Blog: Combining art and activism to change the narrative of the refugee crisis

Loren O’Dair describes the making of a show that combines art and activism – and challenges you to join them in taking control and re-shaping the public narrative around the refugee crisis.

The making of Still Waiting began with a sort of theatre blind date. The matchmaker was the brilliant charity Crew for Calais, and the three of us (John Biddle, Dom Coyote and myself) agreed to make the show having not all met each other. John and I had both volunteered seperately in France with Crew For Calais. John and Dom had worked together on a show at last year’s VAULT Festival (Songs for the End of the World), so I suppose I was the wildcard in this artistic ménage-à-trois.

We were commissioned to make a piece of gig theatre using one of the Refugee Rights Data Reports as a source. These vital collations of research fill in the considerable information gaps relating to refugees, but aren’t an obvious starting point for a piece of theatre. However their aim: to form ‘nuanced, non-polarising and constructive public debate’, is the same as ours. I don’t think I’m alone in finding it hard to take in statistics, to really comprehend that every number is a person, and each person has a story. I saw such extraordinary resilience, laughter and hope amongst those I met in the Calais camp, alongside the obvious horror. Many residents wrote their hopes and dreams on the outside of their shelters. There was music. Someone was growing a sunflower. My perspective on the refugee crisis is still framed by the statistics, but is now coloured by individuals, people I’ve met, stories I’ve been told, experiences I had with those in the Calais camp. I hear the statistics differently. One of our songs is about the obstacle of such vast, sometimes incomprehensible data, and is our way of humanising the statistics.

Until now, my job as a theatre performer and any volunteering or activism I have done have been pretty separate. When I first went to volunteer in Calais, many people asked me what play I was doing, assuming that my way of helping would be theatrical. I actually went out to try and help in whatever practical ways I could. Aware that volunteers with technical theatre backgrounds had skills like welding that were in high demand, I was unsure of what I could offer as an actor. I hoped that being able to speak French and/or being very strong (I’m an aerialist) might be useful. Both these things did turn out to be useful, but I had a sense that the most important thing I did was just being there. The energy, hope, and compassion of the volunteers was – and is – incredibly galvanising.

In the face of current political and social challenges, what about combining art and activism? Theatre and music is how the three of us tell stories, and how we look at the world. We feel the urgency to reinvigorate the conversations around the refugee crisis, which seems almost to be on the wane. The dismantling of the Calais camp hasn’t reduced the number of refugees.

We have asked ourselves who is going to come and see a gig theatre show about the refugee crisis, and we are aware that we may largely be preaching to the converted. But perhaps a positive to be drawn from the horrors of 2016 is a provocation to turn passive empathy into action. Surely the best response to our feelings of helplessness is to face them and channel frustrated energy and anger into action.

I’m aware of the ego issues surrounding volunteering (we’ve written a song for the show called ‘humblebrag’), and of course of the ego involved in putting myself onstage to explore something I haven’t directly experienced. But ultimately I’d rather make the show, and potentially be criticised, than not try. We can’t speak for refugees, but we can voice something; the point is that they cannot get here to voice anything themselves.

Perhaps you’re not a sympathiser at all. This is also something we address in the show; that surely we must try to listen to viewpoints that are very different from our own, however uncomfortable that might feel. There are statistics in the Refugee Rights Data Reports that may challenge any of our assumptions, regardless of our political viewpoints.

We would like Still Waiting to make you feel entertained, moved, and a tiny bit more likely to do something. There are small things we can do to effect change. Individually they may feel like nothing, but collectively, small is huge – and empowering. Let’s take a bit of responsibility for what is happening. It might feel like it doesn’t affect us, but what if the situation was the other way round?

We’re still not quite sure what our show will be; it certainly hasn’t been made within any conventional processes or timescales. But we are very excited and a little bit scared to share it with an audience. And here’s a tiny action: bring someone who wouldn’t normally come and see something like this.

At London’s VAULT 2017 festival, Crew for Calais is programming three weeks of pared-down, rapid response performances in which we offer a different narrative to refugees to that presented in the UK’s media. Still Waiting is the first of these performances, from February 1-5 at 8.25pm.

Any refugees, displaced people or volunteers who cannot afford a ticket but would like to see the show can contact alex@crewforcalais.org. Please buy a ticket if you can afford to.

Image: Stefan de Vries