In Hwa Young Jung’s ‘A Night of Social Care Improv,’ an unconventional Master of Ceremonies takes the audience on a surreal journey across time and space. Characters Mike and Connie play out alternate lives in smart houses or community hubs automated by a centralized CareBot system. Several audience members bravely volunteer for the role of caregiver, loosely guided by a set of instructions that provides a flexible structure for the scene while creating space for spontaneity and unpredictability.
The performance was developed for the Future World of Work and produced through a series of site visits, workshops and interviews with staff at social care charity Community Integrated Care. Through a scripting process facilitated by Jung and community theatre group The Coach House, carers were invited to create futures from their experiences of working in social care, which were integrated into the improv performance.
Social care covers the gamut of human needs, across all age groups and demographics, including support for learning difficulties, additional physical support needs, mental health challenges, and increasingly, conditions associated with ageing, such as dementia.
The advent and ubiquity of digital technology raises challenging questions for the sector. Given a growing and ageing population, can we maintain a personal touch while also embracing automation in care work?
Ara Darzi, NHS surgeon and former Labour Party health minister, certainly thinks so. According to Darzi, “full automation” of “repetitive tasks” in healthcare services is critical and could save the NHS an estimated £12.5bn. While the empirical data to support this bold claim is conspicuously absent, the allure of home care robots as a cost-saving panacea persists.
Japan is the forerunner in this arena, pioneering with Pepper the humanoid care robot and expecting the care-bot market to grow to 3.8bn by 2035. At the same time, Western countries appear to be especially resistant to the idea of robots as primary caregivers, as concerns about empathy, social independence and emotional support take hold.
Jung was inspired by a 2013 Oxford University survey which found that health and social care roles are the least susceptible to future automation as they require a high level of social intelligence that machine learning is unlikely to replicate. While it seems implausible that robots would replace human carers altogether, research acknowledges their valuable role in facilitating or mediating human social interaction.
Sharing her motivation, Jung tells us that “through the production, I wanted to shine a light on the social care sector, which is often overlooked. By developing on people’s lived experiences and presenting it to the public in a theatre setting, we have been able to highlight the crucial personal interactions of being a good care worker.”
Considering the interpersonal model in relation to such rapid technological shifts and innovations, we must ask, at what cost do we dispense with the human empathy that’s vital to good care?
For Jung, improvisational theatre techniques capture the unpredictability and community spirit of the care sector, which demands that frontline workers respond to conflicting demands with compassion and quickly defuse potentially volatile situations. Most care workers must also apply that same improvisational spirit to managing fluctuating shift patterns and wages in a profession which ranks as one of the lowest paid in the UK, with up to 220,00 workers earning less than the National Minimum Wage.
A Night of Social Care Improv conjures several potential futures of social care provision, each with their own particular emotive frequency. While some forecasts retain a sense of optimism, others present scenes of disconnection and exasperation. We can begin to imagine alternative futures when we start to reframe what are considered to be the fundamental problems that need to be addressed. Artistic provocations like Jung’s challenge political certainties, helping to broaden the scope of the possible, and can ultimately support new strategies for social transformation.