Terry O’ Leary, Joker
“For two years, I cared for my brother – who was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 – in his council flat, but after he died I couldn’t stay there because my relationship with him as his sister wasn’t recognised by the council, and that’s how I became homeless,” said Terry speaking plainly, yet without self-pity, as we sat on either side of a table in Dino’s Cafe, Spitalfields. And there, in a single sentence you have the explanation of how one woman, in spite of her intelligence and skill, fell through the surface of the world and found herself living in a hostel with one hundred and twenty-eight other homeless people.
Terry is a shrewd woman with an innate dignity, and a lightness of manner too. She manages to be both vividly present in the moment and also detached – considering and assessing – though quick to smile at the ironies of life. She wears utilitarian clothing which reveals little of the wearer and sometimes she presents an apparently tentative presence, but when you meet her sympathetic dark eyes, she reveals her strength and her capacity for joy.
No one could deny it was an act of moral courage, when Terry gave up her career as a chef to care for her brother at a time when little support or medication was available to those with AIDS, moving in with him and devoting herself fully to his care. Yet in spite of the cruel outcome of her sacrifice, Terry discovered the resourcefulness to create another existence, which today allows her to draw upon these experiences in a creative way, through her work as performer and teacher with Cardboard Citizens, the homeless people’s theatre company based in Spitalfields.
“I took what I could with me, the rest I left behind. I took photographs and personal things. You fill your car with your TV, records, books and all the rest of it – but then you find it can be quite liberating because you realise all that stuff is not important.” admitted Terry with a wry smile, recounting a lesson born out of necessity. In the Mare St hostel in Hackney, Terry stayed in her tiny room to avoid the culture of alcohol and drug-taking that prevailed, but instead she found herself at the mercy of the absurdly doctrinaire bureaucracy, “I remember the staff coming round and saying, ‘You have to remove one of the two chairs in your room because you’re only allowed to have one.’” Terry recalled.“You find you’re living in a universe where you can get evicted for having two chairs in your room.” she added with a tragic smirk.
A few months after she came to the hostel, Cardboard Citizens visited to perform and stage workshops, permitting Terry to participate and make some friends – but most importantly granting her a new role in life. “I was hooked,” confided Terry, “What I liked about it was the opportunity to talk about our own experiences and how we can make a change. And the best part of it was when the audience became involved and got on stage.” Now that she works for them, Terry describes the aim of the company as being to “give voice to the homeless oppressed and show the situations homeless people face.” Inspired by the principles of theatrical visionary Augusto Boal, the company perform in homeless shelters and hostels, creating vital performances that invite audiences of the homeless to participate, addressing in drama the pertinent questions and challenges they face in life – all in pursuit of the possibility of change.
Terry’s role is central to the company, as mediator, bringing the audience to the play, and raising questions that articulate the discussion manifest in the drama. She carries it off with grace, becoming the moral centre of the performance. And it is a natural role for Terry, one she refers to as “Joker” – somebody who will always challenge – anchoring the evening with her sense of levity and quick intelligence, without ever admitting that she understands more than her audience. Though, knowing Terry’s story, I found it especially poignant to observe Terry’s measured equanimity, even when the drama dealt with issues of grief and dislocation that are familiar territory for her personally.
“You don’t have to accept things as they are. You can fight back.” declared Terry, her dark eyes glinting as she spoke from first hand experience, when I asked how her understanding of life had been altered by becoming homeless. “Why is it that the economic underclass are being hammered for the mess that we’re in?” she asked in furious indignation, “I think what’s opened my eyes is that there’s so much kindness and support coming from people who have got very little. I can’t deal with the big picture, I tend to narrow it down to the people in the room and just keep chipping away at small changes. And I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.” There is an unsentimental fire in Terry’s rhetoric, denoting someone who has been granted a hard won clarity of vision, and at the Code St hostel where I saw the performance I was touched to see her exchanging greetings with long-term homeless people she has known over the eight years she has worked with Cardboard Citizens.
As we left Dino’s Cafe and walked up the steps of Christ Church, Spitalfields, to take Terry’s portrait in the Winter sunlight, she cast her eyes around in wonder at the everyday spectacle of people walking to and fro, and confessed to me, “I teach up at Central School of Speech & Drama now and it’s quite amazing to think ten years ago I was sitting in a hostel, wondering what’s going to happen next and what’s my future going to be? Am I going to be like that woman down the hall, drunk off her head, or on crack?” Then she it shrugged off as she turned to the camera.
Terry still thinks about her brother. “His eyesight started to go and he set fire to the bed,” she told me, explaining why it became imperative to move in with him,“He was a stubborn guy but he had to concede that he needed help. He was developing dementia and his eyesight was fading.” It was his unexpected illness and death that triggered the big changes in her existence, but today Terry O’Leary lives in a flat of her own again and finds herself at the centre of a whole new life.
Terry when she started with Cardboard Citizens in 2002.