Rosanna Jahangard and Kate Duffy* (Phosphoros Theatre)

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In the summer of 2015, three young refugee men approached their housing Key Worker to say that they had stories they wanted to tell, that they thought they were funny and wanted to use their bodies to show people their experiences of leaving their home countries and coming to the UK in search of asylum. It so happened that their Key Worker, Kate Duffy, was also an Applied Theatre practitioner, and was able to enlist the support of her mother Dawn Harrison, award winning television drama writer and youth theatre director, and her friend Rosanna Jahangard, a secondary school English and Drama teacher and intercultural theatre practitioner, to create a platform and framework for the boys to share their stories with a UK audience. So, it is from here that Phosphoros Theatre was born, and with help from an Arts Council England grant, the three women began to work closely with eight young refugee men, who are all supported by the charity Kate is employed by: Afghan Association Paiwand.

These eight “boys” (by which they shall be identified in this article since this is how they have chosen to be collectively known when working with the company) formed the cast of the production Dear Home Office, which was previewed at the Southbank Centre and the SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies in Spring 2016, before going on to the Underbelly venues at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2016. Dear Home Office is both a play and a project, the culmination of an eight-month devising process in collaboration with the boys, some of their peers, Phosphoros Theatre and its growing family-network of collaborating artists and supporters. The process behind the production, together with an analysis of the performance itself, forms the subject of this article.

Directors Rosanna Jahangard (L) and Dawn Harrison (R) rehearse a scene depicting a journey in a lorry with the cast. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre
Directors Rosanna Jahangard (L) and Dawn Harrison (R) rehearse a scene depicting a journey in a lorry with the cast.
Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre

The need to tell the stories of refugee young men comes from the fact that 3,043 Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, or Unaccompanied Minors, applied for asylum in the UK in 2015, a 56% increase on the previous year. Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Albania made up 72% of applications in the first quarter of 2016, and 93% of applications in this time period were from boys. The majority of unaccompanied minors (around 72%) receive Discretionary Leave, which means they are granted leave in the UK until the age of 18, at which point around 70% of applications to extend their leave are refused (Refugee Council 2016). It is around this intersection that the narrative of Dear Home Office is based. Unaccompanied minors have received some sympathetic press coverage, but their experiences remain a topic that those outside of education, support and social services know very little about. However, according to The Scotsman (27/8/16), Dear Home Office “tells us more [about it] in a short hour . . . than we could learn from standard news bulletins in months, or even year.”

For the average Briton, the plight of unaccompanied minors may not seem such a pressing issue compared to the vast scores of adult refugees arriving in Europe and concerns over numbers of economic migrants living in the UK. However, this relatively small demographic is indeed a fascinating one: why is it that the statistic for boys is so high? How do these vulnerable young men progress from a boyhood in one country and culture, to adulthood without any family ties or history in another? How can an Applied Theatre project provide a safe space for them to negotiate an identity and relationship with the UK politically and culturally? To what extent is the UK equipped, prepared and willing to provide for unaccompanied refugee children? What is the impact on a young man’s identity formation of these experiences in his home, in his journey and since his arrival in the UK? It is these questions that Phosphoros Theatre have been exploring throughout the project’s duration, whilst discovering their own interdisciplinary methodology that traverses theatre, education and holistic support.

Located quite firmly in the Applied Theatre field, this project is unique in the way that it operates from within the home and community of unaccompanied minors in North West London and, also, due to the fact that the young refugees represent themselves on stage to the general public. Theatre about the current refugee crisis is emerging in the UK, with stories from adult refugees being told by actors, and some events and projects led by existing arts organizations dealing with the crisis in Calais or reporting on refugees settling in the UK. A notable 2016 example is Cargo by Tess Berry-Hart, which uses professional actors to transform the Arcola Theatre into a shipping container and which has been influenced by the playwright’s activism in Calais.

A larger scale project is the Encampment project by Good Chance, which brings together collaborations between companies such as the Young Vic, Oval House and other artists working with refugee communities both in the UK and in Calais. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016, Dear Home Office was shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award, given to an “outstanding Fringe production with a human rights message,” losing out to Glasgow Girls, a play by Cora Bissett and David Greig in its fourth year of showing. Glasgow Girls also follows the stories of refugee young people who have settled in the UK and are fighting for their rights to stay, with similar representations of the faceless Home Office personnel. These productions form the canon of emerging theatre which puts refugee issues at the forefront and in which Dear Home Office holds a unique footing.

