Making Work We Care About | CITIZENS: An Installation Experience

“The purpose of the theatre is not to provide solutions, but to state the problems more clearly.” – Anton Chekhov

Two pieces of advice given to me by visiting artists at the National Student Drama Festival this year were: “Keep your art and your career separate” and “Have a reason why you’re doing this project other than ‘I really like the play’ or ‘I need more experience’.” Both of these were statements that kept coming back to me whilst working on the final project of my degree. This module was the fifth in a series entitled “Processes of Performance” (PoP5), and gave us the opportunity to use the skills gained across the series (in applied theatre, text and performance, and performance technique) in our own independent practice. It was perhaps the most interesting yet challenging module of my university career, and the freedom to essentially do whatever we wanted was a two-sided coin. On the one hand, we had to develop our own research question and with minimal supervision come up with a way to present it in performance. On the other, it was an opportunity to make work that we truly cared about.

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[Definitions: clarifying the differences between the terms used to describe those affected by the refugee crisis.]

For this project, I teamed up with my friend Chloe to investigate how verbatim and documentary techniques can be combined with installation practice to translate, educate and humanise the refugee crisis and community. Yes, a very wordy research question, and not one I would have understood a word of pre-degree. In layman’s terms, we wanted to learn more about the community of refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds by talking to refugees, talking to activists, and immersing ourselves in volunteer work. Over the ten weeks or so it took to develop the project, we worked in partnership with Amnesty International, City of Sanctuary, London-based artist Stephanie Biddle and one refugee who was generous enough to allow us to put her incredible story at the core of our installation. By attending meetings, events, and talks, watching documentaries, interviewing people, and researching, we learned more and more about the truth of the refugee crisis and the harrowing stories of those affected by it.

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[Media Jungle: exploring the ways in which politicians, celebrities and journalists represent and portray refugee stories.]

Everyone knows that the refugee crisis is happening. We read about it in newspapers and magazines, it populates our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and it has altered how we vote. It is not something that can be ignored any longer, and there is a difference between how it appears in the media we consume, and how it sounds coming from the mouth of someone whose life has been shattered because of it. We wanted this installation to be more than just the culmination of our degrees. We wanted to build something which put a human face at the forefront of the refugee crisis- not that of a politician or celebrity, but that of a person who could force the community of Leeds to understand the lives of the refugees and asylum seekers that share our home.

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[Malala, painted by Stephanie Biddle – “I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.” (Malala Yousafzai)]

Chloe and I worked harder on this project than we ever have before, and not because it was the final module of our degree, not because we wanted a good grade, but because we cared about what we were doing. We wanted to create something that people could learn from, that evoked empathy with refugees and asylum seekers, not just media-generated sympathy. Watching people explore the space, read the news articles, listen to the stories and see their reflection in the painting of Malala Yousafzai, was more rewarding than any grade could have been. Just as we had hoped, we gave people the space to empathize, to absorb the stories and feel the rage and frustration that we felt when listening to it directly from them.

This project was an enormous learning curve for me, and I gained more from it than I have from any other university project. Speaking to refugees and developing their stories into art put my own life into perspective. It made me feel lucky, that my life has been relatively easy and that a lot of what I have has been handed to me on a silver platter. I am an immigrant, and only gained British citizenship when I was six years old. Why, then, have I been allowed to make England my home? Why have I faced no barriers? Why was it easy for me? I am an immigrant, but because I am white, and because I am middle-class, and because I am lucky, my life has been easy. It is important to recognise privilege, and to challenge the society that creates power structures reliant on privilege. This has become a major influence on the work I create- in my writing, in my research, and in the performance work I want to focus on once I graduate. Theatre and politics are inevitably intertwined, and when I recently re-read my personal statement for my UCAS application four years ago, I realised that this is exactly why I chose to study theatre. I wanted to make a difference, and this project gave Chloe and me the opportunity to do that, even on a tiny scale.

Citizens: An Installation Experience
Created by Chloe Elphick and Kayla Feldman
Clothworker’s South Building Room 2.03, University of Leeds, 18th May

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