Twenty-five year olds Sierra and Olivia are from the United States and work in the United Kingdom as theatre makers. Their theatre company believes in support for immigrants by immigrants, focusing specifically on international students and refugees. “Through theatre, we hope to provide safe spaces for people to collaborate, communicate and share.”
Olivia and Sierra met in London, for their Master’s at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Olivia: “We are both immigrants to the United Kingdom. Upon finishing our studies, we applied for a UK Entrepreneurship Visa, to start our own theatre company.” They knew they wanted to focus their work on migration from the very start. “For us, finding and creating a community was the best way to ease into life in London. By making friends, placing ourselves in our new country. And interactive theatre provides the tools to do just that,” says Sierra. “This was something we wanted to share.”
“…we think theatre is also a great creative way to learn a language.”
The women are fully aware that their immigration experiences differ from that of other migrants and refugees. Sierra: “In one of our theatre games, we ask people to stand in pairs, introduce themselves to one another and find out three things they have in common. Once, I was partnering with a man from Syria. He had also started his own business, so that was something similar about our lives. Then I asked him whether he had also been in the UK for less than two years, as this was true for me. ‘Yeah’, he said, friendly, without judgment. ‘But you chose to be here. I didn’t’.’”
Learning by doing
Olivia and Sierra run various projects, working with different groups and communities. Olivia: “With the organisation Women for Refugee Women, we assisted on a brilliant workshop for refugee mums and their toddlers. With the STAR-network (Student Action for Refugees, ed.) at University College London, we worked on a drama and debating programme for refugees alongside university students. And we think theatre is also a great creative way to learn a language.” This is why their theatre company is called Art Lingual.
“We believe in learning by doing,” says Olivia. “Experiencing things physically opens up new spaces of learning.” Sierra agrees and adds: “The things we remember are often the things we have done. And we don’t pretend to be experts. Instead, we learn from our participants, through each workshop we do.”
At times, this learning leads to funny situations. Olivia: “There was one workshop when I tried to explain a popular theatre game, where people have to say different words, like ‘zip’, ‘zap’ and ‘zup’. Turns out one of the words we used actually sounds like a swear word in Arabic. A Syrian family started to giggle, but were very gracious about it.
With a smile, they agreed to participate as they were technically playing the game in English. But I was hugely embarrassed.”
To Sierra and Olivia, the Brexit vote gave new momentum to their work. Olivia: “The issues we are working on felt so relevant. As preparation for a new play, we send out questionnaires to people from outside the UK who are living in Britain. People from different backgrounds – international students, a refugee, people from in and outside the EU. We asked them: ‘Do you consider yourself an immigrant?’ Most were hesitant about that label. The dictionary definition is really only that of people who move across a border. In the responses we got, however, people indicated the label ‘immigrant’ is considered a bit of a dirty word.”
“There seems to be a growing fear of immigrants in many places”
Olivia explains how Brexit is not only about the obvious. “Most people’s first reaction is to look at how this affects British and EU citizens. Yet actually, a lot of migration policy is being revisited, all over the world. New decisions are being made about who is allowed in and who is not. We are also interested in how this is affecting those seeking asylum, for example.”
Coming from the United States, this issue hits home as well. “There seems to be a growing fear of immigrants in many places,” says Sierra. She is originally from Guam, where her family still lives. It shows her the fragility of politics and its impact on human lives. “With the current political tensions, there is not much I can do except hope for the best and continue to spread awareness.”
“Through our work, we’ve also learned that it is hard to reach out to some migrant groups. There is a hesitation about being public or being seen as asylum seekers and refugees. For those that are illegal or fleeing political oppression in their home countries, it is not easy to find safe spaces to speak out. This in itself tells us something about the systems involved.”
Art Lingual’s most recent project is called How to make a home, a theatre workshop for refugees and UK citizens alike. Read more about it on their website.