What happens when we see theatre as a necessity, a lifeline, a sanctuary?
At a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 3) conversation with theatre-makers Rosie MacPherson and Juan Ayala, we explored the works and working of the theatre-maker as a global citizen, and how theatre can become a site for social transformation.
The arts are an incredible way to make friends, learn a language, and feel good about oneself. And that’s what Rosie’s theatre company aims to do with the support they offer to people. Rosie, co-founder and Artistic Director of Stand & Be Counted, the UK’s first theatre company of sanctuary, describes herself as an activist and theatre-maker. Stand & Be Counted was born out of a desire to merge the two. Being a theatre company of sanctuary means that all their work is made with and for people seeking ‘sanctuary’, a term used to include refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For all the work Rosie and her team create, they begin with holding creative workshops for these people. She describes it as a “fun space to come and hang out, get to know new people in the area, become familiar with the local cultural offer, build their confidence and self-expression skills, and practice English in a relaxed setting”.
They have a youth theatre sanctuary that works with toddlers up to 15-year-olds and an adult group as well, with whom the weekly sessions lead to different forms of productions throughout the year. “We have a wide range of artistic approaches and methods we use to ensure that the participants get as many different experiences as they can,” Rosie says. There is a range of ways in which Stand & Be Counted choose to be creative, and it is largely led by what their participants are excited by. Productions can take the shape of a big outdoor large-scale takeover of the local park or be an interactive film. “Recently, we did an app-based digital production that uses geo location tagging to bring to life binaural audio chapters,” she shares.
There’re also looking at exploring public roundtables, where participants turn into curators and bring forth the issues that they want to address. “We’re inviting local leaders, politicians, counselors into those rooms, to be grilled by our participants, and ensure that they‘re leading on the issues that affect them. And in whatever ways we can, we’re counteracting the vile rhetoric that is existing in UK politics and media right now,” explains Rosie.
Unlike her, Juan, a director, dramaturg, performer and designer, has a “scattered, nomadic practice”, between London and Madrid.
Using art to reclaim freedom
The arts can be a site for personal and political transformation and that’s what Rosie seeks to explore through her work. “What was really exciting to me, and to my friends that I work with, was to really focus on how we’re developing people who might start as a participant, but then find themselves as artists, and then find themselves as leaders,” she says, adding that she knows what it feels like to be shut out of this industry and claims it can be quite “snobby”. “I want to be part of kicking down the doors for other people. So that felt like that was just an incredibly exciting way to build an organization around making sure that everybody gets their position in.”
Rosie and her team were essentially performers who made work together and wished to explore that impact with someone who has lived experience and give them the agency to change minds and lead the work. The place to transfer creative skills coincided with doing it through activism. “How can we support people to become the artists they want to be?” asks Rosie, “And the activists that they want to be and have power in different kinds of rooms? What other rooms can we break down doors to? And what other spaces can we get into? Because there’s so much talking about people seeking sanctuary and it can be damaging. So, we need to make sure that those people speak about them. They are the experts. Everyone else, shut up and listen; that’s the angle.”
When we think about art or doing art, it immediately turns into art being a privilege rather than a necessity. Juan recalls one of the projects he worked on which was about inviting two people to have a conversation who couldn’t meet each other in physical space. Juan reached out to people in different countries where they may not be allowed to travel due to border restrictions or privileges around passports. “The project is meant to challenge the lack of freedom of movement and claim that freedom as a basic human right,” he explains. The idea was to work with a network of artists from different countries who are in a situation where they cannot travel but there is a space to collaborate where they share the kind of theatre they want to make.
Juan shares that makers in countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador are put in jail for making plays yet there is a strong desire and urge in them to create work.
“For them, art is a lifeline. It is not a thing to do. It is a choice. It is almost like a poison and obligation, a place where they can really thrive and imagine another world,” he says, “It is very inspiring, and makes me reflect on why I or we do theatre. Maybe we didn’t choose theatre either. We are doing it in much easier conditions but we’re still choosing to do it. We aren’t choosing it because we were forced to but because it is the way we can breathe, and we breathe through it.”
Since the pandemic, both Juan and Rosie have been using technology in interesting and potentially subversive ways in creating and fostering such a culture. Technology has always been a big interest and influence in Juan’s life. He is interested in understanding how we participate in technology and how it has taken away from cultural artifacts of a certain time. For example, there was a public place in Spain where Juan used to go to get a physical map of the place as an architecture student. But today, that place has been made redundant by tech such as Google Maps. “It shows how technology is enabling private organisations to take over places that used to belong to the public,” he says.
“I think a big part of social connection has to do with things that are not only visual or verbal, but with the presence of chemistry which is something we are losing with technological interaction. I’m very interested in how virtual life is affecting physical life, like a conversation on Twitter is affecting political debate. How we’re increasingly being mediated by machines more and more.”
To challenge this, Juan shares a bit about the piece he has been developing where two actors from different countries connect online via Zoom, and two other actors in space embody what they do. “It’s very simple things like how you would greet each other, and they cannot greet each other, but these two actors can greet each other for them,” he shares. The process also revealed several layers of hierarchies and how technology isn’t a neutral construction. Digital poverty is a huge barrier compounding already difficult circumstances. When he was working with an artist from Palestine who had to connect over a video call using his own data, he found out that data is quite expensive over there. “We were assuming that he has a Wi-Fi to connect to. Technology itself is built on the legacy of colonialism and therefore, is reproducing those structures,” he opines. “These issues arise, and we talk about them and say we’re going to address them. But we need to budget for it, to give them money to connect. We make assumptions about technology being an equalizer, but these invisible layers appear when you start digging deeper.”
Theatre needs to go to the people, Rosie strongly believes, and she is always looking for ways to dismantle the technological hierarchy. During the lockdown, her theatre company realised that their participants were more comfortable in the digital world and asked Rosie and her team to run workshops over Whatsapp video. The phone was a place where they felt safe and familiar with. They began pitching things they would like to do. “For example, two Syrian brothers, who were really into gaming, wanted to do a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ of what it’s like for them in Sheffield. The gaming app put the audience in their shoes to navigate that hostile environment, and it turned out to be a really effective campaign tool,” shares Rosie.
For Rosie, a way of navigating the implicit hierarchies posed to the communities she works with is to ensure that the participants know that what they bring into the room is the most important thing and that they wouldn’t be creating what they create without everyone’s presence. “It is looking at how that atmosphere can support people in their wider lives and to hold us all to account a bit better as well. It is also for them to know that they have as much right as anyone, to be here and do whatever they want and live their lives how they want to,” she declares.
Juan finds that true transformation happens for the people who were hitherto ignorant about the people who share their stories and their lived realities. “So, if I learned about a story or a situation that I didn’t know, then I and the people who get to see this are the most transformed truly. In a way, that’s a hierarchy to dismantle as well: who is this work for? It is also for me. I’m not here providing the space but I’m here to learn and I’m here to transform myself as well,” he explains.
Seeds and spores
Something common in Juan and Rosie’s practice is the peripatetic nature of their work: for Rosie, the participants come and go, and for Juan, given his nomadic life, he moves from project to project. So how does it feel like being grounded in a space, a community for a short period of time and then moving on?
Juan understands it as one being a seed or a spore. He sees himself as a spore who flies from one space to the other and pollinates or seeds in. Rosie believes her company began as a spore and has turned into a seed today, looking at ways to develop long term relationships with the community, who may be like spores in some cases. “You’re working with communities. You’re building this family, and it is a lifeline for people, it is a new home and it is a new, important thing in their lives. And then when the project ends — because we work in lots of different places — we aren’t there anymore. Sometimes, it feels like there’s a question of ethics in what we’re doing, because we are parachuting in, doing something, and then going,” shares Rosie as the conversation comes to a close.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: