Wednesday 22 May 2013

Souvenirs: A Play for Survivors.

What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs.”

“Write to Life has never had an impact like it. There was rapt attention. There was laughter - but by the end, at least half the audience was in tears and all the performers near to it.”

Thus writes Sheila Hayman, coordinator of Freedom from Torture’s creative writing group, Write to Life, after the first performance of their play, ‘Souvenirs,’ based on their own experiences as asylum seekers.

While plays like The Asylum Monologues have previously taken refugees’ own words and brought them to a wider audience, the work usually been performed by professional actors. What makes ‘Souvenirs’ unusual is that it continues the practice firmly established by Hayman, of empowering their writers to perform their words themselves.

Write to Life, founded in 1997, is now the longest-running creative writing group for torture survivors in the world. Two years ago, during Refugee Week, they performed their poetry at Survivor!, a musical celebration at All Hallows Gospel Oak in north London. Last year, they performed poetry at Tate Britain that had been inspired by the paintings they found there. This latest venture represents a three-way collaboration between Write to Life, Ice and Fire and Tamasha Theatre. 

Although the collaboration is new, the links between the three groups are close. Write to Life’s founder, Sonja Linden started Ice and Fire in 2003 with a remit to explore Human Rights stories through performance. And Tamasha’s Director, Kristine Landon-Smith, worked with Write to Life in 2011, helping the writers bring real power to their performances.

Hayman recalls, “I met Kristine Landon-Smith by chance, when we were both chaperoning children at a dance performance. We found out about each other’s work, and she talked to me about the play, ‘The Arrival,’ based on the graphic novel by Shaun Tan. She was interested in involving ‘real’ refugees and asylum seekers, and I was preoccupied by the difficulties my clients often had performing their work. On the one hand, they desperately wanted to read their writings themselves, to a live audience, because what they write is usually very personal, and that gives it power. On the other hand, they were mostly shy, inexperienced and spoke English, which might be their fourth language, in ways that didn’t always do the writing full justice.

“We hatched a plot for Kris to coach the group in her unique technique which brings their native expressiveness to performance of any words. And I made a film of it, which turned out to be fascinating.

“It was perhaps an obvious next step to put this learning into practice, by developing a piece of authentic ‘biographical theatre’ to accompany the metaphorical sweep of ‘The Arrival.’”
And the result, that first performance, is better than any of them could have dared hope. The play ends with the actors gathered around J, who is seated next to her try of peas and beans. A stunned silence is followed by rapturous applause. Then an hour of queuing to buy booklets, getting them signed. People are talking to the performers, signing up to support Freedom from Torture.

“I said the world did not know, but now they do,” says T afterwards. “We have delivered a message.”

“When I saw the audience there, I just found myself saying it out to them 100 per cent, with my whole heart,” says M.

“I felt good,” agrees J. “Everybody was so attentive to what we had to say – we were all reduced to tears. I couldn’t tell how it would be, so I was nervous before. But once I was speaking, the nerves disappeared.”

“I’ve never felt anything like this before, since I started reading in public,” U says. “To be honest, I was going to cry. The women in front of me were crying, so I struggled to keep that between me and my reading. It’s something I’ve just never experienced before.”

“At some points, I was upset, reading the lines and recalling the scenes they described,” admits H. “Later on I just felt relieved, bringing it out, releasing the pressure. I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again. This has propelled us forward to our next public appearance.”

If you would like to see ‘Souvenirs’ for yourself, the final scheduled performance is at 18:30 on Sunday 23rd June, at the Rich Mix Theatre in Bethnal Green Road.
Members of Write to Life are identified only by their initials as the circumstances of their lives often remain precarious.

The full article was first published in the April 2013 edition of Words with Jam

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