In addition, the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn runs the “Minding the Gap” project, which supports around 200 newly arrived young refugees each year, before they enter mainstream British education. A yearly performance sees participants share parts of their stories with an invited audience, helping them to learn English through drama. What makes Dear Home Office distinct is that the participants initiated the project, rather than an outreach division of a theatre organization seeking contact and recruiting refugee youths—as, for example, in Attic Theatre Company’s creative partnership with the Alternative Education Department in Merton, which supports newly arrived refugee youths.

In January 2016, Dawn, Kate and Rosanna began weekly meetings at one of the supported accommodation locations for unaccompanied minor young men run by Afghan Association Paiwand. Anyone over the age of fifteen was welcome to attend and word soon spread through ESOL classes and friendship circles, until around fifteen male youths were attending every Friday night, in various dribs and drabs. At each session, standard youth work (advocacy themed) and drama activities took place, with the trifold intention of gauging and engaging interest and participation from the young men, gathering research and material for a possible play, and imparting confidence boosting life skills (and good old fashioned fun) with a marginalized group of youths. The outcome of this was that eight young men committed to the project, knowing that the end product would be a show that they would perform in London and the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

The goal of participating in the Edinburgh Fringe always seemed obvious—it is an end point that simultaneously marks the start of something, much like achieving refugee status. Working in English, with some help from Google Translate on phones, Dawn and Rosanna were able to gather information and details that could possibly become the narrative of the show. At times, they asked the boys to show what they wanted in the play through tableaux or role-play and tried to script the essence of what the boys were communicating. At other times, they asked questions and let the boys talk, writing down their memories of seeking asylum, being careful to avoid imparting their own opinions. As writers, Dawn and Rosanna searched for the conflict that would drive the narrative, fact-checking all information they were given with online research and speaking to solicitors and experienced workers in the field. They were also taking into account that the boys in the play would have little or no performance experience and would be working in their second language, but the boys consistently vocalized their trust in them as their theatre-makers.

Should the play be about journeys to the UK, even though this felt readily documented by the news media? Should it be about the friendships of the boys who lived in the supported accommodation, even though they weren’t all really close friends? It could have been about the future of the boys, but this wasn’t the information they gave and it wasn’t the story they seemed to want to tell—as in typical teenage fashion, the boys would shrug and say “it’s fine” when asked. Eventually, through as much informal chat outside of the workshops as anything, themes from the boys began to emerge and this was what Dawn, Rosanna and Kate used as the starting point to construct the skeleton of Dear Home Office: leaving home, making new friends, learning English, attending court, being disbelieved, the unreliability of memory, coming of age and holding on to hope.

One of the court scenes where Tariq is questionned by Home Office representatives, played on stage by Kate Duffy in a mask with recorded voice. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre
One of the court scenes where Tariq is questionned by Home Office representatives, played on stage by Kate Duffy in a mask with recorded voice. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre

Every line in the play can be traced back to something that one of the boys has said. It is not a verbatim piece but a negotiation or dialogue, so that an agreement is reached between the theatre makers and the participants, whereby the boys are happy with the representation of their story and we, as theatre makers, feel it is conveyed in a theatrically sound and intellectually challenging way for a paying audience. In reality, this means that Dawn and Rosanna would write something into the script that the boys had said, the boys would read it out loud, edit it and show it back ready to be directed, and a final, authentic but scripted version set. Placing the participants at the centre of the play is central to the project and this is reflected in the shape of the performance itself.

Dear Home Office follows the story of Tariq Ali, a refugee young man who arrives in the UK and seeks asylum on the basis that he has been threatened as a result of a familial affiliation with a political group in his home country. The narrative charts his journey to the UK, his arrival and settling in to the supported accommodation, his first days at a college where he will learn English, and, then, his numerous court appearances and appointments with the Home Office in the process of being age assessed as part of his asylum claim and entitlement to particular services and support. The Tariq narrative is effectively a fictional account as it is an amalgamation of all the boys’ experiences, from their tales of angry neighbors complaining that their music is too loud, to the uncertain outcomes of the court decisions on their asylum cases and shopping for winter coats on the British high street.

All eight participants have a part of their personal story represented in the play, and each boy has a scene in which he plays Tariq, although that scene may or may not correlate to his actual story. The decision to anonymize the boys frees them from the trauma of re-living certain experiences whilst giving a level of protection when performing to audiences, given their precarious refugee status. On stage throughout is Kate, playing herself as their Key Worker and, occasionally, a mother and a teacher, acting not as a narrator to the story, but as a character in her own right and as a depiction of an integral part of the boys’ experience since they arrived in the UK and have forged surrogate relationships in absence of their family. Therefore, the interplay between Kate and the boys forms another layer of depiction of the reality of the boys’ new lives in the UK.

