Crossing borders: Telling other people’s stories

by Hannah Barker

in National Conference

Post image for Crossing borders: Telling other people’s stories

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

When we talk about finding ways to break down barriers between theatre and communities we must decide what we mean by ‘communities’, and what we want our theatre to do to and for our audiences.

As co-founder of Analogue, a devising theatre company based in the UK, there are the communities that inspire our work, those who collaborate on or contribute to the creation of our work and those who are its audience. And sometimes one community spans all three. These communities are not entirely defined by their geography, but can depend on an area of expertise, shared experience, gender or political beliefs, to name a few.

The theatre we create is inspired by true events and real people and often involves the telling of one story to articulate a wider social, ethical or political issue. We want our audiences to be made aware of – and have the chance to discuss and think about – something usually misunderstood or swept under the carpet. And even if it is just for a short while, we want them to see the world from a different perspective.

Mostly the stories we tell are not autobiographies and so by telling them on stage we are already stepping over an invisible line into someone else’s terrain. This is not new, of course – telling other people’s stories is a tradition that started long before we set up a theatre company, long before anyone did. However our process of researching and developing that story brings us into collaboration with the communities directly affected, the people who work alongside those communities and the experts who have spent time studying or attempting to solve the issues that affect those communities. This marks the difference between trampling that barrier and being invited to step over it by those on the other side. These relationships in combination with our devising process get an audience closer to a perspective that we alone could never achieve, and offers space to extend those collaborations beyond the typical advisory role, where experts and real people can be heard directly in the show.

However some barriers are more complicated to negotiate than others.

In 2012 we were invited to work with a group of young people at a theatre in Ipswich, in Eastern England. We were encouraged to bring a show in the early stages of development so this week-long residency could be of mutual benefit to us and to them: They work with a professional theatre company exposing them to a new working process and we get to explore some early ideas for a show.

A year or so before this, while devising another show, about a man who after experimental brain surgery in 1953 lost the ability to create new memories, we came across a tragic, shocking real-life story. It was about a young man from Pakistan who climbed into the wheel arch of a plane from the Middle East bound for the UK. As the plane began its descent into Heathrow, the man’s frozen body was tipped out into the morning sky, falling into the car park of a DIY superstore in a wealthy suburb of London. It became clear that this was not an isolated incident. There were many stories about desperate journeys from India, Africa, South and Central America. Some were stories about escape, others were about running toward something seemingly better. All of them involved incredibly risky journeys.

These stories made a deep impression but we told ourselves these were not our stories to tell. How could we, as white middle class British citizens, possibly begin to understand and accurately portray a story so deeply removed from our own experiences?

But it stayed with us and so when this opportunity in Ipswich arrived, we decided to use it to explore whether this was something we could do. When we suggested this as the stimulus for their performance, there was a palpable excitement. Here was a chance to explore something real, something important, something different to the usual reflections on the life of a middle class teenager growing up in the UK.

On the first day in Ipswich we undertook an exercise. We took the story as it was reported in the Guardian and broke it down into statements, asking everyone to step forward if any of the statements in isolation relate in some way to their personal experiences. While understandably many of them could not claim a relationship to those statements that referred directly to, for example, climbing up onto an airplane tire or watching the blurred image of a runway roll inches beneath their feet, other statements about feeling desperately alone or knowing they have made a terrible mistake did chime with them.

When we presented a short show at the end of the week, using third person narration to describe the stowaway’s journey versus first person accounts of some of their own, we still didn’t know whether this was something we could or should go on to develop and present.

After the show, we received an email from one of the audience members. It read:

‘There was a lot about the show last night that was good but in the end I think it trivialized the person who died trying to make a better life. You can’t ask white middle class UK young people to express the desperation of the third world refugee. It’s not real and they have a different story to tell.”

In the same message, this audience member acknowledged that he had liked our previous work. The stimuli for our work to date covered a range of topics: schizophrenia, suicide, brain injury, memory loss to name a few. We had spent a number of years researching them and then weaving our own fictions within the constructs of the facts. These were not our stories and had been inspired by often extreme case studies but despite that, these shows did not attract the same scrutiny as a story about a man from Pakistan, India, Africa or the Middle East. They were judged to remain within our remit of understanding most likely because no matter how extreme their particular experience was, the protagonist came from the west.

This email summed up the reasons why we probably shouldn’t pursue this project and in so doing, it confirmed our resolve to pursue it. It articulated the fear that we had ourselves felt when we first rejected it as a story we could or should tell. His observations about how we had trivialized this person’s desperate journey by placing it in amongst the stories of UK young people are arguably true. By asking this particular group of people to accurately express the desperation of someone from a world so different from their own is also perhaps asking for the impossible. But what does it mean to not tell this story because it belongs to someone else? And what is it about this particular story that feels so uncomfortable for us to tell? Could we only do it justice if refugees were telling it, even if it wasn’t their story they were telling?

It has been almost two years since we received this email. Our research has taken us back in time to the British Empire and across continents. We have taken this story to artists in India, to second and third generation Pakistanis and Africans in the UK, to refugee organizations nationwide and to expats all over the world.

This month, we are due to meet with members of an arts organization run by and for the refugee community. We want to create an engagement project around the show that genuinely interacts with people who have experienced similarly dangerous journeys to come to the UK. Maybe this might take the form of local exhibitions of work by refugees, talks and after-show discussions with migrants or asylum seekers, symposiums and myth-busting initiatives with experts. Curating this kind of activity at each of the places this show tours, offers a means to talk to a wider community of people that share circumstances in common and also to a local community that are perhaps looking for more cohesion, recognition or understanding within their area. However, who’s to say this will become a proven best practice for breaking down the barriers between theatre and the community.

Our work has attempted to cross barriers between art and people by using art to get closer to people’s stories. While these stories belong to other people, with the right collaborators we have a responsibility to tell them, not least of all because some of those directly affected are not in a position to do so.

This story about a stowaway – a story by its very nature that travels across borders – has offered the biggest challenge to date in how we cross those barriers between stories that belong to us and those that don’t. And consequently how we engage with communities from which we do not belong, to help create artistic ways and platforms to address complicated issues. If everyone only ever told their own stories to people from their own communities, I fear we would live in a very segregated place. Our work – and our understanding of the world – thrives on finding new relationships with different communities and even if we don’t always get it right, we might go some way to opening the door for those vital conversations.

Hannah Barker is Co-Artistic Director and Co-founder of Analogue, an award-winning south-east based company making new theatre inspired by real stories and contemporary ethical questions. Excited by the possibilities of documentary and interactivity, we collaborate with a wide network of pioneering thinkers, bringing together research and invention to create performance that fuses the human with the scientific. Hannah has written, directed and performed the company’s work across the UK and Europe, including award-winning published plays including Mile End, Beachy Head, 2401 objects, and is currently leading on two international productions, Stowaway, premiering in Summer 2014, and Sleepless planned for 2015. She devises and facilitates multiple workshops and residencies with young people, students and professionals, and is currently developing Analogue’s Education and Engagement programme.
After teaching in Tanzania, Hannah went on to study theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, and then Central School of Speech and Drama. She later trained as a qualified journalist in London and New York, writing for YoungMinds Magazine, and The Review, among others. She continues to travel and volunteer for international development charities including Sponsored Arts for Education (S.A.F.E) which uses arts to educate on HIV/AIDS in Africa, and has worked for the past two years with Parkinson’s UK, developing and growing their volunteering strategy.