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“You can’t do revolution on your own”: Lara Parmiani on the Migrant Woman Experience in British Theatre

Lara Parmiani was born in Italy but has been living and working in London for twenty years as an actor, dramaturg, director, and voiceover artist. In 2010, Lara created LegalAliens Theatre with associate Becka McFadden and other migrant women artists based in London, where productions have included the English premieres of The Return by Sergio Pierattini, Poker Face by Petr Kolečko and Closed Lands by Simon Grangeat. A recent podcast series, Things I Am Not, comprising of ten original fifteen-minute-long monologues, was written and performed during lockdown by female migrants who explore their living experiences in the UK. Lara is also a co-founder of Migrants in Theatre (MIT). I met up with Lara to discuss the migrant woman experience in Britain and its representation, or lack thereof, on British stages.

verity healey: How has the UK theatre sector changed in the twenty years you’ve been here and how similar are the problems from what you encountered when you first arrived?

Lara Parmiani: When I came in ’97 it was cool Britannia—those early Tony Blair years where we were taken in by the illusion that things can only get better. Now, when I have conversations with Italian migrants who moved here in the Tory years leading to Brexit, they see Britain as mainly hostile.

British theatre was more interesting at the time. Yes it was less diverse and very white and male, so in that sense there has been very important progress, but this progress has not gone hand in hand with an artistic renaissance. On the contrary, the 2008 recession and a lot of concurring factors contributed to a certain uber-capitalist evolution. Or involution, if, like me, you don’t think art should be considered simply a product to sell.

Theatre has become dominated by the commercial sector with the West End being the model to aspire to. I have nothing against private enterprises making billions by casting Hollywood stars or producing spectacular musicals as long as there’s a parallel space populated by venues focused on creating theatre as art, as culture, as a space for artists to experiment, to radically rethink theatre aesthetics and the role of theatre itself. And for communities to get together and watch something that can have an impact on their lives.

There is something broken in a model when even state-funded theatres, National Portfolio Organizations, middle-scale theatres, and even fringe venues are under such financial pressure that they are forced to place sales before anything else. With London becoming top real estate, where are the spaces to experiment, encourage new voices, involve new communities?

Enter Brexit, and the fear of not looking “British” enough... At the same time, British theatre is playing it safe and is also trying to prove its “diversity” credentials, but the two things can rarely go together. For real diversity to happen one can’t be scared of radical change. Personally, I think in the past ten years, British theatre has been losing track of its own identity and what makes it unique, and this has lessened the argument for it to be funded during the pandemic.

During lockdown, when theatres closed, I kept hearing famous celebrities and government ministers saying, “We must support theatres because of the West End’s commercial value and because it is where actors can ‘flex their muscles’ before going on to big film careers.” No. Theatres aren’t a prep school for wannabe celebrities. And they are not just an industry like tourism. They should be funded as culture. Like libraries. Do libraries make money? No. But they are important for culture and the community.

We have become a country where arts and culture are now seen as something elitist, something not for “real people,” and where anything international or mentioning the word “migrant” is seen with suspicion or even hostility.

verity: This “hostile” environment must make it harder, as a woman-led migrant company, to pitch international theatre to venues outside London?

Lara: Brexit has created this dichotomy of “international elitist London” versus “the real people of England.” Audiences get underestimated by venues that are often terrified of presenting anything that diverges from what they think their traditional base is looking for. But when you go beyond the “us against them” narrative and create shows that are actually engaging, people do tune in and love them, even if they are something new.

Programmers are terrified anything perceived as “foreign” won’t have an audience—“Who is your audience?” seems to be the only question. But venues should know who their audience is and be able to market a show to them. That’s the other thing that happens in this country: theatres can’t seem to get loyal audiences to see all of their productions anymore. I think it’s because there is a disconnect between theatres and their communities.

We have become a country where arts and culture are now seen as something elitist, something not for “real people,” and where anything international or mentioning the word “migrant” is seen with suspicion or even hostility.

verity: You set up LegalAliens with other migrant women. What were the challenges you faced at first?

Lara: When we started up ten years ago we were seen as an oddity. One of our first plays, The Return by Sergio Pierattini, was set in Northern Italy and we cast four Italian actors who spoke English with a genuine Northern Italian accent. It blew people’s minds.

Through the years we’ve developed a methodology of translation where not only do we want the translator in the rehearsal room to always have direct access to the original text, but where we refrain from anglicizing the setting, the accent, and the context in order to make plays “less foreign.” We want the original language, culture, and context of the play to be there and for the translation to be “minimalistic” without ever pretending the story we’re telling isn’t set in another country.

Often we keep original words in if they work better. And our actors have accents. Any accent. I know this makes us less “sellable.” Many programmers and artistic directors are incredibly skeptical and they seem unable to “trust” the professionalism of a company made entirely of mainly migrant women actors. As if we weren’t professional somehow, as if their audiences couldn’t accept a show where foreign accents are heard from beginning to end. It’s such a colonial attitude because the same venues don’t have a problem producing plays set in the Appalachian Mountains or in Australia, with actors speaking with those accents. But they are “variations of English.” To a certain extent, they’re not really foreign.

