Azadeh Sharifi* and S. E. Wilmer**

The motivation to edit a special section on theatre and statelessness evolves from the urgency of the outrageous circumstances so many refugees are facing, even though some of them are now “safe” in Europe. Not only is Europe drifting further into nationalistic politics, where not just refugees but all minorities and racialized groups are targeted by right-wing parties in many countries, but also the refugee laws and politics in Europe are becoming worse than ever, creating an impossible system for people who are fleeing the humanitarian crisis all around the world to apply for asylum legally.

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A refugee is a displaced person who has been forced to cross national boundaries and who cannot return home safely. Such a person may be called an asylum seeker until granted refugee status by the contracting state or the UNHCR, if they formally make a claim for asylum (, accessed 16/11/2016)

This is the impetus that drives us to write about the topic and to address the issue in every possible aspect, in order to create awareness about this humanitarian crisis. And for one of us the urge to write about statelessness comes from the personal experience of being a refugee, a state of being which will always be part of one’s life no matter how long it has been there.

We have been involved in many ways in the discourses around theatre and statelessness, by writing articles, giving lectures, participating in conferences, engaging with refugee groups or evaluating art projects with refugees. And we have gained an overview on what is happening right now in European theatre by engaging with refugees or reflecting on the social and political failure in Europe to deal with the current situation.

And we think that a lot of wonderful work has been done with refugees and by refugees themselves. There are art and theatre projects where refugees have been empowered to be humans again, to fight for their rights and to see themselves as part of their new home countries. There are artists involved who have the insight and sensibility—sometimes deriving from their own experience of being a refugee—to use their expertise and their knowledge for creating artistic “safe” spaces to explore the multiple aspects of statelessness. And there are cultural institutions that are giving their spaces deliberately to refugees and artists.

While the majority of institutions, artistic directors and artists who are doing projects or getting involved in projects, are doing it with good intentions, this is not always enough to prevent more harm than support for the refugees who are involved. There is still a missing link between the cultural institutions and, what Fatima El-Tayeb has called in her book “European Others,” the racialized minorities who are still seen as non-Europeans. Cultural institutions in almost every Western European country fail to represent the diversity of their present societies. And this is very often connected to internalized (structural and institutional) racism and the unquestioned social dominance of what is seen as European. For example, in Germany, the colonial past is still being denied—or not spoken of—and, therefore, the effects of the postcolonial present have been downplayed by media, politics and the society, generally.

Many cultural institutions are, in this sense, missing the insight and expertise into what could have been the connection to the current situation for refugees. So, in the majority of projects with, for and about refugees, there is a gap between what is intended and what will be the outcome, namely an unintended reproduction of racism and (colonial) stereotypes. In these art and theatre projects the participating refugees are never put into the leading or decision-making positions. Very often, they remain nameless and voiceless, and can be seen on stage as “refugees” but almost never as individuals or artists. And, very often, the answer of the decision-makers of the theatre projects to this kind of criticism is that it is done for the sake of the refugees, or because of the delicacy of their asylum-seeker case.

Sometimes, the theaters and artists are using the projects to “educate” the audience about the conditions of refugees but, again, fail to acknowledge that this makes the refugees involved or on stage as “illustrative materials,” rather than creating a debate at eye level. And, also, these kinds of projects target white audiences but not the racialized groups, or an audience that lives in a diverse society.

In many of the articles we have chosen, these problematic issues are addressed and analyzed. And it is very important to bring these kinds of debates into the discourse precisely at times when it is literally more important to address the conditions in a “positive” way than to let them be politicized by the right-wing groups and organizations. But if the theatrical discourse leaves off by only having good intentions and not grasping the bigger issues, like structural racism and internalized hegemonic powers, it will play into the hands of those people who always alleged that political art (and theatre) is made by “starry-eyed idealists.”

The essays in this issue reflect a microcosm of the kind of work that is being produced in Europe today. Because the refugee issue has featured so prominently in Germany in the last two years, the majority of the essays concern German theatre practices and provide critical commentaries on recent productions. However, the German essays are partially balanced by essays about Sweden, Greece, and England. The first two essays by Jonas Tinius and Jamie Trnka provide some historical and transnational background to current practices in European theatres.