Focusing scenes in the play on real-life experiences, particularly conflicts, also meant that power dynamics could be re-negotiated and passive experiences re-interpreted with the boys as “authors.” During one rehearsal, one of the boys, Jalal, started acting out an incident of bad behavior which had resulted in his exclusion from college. Dawn suggested Kate act as the teacher and encourage Jalal to direct her and the other boys as his classmates. Jalal’s scene offered an alternative version of events to the report Kate had received about the incident that morning, and which placed him in a state of frustration rather than aggression. In the relaxed and safe drama space, Jalal was able to become the director and experience a power shift to centre stage, where real events were interconnected with exaggerated dramatization and alternative endings. This devising and the subsequent rehearsal process became an open platform for airing conflicts, frustration, sadness and confusion for the boys, as well as the signifiers of good stories for Dawn and Rosanna to put into the play, and Kate’s prompts for the following day’s Key Work support.

This dynamic and methodology raises important questions around hierarchical power between the artists and participants, or adults and young people, in general. Whilst it is important to have a cohesive theatrical script, it is necessary as artists to view themselves as facilitators and allow the participants to have ownership of the text, willingly adapting and sharing the thinking, researching, writing and directing process in a transparent and fluid manner. Through scenarios like those described here, the narrative of the play was developed and honed, until being a fully fledged script that has been directed, rehearsed and performed.

Deciding who, what and how all the stories and personalities of the boys could be represented on stage was a challenge that was overcome with the invention of the narrative of the fictional Tariq Ali. This composite-boy-come-protagonist is ceremoniously introduced by all eight boys on stage (and Kate), who remove a piece of their own clothing to place on a mannequin which is centre stage. For each scene, as the boys take it in turns to assume the role of Tariq, they use a Tariq item. Despite the inevitable (but incorrect) implication that using one composite character could be interpreted as a testimony to there being only one refugee narrative, the theatrical device of the composite boy works on a few levels and was developed to avoid such a pitfall.

Firstly, it enables each actor to distance himself from their potentially traumatic stories in order to perform them; secondly, it creates a bridge of some anonymity between the actors and the audience whilst, simultaneously, giving the audience a character and narrative in which to invest; and, thirdly, it is the most democratic way in which to tell eight individual stories on stage and manage eight individual male-teenage-actor egos—put simply, every child takes their turn. The play opens very simply with the eight actors introducing themselves to the audience, giving details in turn as to their home country, what they study at college, the food they buy in the supermarket and so on. It is scripted with a competitive edge, as the boys speak over each other and clearly think that their story is the most important to be heard: all trying to catch the adult audience’s attention, like a child in the classroom with their teacher, wanting to give the right answer in order to win the adult’s approval.

Herein lies the premise of Dear Home Office: a coming of age story depicting children vying to establish their own sense of self in a foreign adult world, identifying themselves as present and existing, emerging as individuals from the shadows of the contested but predominantly singular refugee narrative told by the UK press.

The show’s title picks up on another framing device of the play: a pleading and personal letter, read out intermittently by Kate, advocating for the use of Article 8 of the European convention of Human Rights (invoking the right to family and private life) to allow Tariq to be allowed to stay in the UK after a failed asylum claim. Whilst the tone of the title and letter is Liberal, the play is not a criticism of the legitimizing measures the UK government has to take, but explores the ways in which memory, performativity, resources and relationships impact on a young person’s ability to access the asylum system successfully. The letter explains how Tariq has been fortunate enough to build a new life and new identity and that to remove him from this a second time would be as cruel as the first. The Home Office is not being painted as the fairytale villain, but in a way that allows for the examination of a dialogue between two sides, where one wants something that the other has the power to give, rather than portraying a good versus bad dichotomy? Thus, the production uses masks for the adult officials in the play so that, according to The Stage (26/8/16), they are not “seen as a sinister force, but as faceless.” Inevitably, the sympathetic “do-gooder” adult played by Kate on stage contributes to such a binary characterization of the faceless Home Office. One endearing scene recalls a shopping trip when Kate decided to leave behind a bag of wet clothes in a shop that had been covered (accidentally) in fizzy drink: the audience laugh as she says, “never do this ok, Tariq, but we’re going to run on 3,2,1. . . .” Kate is positioned as a fallible and imperfect big sister, a stand-in for the families that unaccompanied minors live without during their most formative years. As we see Kate’s growing attachment to Tariq while his narrative unfolds, we come to question what it means to form a relationship with someone who is not necessarily given legal permission to physically stay in our lives and how symbiotic that relationship becomes in both the refugee child and new adult’s identity formation. This is a classic narrative of migration and integration that gives us cause to promote and celebrate multicultural Britain.

