I have been posting about my theatre workshops in the refugee centre, the history of the site, along with verbatim interviews. I have found this month to be an exciting creative launchpad and a chance to engage with different people who move within the space. Now, as my month draws to a close, I would like to discuss how my research might feed into either a live performance or an audio performance tour within the space. How might I invite the wider public to engage with the history and current use of the site, using drama?
In my third workshop at the refugee centre, I asked a group member to read aloud some verbatim material recorded during an interview with another refugee (who is not part of the theatre group):
The journey takes hours. I look out of the window and nothing is next to us, just clouds and sky. I still remember my first day in London. I felt like I was in a new country, new place, new people, new weather. Everything was different. In a good way although it was too cold. I miss the sunshine, the food. I miss Bondu, it is a special vegetable dish. My mom was cooking for me every day. Every day I was just eating. I used to study marketing in Congo. In London I feel like it is home. I find new friends and family. When I say family I mean close friends. The culture is different that’s the main thing. The way they are doing. The way they are acting.
While this material was read aloud, the group physically acted out the story together, jointly expressing their culture shock on arrival in the UK. Again, we were re-enacting the stories that emerge within the space on a daily basis and validating them through our shared activity. The participant’s willingness to engage in this work and their regular attendance at my classes, leads me to think that devising a full performance in the church space for an invited audience would be both a manageable and beneficial experience.
Indeed, the church itself, with its multiple objects and decorations, greatly provokes my imagination. Could we create a character out of the Jean Cocteau fresco in the Lady Chapel? Could the statue of Mary on the balcony, cut in half and smuggled out of France during World War Two, be viewed as a refugee of sorts? These furnishings are already part of another story, brought to life daily through sacraments and a revered liturgy. Would it be appropriate to stage refugee stories in this space? The site owners would understandably wish there to be some focus on the current, sacred nature of the space. Would my theatre group, made up of people of different religious backgrounds be comfortable working in this way?
I could stage my presentation in the balcony, a slightly removed location, which could be more spiritually neutral. Another idea could be to use the front steps of the church, although this could jeopardise my ability to reenact the panorama. Would the refugees be able to fully ‘take the space’ if they had to perform outside it? Would this setting not reinforce their exclusion? This location could, in fact, add another political dimension to the piece by sending a message that refugees continue to be on the outside of society looking in. A liminal locale on the threshold of the building could be the perfect place to stage the crossing of borders. Perhaps, I could incorporate the opening and closing of the picturesque metal gate through a stylised dance sequence? This dark entrance space, however, like the balcony, presents practical hurdles. How would we rehearse if people need to access the church? Would passers-by be invited to watch? Would we engage with the homeless people who sleep in the church during the day? Members of the public only come into a theatre space during the performance and, usually, in exchange for money. In this case, people are almost perpetually here, whether praying or sleeping. Would we ask them to leave or invite them to watch?
A site might provide exciting characters and spatial backdrops, which trigger creativity and provide rich material to mine from. Site-specificity can, however, also greatly affect a writer’s freedom; a site’s non-theatrical functions make it impossible to divorce direction and stage-management from the writing process. Interviewing, excavating, writing and directing may struggle for precedence within a short time frame, resulting in a competition between form and content. Architectural opportunities affect the architecture of the story, which, in turn, depends on the material gained through interviews.
These interlinking dependencies can make it difficult to progress with writing. When working with documentary material, fascinating ideas may come bubbling up, but they need to be placed under a particular denominator, whether the actors, the space or the story; one needs an organising idea upon which to build. It is also best to separate work into manageable stages. When working with a site, it is not always possible to bring one’s vision to life as originally planned. Being clear about the message one is trying to communicate with space-owners, before investing energy, is crucial. When writing a straight text, one has the freedom to build an imagined world that may play out in multiple different spaces. With site-specific work, the site itself becomes a character, which asserts its own authority and is far less malleable. With human sources it is possible to discard interview rushes. With a site, the practical and ethical ramifications of the space cannot usually be cut or edited: the space serves other, non-theatrical purposes, which need to be continually factored in. Moreover, a site-specific piece cannot be lifted and reinserted elsewhere; its identity is wrapped up in the space. It is, therefore, vital to consider the ethical and practical baggage beforehand and be realistic about whether this correlates with one’s vision.
A performance could be staged on the roof of the church, an exciting platform within the cityscape, which could seat a large, private audience and would not automatically prompt a religious message. I believe this liminal roof space, like the steps, could add a deeper spatial-political dimension to my piece. The refugees could still peer into the church through the windows and describe the panorama, highlighting their continued social exclusion.
Alternatively, my research into the panorama might fuel a poetry audio tour of the church, perhaps a more appropriate dramatic form within a sacred space. When writing work specifically tailored to a site, audio poetry walks can also be a way of generating ongoing artistic value in a way that a live project cannot. This walk could incorporate the history of the building, recordings of the refugees singing and explain the religious elements of the space. It could even be a spiritual, archaeological treasure hunt communicated through poetry and prayer.
Meanwhile, performances can continue to take place in the refugee centre which adjoins the church. In fact, my theatre group is now preparing for our end-of-term showcase which will be performed for an internal audience in the refugee centre site. We will perform ‘Kembo’, ‘Shosha Loza’ and our other African songs. I hope this will draw in the wider community of refugees, staff and volunteers at the centre and engage them with our work as we continue to channel our migration experiences through song and dance to animate the stories that unfold daily in the site.
Should you wish to learn more about the work of Notre Dame Refugee Centre, you can visit this website.