During our first practical workshop, we began to interact with the second floor room of the refugee centre. It is sometimes easy during theatre workshops to take the space for granted. Yet, this tangible terrain may provide a useful creative springboard with its own untapped potential. This is what I enjoy about site-specific work. It not only turns the space into an exotic location, but also uses it as a bold and necessary character in the drama. If participants begin to acknowledge that they are present within the workshop space and notice its tangibility and unique features, these can be welcomed and incorporated into the theatre-making process. During the workshop, I therefore aimed to encourage participants to take ownership of the refugee centre site and affirm their validity within it, through a dialogue with the spatial elements. This dialogue is a necessary one. Clients are in the refugee centre every week yet they do not always stop to consider the colour, texture or patterns around them. After interviewing some of them, it emerged that they had not really considered the facilities or layout. What really mattered to them was the people inside the space and the support they received there. It is their experiences within the site which animates it for them. During this session, I therefore wanted them to consider the particular physical elements of the space itself as the scenery of their day-to-day experiences and backdrop for their refugee stories, which they regularly share with staff and each other.
We began with a Tai Chi breathing exercise, raising our arms while inhaling and then exhaling with the sound ‘Mmmmaaaah’. I asked the participants to imagine that audience members were behind as well as in front of them and to stay still but try to aim their voices three hundred and sixty degrees around them. They were quite surprised at how this affected their breathing. One lady said she felt space opening up and she pointed at her lower back. We did this exercise together and experienced how our voices could hit different corners of the room. We also practiced directing these verbal reverberations to a particular object or point on the wall. This allowed us to open up a dialogue with different spatial elements. It is impossible for one’s eyes to turn corners but one’s voice can indeed do so when the intended target is clear in one’s mind, whether it be a table or another group member.
I then invited participants to explore the space by tapping and saying ‘hello’ as they made contact with the floor, walls, sockets, folded tables and chairs. In this way, they were able to wake up the room, using their bodies and their voices, which began to reverberate against the space. The next step was to rename the spatial features. Participants now moved around saying ‘Hello Moncillo!’ to the floor and ‘Hello Chezolet!’ to the cupboard as they spontaneously invented new tags and titles. It is interesting how existing linguistic sound patterns gave birth to new, imaginary words. When we began, only two ladies had arrived. One spoke only French: she had flown from the Congo just three weeks earlier. The other also spoke Italian: she had married an Italian and travelled to the UK via Italy. Neither spoke English. I, fortunately, speak Italian so was able to lead this part of the session in Italian while one of the ladies translated into French. We interacted with the space through a multi-lingual artistic process and referred to the floor in English, then Italian, then French. The constant need to translate slowed the workshop process down considerably, providing a reflective mood. This seemed to make participants more aware of the intercultural process that was taking place. It perhaps provided an artistic outlet to express the challenges faced by migrant communities trying to participate in social dialogue. It also manifested the struggles of other individuals in the host community, attempting to engage with new members of their environment, as represented by me, the workshop facilitator. Indeed, the medium of theatre, through the performative relationship between actors and audience, is an ideal mode within which to enact a conversation between marginalised communities and the rest of society. This exercise mirrored the participants’ need for cultural conversation. Yet, the final, spontaneous creation of a new language also created a sense of unity and playfulness within the space, as we began to re-label the room with our own meanings and words. We were each inviting the rest of the group to discover the room in a new way and consider its objects afresh. This perhaps enabled us to explore the possibilities of positive intercultural communication.
We continued to turn to physical theatre as a means of expressing ourselves. This provided further liberation from linguistic boundaries and enabled us to engage in a “third culture” of corporeal interaction. I obviously had to be very cautious about opening up experiences of deep trauma and loss collectively, without the aid of a drama therapist present. Yet, in this case, I ascertained that both participants had received visas (through their husband and parents respectively) and had travelled legally to the UK. I also came to the UK legally aged eleven from South Africa. It therefore felt safe to explore our experiences within the rehearsal space, particularly as it was a contained group of three. I asked if they would be comfortable sharing their airport experiences, and they readily agreed. The Italian-speaker went first and described talking with an official, who had been surprised that she was married to an Italian. She re-enacted this exchange and invited us to participate physically in recreating the airport environment. This theatrical mode of telling her story clearly provided a sense of release for her, as having an avid audience ready to participate with her clearly gave added validity to her experiences. We then vivified my experience as a ten year pushing my three-year old sister in a pram through the airport in Johannesburg on route to London. My own migration helped me empathise to some extent with their transitions from the Congo to the UK. It seemed this shared background contributed to an ease within the rehearsal space, and I was transformed from a facilitator into a co-creator.
Finally, we re-enacted a scene from three weeks earlier, when the young Congolese girl had arrived at the airport in London to be greeted by her parents. She had not seen her mother in sixteen years and her father in ten. This was clearly a moment of great emotion and joy for her. She directed myself and the other participant to play her parents and told us to shout her name as she ran towards us. By bringing these stories to life within the shared rehearsal space, we fused our migration experiences. This kind of improvised re-enactment process could easily lead to devising a full play, based on collective experiences as we were able to knit together a common thread of shared stories. While we may not literally be telling our own story, we would be telling the collective story of migration which unites us all.
I aim to empower participants to tell their stories and affirm their presence and value within the refugee centre site. We have begun to engage with the space itself and explore how our voices and bodies can interact in novel, intuitive conversations with its elements. We have also begun to use the space as a platform, a playing area for presenting past memories of our migration experiences. I would like to explore some of the more difficult migration narratives. I know that many clients have gone through very extreme circumstances. I have privately recorded some of their stories, and we will be working with these in our next session, in a less subjective manner, which accommodates the pain and complexity of the subject matter. I hope that by bringing these astonishing stories to life in workshops, we can continue to consciously explore the role of the building as a contemporary repository for migration experiences.