The cast play social workers who estimate Tariq's age. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre
The cast play social workers who estimate Tariq’s age. Photo credit: Phosphoros Theatre

A central focus of the play itself is the idea that in order to obtain refugee status (“become refugee”), children must adequately “perform refugee” in court. Towards the climax of the play Kate helps Tariq to prepare for his court appearance: she helps him into a formal white shirt, a contrast to the cool street clothes he wears and a signifier of school which instantly makes him appear younger and childlike. Meanwhile, a voice recording plays of a (real) immigration solicitor’s voice guiding him through the script which he must learn and repeat in court, making sure the details of which are water tight, “You have to be consistent—stick to the version of events you told at first.” Tariq’s response to this, “So I am INcredible, I will be Mr Incredible,” surmises the issue of the reliability of childhood memory with the irony that the very events that have brought him to England have required him to become an adult and are often so horrifically true that they are both incredible stories of survival and incredible in terms of believability, when pitted against a sanitized fact sheet used by the Home Office.

In Tariq’s story, he mixes up a detail as to whether he was eight or ten when his father went missing. This is crucial and seems unforgettable even for a child, but, if we ask ourselves how old we were when a favorite dog died or parents divorced, we would not all be right all of the time. Trauma affects memory, and so do feelings of shame. Children withhold information because they think they won’t be believed or they would rather forget it, or because they don’t understand what cards they hold in their hand to play the system. Truth should stand up to robust questioning, but, just as actors forget lines on stage, so do children in court. The analogy of the court as a game is manifested through intertextuality and multi-media: the play is punctuated by film clips and a surreal physical theatre sequence in which Kate reads from Alice in Wonderland where the Hatter and the Dormouse disagree over dates and the King declares, “Give your evidence . . . and don’t be nervous, or I’ll have you executed on the spot.” The theatricality of court, with its wigs, costumes and set script of presenting information and discourse is parodied through masked adult figures who form the pillars of a pseudo-reality that aspires to being a laboratory for examining truth. The inclusion of Alice in Wonderland nightmarishly suggests that children are being set up to fail, that the truth will only be presented by the best actors, those who can get their lines right on the night, and, possibly, not by all those fleeing persecution.

Dear Home Office does not explore the futures of the young men, instead, it represents, frames, contains, explores and shapes the past and present, allowing the young men to both reflect on their resilience and generate a positive and resilient identity for adulthood and their future hopes and dreams. If all identities are performed, then all identities are questionable, judicable and removable. Dear Home Offices features film footage of the boys playing with each other, having water fights, or dressing up in silly clothes to illuminate the paradox between what people expect children and refugees to be/behave like/look like/speak like and the reality of their experiences, “so, Mrs Home Office lady, you think I look old? Do you ask yourself why?”, being one of the most emotive lines of the play. It is not merely ironic that children must perform refugee in order to become refugee. Performing 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 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

The labels young people choose, or reject, are inevitable codifiers of their identities. In the devising process, we asked the young men which labels they identified with, how they described themselves, and if they even knew what labels like “unaccompanied minor” really meant. The overwhelming response was “we just say, like, he’s from Eritrea, we don’t say he’s a refugee, but maybe sometimes I’ll say . . . he’s like me.” The play shows a video of one such conversation and, later, Kate lists all the possible labels that could be pinned to the young men: “boy, teenager, friend, son, musician, student, Christian, Muslim, footballer . . . actor,” the provocation being that “refugee” is a temporal label and not a permanent one. We perform many identities throughout our lives, particularly in our teenage lives, when we experiment by performing multiple identities (maybe referred to as going through a sporty phase, an artistic phase, a rebellious stage . . .) in order to seek one that we will be comfortable with carrying into adulthood. “Refugee” is only part of the evolving identities of the young men and a reflection of their current status, but one which they will grow with, emerge out of, and can and should use as part of their identity formation rather than its definition.

There are many strands to the holistic and educational elements of the project. One is that through working with British adults in order to be able to tell and perform their stories, the young men’s English has improved far more quickly and proficiently, and for several boys improving their English was one of the central reasons for wanting to do the project. Furthermore, the use of role play and re-enactment of legal procedures led to a legal education and legal literacy for the two boys who were yet to begin their journey through the immigration system. Through the composite character of Tariq, they were able to “play” being the appellant and experience how they might feel when at the Home Office or in court.

