Actors for Human Rights roundup 2010
by Christine Bacon and Clea Langton
It’s been yet another bumper year for our Actors for Human Rights events up and down the country (and in Hungary, Germany and Ireland this year too) but the highlight would have to be taking Asylum Monologues to UK Border Agency Staff in November. We conducted two sessions to a total of 50 staff, mostly case owners (the people responsible for making initial decisions on asylum cases). The first half of each session was a rehearsed reading of Asylum Monologues, containing first-hand accounts of two adult asylum seekers who were wrongly refused and after many years of fighting against the odds, were finally given indefinite leave to remain. Also included was ‘Faith’s’ testimony, a 12 year-old girl who was detained twice in a UK immigration detention centre (we created a viral film with the Children’s Society about her story as well); and the testimony of Louise Perrett, who made headlines this year for speaking out about some of the disturbing practices she witnessed while she was case owner at the UK Border Agency in 2009.
Following the reading, there was an open discussion, led by Germaine Naruhana and Marjorie Nshemere, whose stories are told in Asylum Monologues. Each person was able to speak openly about how the process had affected them and how this initial negative decision had such a serious impact on the next five years of their lives. The UK Border Agency employees were visibly moved by this experience, asking loads of questions, with each the session going well over time because of the amount of discussion generated. It felt to us like this was a rare and valuable opportunity for these employees to sit face-to-face and talk frankly and on an equal footing with someone who had actually been through the process. Credit must be given to the Manager of the team who invited us in for what he knew would be a confronting experience for the staff, but as he hoped, one that would also be humanising . . We hope to continue this kind of work with the UKBA and will keep you updated on our progress there.
Other highlights included the launch of On a Clear day You Can See Dover in London and Leeds in July, which the Observer called ‘superb and moving.’ This new outreach script was written by our Founding Artistic Director, Sonja Linden, and weaves together factual information and testimonies gathered from interviews with migrants in Calais seeking to enter the UK. This play was also the opening event in the Off the Shelf Literary Festival 2010 at the lovely Crucible Studio Theatre in Sheffield and was also programmed as the opening event for the new studio space at the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford. In March, we also launched Getting On, by Sara Masters. This script is comprised of true stories of growing older in 21st century Britain and launched at the Almeida Theatre and the Tobacco Factory in Bristol. During Refugee Week in June, we worked with all sorts of groups across the country and performed in five different cities – kicking off with Asylum Dialogues at the awesome Yorkshire Sculpture Park – as well as being part of the first ever Summer of Sanctuary in Sheffield. In October, we were a British Council export to the Dublin Theatre Festival where we were invited by FOMACS to present some of our work to Irish arts practitioners, some of whom had already been inspired by the AFHR concept to start their own project. AFHR Germany, headed by Michael Ruf in Berlin, continues to make progress. Michael is currently writing Asylum Monologues comprising the stories of three asylum seekers in Germany and they plan to launch it soon.
We have also been working with the fab Trust for London this year to collect and give a platform to the stories of Londoners living in poverty and people who’ve experienced forms of Modern Day Slavery and we will be continuing this work during the next couple of years. Take a look at some short films we made using some of these stories – performed by some of our brilliant AFHR actors.
We’re not all about the glam events though! Equally satisfying was seeing audiences, in small venues in places like Doncaster, Blackburn, Cornwall, Swansea, Winchester, Cardiff and Winterton, genuinely inspired to take action to support some of the most vulnerable communities in our society (if you’re curious about where we’ve been this year, have a look here). This audience member’s feedback kinda sums it up really:
I saw Asylum Dialogues over a year ago now. It completely stirred me. As a result, I got involved with Sheffield Conversation Club, and even wound up welcoming a sweet woman from Uganda into our home, who has now become one of our dearest friends. If one piece of theatre can challenge someone to take action that results in a life changing experience, I think it’s one powerful (and excellent) piece of theatre! For me, the piece was not about politics at all, but about the individual human lives of those involved in the process.
Bookings are already piling in for 2011, evidence that there is still a lot of work to be done. We’ll also be having a fifth birthday celebration for the project mid-year to thank everyone who has made it all possible (and there are hundreds of you) – so watch this space!