Theatre artists often tend to work with communities of different kinds. While there is a lot of integrity in the experience, theatre practitioners often begin their work already separated from the communities they intend to serve. It could be due to funding processes, the paradigms of applied theatre, or the continuing legacy of the romantic and separate artist. Theatre appears to be parachuted into foreign territory, or involved in long-term community relationships that take on a pastoral configuration.
At a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation, we were joined by artists from Sweden, Mexico and U.K – Heather Ward, Matilda Blomquist, Yuriria Fanjul, Natasha Nixon and Kjersti Webb – to discuss how theatre artists working with communities experience this separation and how it can be addressed.
Theatre as a tool of acceptance
Kjersti Webb, a working actor and artist born in Sweden, considers herself Nationally Fluid – belonging to the human race. She left Sweden at 19 years of age and returned when she was 30, after living around the world, studying and interacting with different communities while doing interactive theatre projects, residencies, retreats and conferences around the world.
When she returned to Sweden in 2015, it was at a time when refugees were coming into Europe, including Sweden, from Syria, northern Africa, and West Asia. While it was harder to be accepted by artists in Sweden, she found it easier to connect with refugees, since she was also coming from a different place. She recounts an installation project she worked on where from a 100 people, about 20 belonged to warring nations. They were to do an interactive exercise, but Kjersti didn’t speak their language.
“It ended up being a beautiful experience,” describes Kjersti, “just because we didn’t speak each other’s language. And just because I focused on the theatre, as opposed to the politics and emotions, and all these other things that were there.”
She believes that theatre is a powerful tool through which one can be accepted into a community. “In some ways, as an artist, I feel we can cross boundaries, where other people don’t know how, because we speak the same language somehow. It speaks to all people on the same level; there’s doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. We’re already on the outside. So, in some ways, we can relate to each other there, as people.”
Refugees and opera
Working with communities is a beautiful experience, says Yuriria Fanjul, where you train people to feel comfortable with their bodies, feel comfortable walking in front of have an audience, feel comfortable standing in the center of a circle, and then start to explore their journeys as people looking for a better life.
Switzerland-based artist Yuriria describes herself as a physical theatre performer and stage director for opera. Ten years ago, the artist hailing from Mexico, began collaborating with opera companies who were creating new work. However, when she went back to Mexico five years ago, she started her own opera company to bring opera out of theatres and dissociate it from the elitist notions attached to it. The experience so far has been great for Yuriria, she admits, because it has created bridges amongst different parts of society that wouldn’t necessarily collide or have dialogues with each other.
One of her ongoing projects is about working with refugees on the US-Mexico border and creating an opera with them. In 2019, the former US president Donald Trump put in place a law that prevented asylum seekers, who were looking for asylum in the US, to be in American territory during their court hearings and processes. They were sent back to Mexico to wait for their processes to happen instead. It was a law that impacted thousands of Central American refugees. When Yuriria visited the border cities, some of the refugees had been waiting in Mexico for 15 months. They would cross the border on the day of their hearing and be sent back to Mexico once it was done. They received no protection in Mexico and had to look for shelter.
Since they stayed in one place for a considerable period, it gave Yuriria the opportunity to create an opera together. “The point of doing an opera for me,” she shares, “as opposed to straight theatre was that I felt their situation was universal. It was a situation that many communities around the globe are living now and probably have always lived throughout human history. So, the music, singing of these stories would allow us to communicate with the globe and share these stories beyond our language and instead use a musical language.”
After spending days listening to their stories, Yuriria wrote a libretto and commissioned a composer to create a music score, later inviting the orchestra to it, so that she could spend time in the shelters using that music to train refugees to perform.
Working with 30 refugees, ranging from ages 9 to 69 years, she describes it as a beautiful encounter. “They started to find their own movement and their own gestures to express their life stories,” Yuriria says, “how they missed home, their sadness for not being able to see their grandmother anymore, not being able to eat their favorite dish anymore. It was quite an intense process, where the whole community started to hold the space for these stories to take shape. We then introduced the music of the project. We had a session studying the hero’s journey and studying the musical composition that was trying to support these stories together.”
The day they performed for an audience, largely comprising their families, the most transformational moment for the refugees was the realisation that they had an artist in them that hadn’t been seen or heard. The performance didn’t portray them as victims and empowered them instead. It communicated a real geographical crisis, expanding toward the global reality of people moving. “The music bridged art forms that generally don’t go together: opera and street dance,” says Yuriria, “I was surprised it worked and people didn’t feel separated, that they didn’t belong to the music or that the singers and orchestra didn’t belong to the people who lived on streets.” She adds that it was beautiful way to bridge those gaps, attempt to create some dialogue about the situation and empathize with the stories of these communities and hopefully reduce some xenophobia and racism.
When one works with a community, Natasha Nixon, a UK-based performance practitioner, believes that her job as the artist is almost like a facilitator’s: to realize whatever it is the community want to explore.
Sometimes, as an artist, one can feel parachuted into a community which is not always a good thing. What are the ethics around it? Is art enough? “The subjects and objects of your artwork in this arena are complex,” says Natasha. “Power comes into that, a lot. And sometimes that comes from the money side of it: who’s initiated the project? Or who’s funding it? What are the outcomes? It doesn’t always strictly work like that, it’s not as binary and transparent and clear. How do we navigate that?”
There is also a pastoral side to the work, she voices out. “I’ve done some projects where it’s quite a big weight on my shoulders to work with particular communities,” she shares. “And it feels like a lot to sometimes be creative, be the loose, romantic artist, and then at the same time, take care of some really serious situations. How do we manage that? How do we balance that?” While she enters her projects with an outlook of vastness that anything can emerge, Natasha admits that sometimes, the needs of a particular community can be very niche and specific.
As a facilitator of processes with artists, Heather Ward, artistic director and producer of London-based Director’s Cut Theatre Company, feels asking specific questions can be helpful: Who are you creating the project for? Who is your audience? Are you speaking to a community? And most importantly, how do you engage and reach those communities and bring those communities to the theatre? How do you make it accessible? “Because there’s a lot of communities that have maybe never even been into a theatre. So, how do you make that work? To be able to reach them and bring them to the theatre as well,” she asks.
At the end of the day, as human beings, we are always a part of a community, whether we like it or not. Like Matilda Blomquist, an actor, producer, director, and the founder of the Swedish theatre company Melpomalia Friteater, says: Theatre merely provides us an opportunity through which to examine the communities that we are in and the communities that we see around us.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: