Neil Beddow explains how acta in Bristol overcomes the challenges of engaging migrant and refugee communities in theatre making.
Everyone has a story to tell; they just need someone to listen. However, for refugees, when the world seems to have decided what those stories are, it’s even more important that they get to tell those stories themselves.
acta is a theatre company working in Bristol, and we believe that everyone should have the chance to tell their story, that everyone can make vibrant, exciting and relevant theatre with a natural voice that can connect directly to audiences.
We’ve always prioritised people on the edge of society, and our projects work closely with these participants. We use our expertise as facilitators, writers, directors and producers to enable the unheard to create and perform exciting and original theatre, which tells their stories, expresses their creativity, and celebrates their life experiences.
Enjoyment is a central part of the approach – if they enjoy it, if they laugh together and have fun, they will come back
A central part of our work involves people from the diverse cultures, which make up 16% of the Bristol population, with a particular focus over the past five years on migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. This is in reaction not only to the growing refugee crisis, but to an identified growth in misunderstanding within the wider community, driven by shifts in the political landscape and misinformation within some elements of the media. acta has always believed in social equality, and to reflect the late MP Jo Cox, that people have ‘more in common than that which divides them’.
In 2013-15 we worked in partnership with Bristol Refugee Rights to create ‘Listen to our Story’, a play where asylum seekers were able to tell their own stories. Three years before the refugee crisis became front-page news, we were hearing stories of the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, the difficulties and dangers of getting to the UK, the hardship and impossible challenges of surviving once they arrived. We’ve also worked with migrant and ‘settled’ refugee communities in the city, predominantly Somalian and Sudanese women, working in close partnership with local schools to lead ‘theatre for ESOL’ projects, creating new theatre along the way.
But getting people involved in theatre-making where there is no tradition of this for non-professionals can be a difficult sell. It’s hard enough in UK communities, but there are lots of extra difficulties and challenges when working with people arriving from different countries, such as:
- Cultural differences in expectations of theatre – what it is and who makes it
- Language barriers – working with people from a range of different nationalities in the same group, all using English as a second language
- Religious practices – where the prospect of public performance may challenge personal beliefs
- Lack of time, inability to plan – many refugees are busy with life, trying to make a place for themselves, and often have choices made for them, including job centres demanding their attendance at language courses.
How we solved it
We have developed numerous approaches to meet these challenges, learning from former projects.
These are our key values:
- Flexibility – we have learned to adapt around the complicated lives of our participants, and work with who we have, when we have them
- Relevance – working with partners to identify needs and tailoring projects to the need of individuals, be it lack of confidence in using the English language, challenging hate crime, or celebrating culture
- Ownership and equality – ensuring the process is led by the participants involved, creating a framework in which their creativity is stimulated
- Respect – valuing participants as the experts in the stories they have to tell and respecting what that story is – we don’t go into the project with a fixed idea of what interests us as theatre-makers
- Fun – enjoyment is a central part of the approach – if they enjoy it, if they laugh together and have fun, they will come back.
Each week, acta works with hundreds of people from different backgrounds across Bristol, and part of our policy is to arrange for everyone to see each other’s work, having observed how this has the result of promoting empathy and understanding between cultures and generations. For example, during plays partly performed in Somali, young British Somali men were translating the dialogue for the white working-class families sitting next to them, with all then laughing together at the shared joke.
All these experiences led us to want to share our learning, and learn from others, and we developed a new project – REACT (Refugee Engagement and integration through Community Theatre) to explore the issues at a European level. Along with our partners in Holland and Sicily, we were able to secure funding from the EU through Creative Europe for a two-year project to develop theatre projects with refugees and host communities in each country, and measure the effectiveness of community theatre in promoting understanding, empathy and friendship between the different cultures involved.
Remember: everyone has a story to tell. They just need an audience.
Neil Beddow is Artistic Director of acta.
The REACT Festival ‘Theatre made by Refugees’, 26 - 29 March, will showcase new shows by acta, RWT, CSC, Glasgow Citizens, CAN Manchester, Phosphorus Theatre, Good Chance, PAN Intercultural Arts, and provide an opportunity for the theatre makers to discuss the challenges, benefits and future of this work.