It’s funny because Peter Brook began casting actors irrespective of their accent, ethnicity, or nationality back in the eighties. He’s hailed as a genius, yet nobody in the UK has really followed his example. This obviously means abandoning pure realism and creating a more imaginative theatre.

It’s undeniable that when you present something different, it makes you even more of an outsider. And the more I try to make work here the more I realize theatre in this country is as closed a shop as it is in Italy, it’s just less obvious and more systemic.

Lara Parmiani wearing a black top and holding out a banana in front her like a gun.

Lara Parmiani in POKER FACE, written by Petr Kolečko and directed by Becka McFadden. Production Design: Becka McFadden and Cassandra Fumi. Photo by John Watts.

verity: Is this your experience now?

Lara: Yes. And it goes for emerging artists as well, especially working-class artists who, like us, don’t have “connections” or families supporting them while they work for free. If someone is a real outsider like us, venues are fortresses. Look at their websites—there are no guidelines for companies to pitch work. Some say, “Invite us to see your work,” so artists invest money in putting up a fringe show, then nobody goes to see it. Artists spend time and energy to attract people to see their work and never get feedback.

In Germany, the dramaturg goes to see new shows, they write reports and can advise an artistic director to see a show. But here there is no one whose job it is to see a show and report on it.

Another challenge is often artists get a meeting to pitch a show, and 90 percent of the time the person they’re pitching to is a white, middle-class, young man who somehow, at twenty-six, is a senior producer. I have the greatest respect for young talent, but what we often find is they look at us with a mix of slight “frisson” because we are women, probably a bit “exotic,” and with total bewilderment verging on amusement because we have three projectors in our show.

They don’t understand what we’re doing because they have never seen it before. But instead of being curious they smirk. So we feel patronized and judged by young gatekeepers who would recoil in horror at the idea of coming across as such but who effectively are keeping the system exactly as it’s always been without even realizing it.

verity: Is it a surprise to you that the UK theatre sector gives such little space to migrant women when it presents itself as being pro EU and a community of “remainers”?

Lara: It’s extraordinary that theatre has avoided talking about Brexit and the demonization of migrants it created. Artistic directors calling themselves progressive have totally failed to dedicate some space to migrant voices. And migrant women in particular. If you think about it, Brexit and #MeToo happened at the same time, so it was the perfect opportunity to reach out to both these demographics and say, “We are your allies.”

Instead, #MeToo was discussed for about three months, but has the culture really changed? Marginally, but not massively. And migration… Ignored! It’s partly because when many British people in theatre hear the words “migrant women,” they don’t immediately realize we’re not just talking about the woman making your coffee or cleaning your office… When we ask artistic directors why they never consider us, most of them reply they have never thought about it.

If they are honest about wanting to rebut the poisonous narrative around migration, the answer isn’t to put on a show where migrants are secondary characters, written about and by British—and mostly male—voices, and performed by British actors with fake accents. The answer is to give us the chance to express our voices! Put us center stage!

Artistic directors calling themselves progressive have totally failed to dedicate some space to migrant voices. And migrant women in particular.

verity: So the word “migrant” and the migrant woman experience in particular is misunderstood?

Lara: The migrant woman experience is so much more complex than people think. It intersects with race, gender, nationality, disability. We sometimes get challenged for merging the terms “international” and “migrant” by people accusing us of appropriating the latter. Those critics would be fine with us calling ourselves “international” because it sounds glam and transient—it’s somebody who comes to the UK and makes some theatre and leaves...

“Migrant”—particularly a woman migrant—conveys a different image in their minds, an image of somebody with no agency, with poor English, and who needs to be either helped with charity or judged harshly as a benefit scrounger, depending on their political affiliation. The critics think, How can someone be a professional artist and call themselves a migrant? But look at our ensemble. Between the Hostile Environment and Brexit, we all had to jump through hoops to stay in the country we call home. We had to work doubly hard, with nobody to rely on and with this threat hanging over our heads. Some of us have received nasty letters from the Home Office.

The truth is migrant women occupy so many roles in society including in the arts, yet the very rare times we’re represented on stage it’s always with the same tropes. And most of them go back to Victorian times: the exotic lover, the family wrecker, the passive object of desire. It’s such a male gaze. Oh and of course prostitutes and cleaners!

I love to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Our work is about offering alternative narratives.

verity: In your podcast Things I Am Not (TIAN) you do talk about the communality of the migrant woman experience. Is it a contradiction?

Lara: No. We don’t say there’s only one story and we’re all the same no matter if you’re Italian or Egyptian. We say we can all be allies because we have this one experience in common, which takes different variations depending on other factors like ethnicity, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, etc. It’s about complexity and intersectionality.

The ten migrant artists featured in the podcast are incredibly different women from different continents, yet we have all faced the micro and macro aggressions linked to the stereotypes already mentioned—which, when mixed with other prejudices like racism or homophobia, definitely become major aggressions. That produced a layered narrative about our migrant experience.

Four actresses, dressed in white, making delirious facial expressions and flopping their wrists downward with their fingers hanging freely.

