Theatre and Migration
The topic of migration has been a major source of debate across Europe, particularly in the past decade. The politicisation of this issue in many countries’ national conversations tends to reduce complexity and ignore the diversity and nuance of the migrant experience. The position of migrant artists is almost entirely absent from these debates and migrants themselves are often misrepresented in mainstream performing arts and popular culture. In dialogue with first-generation migrant artists, producers and activists based in the Czech Republic, Poland and UK, we delved into the migrant artist experience. We disscused what it’s like to emigrate with your creative practice (on both the artistic and bureaucratic level), where and how migrant artists and their work sit within dominant national performing arts scenes and what artistic and aesthetic approaches and perspectives migrant artists bring to their countries of residence. Conversations around migrants in the performing arts often take place in national contexts, so this conversation represents a unique opportunity to compare and contrast migrant artist experiences in different countries and discover what we can learn from each other and what types of solidarity we might wish to pursue.
Author of the text/moderator:
Becka McFadden (UK/CZ) / performer, translator, director and performance maker based in Prague
Ivan Vyrypaev (RU/PL) / playwright, director, actor
Lora Krasteva (BG/UK) / artist, cultural producer and activist
Lara Parmiani (IT/UK) / theatre maker, performer, juggler, facilitator, producer, director
Husam Abed (PS/JO/CZ) / theatre director, puppeteer, musician, producer, facilitator
#14 Theatre and Migration
The topic of migration has become a highly politicised issue in recent years. As Wendy Brown observes in the preface to the second edition of her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, the more liberal atmosphere that surrounded the publication of the first edition in 2009 had, by 2017, transformed utterly: “‘Festung Europa’ (Fortress Europe) has become the affirmative rallying cry of a growing European right, and walls and fences have sprung up to divert refugees fleeing wars and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa” (2017: 8). Brown’s text, an inspiration for Terres Closes (Closed Lands, 2011, 2019), French playwright Simon Grangeat’s reportage-style treatment of global migration at a time of increased resistance thereto, is interesting for scholars and practitioners of theatre not least because Brown positions borders — and the walls that mark them — as “theatre pieces for national populations specifically unsettled by global forces threatening sovereignty and identity at both the state and individual level” (Ibid: 9). Still, as Brown points out, “great floods of migrating humanity, like any other kind of flood, inevitably breach or flow around walls or dams” (Ibid: 8).
We shouldn’t be surprised that those floods contain artists and theatre makers, yet the experience of migrant artists and the obstacles they must surmount to participate fully in their new country’s artistic circles are rarely topics of debate and discussion. This has started to shift recently in the UK, where the term “migrant” encompasses anyone not possessed of a British passport from birth, a situation distinct from the understanding of migration in other European countries. UK-based artists are increasingly organising around the identity of ‘migrant artist,’ an impulse that culminated in the founding of Migrants in Theatre (MiT), a professional organisation for migrant theatre artists, during the pandemic. As an artist long based in the UK and Czech Republic, but originally a citizen of neither, I have experienced what it is to emigrate with one’s creative practice, as well as the distinct conversations around theatre and migration in Central European and British contexts. Migration has been a key theme in my work with London-based LegalAliens Theatre and, while I rarely frame myself in this way, I have been a migrant artist for my entire career, my projects supported by the national funding bodies of countries whose passports I do not or did not initially possess. As someone who once wrote a doctoral dissertation on the role of theatre in the consolidation of Czech national identity, the irony has not been lost on me. Nor has the irony of being interrogated by UK border guards, who did not understand the category of visa I held, en route back from representing the country at an international festival. There are many layers to this issue of theatre and migration and they intersect with all aspects of identity, including age, race, gender, sexual orientation, nation of origin, religion, education, language(s) spoken, reasons for migrating and route of entry.
In this discussion, I was excited to speak to other migrant theatre artists based in Central Europe and the UK. I was keen to hear how their lives and creative practices had been shaped by migration. I also hoped to better understand the situation and framing of migrant theatre artists in the countries where they reside: the Czech Republic, Poland and the UK. At the back of my mind was a question about self-identifying as a migrant theatre artist. What possibilities and/or limitations adhere to the term? Are conversations about migrant artists best held within the context of a given national scene, or does international dialogue open possibilities for shared experience, mutual support and solidarity? My guests for this discussion were Lara Parmiani (UK), Husam Abed (CR), Ivan Vyrypaev (PL) and Lora Krasteva (UK). In advance of our discussion, I asked each artist to speak about the relationship between their creative practice and experience(s) of migration and provide an overview of the situation of migrant artists as they perceive it in the communities to which they belong.
