Nothing About Us Without Us
How Theatre and Performance Art Can Help Migrants and Refugees in Situations of Uncertainty
It’s 10 September 2022. It’s been six months since I left Russia. While I do technically fall under the United Nations’ definition of a refugee, in no way do I call myself a refugee. Nevertheless, the reality is this: I cannot go back home because of the political situation there. So, in my forced migration, I along with many of my friends who are in the same situation as me, go to see a theatre performance.
I’m standing at the exit of the main train station in Prague, Czech Republic. I’m given headphones, and then the intro to the audio performance Different People, produced by the Ukrainian theatre Uzahvatí, begins playing. This site-specific performance unfolds in varying spaces inside a train station: in the lobby, at luggage lockers, by the ticket booths, on the escalators, and on the platforms. Based on twenty-three hours of interviews with different Ukrainian citizens, the Uzahvati team started collecting and recording them verbatim before 24 February 2022 and continued their work, making adjustments, after the war started.
Like many Ukrainian artists now, Uzahvati tried not to exploit the theme of war directly—in fact, originally the performance was about happiness in general. But the description of the performance tells of the millions of Ukrainians forced to choose between leaving their homes or staying under the threat of shelling. The text itself is imbued with the uncertainty inherent in the situation of people who have suddenly lost their homes. In one scene, the audience is handed open-ended tickets and asked to consider where they might go next, an especially poignant moment given that some of the theatre’s crew members left for Europe after the war began. The performance taking place in a train station also adds to the feeling of precarity because train stations in Prague, Helsinki, Berlin, and other cities have become the main hub for Ukrainian refugees over the past six months.
It turns out that theatre can be important for people who have been forced to exchange home for a situation of uncertainty. In the literal sense, theatres in Przemysl, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; Mariupol, Ukraine; and many other cities, have become shelters for refugees of today’s war. But theatre and performance art that focuses on refugees and themes of migration like Different People also significantly contributes to making the lives of displaced people better.
What is called refugee theatre is part of a more general movement called community or applied theatre: a type of theatre that focuses on a specific (usually vulnerable) group of people and offers tools for working with their situation. These tools could be anything from the therapeutic practices of forum or playback theatre to simply storytelling. Like displaced people themselves, refugee theatre is not a homogeneous phenomenon. I divide the ways it is produced into at least three types: theatre done about, with, or for refugees.
In the first case, individual stories and/or the global situation of refugees becomes the material for a theatrical work that aims to raise awareness. Often these works are made by professional theatre artists who are not refugees themselves. This is the most compromising type of refugee theatre because it does not meet the basic democratic principle of “nothing about us without us.” It is true that even in this type of refugee theatre, there are very important examples, like The Jungle by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson or The Claim by Tim Cowbury and Mark Maughan.
In the second case, people with migration experience become participants in theatrical works themselves. This is already better, but there can also be a range of different power dynamics: sometimes, this type of show may have non-refugees writing these works and exploiting refugees with their narrative while other times it could actually feature refugees taking full control over their story and how it is being told.
In the third case, refugee theatre aims to help people with refugee experiences, whether it is with creative self-expression; the lease of tension and frustration through storytelling; therapeutic processing of trauma; or reflective feedback sessions that allow them to replay certain situations and draw conclusions from them, thereby leading to personal growth. This is often the method used in helping refugees integrate and assimilate. The ideal situation, of course, is when all three of these are combined in one work that is about, with, and for refugees, thus having people with refugee experience directly involved in creating and producing work about themselves, raising awareness about migration situations, and growing through the reproduction and reflection of their experiences.
I believe that the role of art, especially performative art, is not simply to comment on catastrophe or dramatic events but to participate directly in the process of change. By raising awareness, becoming a forum for discussion of politics, broadcasting marginalized experiences, and amplifying the voices of those who are not being listened to, theatre affects the way society is structured. Refugee theatre received particular attention after the migrant crisis in the mid-2010s, but the connection between theatre and refugees goes back much further.
From the very beginning of their journey, refugees are forced to dramatize their lives, especially when they find themselves in a situation of bureaucratic mazes. Much depends on a refugee’s ability to convincingly construct a “sympathetic” self-narrative in the face of the migration administrations in the countries they arrive in.
