Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

Say Yes to Tess is a new musical theatre production based on my real life experience of standing in the 2017 UK General Election for the Yorkshire Party. Something I, a 30 year old state-educated (Labour voting) female from a small Yorkshire town, never thought I would do.

Say Yes to Tess was created for TheatreState in association with Leeds Playhouse. I worked with the talented and funny composer Harry Blake to make a musical re-imagining of my unusual journey into politics. It was important to us to create a fun and engaging show that appealed to people who might be turned off by politics. The show asks whether it is politics or actually the systems around it that are not working. It encourages audiences to imagine a fully representative democracy, and empowers them to participate in order to transform the current one.

Our plan was to tour to theatres, community hubs and working men’s clubs. Each performance would be followed by empowering non-partisan conversations that would help to demystify participation and enable a nuanced debate. However the COVID-19 crisis meant that our partner, Leeds Playhouse, had to suspend production and cancel our performances that were scheduled to start in March. We had to cancel our work in schools and communities and also our inspiring and diverse post-show speakers.

During lockdown we have led workshops for the European Cultural Foundation exploring culture and democracy and we have worked with young people online. However, now that theatres are beginning to re-open and adjust to COVID-19, we are planning safe ways of going back to rehearsals and touring. We want to push the reach of the project too by finding digital ways of capturing the show for a wider audience. As political mistrust grows under COVID-19, Say Yes to Tess feels more and more relevant and we are impatient to get it in front of audiences with some much needed empowerment, humour and music.

Why me, why now?

I first saw the Yorkshire Party perform a speech at a conference in London called ‘Change How’. There was a young man in a bright blue suit in the colours of the Yorkshire flag. He stood in front of a banner that said Yorkshire Party in comic sans and he spoke in rhyming couplets about freeing Yorkshire from Westminster ending with a quote from Henry V ‘We band of brothers.’ As a theatremaker I was hooked, but as a voter I was very confused.

After the EU referendum, I moved back to Leeds and began to research the Yorkshire Party thinking I would make a comedy about them. I went undercover to their party conference. After a fiery discussion about Kes and the Full Monty, they began a policy making session. I saw a room full of people planning how they would govern Yorkshire completely unaffected by the notion that it was highly unlikely they would ever do so. I began to question my own participation in politics and my own sense of disempowerment. Perhaps a different, more tangible system would lead to more people becoming involved and inspired. Then when Theresa May called a snap general election the Yorkshire Party tweeted me. They wanted me to stand.

Surprising myself, I said yes. I knocked on doors, I got told I was messing with something I didn’t understand. I got asked to step down by other, bigger political parties and I got threatened. But my biggest lesson was that despite what we hear about politics in the news, everyone does care. Not one person shut their door in my face. My opening question was ‘Do you feel represented by Westminster?’ Not one person said yes, but also a lot of those people did not vote.

Play poster for Say Yes to Tess

The power of narratives

Our world is changing, but our democracy is not. This is increasing barriers to civic participation which have been limited by archaic, paternalistic traditions that do not allow for a truly accessible and representative political system. Divisive narratives and ‘war language’ instill fear and narrow opportunities for nuanced debate and healthy disagreement, while centralised power isolates individuals who already face multiple barriers to accessing politics.

These failures undermine our political system’s ability to serve everyone. This has particularly affected people who are of lower socio-economic class, young people, women and people with protected characteristics. They are less likely to participate and as a result, their interests are less likely to be represented in parliament. This vicious cycle encourages disillusionment and apathy making more people disengaged as the political system represents fewer people.

I didn’t win the seat in Leeds North East so the next best thing I could do was to share my story in the best way I knew how, the engaging form of musical theatre. I wanted to reclaim the emotional and connective power of narrative to reach disengaged people and encourage them to participate in their communities and politics. Say Yes to Tess says anyone really can stand. Anyone can take part.

COVID-19 has highlighted many challenges that our modern society faces, from the importance of face to face connection to the harmfulness of social media. But it has also highlighted the fact that political decisions in Westminster feel disconnected from our reality, that they are made with less accountability, and that this form of centralised decision-making is not best placed to respond to local crises. COVID-19 has exacerbated and deepened all of society’s injustices. However, I feel that the spotlight that COVID-19 is shining on our systemic problems may make it impossible for people to not do anything. We should use this opportunity to tell a new story about our democracy and create a fun, relatable and creative narrative about the possibilities of participation and activism.

How to change the narrative

Challenging the status quo feels so overwhelming, so intangible and so inaccessible. Where do we begin in unpicking it and making it better? And why, when there are so many personal struggles that we each face, would we put ourselves in a very public and scary arena that might only lead to more disappointment? However, the pandemic means there has never been a better time to rethink how we are governed and as it directly affects so many people it is becoming impossible to ignore.

Connecting and skilling up people who want to act but are unsure of how to, feels like a useful way of challenging this and capitalising on this moment. Valuing and building connective networks has been an invaluable part of the Democracy Pioneers programme which has enabled us to share our learning and tap into the resources of others. We need to support people who are willing to champion change and we need to work together.

From working in the arts, I have also learnt that there are many barriers to people taking part. My work tries to challenge this. Say Yes to Tess has free or low cost tickets for people from low income households, it has BSL interpreted performances, relaxed performances for people with learning difficulties and people with babies and has integrated audio description. We also will be touring to community hubs to reach people who may not go to a theatre or be able to travel into a city centre. This open mindedness to diversity of experience is vital for a renewed democracy. I would like to see political actors recruit, support and connect changemakers who have a diverse set of experience that needs to be represented politically and actively embed these in conversations about change.

I’m excited to keep exploring new creative ways to connect audiences to powerful stories about democracy and social justice. I want to use narrative to help make change mainstream. Although right now, I would be happy to be singing my heart out with an audience to the absolute belters in Say Yes to Tess! (You can hear some of the songs from rehearsals here.)


Tess Seddon

Director and Writer / Say Yes to Tess / TheatreState in association with Leeds Playhouse.