Lara Parmiani is the founder and Artistic Director of LegalAliens Theatre, an independent, London-based ensemble that includes migrants as artists, creatives, participants and audiences (full disclosure: I have collaborated with LegalAliens as associate artistic director since 2008). The company’s aesthetics marry socio-political theatre with a striking visual approach that mixes text with multimedia and physical theatre. Lara described a journey of coming to embrace the term migrant theatre artist over decades spent living and working in the UK. Arriving in the late 1990s from Italy, she had hoped to work as an actor in the international, multicultural city of London, but instead encountered aesthetic conservatism and a resistance to foreign performers, a tendency she traces to Britain’s colonial past: “There was a sense that the people who come have to adapt, rather than the culture opening up. There’s also a tradition of text-based theatre, where the writer is at the centre, and of naturalism.” Uninspired by much of the theatre she saw, Lara increasingly found herself drawn to other London-based artists from outside of the UK. Around 2008, she founded LegalAliens to foreground this community of artists and offer British viewers a different kind of theatre.
LegalAliens’ journey serves as something of a case study in the evolution of the conversation around theatre and migration in the UK over the past 15 years. Originally framing itself as “international,” LegalAliens began with a focus on rehearsal-based translations of contemporary European plays. Working with plays written in languages accessible to the creative team, such as Italian playwright Sergio Pierattini’s The Return or Poker Face, by Czech playwright Petr Kolečko, the company chose not Anglicise their productions, a departure from conventional British approaches to translation. Instead, they cast actors who were non-native English speakers and looked for ways to include the source language in the English production. Departing from British naturalism, they embraced multimedia, staging the dramaturgy and context of the plays into the production to create access points for audiences. These choices, the company came to realise, were fundamentally political. “It felt very much like a statement to say, this is a play that wasn’t written in this country,” Parmiani explained. “This is a play about another place, with artists that are not native and we are not trying to hide this.”
Lara identifies the Brexit campaign, with its demonisation of migrants and refugees, as a key moment that led her to claim the term migrant artist for herself. For her, it was about visibility: “To say, yes, we are here. We are part of the society. We pay taxes here. We are influenced by this government’s political choices and yet we don’t have a voice. The theatre industry doesn’t recognise our existence.” At a practical level, this means that no distinction is made between migrant and native artists in arts funding, which only sustains structural inequality. The establishment of Migrants and Theatre, of which Lara and LegalAliens are founding members, aimed to address such issues, support migrant artists and create a platform for conversations within the theatre scene as a whole.
Lara is keen to emphasis that, while LegalAliens’ most recent projects, a production of Closed Lands and the podcast Things I Am Not, have tacked migration head-on, in part in response to Brexit-related anti-migrant hostility, migrant artists are well positioned to offer fresh approaches to staging: “We all come from different backgrounds and we can bring aesthetics and approaches to acting, to staging, that come from different parts of the world. Non-native artists don’t just bring stories, but methodologies and form.” This same ethos informs her approach to LegalAliens’ weekly classes for migrants, refugees and non-native English speakers, which give participants’ a chance to explore theatre and performance with no expectation to share their personal experiences or perform trauma.
Husam Abed is a theatre creator, director, performer, puppeteer, musician and producer living in Prague, Czech Republic. He holds a Masters in Directing from the Faculty of Alternative and Puppet Theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and is currently pursuing a practice-based PhD at Bath Spa University in the UK. He is known for his puppet theatre work as Dafa Puppet Theatre, a multi-award-winning theatre company based in Prague. An applied chemistry graduate, Husam encountered theatre at a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Inspired by the theatre’s social dimension and fascinated by puppet theatre, he took part in an art residency in Lebanon and then attended a summer school at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU), where he eventually completed an MA in Directing for Devised and Object Theatre.
