On a rainy night in June I fought to get a seat in a crammed lecture theatre at SOAS University of London, so full that people were sitting on the floor, the stairs and sharing chairs. Rather than a long seminar, the lights went off and nine actors took to the stage. This was a play about young people reenacting their own experiences.
Dear Home Office is a play, created by Phosphoros Theatre Company, which works with young men who have entered the United Kingdom as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Albania and Somalia. The play seeks to share the often overlooked narrative of what happens to unaccompanied minors once they have arrived in the United Kingdom. The cast are eight young men who are all unaccompanied minors and their key worker, Kate Duffy.
One of the most innovative parts of Dear Home Office is its ability to present a multi-dimensional narrative for the young men who star in it. This is a play as much about young men getting to grips with adulthood as it is about the refugee process. Their stories range from going to college for the first time, buying clothes in the UK for the first time, getting used to living in a house without their families to the stressful process of claiming asylum. In capturing the ordinariness of the lives the cast want to lead, the play offers an alternate narrative about refugees, one that is focused on agency.
The play itself was born from the desire of its cast to share their stories and, through the projecting of audio-visual clips of the cast in rehearsals or workshops and photos of them in the house where they live together, the audience is reminded that this play does not require the usual suspension of disbelief required by theatre because all of this is real. As the play weaves together memories from home in the countries where they were born and memories created in their new home in England, it challenges the static concept of what and where home is and provides an insight into how refugee youth turn their new countries into ‘home’.
I was lucky enough to chat to Rosanna Jahangard, Co-artistic Director of Phosphoros Theatre.
How did you get your idea for the project?
Last Summer a few of the boys who Kate Duffy works with (she is a key worker on a housing project for young refugee men) approached her to say that they wanted to tell their stories of being unaccompanied minors in the UK. They had no idea that she had trained in Applied Theatre, but clearly this was her first thought when they mentioned their desire to communicate their experiences. She approached her mother and television writer Dawn Harrison and friend and director Rosanna Jahangard, to collaborate with her as facilitators on the project. It is central to the uniqueness of the project that the idea came from the participants themselves.
What do you think is the main message of the play?
The tagline of the play is “a story of resilience, boyhood and coming of age”, and that has always been the driving force at the centre of the piece. The play gives a voice to young people who are refugees growing up in the UK: all elements of that are equally important, not just the fact that it is a refugee story or a teenage story.
We aim to bring the unseen to light, as well as empowering the participants of the project to think about how they can incorporate the arts in their futures or use the skills they have learnt in their chosen careers. The audience take many messages from the play and that is what we are proud of, we aren’t telling people what to think about the issue of unaccompanied minors, but we are creating a dialogue for audiences to learn more about these young people’s experiences and how that fits in with preconceived ideas the audience may or may not have.
Did you learn anything through making the play?
One thing that really strikes us is what we have learnt about the capacity for young people to be flexible and achieve more than you can ever plan for or imagine. It’s an inspiration to see these guys put on a play in a language they have been learning for a really short amount of time, to be so open about their lives and feelings and thoughts, to trust new adults, to become a family with other kids from totally different countries and cultures.
Do you think that the play can be a new way to teach people about the immigration process?
It certainly is. We know that audiences will have seen one side of things from the press. But actually having to sit in a court and explain details of your life that are likely very traumatic, remembering minute details from years ago when you were a young child, living in the chaos of war and so on, whilst being questioned by serious adults who have the advantage over you in terms of power, authority, education and language… all of these things, people probably don't think about. And any slip up can cause your whole asylum claim to come crumbling down, even if you are telling the truth.
Crucially though, the young men in our cast have learnt more about the immigration process and as a result have become more confident at going to court. It has been a rehearsal for real life and a way for them to deal with the stress of it.
Has there been a positive reaction to the play?
The reaction has been fantastic. And we are particularly pleased that it isn't just about people agreeing with us or sympathising with the cast. People are inspired by the play and want to discuss the issues.
Is masculinity one of the themes dealt with by the play?
The cast is all male save for Kate playing herself as Key Worker on stage. Inevitably this makes gender an issue in the play, but what ‘being a man’ means is something we are looking to develop within the text and the staging.
Unaccompanied minors are overwhelmingly male and the housing project is also only for men. The interaction and relationship with the boys and Kate is interesting - she is like a big sister and they totally trust and respect her, as well as Dawn and I. Boyhood is certainly a theme. Many of the boys have stories about being in very adult positions and feeling like children, masquerading as men. Some of the most touching things they have talked about is the kindness of people they met on their journeys who obviously saw their age and innocence and tried to help them and protect them, to preserve something of their childhood.
Do you feel like your play is offers a different narrative about refugees than the one we usually see in the UK?
We really respect all platforms that share refugee narratives. There is no single refugee narrative and we feel that this is being covered. However, the narrative of unaccompanied minors, particularly once they have reached the UK and have to assimilate into normal teenage life, is a narrative that we are giving some explicit attention and depth to.
How do you think theatre projects like yours can be empowering?
For the participants it is all about the skills they learn from the project, the confidence they gain and connections they make that is hugely empowering. For audiences I believe, there is something in gaining new knowledge that makes refugees seem less like the ‘other’, and all knowledge makes us feel empowered.
Thinking on theatre more generally, Irene Fernández Ramos speaks of the plurality of narratives explored through theatre by drawing attention to the ability of the actor’s body on stage to represent both an individual’s story and a story which is part of a larger collective narrative (Flade & Ramos, 2016). Through the spatially limited space of the stage, the conceptually limited spaces of dominant narratives can be widened by the opening of new and alternative discourses.
Sara Ahmed writes that it is with each other that we can become “re-energised”, where we can create “spaces of relief” that might be breathing spaces, spaces in which we can be inventive”(2013). Dear Home Office is an example that shows the power of this type of creative collaborative resistance. Through the sharing of experiences the project seeks to start a conversation about an aspect of the refugee narrative which, often, does not get the attention it deserves. While this can be an educational opportunity for the audience, it is first and foremost, a space, created by and for the eight young men where they can work through their experiences and share their story.