Breaking Barriers: Blowing The Whistle On VAWG

The Rochdale cultural operators changing the narrative with hard-hitting monologue.
Colin Petch
April 11, 2024

A recent soundbite from Greek-female-bothering, purring-feline-impersonating, newly elected Workers party MP for Rochdale George Galloway, had him mooting the prospect of running in the upcoming Greater Manchester mayoral elections – questioning the efforts and record of his one-time Labour colleague Andy Burnham:

Galloway said: “Andy Burnham has been seduced by the undoubtedly bright lights of the metropolis. But it’s fairly dark and austere out here in ‘Greater’ Manchester.”

Fairly dark and austere in Greater Manchester? Gorgeous George would be sensible to re-evaluate that claim. Has he been to Gorton Monastery? Or The Brick in Wigan? How about Marple? Has he climbed Blackstone Edge?

In the unlikely event he feels compelled to revisit his comments, he needs do little more than wander from his constituency office to Richard Street Studios – the new base of Breaking Barriers Rochdale and its team of innovative and dedicated cultural operators, who are doing amazing stuff under the leadership of its instantly likeable founder Parvez Quadir.

Mag North spent the afternoon recently with the team, who this week set out to deliver a nationally important creative project tackling Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG).

The National Police Chiefs’ Council recognise Policing and wider society must be utterly focused on violence against women and girls so that it can be eradicated. There is now a national framework in place to support both forces and communities to prioritise VAWG-related crimes.

The harm caused to victims and society by violence against women and girls in all its forms – including but not limited to harassment, stalking, rape, sexual assault, murder, honour-based abuse and coercive control – is immeasurable.

While men and boys also suffer from many of these forms of abuse, they disproportionately affect women. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. Domestic abuse makes up 18 per cent of all recorded crime in England and Wales. In the year ending March 2022, there were 194,683 sexual offences, of which 70,330 were rape. (NPCC data.)

Just as with many other parts of the UK, in Greater Manchester there is a robust and committed multi-agency approach to guarantee that VAWG in all its forms is eradicated. Manchester City Council’s Candida Turner is the Violence against Women and Girls Lead and her work includes implementing the Local Authority Domestic Violence and Abuse Strategy 2021-2024, prioritising the GM Gender Based Violence and Abuse Strategy, championing Safer Parks – Improving Access for Women and Girls and enshrining the Women’s Night-Time Safety Charter into the practices of everyone involved in GM’s night-time economy.

With an acute understanding of the expertise the creative community has in ‘getting the message across’ in engaging, thoughtful and non-judgemental ways, Greater Manchester Police in Tameside recently commissioned Breaking Barriers to create a sobering piece of theatre for performance in schools and public spaces, initially across Tameside and Rochdale – but hopefully also eventually more broadly across the region.

Blind Side is the story of Summer, a football-mad 14-year-old girl who plays on a mixed team – and is very good. A developing friendship and relationship with Harrison, who has recently moved to the area and joined the team – is central to the monologue. Summer’s story and treatment by her peers and team-mates is instantly recognisable and will surely cut through to Primary and Secondary School audiences in a way that a discussion with a responsible adult might not.

But we start by hearing from Rochdale born-and-bred Parvez Quadir – the actor, writer, director and creative facilitator – who’s passion for engaging people regardless of their background, led to the creation of what must be one of the most important cultural change-making organisations in the North:

Breaking Barrers Rochdale's Parvez Quadir at Richard Sreet Stdios
Parvez and Breaking Barriers' New Richard Street Studios Base In Rochdale

“When I grew up in the mid-80s in Rochdale, creativity at home was watching Bollywood films. That kind of ignited my imagination, but creativity wasn't seen as a career option.

“At one point in my primary school, M6 the local theatre company came in – and built a set that was a boat in the middle of our school. I just thought ‘this is amazing’. That was a marker for me, my imagination just blew [even though] I didn't know what actors were.”

After school Parvez’s own creative journey really took off. Following theatre and acting courses at Rochdale College and University of Salford, it wasn’t long before he found himself immersed in the magic of Edinburgh Fringe. An agent followed – and his career bloomed.

A break from acting and a move into teaching – including back at Rochdale College, arguably set in train the future direction for the performance artist.

Parvez: “I went to work for the Royal Exchange Theatre and their creative Learning engagement department. I was also an artist in residence for M6 Theatre. I was creating art and culture with communities. In 2019 I decided to set up my own thing – which became Breaking Barriers.