The question of how to represent refugees in a theatre performance is central to Husam’s creative practice and on-going research. His engagement with this issue is personal and embodied: “Being of a refugee background, I don’t feel connected to places. I don’t feel my weight. I don’t feel my feet on the ground. I feel fragmented. Through theatre, I really investigate how to find representation for fragmented identities and bodies.” Puppet and object theatre have given Husam tools for staging refugee stories without appropriation, commodification or stereotyping. In pieces such as War Maker, which tells the story of a friend he met at a refugee camp in Syria, objects stand in for human characters. Husam has coined the term “resisting object” to denote an object that takes on the role of a human. As he explains, “when we humanise an object or material on stage, we humanise an absent refugee.” In this way, Husam’s productions subvert the dominant media narratives that cast refugees as threats, victims, or beneficiaries of aid. Through acts of perception, cognition and emotion, audiences can see through the black and white narratives and approach the complexity of the story.
In the case of War Maker, this includes the impact of three wars in the Middle East that the protagonist experienced in his childhood. Despite the disruption and trauma wrought by these events, their role in his life was more nuanced, as Husam explains: “for me, the interesting thing about him was that the war was more inspiring than absolutely negative, because it inspired him to follow his dream [of becoming a sci-fi artist]. During the war in Iraq, he saw his friend lose an arm and he wanted to make an artificial arm for him, like he saw in sci-fi films. So this was the starting point for him to chase his dream.” In War Maker, Husam’s friend is represented by miniatures and found objects, highlighted by onstage micro-cinema techniques. “The main idea here is that the objects have their own associations, connotations and histories,” he explains. “And the moment we bring this on the stage in different contexts, it can add multilayered meanings.” The use of objects also shields the refugee-protagonist, who is not revealed until the end of the performance, when photos of him are shared with the audience.
Like Lara, Husam is also engaged with community work, including a theatre lab in Jordan, which has led participants to pursue further study abroad, and a workshop for social workers in the Czech Republic on the intersection of materials and memory. Dafa is also frequently invited to collaborate in international projects, sometimes as representatives of the Czech Republic. Husam embraces the ensemble’s hybrid identity: “I feel we are kind of okay with a migrant background, but we are also a Czech company, even if no one in our company is Czech, or if we collaborate with Czech artists, but the founders are not.” Still, he admits its took him awhile to get familiar with the Czech Republic, though he doesn’t feel he’s experienced discrimination: “As someone who studied here, I have never been segregated. I never felt sidelined as someone who’s of a different colour, or background, or because of being a migrant.” While Husam’s master’s project Smooth Life has been included in televised showcases of Czech theatre and his work performed at venues throughout the country, Dafa still works on an independent basis and has not yet engaged with Czech funding programmes.
Ivan Vyrypaev is a playwright, director and actor. Based in the Polish capital of Warsaw, his plays have been staged in over 250 theatres around the world, from South Korea to New York. As a director he stages performances in theatres in Europe and the United States. He is also an award-winning film director. In 2012, after seven years of travelling between Warsaw and Moscow, where he led a theatre, Ivan made the choice to permanently settle in Poland due to political changes in Russia. For the next eight years, he continued to work frequently in Russia, where his plays were performed in over 50 theatres. Ivan’s situation changed after the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020, which Ivan protested outside the Russian Embassy in Warsaw, an action that attracted the attention of the international media. He subsequently learned that he would not be permitted to return to Russia and, since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the performance of his plays has been banned, though some performances continue in secret, in small, underground venues.
In Warsaw, Ivan and his wife, actress Karolina Gruzska, have established the WEDA Project foundation to support their projects, whether staged independently or in collaboration with Polish or other European theatres. Ivan describes WEDA’s projects as “mainstream”: “this is how we earn our living, we produce and sell those shows.” Productions include works by Chekhov and Ivan’s own plays and WEDA also offers special courses in directing and playwriting. Since the war broke out, Warsaw has seen its population double with the arrival of two million refugees from Ukraine and Belarus and Ivan and WEDA have become a focal point for the theatre people among them: “My plays were also shown in Ukraine and Belarus, in Kiev. Four of my plays were on when the war broke out. So I am familiar with Ukrainian theatre and Ukrainian and Belarusian actors. They are coming here to Poland, fleeing war, and they also approach me because they know me.”
