Little Stitches by BAREtruth Theatre Company: A Project to Bring FGM Survivors’ Voices On Stage in the UK

by Raul Quiros Molina

in Activism,Artistry & Artistic Innovation

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

In February 2014, I was interviewed by Melissa Dean, the artistic director of BAREtruth Theatre Company, to help her create a new show and to define the long term artistic strategy of the company. BAREtruth’s first show was based on Theatre UnCut, a theatrical response to cuts in public spending in the UK, which, although it had a short run, received a good response from London audiences. From the outset, it was clear to me that BAREtruth was a company that wanted to tackle problematic topics, often political and controversial, something very much needed in the UK. Melissa offered me the job, and I accepted.

After several meetings, we decided that we wanted to create a show around the theme of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). Prior to our meeting, there had been an increase in awareness of this issue in the UK, prompted by the prosecution of two people involved in a case of infibulation at the Whittington Hospital in London. The Guardian, along with several not-for-profit organisations, and Bristol student Fahma Mohamed, ran a huge campaign pushing the government to adopt more stringent policies regarding this practice, efforts that proved very effective. We felt that theatre had something to contribute, so we decided to commission three writers to help us to create Little Stitches. I was asked by Mel to write a verbatim play, which I would draft from interviews we were going to hold with survivors, and the people working with them. This play would later come to be called “Where do I start?” and form part of the show called Little Stitches, which opened at the end of August 2014 in Theatre 503 in London.

The thrill that I felt when asked to write this play is indescribable. Throughout my career as a playwright, I have always believed that theatre is a powerful tool that can help change the world that surrounds us. Words on paper can denounce injustice very effectively, but performing them reaches out to the audience through all of their senses. On top of this, I was offered the chance to meet people who were working to change laws, who were flying to countries in Africa and the Middle East to help governments and communities implement policies and to empower girls and women who had suffered from this practice. After months of research, I thought I knew everything any thorough writer needed to know about female genital mutilation. To support this belief, I was armed with a stack of facts and statistics, stories from books that I had read, documentaries that I studied carefully in an attempt to extract the essence of what FGM meant for individuals, for communities, and for those cultures that still believed it permissible. I had interviewed some charity workers and talked to midwives who had helped survivors and performed de-infibulations. My play was almost written. I knew the direction and the shape of it, the message it was going to send to the general public on a stage. All that was left was to interview a couple of survivors to support what I already had found out. It seemed an easy task.

But, I was wrong. My first interview with an FGM survivor changed everything. I had to start writing the play again.

Sometimes, as writers, actors, and theatre directors, we are asked why we do what we do. Most of the time, the answer is that we give echo in the void, like we are reciting a bad poem to an empty auditorium. We make theatre because it opens ideas to be discussed in public, because we are worried about the world we live in, because we want to denounce injustices. What does this mean in reality, if anything at all? And is this really true? Are we effectively putting these words into action? Are we being truthful, absolutely honest? Or are we saying what our interviewers want to hear, what we are meant to say? When I sat for the first time with a survivor of FGM I realised that the one task of utmost importance in order to write “Where do I start?” was to completely review the meaning of truth in theatre. What really happens is that we, as writers, actors and theatre directors, often stand in the middle of the stories we write; we disrupt the characters we draw, and the truths that need to be spoken; stories remain partially told, and falsified by our own assumptions and privileges. 

The first question that the survivor asked me, and now the first line of the character unifying the testimonies of FGM survivors in my play, was:

FELICITY: Where do I start? From the moment I was cut?

The person sitting in front of me said these words in a mechanical manner, as if she had been asked to recount the details of her mutilation innumerable times, over and over, in her workshops, in her job as an anti-FGM campaigner, in Q&As with the press, to the extent that she practically assumed that anyone interested in her experience would automatically want to know the gruesome details of the cutting. Embarrassingly, that was exactly what I wanted from her. I had already anticipated what truth she was going to reveal to me, and somehow she had correctly assumed, with some resignation, what I was most interested in. How she was cut, if it hurt, who had done it, if she resented the cutter, and how she was feeling now.

When writing about matters that have created so much suffering and that feature a long established injustice such as FGM, the line between activism and truthful theatre may be blurred for some of us. As individuals, we may want to become involved in these issues with all our heart and soul and use our craft to help. Certainly, theatre can help to create a sense of what is going on in the world, but for activism, theatre is a bleak tool. It can’t be broadcasted worldwide like a documentary, it can’t compete with the sparks and lights of film making, and it doesn’t get on very well with figures, facts, and reports. Any good piece of theatre, even the most political one, has a single and simple story behind it, and that doesn’t resonate with mass audiences. Even when the journey seems to be an epic quest, theatre is all about the minutiae. It is nothing but a recounting of what happens to a character through his personal manias, his phobias, the awkward situations he gets himself into, and the findings along this journey. A bulb that goes off at the wrong time. A man that never arrives. A small animal made of glass that gets broken. A letter with bad news. Theatre tells its stories through these little elements, and that is what makes it powerful: it relates to the audience through the apparently mundane details that surround us every day, details that do not have a political meaning per se and that seem the opposite of what is required to create awareness, or to communicate a strong message.

That afternoon, I was sitting in front of a girl who had suffered a terrible injustice. I was talking to a survivor, but also a girl with a Scottish boyfriend, who has to hide her relationship until she is married. A girl who wants to name her babies Adam or Sarah, and who would love to work with kids, but is too scared because of the things they do to them. Felicity is a girl who likes the beach, has visited Spain many times, and wishes to travel to Cuba, but hasn’t saved the money yet. She was also cut in Somalia and witnessed, in a very early stage of life, the horrors of war. She had to flee to the UK not knowing a single word of English. She says that her chubby cheeks are what make her look younger than she actually is, but in reality it is the sparkle in her eyes. The girl who I met was a person, not a cause, and it was this that made me rewrite my play, and begin to learn from those who I am writing about. She is much more than a scar, than just one of the 137,000 women living with the consequences of FGM in the UK alone. My play, a verbatim account that tells of what is like to have suffered FGM and live in the UK, contains the facts, the figures, and a heated debate about why this happens and what we can do to stop it. But, once this has been said, once everyone has left the stage, Felicity sits down, and recalls her story, in her own words – without needing me, as an author, to add or subtract a single word of what she says, or stand up for her. She can do this with her own words; this is where the power of the theatre truly lies, in truthful voices like hers.

When it comes to theatre, there is nothing more powerful than the voice of one who has suffered an injustice. Of course, FGM survivors require lawyers to defend them, activists to fight for their rights, newspapers to print the facts and figures, and filmmakers to show the world who is behind it, and why it is being done. But they also need theatre to explain that they are much more than a case, a statistic, a survivor, even an interesting story; they are their own voice, and this is what “Where do I start?” is about. Allowing women like Felicity to be listened to, without filters, or agendas, or planned conclusions. Letting Felicity start her story from where she wants to.

Raúl Quirós Molina works as the assistant artistic director at BAREtruth theatre and one of the writers of Little Stitches, a set of plays on FGM currently running in London. He earned an MA in Creative Writing at City University of London. He writes in both English and Spanish and his plays have been staged in Madrid and London. He has volunteered for Cardboard Citizens and Teatro por la Identidad in the UK. He is currently working to create Teatro por la Memoria, a drama based charity that aims to recover the forgotten stories about the repression under the Spanish dictatorship through theatre.

  • Teresa Marrero

    Important insight. Thanks for the awareness.