Front and back of flyer for the project’s 2015 theatre and installation Und die Nacht meines Anfangs (And the night of my beginning) in Mülheim’s former women’s prison. Photo: Franziska Götzen
Front of flyer for the project’s 2015 theatre and installation Und die Nacht meines Anfangs (And the night of my beginning) in Mülheim’s former women’s prison. Photo: Franziska Götzen

Tinius discusses the Theatre an der Ruhr, in the German city of Mülheim, as an organization that has confounded the normative notions of refugee and national identity, and promoted theatre as a cosmopolitan practice. Through its work, over the last thirty years, of incorporating theatre groups from abroad (such as the Roma Teatro Pralipe from Yugoslavia in the 1980s), as well as, more recently, its collaboration with Ruhrorter, a local theatre group of refugee artists, it has rejected the idea of authenticity of identity, and minimizes national and cultural barriers. In a kind of Deleuzian approach to desubjectivation, the work of the theatre has promoted “alternative imaginations of the status quo” and a concept of performance that “problematises negotiation and process, rather than propagating fixity and identity.” In Ruhrorter, for example, the actors, rather than playing tragic refugee stories, rehearse to unlearn the learned roles of refugees that they have played in society, and perform more ambivalent and anonymous characters in their devised pieces. Because national governments, institutions and cultural practices have encouraged their citizens to essentialise national identities rather than regarding them as evolving, the so-called “refugee crisis,” according to Tinius, is not so much a crisis about refugees as it is a crisis in national identity and national self-understanding, both at a national level and at a European level.

Jamie Trnka discusses the “Tribunal 12” project in Stockholm, in 2012, as the outgrowth of previous theatrical tribunals, such as Bertrand Russell’s International War Crimes Tribunal about the Vietnam War. “Tribunal 12” resulted from documentary evidence amassed during a five-year Shaharazad project, organized in six European cities that “set in motion a transnational dynamic of sharing and exchanging new stories.” During the performance of “Tribunal 12,” expert witnesses and actors playing the parts of refugees presented testimony that reflected on current practices, involving “border control, asylum, undocumented migrants and detention and deportation.” The Tribunal “accused Europe of systematic human rights violations in connection with immigration policies since the 1990s” and demonstrated that “the institutional landscape is ill-equipped to ensure the rights of people whose citizenship status—and, by extension, ability to assert rights claims—may be in question.”

Graphic Design: Studio Parasto Backman
Graphic Design: Studio Parasto Backman

In particular, the Tribunal revealed the policies of national governments and the European Union to use “private surrogates” for border control, such as commercial airlines and Frontex as “a displacement of power from state to contractor . . . a process which enables the displacement of responsibility for rights violations and deaths.” The jury in the Tribunal reached a verdict calling “for states to end restrictive practices that prevent asylum seekers and refugees from reaching Europe and to comply with legal obligations that its member states have undertaken voluntarily as signatories to international human right conventions.” Trnka also points out that the Tribunal enhanced its credibility by being a EU-sponsored event, so that it was effectively accusing itself of wrong doing and promoting corrective action. Moreover, she argues that, rather than being a “trial of history,” “Tribunal 12” was addressing the “unresolved problems of the present,” using theatrical means to render visible the invisible mechanisms of power.

Katrin Sieg compares three productions in German-speaking countries that use verbatim theatre techniques: Asylum Monologues, Letters Home and Illegal Helpers. She points out that Asylum Monologues, which employs professional actors to tell the stories of three refugees and their attempts to immigrate to Europe, falls into the trap of orientalist stereotypes, contrasting the victimized refugee with the unsympathetic state bureaucracy.

Sieg argues that, using minimal props and staging, the production engages the sympathies of the audience but does not motivate them to become actively involved, since it resorts to “paternalistic sympathizing with an infantilized Other.” Letters Home, which was devised by a group of asylum seekers themselves and has been performed by them several times in Germany during the past two years, overcomes the “us and them” divide by showing the way that the refugees have developed their own community in Berlin and, despite difficulties in gaining asylum, have created a network of friends and support systems.

Asylum Monologues at Refugee Protest in front of Brandenburg Gate, Photo: Jonas Wuestefeld
Asylum Monologues at Refugee Protest in front of Brandenburg Gate, Photo: Jonas Wuestefeld

However, Sieg indicates that this performance also “could not unravel the framing of the discourse of a refugee crisis, in which ‘good’ refugees, defined by their victim status and suppliant posture, were differentiated from ‘bad’ economic migrants, now widely decried as freeloaders and strains on the welfare state.” By contrast, Sieg suggests that Illegal Helpers can activate the audience in a more positive fashion by celebrating the civil courage (Zivilcourage) of those helping the refugees through various illegal means. According to Sieg, the play “constructs a civic ideal” by demonstrating that the small acts by citizens can improve the situation for refugees. Rather than showing the state “as uniformly hostile and inhumane,” it presents a more nuanced approach in which “some of the helpers are themselves civil servants,” and it demonstrates the need for systemic change “so that people can migrate legally.”

