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Beyond the label

How does theatre help people? at TEDx Leamington Spa: H?ME

In November last year I was invited to be part of a panel for TEDX Leamington Spa called ‘Homelessness – Beyond the Label’. I shared the space with two other amazing and inspiring women, Lianne Kirkman and Ellie House, who both work for charities tackling homelessness; Helping Hands and Kairos WWT.

Most people think of homelessness as something so far away from us, but myself, Robin and Charlotte from Seemia Theatre have experienced the vulnerable state of sofa surfing and living in temporary accommodation, of not having a home, yet luckily having friends who supported us in our time of need. When this was happening in my life I questioned how far are any of us from ending up on the streets if we don’t have a strong support network around us? When considering this, it certainly breaks down the divide of ‘us and them’ thinking; ‘us’ being people with safe homes, and ‘them’ being labelled as ‘homeless’. This is often the starting question for our work in theatre; how can we discover the person beyond the label, these limiting labels such as ‘refugee’ or ‘homeless’ person?

Last year I worked with women at the charity ‘ The Marylebone Project’, a shelter and centre for women who are homeless, many of whom are displaced Eritrean and Ethiopian women. I wondered whether our theatre practises would help women in such a vulnerable state, yet myself and ensemble member, Charlotte, wanted to create a safe space and community whereby these women could express something of themselves. As Valentina - the Marylebone Project’s team leader - so eloquently said,

“I do believe that any form of art is an essential and powerful way for any human beings to get in contact with the inner self.”

I realised whilst working with these women, in order to connect, I needed to share my struggle and find our common ground. I sat in circle with them one day and said:

“I’m struggling at the moment, I don’t have a place to call home and I feel a little lost.”

I went on to explain the home I wanted to find, sharing my dreams for the future. We needed a translator to share my words with the women, but once translated, a young Eritrean woman began to cry and said; “I have the same dream for myself, I hope we both get our homes.”

There are many more things these women must break through in order to get their dreams realised, laws changed, financial restrictions, access to work, but there are charities out there aiming to help. Lianne Kirkman talked about working at Helping Hands and one particular person she was working with:

“I want a job, but I haven’t got a passport, all the things that are stopping me from moving on and what we try to do as a charity is break down those barriers”

After all the remarkable work these charities do, I was then asked a question on the panel at TEDx; how does theatre help people? This is a challenging question I have often asked myself. Theatre is in my blood, it’s my passion, but it has also caused a lot of instability in my life, yet I always come back to it because I believe when you put theatre in front of people, you engage them in a plight that as a theatre maker you’ve felt compelled to shine a light on. In that way, certainly for the stories we were looking at in Evros | The Crossing River, focusing in on the refugee crisis which was imploding all around us, we got a chance to highlight our shared humanity, rather than to fall into thinking ‘us and them’.

There were so many news stories when we started our devising process of Evros about war torn countries and images of thousands upon thousands of people fleeing for their lives and dying in the sea. It is often easier to disengage and feel powerless to help. For me, focusing in on one story, of Doaa a Syrian refugee meant that I found a sense of shared humanity with her plight. Suddenly it wasn’t ‘us and them’, it was how was I like Doaa, both with hopes and dreams, fears and losses. Once I’d found the ‘me in you’, I realised we were not so different after all. There was no longer all these nameless people who died in the sea, there was a named survivor - Doaa Al Zamel. What I believe theatre can do is raise our compassion to care. A friend who came to see our show realised she played the same games with her children as she’d watched one of our Syrian families play on stage. Suddenly it brought it home to her, the distant people she’d been hearing about through the papers, weren’t so far away from her after all. There was a human behind the headline.

Reaching out with humanity and compassion is always open to us, I find this through storytelling, but it can be as simple as making eye contact with someone, a kind word, or smiling at someone you see on the streets, rather than looking the other way. On the TEDx Panel, Ellie House talked about her work in beautifully simple manner:

“To sit there with someone and hold their hand and say alright, you’re going to be ok”

Ellie also talked about eye contact and the ability to really see someone is something she does in her job. Lianne mentioned her role was to remind people of their potential again, who they truly are. What a gift to give your fellow human, no matter what label someone is given, to provide acknowledgement, kindness, to be seen for who they really are. I believe we can honour someone through telling their story on stage so they are seen for the first time by many, or understood in some way. Or it can be a much simpler act we can do on our streets by really looking at those around us and smiling at someone who is homeless, rather than walking by leaving them unseen. There’s power in that act of kindness and something that’s in all of our hands, to see the person beyond the label.

Check out our discussion on the TEDx video.

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