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This is my story: From being homeless to stepping onto the stage at the Wales Millennium Centre

A man who spent years sleeping rough on the streets of Cardiff is calling on the public to cast their vote for a remarkable creative project which has given him a new found sense of confidence and the strength to move on with his life.

Kevin Machent hated school and often played truant. His mother’s solution was to give her teenage son a case of beer each time he spent a full week in the classroom, a reward that gave him a taste for alcohol that would almost destroy his life.

By the time he was in his late teens, Kevin was drinking 20 cans of lager a day – more if he was upset by something. Then his brother Lee died and he shut out the pain by consuming even more booze.

“I’d drink myself into oblivion,” says the 33-year-old. “I’d become a professional jockey, but complications with addiction ruined my career.”

Kevin lived on the street for five years. He moved around, but encountered verbal abuse and violence wherever he went. University students, he says, were frequently the ones who called him a “waste of space” or told him to “get a job”.

He was angry too. “I felt no one trusted me. I was very bitter,” he says. “If someone offered to help me I’d tell them to go away because I thought they were all words. It was me against the world.”

In late 2015, Kevin was sleeping rough in Cardiff when he was set upon by a group of about 15 men as they left a club where they had watched Wales defeat England in the Rugby World Cup. They beat him so badly he lost his front teeth and ended up in hospital.

When his wounds healed he was determined to get off the street. He was offered temporary accommodation and asked if he wanted to take part in Behind the Label, a creative project for people who have experienced homelessness and low self-esteem that has been funded by £187,478 from The National Lottery. The scheme encourages participants to share their life experiences in a group setting and culminates with a fully-staged performance at the Wales Millennium Centre.

Since the National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November, 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

Kevin Machent.

Kevin agreed to attend Behind the Label, but admits he didn’t enjoy it at first. “Theatre? No. That’s not me,” he says. “But I kept on going and towards the end it started becoming exciting.”

The hardest part at first was sitting in a room full of people he didn’t know and opening up to them, he says. “But when I got to know them I found they weren’t judgemental and I could lift the shutters a bit. It gave me a lot of confidence to speak out and it was great that people were listening.  My confidence kept on growing and it gave me the strength to go to college, go to detox and move my life on.”

In 2018, Kevin stepped onto the stage of the 200-seat Weston Studio at the Wales Millennium Centre for two nights running and talked about his life in front of a sold-out audience. “When I told my story everyone clapped,” he says. “It was quite loud and it put a smile on my face. I walked out like a fox with my tail in the air.”

Since then, he has enrolled at college and obtained a Level 1 diploma in painting and decorating. He has successfully completed a detox programme for the first time and in September hopes to get the Level 2 diploma that will allow him to start working as a tradesman.

“The future looks a lot brighter than it did two years ago, that’s for sure,” he says.

Behind the Label is run by a Cardiff-based organisation called Theatre Versus Oppression. It has used the techniques of Applied Theatre – the use of drama practice in an educational, community or therapeutic context – to help people who have experienced domestic abuse, addiction, crime and homelessness.

Dr Jennifer Hartley, the Director of Theatre Versus Oppression, says the primary purpose of Behind the Label isn’t getting participants on stage. “It’s about them taking ownership of their story and about being listened to,” she says. “That’s a big thing. We say the project actually finishes before the performance. By then, the participants have already got what they wanted which is being heard.”

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Recognising Kevin’s tendency to self-sabotage, Dr Hartley worked closely with him before he started the 15-week Behind the Label programme. “He’d walk out, but he always came back,” she says. “When he was rude or dismissive he’d always come back and apologise.

“Kevin is totally different now. When we first met him he barely spoke and wouldn’t talk about his own story. He didn’t trust anyone and was really critical of the system.”

Dr Hartley says the Wales Millennium Centre – an iconic building that was constructed with the help of £31.7m from The National Lottery – has played an essential role in the success of Behind the Label. As well as providing a venue for the group’s performance, the Centre organised an educational programme which saw participants learning skills such as marketing and advertising, set building, sound and light design and interacting with the public as an usher.

“We wanted to show them [the participants] that they were included in every aspect of the Centre and they weren’t being treated differently to anyone else,” says Dr Hartley. “I can’t praise the Wales Millennium Centre enough for the risk they took with us. They trusted us and trusted how we would run it.”

Money from The National Lottery has also been essential to Behind the Label’s success, says Dr Hartley. The programme “really struggled” in its first year, she says, and was reliant on people working without payment. “Basically, we couldn’t have kept doing it without the funding,” she says. “The first year was so hard and we beg, stole and borrowed everything. It wasn’t sustainable.”

The four-year grant of £187,478 from The National Lottery allowed Theatre Versus Oppression to include more people in Behind the Label, pay people for their work and film people telling their stories. “It gave us the security of knowing that for four years we could run this project and build on it,” says Dr Hartley. “We were able to relax for the first time.”

The National Lottery funding also bestowed a kind of “seal of approval” on the project which helped it gain external recognition. “The guys also talked about it quite a lot,” says Dr Hartley. “They weren’t aware that the Lottery supported things like this and they saw it as personal that the Lottery was supporting them.

Why does Behind the Label work so well? Kevin’s peer mentor ‘Ozzy’ Aldridge has taken part in the programme several times and says part of its power comes from listening to other people’s stories. “You begin to realise that my story is nothing compared to half of them. There are people in the room in the same boat as you or worse off. And the group is like one big family – we’re always there for each other.”

Behind the Label is appealing for votes after reaching the finals of the 25th Birthday National Lottery Awards – the search for the UK’s favourite ever National Lottery-funded projects and the people.

Behind the Label is competing in the Best Art, Culture & Film Project category. The project with the most votes will be crowned the winner and receive a £10,000 cash prize, an iconic National Lottery Awards trophy and attend a star-studded glittering awards ceremony to be broadcast on BBC One in November.

To vote for Behind the Label go to lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards OR use the hashtag #NLABehindtheLabel on twitter

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