While Ivan and his foundation have worked to support individual artists and help them find work, a project shared by much of the Polish theatre community, he explained, he and his collaborators have also found ways to assist the wider refugee community, particularly children, through theatre. Working with a cast of recent arrivals, including Ivan’s son, an emerging actor who fled Russia at the start of the war, WEDA has staged a production of Puss in Boots, performed in Ukrainian, for refugee children: “They [the children] are so stressed out. Their parents, their fathers, keep fighting on the battlefields. We understood that they need theatre. They want to watch some cartoons, some fairy tales in their own mother tongue.” The experience has opened up the question of subsequent productions in other languages spoken by residents of the Polish capital, which, Ivan observes, has become more international in the time he has lived there. Still, “Poland is not a highly integrated country,” he observes, citing painful differences in the treatment of refugees arriving from Ukraine and those coming from other countries.
While the war in Ukraine is devastating, Ivan sees signs that it may herald an era of greater openness and integration in Warsaw and Poland more broadly: “Now it’s like Babylon, but in a good sense — there is no conflict and more people try to communicate with one another.” To support the process, he is working to prepare a house of integration, a hybrid digital and physical space to support genuine integration and human connection. Again, work with children is a key part of the planned programme and part of its orientation towards the future. “Right now we are all preoccupied with war,” he explains, but we have to help one another and prepare space for what is about to happen next. Because next of course, we will face trauma. We have to be prepared. We have to brace ourselves and the children so that we can operate in a healthy manner, given this new reality.”
Lora Krasteva is an artist, cultural producer and activist. Her work is socially and politically engaging, often co-created with others and centring historically marginalised voices. Lora is also 1/3 of Global Voices Theatre, which creates sites of discovery and curiosity that encourage global debate, exploring and platforming underrepresented voices worldwide in inclusive, innovative and intersectional ways. Born in Bulgaria, Lora grew up in Algeria, Tunisia and Spain and studied in France and Argentina before arriving in the UK in 2011. Still, the UK proved a particular challenge, as her migration coincided with Bulgarians and Romanians gaining full access to the British labour market as citizens of EU member states. Lora was shocked by the tone of the press and media: “[It] was surprising to me, because generally people are always asking me where Bulgaria is on the map. So the aggressive rhetoric started to solidify for me this sense of being even more foreign here than perhaps in the other countries.” She cites feminism and understanding the patriarchy and a growing awareness of the structural inequalities faced by migrant artists — realisations nurtured by contact with communities of peers — as “penny dropping moments” that have shaped her values as a civically engaged artist and citizen.
A self-taught artist with a background in political science and European studies, Lora observed a disconnect between the diversity of London, where 40% of the population is foreign-born, and the monolithic nature of British theatre. A key dynamic of her practice is the translation of values into action, and so she began a producing career that worked to platform and amplify underrepresented voices, starting with CASA Latin American Theatre Festival (2012-2016). In a pioneering move at the time, CASA’s programming featured touring work from Latin America, but also work by Latin American artists based in the UK. This recognition of diversity within the British theatre community was important in that it emphasised the existence and contributions of migrant artists, but it also highlighted some of the tensions at play in their position: “there was a real sense that there was a bit of a conflict between wanting to embrace your heritage and showcase it through your art and perhaps that first instinct of arriving in a new country and wanting to integrate, to assimilate, to perhaps smooth over particular aspects of your culture, your art-making.”
Lora is keen to point out that the situation of the Latin American community is one example of situations faced by many migrant communities in the UK. Thinking about the possible utility of “migrant theatre” or “migrant artists” as designations, Lora advocates for the importance of “intersectional work and the role of migrant artists to raise awareness and provoke action beyond our own situation as migrants, or cultural workers, to really foster a culture of solitary with all migrants in their fights.” For Lora, “being an advocate and creating situations of solidarity” is essential to her practice. At CASA, that meant working with Latin American women who were victims of domestic violence and supporting a cleaner’s strike, along with broader community organisation and engagement. More recently, inspired by her project Becoming British, an exhibition foregrounding immigrant narratives and experiences, she created a series of residencies in the Czech Republic, Romania and Germany to explore similar themes with local migrant artists. The social aspect of such projects constitutes “awareness raising work that perhaps other artists, native artists, don’t feel the need to do, or don’t have to do.”