“I've always known that art and culture is a great way for communities to express themselves. I'm passionate about that. To start creating the work I want to do, but I know too that absolutely allowing audiences or communities to express themselves is so massively beneficial for our culture.”

Breaking Barriers isn’t currently an Arts Council England National Portfolio organisation – and as such they’re constantly exploring different revenue streams and the requirement to be entrepreneurial about that – as they’re not dependent on a single source of income.

“When you think about how much revenue art and culture brings into our economy as a nation, it's huge – and what it's given me: Social mobility. Opportunities. It's very loaded in the sense of the barriers I faced being a British Pakistani. How do you get into art and culture when you don't see anyone that reflects yourself? So, it's breaking those barriers down constantly. With Rochdale there is often a certain narrative presented in the media, and we're trying to change that narrative, by breaking down those barriers and we like to do innovative work constantly. We like to push ourselves.

“It's constantly how we think when we’re devising work – where does it fit in our ethos, in our ecology? Now we’re focussed on Blind Side, but at the end of this year, we'll be touring another monologue again called Crossing the Line, which has been touring for about four years and that's a piece of work around child exploitation.”

Blind Side is very much a result of important community connections. Parvez and the team have spent a significant amount of time interviewing over 1000 young people aged 9 to 24 around Tameside. They’ve asked them about VAWG and what came back through their research and focus group sessions was that early intervention works.

“The schools were brave [to get involved] and because we had around 15 stakeholders from primary schools, the local authority and the police supporting the project, it’s been a really, brilliant partnership.”

Lizzie Wilde actress reheasing Bind Side at Rchmond Street Studos, Rochdale
Lizzie Rehearsing Blind Side

Lizzie Wilde is the Liverpool-based actor who plays Summer. Originally from Rochdale, she has collaborated extensively with Parvez previously:

“I was brought in last October originally just to read the monologue, as no actors had read it yet. They'd been workshopping [Blind Side] and they’d spoken to a lot of young people about how to fit everything into a monologue. It's such a massive topic to talk about.

“The discussions that you have with the young people afterwards, the things that they have to say [about VAWG] is so insightful. It's such a heavy topic to be talking to young people about, especially going into the primary schools. You're almost a little bit worried about them, because some of them are aware of VAWG and some of them have never heard of anything like this. It's a fine line, but they're all so receptive to it. They've got so much to say – and they're interested in it.

“I think doing it as a monologue and having something they can watch and then engage with afterwards and be able to speak about to the actors and the people leading it, as well as the experts on it, just makes it a bit different and a lot easier to understand.

“Obviously as a woman you know about VAWG, but we’ve been looking much more into the detail of what it represents more broadly.”

Ria Wilson is the Workshop Facilitator and it’s her skills and insight that engage audiences around Lizzie’s performance:

“I do a lot of workshops and facilitation with kids and families, the LGBTQ+ community and currently I also teach sound art practises to women.

“So, where I fit in – essentially my part is introducing Lizzie and her monologue – and getting the kids familiar with what we're going to be talking about – and the subject matter. After Lizzie's done her monologue, we look at it with the kids and discuss how they feel about it. We want them to understand a healthy relationship, an unhealthy relationship – and when we can be allies to people who are going through things just like Summer. The workshop facilitation really is opening up that discussion.”

The team are acutely aware that their work could represent a catalyst for change in a number of ways. There is an inevitability that dealing with such a challenging issue might lead to ongoing discussions and potentially disclosures from audiences.

Jess Bennett is the Blind Side Producer and like everyone else at Breaking Barriers has a real interest and commitment to the kind of productions making social change. Away from Rochdale, she is also a leading light within the artistic community at Salford’s Paradise Mill:

“We always do follow-ups to get feedback and you double-check if there's been any kind of reporting and to make sure that the school is handling any safeguarding issues.

“The first time I saw Blind Side I cried – and Iliterally just thought: ‘I wish I’d had this when I was in school’. We’re not just challenging VAWG, but also the relationship nuances such as cyber bullying, coercive control and peer pressure.”

Jess confirms that Parvez always talks about repetition,repetition, repetition – to embed a message – and it’s essential the message – or messages contained within Blind Side are repeated again and again – to audiences far beyond Tameside, Rochdale and Greater Manchester.

For up-to-date information about Breaking Barriers Rochdale and Blind Side, PLEASE CLICK HERE

Header Image: Jess Bennett, Lizzie Wilde, Parvez Quadir and Ria Wilson