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Dance and Theatre

Turning the tables (on silence)
27th April 2017

From Australia, performance-maker Zsuzsi Soboslay writes:

In November 2016 I created The Compassion Plays to honour the experience of refugees. I based its structure on the medieval Passion Plays, where Death calls Everyman to take the journey (‘towards judgment’) we all share. But perhaps in our century, the shared journey is into exile:

There is something primordial in the refugee experience. It is the experience of all of us if we are true to ourselves – in that we must all ‘own’ it, as part of our communal lives. And yet there is this fight and flight response. Get away from me. I don’t know you. This isn’t real. The world is only my own safe place in it. If we let that response dominate, what poor creatures we are.
Jane R Goodall

I wanted to re-situate an audience in relation to the narrative of expulsion. What is it to see those you love, forced to leave? Or to leave what you love behind? Who and what do you become?

So I played Death, and worked with two actors, archives, an immersive video artist, musicians, high school children, and a group of recently-arrived South Sudanese refugees to create the participatory Compassion Plays.

Visual archives became parallels between ‘then’ and ‘now’. You too can come to Australia… Many people identify with that moment of welcome or unwelcome.

I worked the ‘what do you wish for your loved ones?’ questions with the students. We placed their wishes into paper fortune cookies, which they distributed. The cookies could become an improvisational tool, prompting call-and response between actors and audience. With the South Sudanese I collated stories around what they missed–the strengths of the culture in their homelands. Videographer Sam James and I created animations reflecting the pride in their farming practices, the care they took of their cattle. We built a structure of letting-go of precious things. We had a series of ‘swap-stations’ where participants eventually had nothing left but a seedling. The ‘hanging garden’ they planted became part of a gifting to the Sudanese, to help establish a community garden.

It was interesting, problematic and distressing to answer to venue producers and the commercial pressures they unexpectedly brought to the equation. To me, it reflected the gaps in cultural practices that perpetuate how easily we miss each other. Nonetheless, I think we achieved a template for engagements in and amongst other Australian and European communities: What matters? Who counts? Who cares?

The root of the verb ‘to care’ is linked to the root of the verbs ‘to cure’ and ‘to grieve.’ Sometimes we can only learn care as a result of our wounding, of what we miss, or fail to achieve. If only contemporary politics went through such a process of self-examination.

I am currently applying for funding to help bring The Compassion Plays template to the Platforma Festival in the UK in October this year.

For further images:

Part I: The Compassion Plays.

For 3 insightful reviews, go to:

Slide17 Slide25 Slide47 Slide53