Luiana Bonfim, Daiva Dominyka, Lara Parmiani and Catharina Conte in CLOSED LANDS, written by Simon Grangeat and directed by Becka McFadden. Set and Costume designer: Laura Rouzet. Lighting designer: Julien Bernard-Grau. Sound designer: Becka McFadden. Stage management: Elza Zdanova. Photo by Steve Gregson.

verity: How do attitudes towards migrant women affect you as an artist and artistic director? How different is it from what a male migrant might experience?

Lara: Patriarchy is present, and there is a level of patronizing that is stronger with women than for men. There is a greater “yes dear” when you interface with power at a certain level, of people looking at you in a benign way, which says, “Let me tell you how things are.” Men are slightly seduced by the idea of migrant women so they don’t treat them as peers.

I’ve always felt that people say things to me with the assumption that I don’t know. Especially when male techies talk about software like it’s rocket science, for example, once someone said to Becka: “You’re a woman and foreign so I bet you don’t know how to use QLab.” They don’t say it openly but it’s clear.

I am not saying I get harassed at meetings. Instead it is the drip, drip of daily things. I often internalize my anger about it—it’s not healthy and it can affect my body. I am not a confrontational person, but sometimes I think I should just explode and say something. I don’t want to create enemies obviously and I have actually been told quite openly by reputable producers that I should not come across as angry or “high maintenance” because I might get a bad reputation… I’m not sure a man would be told this type of stuff in the same tone.

I don’t want to be eternally treated as the foreign woman who doesn’t know anything and has to politely knock on your door for five minutes of your time only to be told that things here work in a certain way.

verity: It is oppressive and repressive. Does it force you to occupy a certain psychological and societal space?

Lara: I am at a point now where I have accepted the idea of being an outsider as a migrant woman theatremaker and also I have discovered the beauty of being rooted in community. Perhaps it’s time to find my own space in Tottenham to create the theatre I love and maybe it will all come to me.

Maybe the answer is to break the system, because otherwise you feel smaller and smaller. I have some cynicism that I didn’t have before and I don’t like that about myself, but I do find that if you speak the truth, at least you immediately know who your allies and your enemies are. Recently I’ve had good conversations with New Diorama Theatre, and whilst they might never program me, I know they are very open to having honest conversations.

The only thing I ask is to be treated with respect and as a professional. You might hate my work, that’s fine. But I don’t want to be eternally treated as the foreign woman who doesn’t know anything and has to politely knock on your door for five minutes of your time only to be told that things here work in a certain way.

verity: How is this reflected in the monologue “Shapeshifting,” which is part of TIAN?

Lara: “Shapeshifting” tries to express this feeling of being constantly forced to adapt to somebody else’s expectations, as a woman and as a migrant, seen as an exotic and probably unruly, unaware, of social etiquette. When I first came to London I was desperate to blend in, to be treated like every other actor, but I couldn’t. My accent, my “foreignness,” was all people saw. And I was constantly patronized.

This is so common with migrant women. So you invest so much money in voice classes, in the desperate attempt to sound British enough to “pass.” But you feel like a fraud. And at the same time your native language slowly disappears, and you end up trapped in a sort of limbo. For years I hated that feeling of being “neither here nor there.” Now I have decided to embrace it and to make theatre that somehow stages those conditions and those feelings.

verity: Migrant women are spearheading TIAN and LegalAliens. How important is visibility for you?

Lara: Someone recently said you don’t need to be at the top in order to influence the creative program of a venue, but I do think there is something to be said for visibility. So when someone leading a building is a migrant woman it says something. The fact that London’s Royal Court has a female artistic director says something, the fact that Young Vic has a Black artistic director says something. Of course they don’t act in a vacuum, they have a team, but the fact that they are the face of their organizations is very important.

A migrant woman artistic director as a face of a building would set a certain tone, because it’s hard to become what you can’t see. I’m one of the co-founders of Migrants in Theatre, and when we launched so many artists joined. They didn’t realize there were so many migrants and ones with their own companies. Many thought it wasn’t possible. It is important to gain more power otherwise you keep being invisible even if you are doing interesting things.

verity: So if there aren’t that many—if any—migrant women role models at the top of theatre, who are the first-generation migrant women playwrights or theatremakers in the UK who inspire you?

Lara: There is the Romanian playwright Vera Ion who is working with Polish director Nastazja Domaradzka, and I know they are trying to create something really beautiful. There is the Palestinian-Irish writer Hannah Khalil, whose work I really like. Most all emerging. I can’t think of anyone out there being produced by big theatres and whose name everyone knows.

I don’t think this question has been part of the conversation in theatre or that there is a desire to think about it. There is a suspicion around migrants and whether their language skills are good enough. Theatres are more likely to translate someone, usually some famous writer from France, but migrant playwrights are living on the fringe. Migrants in Theatre was founded because we need critical mass. It’s similar to why LegalAliens was founded a decade ago.

We can’t have a revolution on our own, but if we can prove there is a large number of people who are voiceless, then maybe theatre will start paying attention. On the fringe there are so many of us, which is why we need to get together to create something that is visible, because it is the only way to push people to give our voices a platform.