Yana Meerzon and Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe converse about the In Transit season of 52 events concerning refugees at the Theater Bremen, in 2014-2015, and, specifically, Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched (Incendies) that was produced in the following season. Meerzon knows Mouawad’s work from France and Canada, while Meyer-Dinkgräfe attended the performance of Mouawad’s play in Bremen.

In their article, they share their different perspectives on the play, both the original text and the Bremen production. The play depicts an oedipal situation during the Lebanese civil war, when a young Christian woman falls in love with a Palestinian but feels forced to abandon their child because of social pressure. Later, the woman rethinks her action and searches for her lost son. Much later, her lost son becomes the father of her two twins as well as her torturer. Despite the play having the impact of a Greek tragedy, Meerzon and Meyer-Dinkgräfe criticize the Bremen production for its sensationalist effects and overacting. However, they reflect on the play as a metaphor for the civil war in Lebanon and the plight of refugees in Germany.

Playwright Wajdi Mouawad
Playwright Wajdi Mouawad

Despite the problems with this particular production, they assess the positive impact of the In Transit season at the Theatre Bremen and the way that Theater Bremen, like other German theatres, continues to “make the facilities of the theatre available to refugees” as part of their mission. “In Transit was not only anticipatory, it was visionary. It reminded European society how urgent it is today for each European country and every one of its citizens to finally begin, and take seriously and carry through, the process of self-education and exchange.”

The articles by Silke Felber and Ralf Remshardt both discuss Nicolas Stemann’s production of Charges (Die Schutzbefohlenen), by Elfriede Jelinek, at the Thalia Theater, in Hamburg, from 2014. However, they provide quite distinct approaches to the same piece, with Felber more interested in the categorization of humans in Jelinek’s text, while Remshardt is more concerned with the intermedial features of Stemann’s production.

Felber, who calls Die Schutzbefohlenen “the text of the hour,” since it has been staged by ten different theatres in 2015, with more productions forthcoming in 2016, looks closely at the Aeschylean influence on Jelinek’s play. Based loosely on the situation in Aeschylus’s Suppliants, Jelinek transformed the chorus of women demanding asylum from King Pelasgos into an undefined voice that, sometimes, uses the first person plural and, at other times, blends this with the first person singular. Thus, the question of who is speaking is central to the play and, according to Felber, is crucial in Jelinek’s strategy of breaking down barriers between groups of people.

From the production of Charges (Die Schutzbefohlenen). Photo: Christian Kleiner
From the production of Charges (Die Schutzbefohlenen). Photo: Christian Kleiner

Felber argues that, by using refugees on stage as a refugee chorus, who, sometimes, are allowed to speak but, at other times, are replaced by German actors, Stemann creates an “us and them” differentiation that Jelinek was seeking to avoid.  Rather than blurring the boundaries between social groups, Stemann, according to Felber, is “affirming the inclusions and exclusions, instead of deconstructing them.” She concludes: “satisfactory responses of theatre aesthetics to Jelinek’s method of ‘unmaking boundaries’ are yet to materialize.”

By contrast with Felber’s focus on the text, Ralf Remshardt takes issue with Stemann’s use of hackneyed techniques of intermediality and failed attempts at reality effects. Despite actual Lampedusa refugees on stage at the beginning of the performance, their authenticity is immediately undercut, according to Remshardt, by videoed interviews with them being projected onto a giant screen, “implicitly conceding that in the experience of most theatre-goers at least, refugees exist in an irreducibly mediated and mediatized space, even if they are actually present.”

While the production “tried its best to align with political activism . . . the placement of real refugees on stage inevitably destabilizes the very claim to authenticity it so strenuously upholds.” The clash between those who were acting the parts of refugees with the presence of the refugees as actors created, according to Remshardt, a production that was full of contradictions and “was performing its own inefficacy and putting the inadequacy of art to give due to the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time on overt display.”

Anika Marschall also critiques the reality effects of the Centre for Political Beauty, a radical performance group that has linked some of its actions with the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. She reviews some of their most provocative pieces, such as The Dead are Coming (in which they exhumed the bodies of refugees who had drowned in the Mediterranean and staged their reburial in a Berlin cemetery) and Eating Refugees (where they threatened to feed refugees to tigers caged outside the Gorki Theatre as a protest against the German immigration laws), before looking more closely at their action called First Fall of the European Wall. For the First Fall of the European Wall, which coincided with the 25th anniversary celebrations for the fall of the Berlin wall, the Centre for Political Beauty hired two buses and drove their audience to the Bulgarian/Turkish border to protest against the erection of a new wall designed to prevent immigration into Europe.

