“It’s not just about the individual story”: Performing migrant experiences

Ida Persson

By: Ida Persson, Research and Communications Officer

Photo by Josh Tomalin

When trying to have an “impact” in a research context it is often assumed that academics need to reach out to influential groups such as policy makers, politicians and civil society organisations. On another level we often talk about the “local community” in a fairly vague fashion. A new project at COMPAS is trying a different way of knowledge exchange, by directly engaging with young people in schools to encourage them to think about migration issues in their own way.

“Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools” looks at issues that face undocumented migrant children and their families in their day-to-day lives in the UK. It does so by working with school students using theatrical stories based on research interviews conducted through the project “Undocumented Migrant Children in the UK” as commissioned from the company ice&fire.

In the project students are given an introduction to the issues and theatre techniques from which they are supported to develop a performance.  They then perform their show for a general audience. The project will work with 3 different schools in different geographical areas over the next year (Thame, Birmingham, and London). Each school will present different challenges and considerations.

Performance and thoughts brought together

undocumented-children-performance2014On 8 December 14 Year 10 students from Lord Williams’s School in Thame performed “Undocumented Migrant Children’s Lives and Stories” to a full house at the Old Fire Station in Oxford. The audience comprised parents, higher education students, teachers and researchers. They were not the ‘usual suspects’ of people interested in migration related issues. Although living in Oxford and its surrounding areas very few had attended any previous COMPAS events. The show told the stories and experiences of five undocumented migrants from various countries, of varying genders and ages. The students’ performances and their responses during the Q&A that followed demonstrated how this kind of public engagement can be as meaningful as reaching a policy-maker or politician.

The performance illustrated tremendous imagination and creativity on the part of the students and was a great ensemble piece. While I facilitated the rehearsals, the ideas about how to perform them, what to emphasise and how to illustrate it all came from the students. The students engaged fully and conducted extra rehearsals on their own to really get to grips with the piece. The script was rearranged and cut, new pieces were added to better illustrate each story, the students asked questions about the stories and about immigration issues, and they received extra performance training.

photo[2]How much they had really thought about it became very clear throughout the Q&A after the performance. Questions that could have been deferred to the panel of researchers were in fact eloquently and confidently handled by the students themselves. They showed they had really engaged with the migration debates and had considerable insights into the issues faced by undocumented young people. They were enthusiastic about how much they had learned and the longer term impact of the experience. They commented on how little they had known or thought about immigration outside the terms of the press coverage and, as one student noted: “in the news it’s always about being for or against immigration, and that’s not helpful. It’s about people.”

Photo by Emma Newcombe
Photo by Emma Newcombe

When asked how much they knew about the individuals whose stories they were recounting one student answered: “It’s not about one person, about one person’s story It’s about the larger group, these are representations”. However, it also became clear that giving the students this insight into the stories of individuals has started an interest and awareness that the students will be unlikely to forget. One audience member asked if we were able to show this to politicians. However, politicians are not the only source of change and there is an important argument for playing the long-term game, as Bridget Anderson states, rather going straight to policy-makers. Creating awareness among youth and local communities has the potential to trickle into impact further down the line.

Using the medium: theatre as an experience

Photo by Ida Persson
Photo by Ida Persson

Using theatre as a medium creates an alternative space for exploration and dissemination, especially for sensitive and politicized issues such as migration. In this project it gives the students an opportunity to deal with real experiences rather than an abstract academic argument. On a more general note there is immediacy to theatre that is rare in other mediums. Theatre is about being in the moment, suspending disbelief and believing that you are seeing real people. This creates a connectedness that is impossible to convey through an academic lecture or traditional media. In our pub post performance discussion, Mikal Ann Mast, PR & Communications Officer at COMPAS, pointed out “Media can occasionally tell individual stories but theatre brings them to life”. Professor Bridget Anderson, COMPAS Research Director, added “it becomes about imagination and understanding to develop characters and stories as well as facts and data”. As one audience member put it,  “through using theatre the students seem to be given a direct experience rather than a removed experience”, they become first hand storytellers rather than third party observers.

Photo by Josh Tomalin

Many audience members found the performance “powerful”. I believe this came not only from the nature of the source material but also because the students took ownership of how the stories were presented, aware of how different human stories can be. One student talked about how she became conscious of how much choice she has in her life, another described how moved she was when considering the situation of undocumented children born in the UK who only discover their status when turning 18 “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be told ‘you don’t belong here’ when I’ve lived here all my life”.

Photo by Ida Persson
Photo by Ida Persson

This was a unique experience for the students but equally we were thrilled to discover how well they engaged with important issues that have been long debated. These issues will continue to be problematic, particularly in the run up to the general election when the debate about migration is increasingly negative, polarized, and dehumanizing. As stated by one student, talking about both the debate and the individual experience “There is a common theme here, and that is….it’s hard. It’s really hard.


More performance photos (black & white photos by Josh Tomalin, others by Ida Persson):

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Further reading