What looks and sounds like a microcosm of a global village may have the atmosphere of an after-hours shebeen, but in actual fact, the scene described above took place on a Wednesday afternoon in Govan at the end of a day's rehearsal for a very special theatre project that took place last weekend. The English and Scots are a mix of community workers and performers. The Kurds, Sri Lankans and Africans are asylum seekers, who've found sanctuary in Glasgow. The Dutch woman is Annet Henneman, who, under her Teatro di Nascosto (Hidden Theatre) banner, has taken her unique notion of theatre as reportage around the world.
Henneman is in Scotland to perform Don’t Forget Us, an evening of songs and stories gleaned from her experiences as part of Spirit Refugee Week Scotland. She has also been in residence at the behest of Glasgow Theatre and Arts Collective to devise a new piece of theatre reportage which was performed at St Mungo Museum of Religious Life last weekend.
In the Govan rehearsals, this took the form of Henneman acting out the role of a teacher in a self-styled ‘Refugee School’, in which pupils learn skills such as how to barter for a passport, how to hide money inside their own body and how to sleep upright in an enclosed space crammed with other asylum seekers. All of these, it transpires, come from the real-life experiences of some of the workshop participants.
“I want to tell the stories of people who have no voice,” Henneman says, “so all the stories come from the refugees. There is a very basic structure, which I have used before. I’ve always used a kind of social theatre working in prisons and other places, and this comes from when I was very young, and couldn’t decide whether to become a journalist or work in the theatre. Slowly I’ve learnt about what I mean by theatre reportage, so what I’ve ended up doing is fusing both. To do that I’ve had to change my own theatrical habits, and absorb and learn from people as much as possible.”
While her approach is political in terms of how it brings hidden stories out into the open, Henneman says that it is not a form of activism.
“People make of it what they will, and I can’t predict what will happen,” she says, “and sometimes activists see it as activism. But I chose not be against something, but for something. I want everyone from all backgrounds to share in the experience that is created. When people are humanised, they will be open to change.”
Henneman’s tenure in Glasgow came about via a chance meeting with Glasgow Theatre Arts Collective’s Carrie Newman during the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For Newman, Henneman’s experience working outwith the theatrical mainstream was akin to her own interests in a way that empowered rather than patronised her fellow travellers.
“I think Annett’s work gives vulnerable people a really strong voice through theatre, and helps them realise that they’re not on their own. You can see that this week through these people who’ve come together for the first time. The changes in these people in terms of confidence between Monday and now is huge. Part of that comes as well from Annet being sensitive to when people are ready to do something. She won’t force or manipulate people into doing things they don’t want to. Her first priority is the people.”
This is certainly the case in Govan, which becomes a kind of creative safe-house where people from different backgrounds can feel comfortable enough to share their stories with strangers.
Later that night, Henneman dons exotic robes to perform Don’t Forget Us at the Tron Theatre. With all of her workshop participants in attendance and the floor strewn with blown up photographs of friends she’s met on her travels over the last fifteen years, she uses each to illustrate songs and stories from Iraq, Palestine, Iran and other global trouble-spots.
At the end, Henneman invites all her charges onstage. Instinctively, they all link arms, and they're dancing again the way they were earlier to the Kurdish music. As an example of unity in action, as with everything that happened in that hall in Govan, it's a wonder to behold.
The Herald, June 27th 2012