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Walk with Amal: The Five-Thousand-Mile-Long Theatrical Provocation

There are some, no doubt, in the United Kingdom’s media and across the European continent who rolled their eyes at the idea of the Walk with Amal project (WWA). It was quite possibly the world’s largest theatre festival which saw a 12-foot-high puppet refugee girl walk the refugee corridor from Turkey to the United Kingdom, passing through 8 countries and making around 140 stopovers in towns and villages along the way. Some possibly identified too much with Little Amal (as she became known) and saw her as a threat—like the Orthodox Church in Greece, who banned her from walking on consecrated ground. Others perhaps had issues with a female refugee child being presented as a puppet, although the team of puppeteers consisted of some refugees (such as Syrian Mouaiad Roumieh, who came to see the puppetry team as family). The producers, too, have always been open about what Little Amal stands for—not the literal and hostile experience that most refugees have, of course, but the experience that they might have, allowing those welcoming her to bring out the best in themselves and the best in her.

Good Chance Theatre, which produced Walk with Amal and was the company behind The Jungle and the theatre dome in the Calais Jungle, have purposefully kept the project apolitical—as much as making work with refugees about refugees can be. The founding artistic directors of Good Chance, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, told me they also made the decision to keep the walk and the events across Europe’s towns and cities celebratory. There is enough negativity and trauma about refugees in the media and to replicate it on the walk would hardly be provoking. There is no enmity towards journalists doing their jobs—they rightly report the horrific experiences refugees go through. It's just that such stories can unintentionally help spread negativity around them and tend to be accompanied by the sometimes untrue notion that refugees aren’t wanted or can't be supported in the United Kingdom and Europe. The real provocation for WWA was to get people thinking about refugees in a positive way and to turn the very public debates—especially when countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom began passing hostile immigration policies just as the project began—from economic discussions into human ones.

Life-sized internally operated puppet standing in a canyon alongside a man.

Little Amal in Pamukkale. Photo by Andre Lihon.

Changing the Narrative about Refugees with a Puppet

WWA is trying to create a different narrative. In a continuation of the themes that were expressed in the company’s 2018 residence at the Museum of Immigration in Paris—where refugees welcomed Parisians into their theatre dome as if it were their home—towns and communities were asked to create art events around the theme of “welcome” to greet Little Amal or to greet her how they wanted (which some certainly did). In Cesme, Turkey, Amal followed hundreds of pairs of shoes (gathered by K2, an Izmir-based artist initiative organization) through the city to the seashore where she waited for her crossing to Greece. In Calais, a group of refugee rappers serenaded Amal and wished her a safe journey (they themselves were likely trying to get to Britain). At St Paul’s London, a chorus of children sang “Consider Yourself” from the musical Oliver!

A narrative arc was invented for Little Amal by the producers: Searching for her mother and a new life, she had a tantrum in Naples, Italy. In Rome, she was haunted by a nightmare. The intention was to contrast Rome’s opulent architecture with the reality refugees experience in that city. In London, she was scared by the loud clatter of a train. One could probably produce a mood board to visualize her trek across Europe. But how does giving Little Amal the qualities, needs, and desires we all have and humanizing her on a basic level so that, as Murphy observes, “people treated her more like a human being than they would a real human,” change perceptions around refugees? Well, the impact came in unexpected ways.

When Little Amal reached Coventry, she met a policewoman, whose name was also Amal (meaning hope in Arabic) who burst into tears at their unplanned encounter. She herself was a refugee from Syria and had been in the United Kingdom for twenty years, but she told Murphy and Robertson that this was the first time she had felt seen. This astounding revelation goes beyond anything that perhaps can be achieved onstage. Would Amal the policewoman ordinarily go to see theatre in a building? Would she feel welcome in such a place?

Of course, Little Amal is just a puppet. Yet, how can she be when a little boy in front of me at Shakespeare’s Globe, which Little Amal was due to visit, cried out, “Daddy, daddy, I can see her!” when her stray, large fingers appeared above the groundling wall, seemingly cupping the edge of the theatre in her hand? I will never forget the surreal sight of several replicas of her legs, complete with red zip boots, leaning nonchalantly against the wall like spare limbs. The sight was oddly shocking and touching.

Little Amal is not what the creators thought she would be. (If it seems strange talking about Little Amal as if she were a person, Murphy told me he had freed himself from that “embarrassment” sometime ago.) Good Chance had envisioned a more vulnerable, perhaps weaker, version of a puppet, but what Handspring Puppet Company (the same company that made the puppets for War Horse) created was a strong and capable-looking little girl. It meant the producers had to change their expectations of her and what they felt they could do for her. Murphy told me that this realization that she was someone who could have experiences and hold herself tapped straight into the idea of showing how refugees have potential—another important message that this monthslong show was trying to impart. Robertson added, “We’re not holding her hand, we’re following her.”

Life-sized internally operated puppet standing in the middle of a crowd.

Little Amal's first steps in Gaziantep. Photo by Huseyin Ovayolu.