Immediately after the end of World War II in 1945, the largest refugee camp in Denmark was set up in Oksbøl city, with some thirty-five thousand German civilians living there. In this camp, there was the Theater-Oxbøl with eight hundred seats. Recently FLUGT — Refugee Museum of Denmark launched an audio performance on the site where the camp used to be. This performance was impactful, as it allowed the audience to experience the atmosphere of that time and to be transported to the Theater-Oxbøl.
Another example is Dwight Conquergood, who in his 1988 article “Health Theatre in a Hmong Refugee Camp: Performance, Communication, and Culture,” writes about how rich in performative events Ban Vinai Camp in Thailand was for highlanders. He writes: “Camp Ban Vinai may lack many things—water, housing, sewage disposal system—but not performance. The camp is an embarrassment of riches in terms of cultural performance. No matter where you go in the camp, at almost any hour of the day or night, you can simultaneously hear two or three performances.” These performances ranged from simple storytelling to folk singing to ritual performances for the dead that incorporated drumming, dancing, stylized lamentation and ritual chanting, manipulation of funerary artifacts, incense, fire, and animal sacrifice.
Interestingly, in this article the author notes the large presence of cultural performances in refugee camps in general: in addition to Ban Vinai, he visited eleven other camps in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Nigeria. He attributes this to the fact that in refugee camps, people fall into a liminal state in which a significant part of their identity is lost and a new one has not yet been formed. This—and plenty of free time—allows refugees to experiment with their identities and strategies of adaptation, survival, and resistance. Conquergood writes: “Through its reflexive capacities, performance enables people to take stock of their situation and through this self-knowledge to cope better. There are good reasons why in the crucible of refugee crisis, performative behaviors intensify.”
Many researchers at the intersection of performance and migration have noted that the refugee experience is highly performative, even without the inclusion of the refugee in participatory theatrical practices. Alison Jeffers writes about this at length in the first chapter of Refugees, Theatre and Crisis: Performing Global Identities, where she describes what she calls “bureaucratic performance.” From the very beginning of their journey, refugees are forced to dramatize their lives, especially when they find themselves in a situation of bureaucratic mazes. Much depends on a refugee’s ability to convincingly construct a “sympathetic” self-narrative in the face of the migration administrations in the countries they arrive in.
There are a huge number of cases where refugees are denied residency permits and deported simply because their story is not believed. This is especially common for queer refugees seeking asylum, who are often discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Bureaucrats in many European countries often use legally gray areas to deny subsidies or the right to stay based on a lack of trust in a refugee’s story. Even after being placed in a refugee camp or receiving documents and beginning the assimilation process into their new country, the migrant’s performance of their personal identity does not cease.
This can be clearly seen in the stunning performance No Man’s Land by the Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven—a performance he has repeated with different participants in varying cities and countries. The performance begins at a train station, where twenty spectators are waiting for twenty former refugees who are now settled in their host country. Each of them takes one audience member for a walk through the city, performing several situations and gesturing while his speculative personal narrative unfolds in headphones. Manipulating facts, they invent and reinvent the identity of the narrator to uncover the role of truth and lies in the refugee’s account of himself.
Much of what exists today in the refugee theatre genre is documentary theatre and performance. These are usually verbatim: monologues/dialogues by people with refugee experience recorded and processed or reproduced in the first person. On the one hand, the broader picture is often lost behind the stream of individual stories. But this layer of documentary theatre is critically important in that it complicates the narrative of refugees. I’ve used this generalization of “refugees” thus far, but the point is that refugees cannot be seen as a homogeneous group of people. Their starting conditions—social and financial capital, health, region of departure and arrival, path, values, ethnicity, gender, class, etc.—differ from person to person.
Lack of attention to individual characteristics is responsible for the failure of many integration programs, and refugee theatre helps to highlight the range of possible situations and personal experiences. Another nuance is that attitudes toward refugees in society still exist largely in two modes: either unconditional sympathy towards them as victims or aggression towards them as unwelcome guests. States and migration administrations in the last twenty years have shifted the refugee narrative altogether from the human and political to the economic. For them, refugee and migration are no longer human dramas or a matter of lawmaking but simply a burden on the economy. Refugee theatre helps bring humanity back into the discussion of people who are refugees and their experiences.
