Practices, Perceptions and People - by Micaela Casalboni

The UK media's attitude to migration - on display in the Migration Museum

Being hosted by Border Crossings, in order to learn more about practices and theoretical approaches concerning intercultural dialogue and theatrical work with different communities, is more than a privilege: considering the long and high-quality experience and expertise of this English group in the field, and in building relationships with individuals and organizations locally and worldwide, the week’s programme was as rich and diverse as you could expect.

Practical theatre exercises and structures alternated with theoretical talks and discussions about migration, intercultural theatre, and the perception of people with a migrant or refugee background in and by our societies. Visits to associations, NGOs, institutions, and organizations working in the social, educational and cultural fields were offered, along with exercises in the creation of devised and image-based  theatre and the envisioning of performances related to the project’s main themes.

For me, one of the highlights of the training week was the introduction given by Marilena Zaroulia on “Theatre, Migration and Crisis”. She pointed out what the word “crisis” means in terms of etymology, the political use of fear to influence perception, the mass media’s oversimplification leading to prejudicial and stereotyped images of “The Other”, and a growing indifference, when not an explicit xenophobic violence, in the so-called “hosting” citizens and societies towards newcomers.

The exercise led by CARAS expert Egle Banelyte on “good words” and “bad words” to be used when talking about situations or people from a migration or refugee background was in this sense complementary to Zaroulia’s talk, as was the “Refugee’s Box” exercise led by Border Crossings.

Building awareness does not only mean knowing more and knowing the truth in terms of information, numbers and statistics – although this would already be a giant step forward! – but also working on empathy, building relationships, seeing the individual behind the crowd, working with one another with no standard method, but with a lot of different and efficient tools coming from many different fields, ready to be used when necessary in many different contexts.

This is exactly what Border Crossings does – and what THE PROMISED LAND project aims to do – through a cross-cultural and cross-sectoral approach, which is always warmly connected with people and communities as well as with other artists. An allegory of this approach was the creation process which followed the Refugee’s Box exercise: starting from a person’s desires, dreams, remembrances, dearest objects and people, four small groups of men and women had to create in four different corners, respectively, one space, one movement, one music/sound, one text that expressed that inner world. Then, each group has to migrate to the next group’s corner and creation, and had to add their own creative perspective to it, while at the same time taking care and respecting the world they found.

In this sense, the organizations I had the opportunity to see in my field visits were also very interesting and eye-opening, especially with regards to the Italian context I come from and to the theatre work of our organization, Teatro dell’Argine.

Cavendish Primary School is an astonishing example of how a school can be the most welcoming, creative, inclusive, stimulating environment not only for learning but also for establishing a fruitful alliance between children and teachers, between arts and education, between the institution and the community.

The Southbank Centre – where we met Rebecca Hayes Laughton from “Women for Refugee Women” and “Borderline” – is an amazing example of how a public space can really develop and engage not only the most diverse audiences, but also the most diverse citizens: a venue which is always open, where you can sit and work or relax even if you’re not “going to the theatre”, where organizations like Rebecca’s can find shelter and room for their work.

Speaking about “Women for Refugee Women” and “Borderline”, the work these two organizations run is very interesting as well, and Rebecca, was so generous and open to our small group. The only thing I missed here was the possibility to meet the whole company/ies, maybe watch a small part of their work, or ask them about their relationship to theatre. This was something I felt was missing during the week.

Maybe it is something that is missing across in our common process: although our partners come from different contexts, although Negar Nasiri and Marilena Zaroulia worked with us throughout the week, although we met and shared moments with Syrian students in Adana, and a lot of migrant and refugee boys and girls from all over the world in Bologna, I still feel that our project and partnership (and our societies…) should work more by involving people with a migration and refugee background in the process. Of course, all local areas are different from one another, people have different migration stories and contexts according to places and times of their arrival, and their 100% involvement is not always possible in such projects. But keeping this in mind is crucial for changing perspectives and power structures.

Moreover, and at the same time, I feel that we should ask ourselves how we can engage the unengaged, or at least do our best not to “preach to the converted” only. This is a huge challenge in all our local contexts as well: maybe our contacts, networks and grass-roots work can help us to achieve this goal. And maybe some of our selected best practices should include some ways to accomplish this mission.

In the end, a big “Thank you” to our English partners for being so nice and welcoming, and for sharing with us some of their precious practices and structures: we will for sure use a lot of what we have learned in our work!

And a big “Thank you” to all our group: the diversity in it can sometimes make it challenging to find an alignment, but it is always fruitful to experience and be trained in dialogue and in a transdisciplinary and transcultural approach.