Border Crossings

Alice Saville speaks to three theatremakers who are bringing the refugee experience home

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A Strange New Space
Published 22 Jul 2017

Each August, Edinburgh’s bounds are swelled by an influx of migrants. They’re crammed into overpriced accommodation, and attract complaints from locals for their noisy, messy presence in an already-crowded city.

Okay, so it feels deeply irreverent to compare the miniature migration of culture fans that accompanies the Edinburgh Festivals with the huge, ongoing shift as people escape conflict in Syria, Sudan or Iraq. But as the largest forcible displacement of people since World War Two rolls on, the media’s attention has rolled elsewhere and with it, the appetite to tell the stories behind this growing diaspora. A new breed of theatre shows at the Edinburgh Fringe are fighting this apathy, and finding new ways to make audiences confront the reality of refugee experience.

Daniel Bye’s Instructions for Border Crossing is a case in point. Over the phone, Bye explains that his performance is "all about the kind of impotence people feel they have in the face of huge global events that are way beyond their individual control”.

Bye’s shows have been described as TED talks on stage, but that doesn’t capture how much freedom he gives the audience to get up, and get involved: in his 2013 show How to Occupy an Oil Rig, he coached an audience into rebellion with a step-by-step masterclass in protest. This time round, he’ll mix three narratives that explore how borders shape our lives: “Very few people really think about borders, other than that they’re a natural state of affairs – it’s like they grew with the flowers. But actually, they’re a relatively modern invention: they arrived with the capitalist nation state.”

There’s some complex thinking at play here, about how we’re all complicit in a system that decides which migrants ‘deserve’ to live in the relative safety of the UK, and which don’t. But he’s not planning to take his audience on a massive guilt trip: “Sometimes shows seem to berate people for having turned up at all. I mean, get off your fucking high horse.”

As we chat, his daughter gurgles in the background. She’s too young to pick up on the swearing. And definitely too young to go and see her dad’s show. But she’s not too young to be a refugee. There’s a paradox that while adults try to protect children from the reality of the migration crisis, over half of refugees are kids.

Tessa Bide’s show A Strange New Space is a migration story that’s aimed at a young audience. “Children are often protected or kept out of the way of what’s happening in the world because parents think it won’t affect them, but many of them will have kids from other countries joining their schools,” she says.

She aimed from the off to create a wordless show, using puppetry and visual storytelling that can move kids whatever language they speak. It builds on a fortnight-long research trip, but Bide emphasises that “we’re not saying that because we went to Greece for two weeks we know everything about being a refugee. We decided it wasn’t our story to tell, so we’ve approached it through a metaphor: a girl is going on a space adventure that mirrors her real-life journey as a refugee.”

After the Fringe, she’s planning to take the show to refugee camps. I wonder how kids who’d escaped wars, crossed real seas and lost family would react to seeing their story on stage. “It will be quite tricky," she admits. "Some of the kids are quite wild. But you can’t be precious as a performer for young people because they are the harshest critics. They will walk out, or get up on stage and try and do it better than you.”

It’s a telling phrase. Something that can get forgotten in narratives around migration is that these are people who can tell their own stories – and they are doing just that, whether it’s on Twitter, in books or, in the case of several companies at this year’s Fringe, in plays.

Collective Encounter is one such company. They’re made up of exiled Syrian actors and directors who’ve gathered from across Europe. Across a crackling line, I speak to their director Rafat Alzakout, who poignantly mentions that he’d been longing to come to the Edinburgh Fringe for decades, ever since he heard about it in training at Damascus Theatre Institute: “It’s like a dream for all of us.”

They’ll be staging Your Love is Fire, named after an old Middle Eastern pop song. He explained that it’s the story of a writer's struggle to readjust. It’s not there to impart “information or news: it’s talking about the human details which are hidden under the war”.

How does it feel, working on a piece whose story was so very close to home? “I don’t know if I can say it’s an extraordinary experience or a difficult experience," says Alzakout, hesitatingly. "It’s in between. There’s a silence about what’s happening to Syrian people. But do you want to talk about yourself?”

Daniel Bye’s show talks about impotence from a Western perspective. But this same sense affects Alzakout, too. “It’s so difficult watching from a distance: it’s a real war, a real revolution. As an artist who makes art, not politics, what do I do?”

One answer is to bring nuance, wit and emotional depth to a situation that most people understand in terms of cold hard facts – or of uncomplicated pity. He explains that “a lot of stereotypes of Syrians are very black and white. Either we’re religious, or we’re not. Either we’re terrorists, or we’re not. As human beings we try to make everything simple, but we need to think more, to have patience.”

And that’s exactly what theatre is so good at: holding conflicting ideas in suspension, and giving us the time and space to grapple with them. Daniel Bye, Tessa Bide and Rafat Alzakout are all creating theatre that takes the audience on layered journeys that mingle intimate emotional shifts with vast physical ones. Their stories make no claims to be universal. But each is ready to hit home for a flood of theatregoers, gathered from all over the world.