Representation is another key concept in Lora’s work. Like Lara, she is a founding member of Migrants in Theatre, which, in addition to serving as a point of contact and support for migrant artists, has opened dialogue with leaders in the British theatre industry, many of whom, she reports, were largely unaware of the issue. Partly in response to lamentations from industry professionals about the lack of plays in translation, Lora and her collaborators at Global Voices Theatre have produced a series of readings in English of plays written by underrepresented voices and featuring local immigrant artists from the relevant communities. With these events, Global Voices tries to show the risk-averse UK theatre environment, which is highly reliant on ticket sales, that translated works can — and do — sell out: “We completely sell out because we actually have the connections with the community and for them, representation is so much more than just going to see a show. It is actually to see themselves there to have the hope that this is possible, that their stories are being told.” Lora’s work is also informed by “keeping the doors open,” a commitment to making opportunities for other migrant artists which has led her to embrace co-creation, whether with professional artists or non-professionals, as in her work with Arts and Homelessness International.
A dynamic hour of discussion followed our guests’ presentation of their work and contexts. Arguments and points of view converged and conflicted around several key concepts, which reveal the tensions and intersectionality at play in any consideration of theatre and migration.
Language emerged as a point of contention. Noting he feels unable to act in Polish, Ivan emphasised audiences’ – and artists’ – need for work in their native tongues, while Lara championed a looser approach to language, where the language spoken – even at national theatres – reflects the diversity of the population, non-native accents and all. Citing the example of his performance Smooth Life, in which he performs in Arabic with subtitles, Husam emphasised audiences’ ability to appreciate the rhythm and musicality of language, regardless of whether they literally understand it or not. Lara shared a similar experience of attending a multilingual production by the UK’s Gecko theatre, where no titles were provided, but movement and physicality combined to convey meaning. Guests also noted the distinction between global languages like English and those unique to individual countries and the implications of those positions. English, for example, can have imperialist overtones, while speaking Czech on stage, as Husam emphasised, was an important strategy in Czech national self-determination.
Labels, including “migrant” and “refugee” were embraced by some and came under fire from others. Ivan argued that any label diminishes humanity, while Husam found them akin to racism. Lora and Lara countered that the reclaiming of a term like “migrant,” with a history of negative connotations, is important when it comes to visibility, building community or accessing key resources. Lara expressed a desire for a future without labels, while Lora preferred a variation in which we can cope with difference and have attained equity across diverse communities. Comparing the contexts in which they live and work, Husam does not perceive “migrant theatre artist” as an active identity in the Czech Republic, though Lora noted that a great deal of the discussion in her recent project, Becoming Czech, delivered in collaboration with Brno’s Terén, centred on questions of terminology and the implications of labels like migrant, immigrant, foreigner, expat and newcomer.
Power structures, hierarchies and convention in both socio-political and creative/cultural contexts emerged as another area of debate. Lora argued that organising and advocacy are necessary to address structural inequalities, including access to funding and resources in a highly competitive, capitalist society. Lara noted the persistence of staging conventions – such as characters in British productions of Chekhov speaking in RP accents – that have no logical dramaturgical basis and merely serve to enforce the status quo. Ivan lamented the disconnect between the political and cultural spheres and advocated for educational programs that would foster communication and knowledge sharing between these sectors.
Integration, like much of our discussion, has implications for both artistic practices and broader socio-political concerns. Guests were aware of the potential for colonialist or hegemonic practices, particularly in education. Even with the best intentions, Husam noted, attempts at education can create hierarchies, rather than invite those participating to consider a different point of view and find their own way forward. Ivan proposed a strategy in which both parties maintain their own cultures intact, but find points of contact between them, a task, Lora noted, that too often seems one-sided, with the bulk of the labour falling to migrants, and must be reciprocal in order to bear fruit. The question of integration raises broader questions about the position of migrants in society, in particular the idea of the migrant as a “good guest”, who must make themselves agreeable and not ask for too much. Lara and Lora shared a debate from Migrants in Theatre about whether or not to use the word “demand” in a list of actions the network was putting forward to industry leaders. Both favoured the use of the term, arguing that, as tax-paying members of society, migrants are as entitled to make demands of it as any other resident.
While our conversation did not lead to consensus, it exuded a strong sense of solidarity and the feeling that we could have continued to debate these topics for hours. In that sense, it answered one of my framing questions in the affirmative — it is absolutely beneficial and enlightening to convene conversations on theatre and migration across national and regional lines.
Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Princeton: University Press, 2019.