I arrived at ICAF not entirely sure what to expect. I don’t come from a community arts background, instead I was attending as a researcher for the Inquiry into the Civic Role of Arts Organisations. I had a sense I’d meet well-meaning people who do great work in their communities but I certainly wasn’t expecting to experience theatre which made me think so profoundly and uncomfortably.
There were many excellent pieces but to keep this blog from running on forever I will describe four very different pieces that have really stuck with me.
ICAF was kicked off with a packed performance of ‘Talent on the Run’ by Fada Theatre, a company formed in a Dutch refugee centre. Co-founders Ahmad al Herafi and Ramez Basheer are both celebrated actors and directors in Syria. They met escaping to Turkey, continuing their journey to Europe together to seek asylum for themselves and their families and both ended up in the same emergency shelter in the Netherlands. Following the suicide of a fellow refugee, the pair wrote and staged a play with other refugees about their experiences. While the work has evolved and the play performed at ICAF now stars only professional actors, the stories remain those which were uncovered at the refugee camp.
And what stories. The audience watched mesmerised as each actor on the boat to Greece told and acted out their history. Sometimes problems in Syria before the war were addressed, such as conservative parents who didn’t want their daughter to become a ballet dancer, or community disapproval of a Christian and Muslim marrying. Other tales were of peaceful everyday lives being ripped apart by the war. Rape, torture, the perilous journey on boat from Turkey to Greece were all covered. Of course I understood this abstractly beforehand, but after watching Talent on the Run I profoundly understood that every asylum seeker I saw on the news had their own very story.
After the play, the actors and company went on stage to answer questions from the audience. One of the stories we heard was based on the actors’ own – being captured and tortured by ISIS for marrying a Christian woman, who he lost in the upheaval of war. In the Q & A it was revealed that his story had a happy ending. His wife had also escaped Syria and the two of them were recently reunited in Holland. She joined him on stage to a round of applause.
The actors finished the session by each listing their hopes. All wanted an end to the war in Syria. One young man said he hoped to see his parents in Aleppo again. One young woman said she wanted to become a good actor. Ahmad al Herafi, the co-creator and director, said he wanted an end to the war, an immediate stop to the bombing and that he also hoped his daughter, an adorable chubby toddler who had run on stage at the end to give him a hug, would one day be the president of Syria.
The Lesson was staged by Singaporean company Drama Box inside its enormous yet portable blow-up theatre space called GoLi.
As an audience we took our places inside the dome and were welcomed to a ‘community consultation process’. We all became members of a neighbourhood in Singapore where a new metro station was finally going to be built. We were being consulted on where the site would be; essentially we needed to choose one place to be destroyed, or the Government would make the choice for us. Communities struggle with these issues all over the world, none more so in tiny Singapore which has a rapidly growing population.
We then had the opportunity to visit each of the five sites which could be demolished. All of them held value – there was a marshland, a cemetery, a cinema which caters to migrant workers, a halfway house and a market which sold cheap food to working class people. Each place clearly had a strong community value and as we struggled over which place to vote for, heatedly debating the merits of each, a Singaporean actor challenged the whole process. She called for audience members to join her outside to make an ‘alternative process’. About a third left with her, while those who decided they still wanted to vote stayed and debated which place must be demolished.
I won’t ruin The Lesson’s chilling ending in case any reader gets a chance to be part of it for themselves. But it was the buzz of the entire festival. Wherever you went afterwards, people could not stop talking about it and questioning their own decisions and place in society.
I spoke to the actor who played the part of the agitator after the show, who told me how touched she was that we engaged deeply with the issue of whether or not to vote. In authoritarian Singapore she had to work hard to get a few people to try and find another process, while in Europe she was overwhelmed with offers.
Socialist Theatre in Russia
Vmeste’s production Double Eagle was another powerful production using forum theatre and participatory theatre. As an audience we were told we were all applying to leave Russia and emigrate to the EU. Some of us were leaving for work, some to find husbands, some because of the human rights crackdowns. We chose Russian names for ourselves and filled in forms applying for a new life.
In tandem we learnt about Russian emigration over the past century, including the latest outpouring: a million Russians have left since Putin’s crackdowns in 2012. Human rights abuses are rife. Many of the immigrants do not expect to return.
The play took us through the process of moving to Holland, getting jobs, passing the citizenship test and then finally becoming citizens. Just as we were about to celebrate our new lives one actor asked what would happen to our Russian passports? It was explained they would no longer be valid: citizenship would be revoked. Suddenly the magnitude of leaving became clear.
The actors broke character and stood at the front of the stage to speak of their own personal decisions.
One woman said she had to stay to care for her ageing parents because nursing homes were not a good option in Russia. She was nearly thirty and had not married, describing herself as an “old maid” so she explained that meant she and not her married brother was expected to look after her parents.
Another said she had left to study and live in Germany, enjoying the freedoms of her new life. She said she had no plans to return to Russia. Her mother has urged her to go, because as a young woman she had felt trapped in Russia caring for her parents and did not want the same for her daughter.
The trauma of leaving a country behind, even if the economic conditions or human rights crackdowns made life unbearable, became very clear to us. Our final act was to decide if our character would leave Russia or stay. But this led me to another thought: what would I do if I were Russian? I know the right thing would be to stay and try and fight the human rights abuses and the crackdowns. I know it would be incredibly painful to leave family behind. But I also knew how disturbed I would be the country’s dark turn. I took Britain’s decision to leave the European Union really hard. I think many of us in 2016 found out what it is like to find you have vastly different values to others in your country.
When I thought deeply, I could see how life in the EU with its freedoms and opportunities would be too alluring to keep me in Russia. It was not a nice thing to recognise about oneself.
This was a beautiful piece that was genuinely dream-like by Dutch organisation Urban Gorillas. The audience was taken to a strange contraption; bleachers inside a truck which had one side cut away. We took our seats and were then slowly driven around a suburb in Rotterdam. This gave us the feeling of watching a film: the only thing we could see were the streets we were being driven through. The participants came in and out of the ever-changing ‘shot’ in front of us to perform.
As we drove through the suburb, we heard stories recorded from ICAF participants who had volunteered to be part of the show about their dreams. Sometimes we saw the participants leaning against a bus stop or a bush pretending to be asleep. At the climax a group of children leapt out dressed as butterflies and ran around as we came to a stop at a place where all the participants gathered for the final scene. It was a joyous show and after some of the more difficult theatre we’d be watching I found it relaxing and entertaining.
The company behind Dream (Droom in Dutch) explained to us that this is a project they have run in suburbs of Amsterdam where the participants are made up of people from the local neighbourhood. Watch a video of the Amsterdam show here >
As lovely as the show we watched was, where the participants were largely ICAF delegates, I could see the enormous potential of staging Dream the way it usually is done.
The pride in showing off a neighbourhood, the fun of working together to create something, the unifying theme of ‘dreams’. I could see this joining together neighbours of disparate backgrounds in a simple and joyous way.
I returned to London bursting to tell my colleagues about the thought provoking art and conversations I’d experienced at ICAF. We will be documenting some of these in the Inquiry’s upcoming case studies section on this website and in our Phase One report (released in July). Our aim is to create a well-researched ‘bank’ of case studies of arts organisations playing a civic role, most of which will be UK-based but some will be international examples.