Dear Home Office: a lesson in overcoming fears of making Political Theatre at the Fringe
By Rosanna Jahangard – Co-Artistic Director, Phosphoros Theatre
“Can theatre ever change the world?” asks Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman writing about the shortlisted plays for the 2016 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. It’s a question that reminds me of my mum asking if she should bring the A to Z map book to London with her. I say “yes, definitely” but secretly I know it’s pointless and the phone app is better. It’s a disheartening but lingering question when you’ve agreed to create a piece of new theatre with a group of vulnerable and marginalised refugee young people, in addition to your full-time job (in my case being a teacher), requiring hours and hours of commuting across London to Harrow, on a tiny but precious Arts Council grant. If theatre doesn’t change things, can we justify doing it?
Luckily, the play I have co-created with Dawn Harrison and Kate Duffy – Dear Home Office – received McMillan’s approval, who in her article said it “used the most simple, powerful techniques of participatory youth and community theatre to bring us the real-life voices and presence of eight young refugees” and in her review decided that it “teaches us more in an hour about the current refugee crisis than the standard news in months, or even years”. This was highly reassuring because when you make a play with real people involved (as in teenage boys) there’s a lot of tears that are shed when you spend half of your costly rehearsal time negotiating when and how much pizza you are willing to buy them.
The words of Joyce reminded me of a blog post in March for The Guardian where Lyn Gardner posed a similar question of whether Political Theatre like Dear Home Office can do anything above grassroots change, concluding that the challenging dominant culture through theatre and activism provides IS a worthy investment: “Theatre-makers can enable communities to come together socially, end isolation, solve local problems and articulate their ambitions”. Excellent news. Let’s carry on working on this play.
Perhaps rather obtusely – or maybe totally obtusely on my part – I had never openly admitted that what we were doing with Dear Home Office was necessarily political; even more cowardly was that I also never vocalised that we actually wanted to change anything. When I was inviting friends to see our previews I used the play’s tagline, avoiding anything that sounded too controversial: “it’s just a story about the universal themes of boyhood and coming of age. A celebration of resilience. Don’t worry, it’s not too in your face, or you know, political”. I said this and didn’t dare to even imagine that someone really important would hear our refugees’ stories and send aid to the Jungle. Or that some ordinary person would see our play and suddenly move a Syrian family into their spare bedroom. Or maybe, I had just been cautious, scared even, of these words. Political. Change.
Of course, as anyone reading the title could have told me, Dear Home Office is dealing with both of these things, overtly. And it should be doing so unapologetically. I’m not sure why I had personally become so afraid of making a play which makes statements and has positions and opinions, i.e. Political Theatre. Is it because to be “opinionated” and a female theatre maker has such sadly negative connotations? Would I rather this piece be referred to just as “participatory youth and community theatre”? Or do those terms not have quite enough of a value and current edginess attached to them?
It is not just because we are hearing about refugees everyday in the news that makes this play political, or interesting or indeed relevant, but merely the fact that some people are making their personal needs very public. And our refugee young men didn’t bare their souls every day on stage at the Fringe for no reason. They want people to hear their stories and they want to cause change for themselves but also other refugee children arriving after them. The positive impact of Applied Theatre on the participants is well documented, and the challenge of selling a community show to the general public, or anyone with political power, is obvious. But not insurmountable.
Mid-way into our Edinburgh run Lyn Gardner tweeted that Dear Home Office was “ragged but essential theatre”, which we love because that is what it is. It is ragged because it is real. Which is what makes it essential. We are using the participation in the project to strengthen the asylum claims of at least four boys who are in the play. We can’t do this for every unaccompanied child refugee, but even if we do it for a few, it is something, and it gives hope to others. And when you start to use your networks and social networks to bring in wider audiences, you might even have a Barrister who says “hey, let’s perform this IN the House of Lords, why not?”. And so suddenly, we are putting the wheels in motion to be showing our play to the ‘right’ people. At last, the taste of sweet, sugary vindication.
This idea does then beg the question of who the ‘right’ people actually are? Political Theatre risks “preaching to the converted” as Gardner says and this is the great potential that Community Theatre has. One real change we are proud to say we have seen at our Dear Home Office shows is that we have Muslim, Middle-Eastern, Asian, African, low-income, non-professional, public and private sector, military, young adult and teenage audience members filling our seats, to name those we have spoken to. Our audience feedback which we have emailed to us, reveals the moving impact that witnessing true stories told buy young people can have: “after the performance I created a wee list of actions that I will now take to be more directly involved with supporting those seeking asylum”,(Jo R). Sometimes it is not just the obvious changes that take place: we have had one audience member who was inspired by the boys’ Key Worker (who is both in real life and on stage, Kate) so much that she is undertaking a career change. In this way we can say that change is happening: who are we to comment on the value of this level of change?
We aim to be innovative with audiences and engage with exactly the opposite kinds of people who we think might enjoy the play. For example, our Production Manager Liam dusts off the phone book (which apparently still exist somewhere in Derbyshire) and literally calls people that he hasn’t spoken to for twenty years and tells them to come. We perform in liberal London and eccentric Edinburgh as well as local village halls. We don’t discriminate: we invite everyone even if they voted Brexit. Especially if they voted Brexit.
I am beginning to wonder if the problem with asking if theatre can change things, politically or otherwise, is more that we have limited ways to measure, evaluate or quantify it, and less about whether the change is happening or not. Is the change as long-term as it is far-reaching? Or is it a small but significant change? Happening to someone, somewhere, some of the time? I feel less and less concerned with whether the change is grassroots or governmental, with as much as the fact the change is happening and it is genuine.
Dear Home Office comes to The Pleasance in Islington, London on the 27th and 28th October.