Can Theatre Help You Understand What it Means To Be a Refugee?
I recently attended the most emotionally stirring theater experience of the year. I was doing the evaluation of the three-year long Meeting the Odyssey project in Italy. It featured many performances, the most memorable being the refugee themed one, relying on audience participation. Even thinking about it afterwards still moves me. My job consisted of helping the contributors of Meeting the Odyssey to evaluate and improve the production side, resulting in both performances and new knowledge and connections in an international setting.
I will return to the production aspect later, but for now I’ll recount my own experience. We were outside the Castiaglionecello castle, located in the city of Rosignano 80km towards the coast from Firenze. We’re listening to a concert when suddenly a desperate looking woman appears and throws a metallic water bucket at the feet of the conductor. The audience gasps and the woman tells that she’s a refugee, or so I assume not speaking Italian myself. There’s no time for any deeper analysis, as a group of people carrying luggage rushes past us and up the stairs. This marks the beginning of the play, and we start following the group. We were simultaneously the audience and participants in the play. We got to observe their journey whilst experiencing it ourselves.
Art director Tatiana Pryiatkina-Weinstein and artist Kaisa Salmi have created scenes where undocumented immigrants have become invisible, living in their own world amidst our own welfare society. The performers were local artists and theatre amateurs interested in the refugee theme.
As we move through the dark halls we hear rustling plastic and breathing. They check our ears and eyes, and we wait in suspense whether or not we get to continue. The most emotional scene however came at the end. There was an intense moment of relief when we were finally welcomed with open arms and big smiles.
Artistically successful and emotionally touching, should anything else matter?
Meeting the Odyssey is a social theatre project with the purpose of bringing together both creators of performing arts from all around Europe, and artists and the local population. The event has taken place in the Baltic Sea (2014) and the Mediterranean Sea (2015, 2016). The performance I described earlier was in my mind a huge success with regards to these goals. So the question is what is there to learn from this experiment? How can you sail to another country and find an audience and participating locals? Some of the requirements are:
A vision, the shared dreamed that inspires the group. The vision in Meeting the Odyssey is strengthening the dialog between cultures through art. The people aboard the ship will become through sheer necessity of the circumstances a community, but how can you share this sense of community with people far far away? Just because the concept of global friendship and understanding might be a bit utopistic doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
A leader who keeps the dream alive, and sets an example through their everyday work. Even though the project is a collective effort, someone needs to take the main responsibility. Meeting the Odyssey’s project manager Matilda von Weissenberg holds the final responsibility of the project, while many aspects of the tour are divided between a number of people. The director is the key person in establishing a good work environment amongst the artistic production, while the tour manager makes sure that the practical aspects of the tour work. Often the pay isn’t all that great, so the reward for everyone is doing something truly meaningful.
A local person in charge, who knows the area and inspires key persons. Producer Michele Panini from Limonia Teatro has a great network, which allowed her to do things like getting the city’s top civil servant to participate in the making of the instant performance. The local head of tourism organized a welcoming party, and local artists helped the art director and stage planner to create a working entirety. As you can expect the audience was filled with friends and family of those who participated.
Time and space for reflection and learning
Meeting the Odyssey project has implemented continuous self-evaluation. Depending on the circumstances we’ve held a self-evaluation workshop at the beginning, middle, and end of the tour. My personal visit was timed to coincide with the final performances in Italy, and before heading home the group gathered in Limonia Teatro to evaluate the success of the tour.
The purpose of the evaluation workshop was to stop and reflect on whether or not the goals set out in the beginning were accomplished. You can’t get through everything at once, so we focused on the goal of involving the locals and the artists.
After that we moved on to share our own thoughts and opinions in smaller groups. Even though everyone was somewhat tired and homesick after a long tour there was a lot of active discussion.
The third and final step was sharing the results from the group discussions, and proposing improvements for next year’s final tour. The conversation was recorded and it will play a role in organizing next year’s tour.
Get lost and accept it was something that many participants became to embrace. Meeting the Odyssey is about jumping into the unknown, unexpected encounters, losing control, and finding new perspectives. As a final note, if there’s one thing that nobody wanted to change or improve it would be the food. The chef on the ship is an important of creating a good atmosphere. Friendships are formed when breaking bread, and it’s much nicer to face the unknown on a full stomach.