Midway through our initial rehearsals, one of the boys underwent a substantive interview at the Home Office. He said that he had learnt more about the process through drama than he had from his solicitor, his social worker or (unfortunately) Kate’s key work sessions. Dear Home Office presents the legal system as confusing, inconsistent and demanding, ill-equipped to deal with children appropriately, so it is very rewarding to hear that involvement in the project contributed to a rehearsal for a real life encounter and provided relief and empowerment for the young people.

The partnership with Paiwand’s housing project is also integral to Dear Home Office since it is the scaffolding which stabilizes its sustainability for the participants and strengthens its authority as a voice on the topic of unaccompanied minors. For example, the script was edited for legal accuracy by a local solicitor specializing in Afghan cases, who provided a voice recording for the role of “solicitor.” Moreover, we have noted a distinctly higher proportion of Middle Eastern and Muslim audience members in the London and Edinburgh performances than we would see at any other theatre production. In addition to play rehearsals, Phosphoros organize activities which promote British values (a term used in educational settings) as well as employability for the boys, personal development and intercultural understanding. These activities range from Arts Award qualifications, to country walks on our residential rehearsal weekends, where, like a pseudo-family holiday, Phosphoros put on Christmas dinners, Easter egg hunts, games of darts, theatre trips and workshops with spoken word artists, and facilitated discussions about gender roles and accepting different religions and races, observing prayer times and fasting periods. The aim of all this is not to assimilate the boys according to our theatre makers’ agenda, but because our actors are still children and are now part of a theatre family. Perhaps this is what makes Dear Home Office so “powerful and poignant” (Ed Fest Magazine, 24/8/16), or “Vivid and touching” (The List, 26/8/16).

Dear Home Office as a piece of theatre, with all its holistic, therapeutic, social, legal and educational dimensions, serves as a reminder that unaccompanied minors are not only refugees but also children, and, therefore, the responsibility of all adults, who have a duty of care as global citizens, regardless of the child’s original nationality. The “drama” that Dawn and Rosanna searched for when devising the play, in reality, comes from the gradual loss of childhood and innocence that unaccompanied minors suffer in their journeys and legal battles in seeking asylum. Their status as refugee is only temporary and it is through drama that they have been able to negotiate a resilient, multicultural and artistic identity that can serve them into adulthood, whether in the UK or elsewhere.

As noted in Three Weeks (26/8/16), the boys “deserve all credit for taking control of their own representation,” which has to be at the crux of any Applied Theatre project, or “art for a cause” piece. Lyn Gardner Tweeted that the play was “ragged but essential theatre” (25/8/16) and this is a tagline that truly encapsulates the soul of Dear Home Office. It is a raw and real piece of theatre, where the boys who are telling their own stories want to do so. They don’t want to hand them over to actors because they want to change people’s minds themselves. And if this means performing in-between their own court dates, phone calls to family in Afghanistan or late night shifts in pizza shops, then so be it. Using an interdisciplinary approach, Phosphoros Theatre has also been able to develop a model and framework for working with refugee young people in an informal way that is simultaneously rigorous and sustainable, and has the potential to provide for more unaccompanied minors in the UK.

Works Cited

Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Awards Press Release. Accessed September 2, 2016.

Awde, Nick. “Dear Home Office review at Underbelly, Edinburgh – ‘a bold piece.’” The Stage, August 26, 2016.

Berg, Jane. “Dear Home Office.” Three Weeks, August 27, 2016.

Diamond, Judy. “Dear Home Office.” Edinburgh Festival Magazine, August 24, 2016.

Emunah, R. Acting for Real: Drama Therapy, Process, Technique and Performance. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 1994.

Gardner, Lyn. Accessed September 8, 2016.

Irvine, Lorna. “Phosphoros Theatre’s show tells some home truths.” The List, August 27, 2016.

Nicholson, H. Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

McMillan, Joyce. “Dear Home Office.” The Scotsman Newspaper, August 27, 2016.

Ramaswamy, Chitra. “We took a boat. I saw people die with my own eyes: Child refugees have created a theatre piece about their ordeal.” The Times, August 19, 2016.

Refugee Council. “Quarterly Asylum Statistics.” May 2016.

Schechner, R. Performance Studies: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Thompson, J. Digging Up Stories: Applied Theatre, Performance and War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.

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*Rosanna Jahangard studied at University of Reading, receiving a First for Film and Theatre Studies BA and an MA in Theatre Studies by Research. Kate Duffy achieved a First in Applied Theatre at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and is studying for an MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS. They formed Phosphoros Theatre in October 2015.

Copyright © 2016 Rosanna Jahangard
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Unheard Voices, Unseen Faces: Staging Stories of Male Refugee Youth