Marschall asserts that the Centre for Political Beauty, while attempting to “raise awareness for humanitarian issues and challenge what they call their audiences’ ‘political apathy,’’’ undermine their effectiveness by grandiose rhetoric and exaggerated and inappropriate events. Their rhetorical devices “function to position the artists within cultural discourses about artists helping to save the nation,” but, according to Marschall, they “belong to a white, mostly male, German cultural and intellectual elite” and alienate their audiences by speaking down to them. Their “social ideal of a homogeneous us and them has the tendency to render invisible migrant presences. . . . They reproduce not only nationalist racisms but stand in a long tradition of colonial re-presentation of Black and the Other.” Their First Fall of the European Wall event focused on the state’s apparatus to maintain order and control borders, and thus it was “built upon the public display of the State . . . rather than being invested in the potential means that border-crossing bodies may find and bring about beyond the narrativisation, legislation and classification of migration.”

The shopping scene, where Tariq comically chooses inappropriate items of clothing. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre
The shopping scene, where Tariq comically chooses inappropriate items of clothing. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre

Zafiris Nikitas discusses Case Farmakonisi or The Justice of the Water by Anestis Azas, a documentary play about the shipwreck of a boat carrying refugees from Turkey to Greece. The performance was presented like a trial, with recorded testimony and expert witnesses, and included audience involvement as refugees in a simulated boat. The play indicated that the accident might have been caused by the Greek Coast Guard trying to return the boat to Turkey. Many unresolved issues are examined, not only about whether the Coast Guard should have been exonerated for the deaths of many women, men and children, but also whether a young Syrian who was blamed for the incident should have been found guilty and sentenced to more than one hundred years in jail. It also raised questions about the inhumane practice of refoulement and the difficulty in prosecuting accidents at sea. Nikitas affirms the importance of this type of theatre to deal with contemporary political issues and situates it within other recent performances in Greece.

Finally, in “Unseen Faces and Unheard Voices,” Rosanna Jahangard and Kate Duffy present an insider’s view of their own production of Dear Home Office. They recount how three young asylum seekers approached Duffy, a housing Key Worker for the Afghan Association Paiwand charity in London, and asked her to help them tell their stories. With her mother, who was a writer, and her friend, Rosanna Jahangard, who had worked in theatre, and an enlarged group of eight Afghan unaccompanied minors, who had no previous theatrical experience, she devised a play. Dear Home Office revolves around the experiences of a composite character, named Tariq Ali, who embodies the stories of the Afghan actors and is played by each of them in succession on various themes: “leaving home, making new friends, learning English, attending court, being disbelieved, the unreliability of memory, coming of age and holding on to hope.”

A central issue that the title of the play signals is the relationship of the Afghan youths to the Home Office and their need “to perform refugee” in the court. According to Jahangard and Duffy, “[p]erforming refugee in turn means accepting the label refugee, and labels can be particularly problematic for young people in the process of discovering their identity in the fluctuating period of adolescence, since labels have an inherent connotation of permanence.” The rehearsal process improved their spoken English and led to significant understanding of the asylum procedure, which aided them when they were called to appear before the Home Office authorities. After several months of rehearsal, during which they established a company called Phosphorus Theatre as well as their own support community, and received an arts council grant to subsidize their process, they eventually performed the play to positive reviews in the South Bank Centre, in London, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in August 2016, and are planning to present it again in London.

Azadeh Sharifi

*Azadeh Sharifi is a writer, researcher and activist. She is currently working on her Postdoc project (Habilitation), “(Post)migrant Theatre in German Theatre History—(Dis)Continuity of Aesthetics and Narratives,” at the Theatre Department, Munich LMU. Her research interests include post-migrant theatre in Europe, postcolonial discourses in theatre and performances of race and gender. She is a former Fellow at the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures,” Freie Universität Berlin.


**Steve Wilmer is Professor Emeritus of Drama at Trinity College, Dublin, and a Research Fellow at the Research Center for “Interweaving Performance Cultures” at the  Freie Universität Berlin. He co-edited (with Audronė Žukauskaitė) Resisting Biopolitics: Philosophical, Political and Performative Strategies (Routledge 2016) and Deleuze and Beckett (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). He also edited a special issue of Nordic Theatre Studies called “Theatre and the Nomadic Subject,” in 2015. He is currently writing a book called “Performing Statelessness” for Palgrave Macmillan.

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Reflections on Theatre and Statelessness