But this stratum of theatre has its problems, one being an excessive focus on tragic stories and the recitation of trauma. Sympathy for refugees is natural but today it is reverberating into the expectation of anyone with a refugee experience to automatically talk about the terrible events they’ve been through. This deprives each refugee of individuality and agency. While displacement can be traumatizing, not everyone who’s experienced displacement has been traumatized by it. Furthermore, everyone who has been traumatized feels a very different trace of trauma. Some refugees want to integrate into the host society with the help of state institutions while others want to remain independent and so on. Many refugees are psychologically ready to leave that part of their identity behind and focus on the future—yet they continue to be required to replay dramatic stories that retraumatize them.
In her chapter of the book, Leisure and Forced Migration, Aqeel Abdulla suggests “a refuge from being a refugee.” She describes the work Lost Sheep at the refugee theatre festival REACT. Unlike the other works shown at this festival, Lost Sheep was an uplifting comedy, and almost all the members of the creative team were refugees. There was no goal of making work addressing their experiences of displacement. According to Abdulla, the members of the drama group instead discussed “human relations being good or bad neighbors, being jealous, friendly, and so on. They wanted to give an insight into life in a Sudanese village, as the majority of the actors were from Sudan.”
Some examples of work along these lines of refugee theatre are: Good Chance Theatre, located in a refugee camp in France; Phosphoros Theatre in the United Kingdom; Cantieri Meticci in Italy; the Freedom Theatre in Palestine; Refugee Club Impulse in Berlin, Germany; and many other organizations around the world, both in and outside of refugee camps.
This is a new approach to doing community theatre in general: not starting from pre-ordained identities and circumstances or a particular way of life but simply getting together and starting to experiment. In the process, this allows for inventing new models of relationships, ways of being together, and ways of reshaping one’s identity in the world. Community theatre becomes a platform where active citizens invest in the process of interpreting the reality around them, and this cannot but lead to real changes in public opinion and politics.
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Thank you for sharing your insight, experience, and best practices. My company RealTime Interventions will take this to heart as we begin our next project, with Ukrainian humanitarian parolees.
From 2017-2020, we worked with a group of former female Afghan refugees, in conjunction with refugee resettlement in Pittsburgh, to create a show to forward the group's stated desire to start the first Afghan food business in Pittsburgh. Supported by our city's wonderful Office for Public Art, we developed the play with the guidance of the Afghans at every step. While they preferred not to perform, they chose the women that would tell their own stories onstage. The script was written in response to the question, What do you want Americans to know-- about you, about your country? We did rounds of back-and-forth during the writing to make sure they approved of every line.
You may not be surprised to learn that overall they had little interest in retelling their oppression, refugee, and trauma experiences. Mostly they wanted to share the physical beauty of their provinces, their food, their culture, how they celebrate important moments (the New Year, birth, death, Ramadan.) And this was extraordinarily moving to audiences. Rehearsal of trauma is simply not required for great theater. Each of those women is infinitely more interesting than just being "a refugee"; every person has so much more to tell than what happened on the worst day of their life. Moreover, it was their show to co-create, using their stories, and our pay structure reflects that-- every time we do the show, we pay them royalties.
Building the food business was not an afterthought. For new immigrants who've had to leave everything behind, financial survival is top of mind. In the show, the women cooked while actors told their stories and their children served the food to the audience. This allowed them to do informal "market research" on what dishes would do best in their business, and helped us provide childcare while the women participated. At the same time, the shows gave them catering experience, and during the creation process we partnered with over 20 orgs and food businesses in town to get them training in commercial kitchens, ServSafe certification, mentorship from restaurant owners, LLC paperwork, insurance.. We raised $3k in seed money for their business during the run, and long story short (long?), they emerged with the first Afghan food business in Pittsburgh, Zafaron Afghan Cuisine, co-operatively owned and operated by them.
Art can create tangible improvements in people's lives. It can create empathy and cultural awareness without re-traumatization. Thanks again for your article-- based on the length of this comment, maybe I should write my own 😬 [For more you can visit http://realtimeinterventions…]