Structure and Audience

“Daddy, I want to follow her,” the little boy cried out when he spotted Little Amal once more. And follow is what we did, from Gabriel’s Wharf in London, then up the river walkway to the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre, where Little Amal could meet the public—both those who were expecting her and those who woke up that morning with no idea they would meet a twelve-foot-tall refugee girl. On this particular stretch of the walk, Little Amal was invited to a storytelling event at the Royal Festival Hall and a community chorus at the National Theatre (part of their Public Acts Department), but she was also getting out of the theatre buildings and being in spaces where people could just “stumble” across her.

The urge to follow Little Amal—I was with her for around six hours that Saturday in October—was palpable from the crowds. Robertson says it allowed the audience to “form an interpretative community and give live commentary,” which is something most unlikely to happen at a play in a theatre. It gave people a wider sense of belonging. “Because Little Amal was always moving, the audience moved with her,” continues Robertson. “They were able to feel like they were a part of it, and they felt empowered to take on a character that welcomes Little Amal.”

Gary, a Public Acts community member at the National Theatre, agrees. He shares that his experience singing “My Way Home” to Little Amal gave him goose pimples. He was able to see beyond her as a puppet and think of her as a real person. Similarly, associate producer of Public Acts James Blakely says Little Amal reminded him “of the barriers that can be leapt over when taking work out of buildings.”

Little Amal tilted the conversations around refugees and provided a new perspective for many. However, her travels also (unintentionally) brought out localized hostilities such as the fascist demonstration and the anti-fascist counterdemonstration when Little Amal was in Larissa, Greece. The fascist demonstration was a negative reenactment of how some people—who pelted the puppeteers and Little Amal with stones—feel towards refugees. But it was disempowered because it took place against a puppet and was countered by all the warmth that Little Amal did receive.

Having such an open, accessible, and flexible structure—i.e., Little Amal visiting various places with a loose narrative—meant that communities could invent Little Amal’s story to a certain extent. Artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi worked tirelessly on Zoom with all the groups involved to support their endeavors to welcome Little Amal. In the end, such groups were the driving forces behind what happened when she visited. The WWA team’s willingness to be flexible also allowed them to respond when communities felt that they needed them. Turin, Italy was fifty miles off Little Amal’s route, but it is home to many Syrian families so when they requested a visit, WWA complied and made the detour.

Where You Think Theatre Happens at the Moment Isn’t Actually Where It Is Happening

Has this project changed how the theatre community might think about theatre forever? Potentially—and it certainly provides possibilities for some of the debates currently raging in the United Kingdom such as: Where does and where can theatre take place? For whom and by whom? WWA is about refugees and at its core, is a plea to remember them and to see them as human beings with basic potential. But it’s also a very bold exercise in exploring how big theatre can get. Just how many people can it reach? How many people from different cultures and countries can it involve? Although WWA did purposefully engage with political leaders such as mayors, speakers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in England, and religious leaders such as Pope Francis, its larger audiences were people outside those arenas and occupying different societal spaces. Even the stone-throwing fascists in Greece are included in this audience.

In co-producer Naomi Webb’s words, it allowed people from all backgrounds to come together, have a response, and engage with a subject matter that is normally characterized by fear and hostility. For Murphy, it’s about responsibility: “We have buildings that are effectively run with beautiful programs dedicated to certain audiences, but the audience we want [is] terrified—we have to be willing to go to them. It’s the artist’s responsibility to find a good way into those situations for new audiences.” With sudden passion he adds, “Rip off our first way of doing it, this rolling festival across Europe.”

Little Amal might have ended this journey in Manchester, greeted by a chorus of wooden swallows and a beautiful video overlay voiced by her mother and directed by Simon Stone, but her story continues. She is now being invited to other places all over the world—she was most recently at Cop26 (the UN Climate Change Conference 2021) and in The Hague in the Netherlands. It seems something has been started that has no end in sight, as long as she is needed by the world and refugees.

Little Amal’s journey also created a “corridor of friends”. When David Lan, one of the producers, coined this phrase and started using it in articles and interviews, I didn’t think it was meant to be quite so literal. However, as Murphy and Robertson tell me, such a corridor has come into existence by way of nongovernmental organizations and charities along the route who previously didn’t know of each other’s existence or who never worked with each other before. These groups were able to collaborate to provide stronger support for real refugees along the route now and in the future. If anything, this is one of the potentially lasting legacies of this first WWA project—an unbelievable achievement.

Milo Rau, artistic director of NTGent in Belgium once said to me, “You can only pragmatically relate to something. You can’t have an idea. You can only construct society in bringing people together and then work on a project.” The United Kingdom conservative press practically ignored WWA—a deliberately toxic Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail found fault that Little Amal was female, and I wondered if the response would have been the same if the puppet had been a young man. But perhaps what he and others really dislike and fear about WWA is not just that it is a positive representation of refugees to counter the media hostility and change hearts and minds, but that it was and is incredibly successful in bringing people together in hope and love.

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