the promise of pizza afterwards. Without them the play wouldn’t exist; I’m so grateful to them and can only hope they feel we have done justice to their stories.




Based on real life events, what challenges have you faced when incorporating these into a show mindfully?


I only had access to publicly available information about the case, and to protect identities a lot of the details (names, locations etc) have been changed. One of the things I found most shocking when researching the play was how common this situation is, and how many 16 and 17 year olds are going to court, campaigning to be the sole carer for their younger siblings. Whilst the play was inspired by one specific case, I hope it speaks to everyone who has experienced this situation, and that audiences go away with an increased awareness of what some teenagers have to do to keep their family together.




What made you want to use live music when telling this story?


Live music is a staple of all Patch of Blue’s work. In this show, it is used to create the world of the children’s imagination- the play opens with a journey into space, and music plays a vital role in transporting the audience into the world the characters are creating. I’m incredibly lucky to be working again with the extraordinary Ellie and Immie Mason, who compose original scores for all our work, and are taking it in turns to perform the score during the show. They are the most incredible collaborators, and bring so much to our work.




How do you anticipate that audience members will feel after they have seen your show?


I hope audiences go away with a greater knowledge of the challenges experienced by young people in the care system, and also believing that whether or not a 17 year old can or should care for their siblings should be a question, and down to specific circumstances, and not an automatic no. It’s also (I hope!) a very funny play with a huge amount of warmth, and I hope audiences feel entertained, and inspired to learn more about the experiences of others.


 

Huge thanks to Alex for sharing this wonderful insight about what went into the making of Cassie and the Lights. Best of luck for the run, and your award nominations too!



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