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The Waiting Game: An experience with a point

Ida Persson

Various forms of theatre can be used to engage and inform audiences about political and social issues. For example, theatre is used in the COMPAS project “Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools” to inspire school age students to consider issues facing undocumented migrants. This takes a fairly serious and structured approach, devising a performance through workshops and discussion, producing a final piece of “traditional” theatre. But how do you make a point to an audience that doesn’t know that it is watching a performance? Or, indeed, one that is not necessarily interested or engaged in a particular issue?

We aimed to do just that with two performances on behalf of the International Migration Institute at the Social Animals LiveFriday at the Ashmolean Museum on 15 May. The event presented work by the University of Oxford social sciences to a wide audience of thousands. They were invited to wander through the museum watching, listening, and having a go at exhibitions, performances and activities that represented the wide variety of social sciences, from politics to anthropology at the University.

Doing this only two days after the students from Capital City Academy performed their piece “Undocumented Migrant Children’s Lives & Stories” as part of the “Exploring Migration” project, (see previous blogs on this here and here) at the Goldsmith’s Grad Fest 2015 on 12 May highlighted the benefits of both forms of theatrical tools.

Immersive theatre and disarming laughter

We gathered a group of actors to take on two types of performances, one more informal than the other.

Helen Taylor and Nathan Grassi as roving anthropologists Caruthers and Maltravers.
Helen Taylor and Nathan Grassi as roving anthropologists Caruthers and Maltravers.

The most fluid, informal and entertaining one was a pair of comedy “roving anthropologists” who donned false moustaches and Victorian explorer garb to roam the museum as Caruthers and Maltravers, commenting on group and individual behavior to the amusement of visitors. Highlighting social behaviours in this way creates a space for comment on modern patterns in a way that is engaging and fun. It may have also made the audience feel what it is like to be a research subject: to be observed through the eyes of a social scientist and have their behaviour analysed and (mis)interpreted. Nevertheless, it is also easily ignored once the moment of interaction with the roving anthropologists has passed. It may be remembered as a funny moment, but would one come away with a deeper message? Would audience members feel challenged in their every day lives?

This was very much the point of the second performance, a piece of immersive theatre developed and directed by Marieke in cooperation with the actors, called “The Extraordinary Queuing Experience”. The audience was invited to enter a gallery of the museum, in which they joined a queue and went through a selection procedure, waiting to be admitted to a ‘special part’ of the museum, as “the entire museum is a special place, but some parts are more precious than others”.  The performance aimed to make a point about the lack of transparency and arbitrariness of immigration processes and to give the unsuspecting audience a glimpse of the challenges migrants can face when they try to reach the UK.

This immersive experience can be seen as a form of ‘invisible theatre’, a type of participatory theatre where the line between audience and performer is unclear. In contrast to the kind where the audience is invited to control the action or knowingly contributing to the end outcome (such as Boal’s forum theatre), invisible or immersive theatre attempts to illicit an individual reaction, a sense of experiencing rather than seeing a performance.

The Queueing experience

Photo by Dominique Jolivet, International Migration Institute
Photo by Dominique Jolivet, International Migration Institute

On entering the queuing area the audience was guided by four guards and told to fill in a form, asking a variety of odd and incomprehensible questions (such as confusing age groupings, drawing a picture of your first house, if you have ever lied, if your name is James or Jane or other, and a blank question 4). People did this with little questioning and with good humour, but with some confusion. With growing intensity and arbitrariness the audience were questioned (individually and in groups), challenged, engaged with, moved around in the queue based on random selection criteria (the colour of the pencil they were using, the answers given to a particular question), or asked seriously to adhere to incomprehensible rules and regulations, such as “folliding into the brenacles”.

The audience also witnessed different reactions to this treatment: one audience member was victimized, being increasingly questioned, separated and hounded. A second audience member managed to  “play the system” to gain better places in the queue and ultimately gain early “access” to the special exhibit. A third audience member, more vocal than the ‘victim’ but unable to secure access, grew increasingly agitated with the injustices seen to be carried out to the point where this person created an argument and aggressively challenged the “authorities”. The rest of the audience was unaware that these were performers, planted in their midst to create a particular narrative and to make the audience feel a certain way. Once the situation reached a crescendo a guard broke the performance and revealed what is happening and the aim of the event:

“Congratulations! You have survived the Extraordinary Queueing Experience. We certainly hope that in your life, there is more justice, more transparency and more equality than what you have just been through. But what if this was real?  Much of what you have just been through is reality for migrants who try to reach the UK. We wanted you to feel, in a playful way, for only a few minutes, a hint of what they experience throughout their journeys. Our world is a special place, but some parts are more precious than others. You are now admitted into that special place we promised you: you are back in the good old, orderly UK”.

Throughout the event (performed five times in succession to different audiences) there was some confusion but general mirth – stemming from the fact that everyone was simply attending a free cultural experience in a safe place.

At the point of reveal, however, the audience all went from entertained, bemused and relaxed to quiet and reflective, with the odd nodding head – hopefully gaining a sense of the possible feelings of injustice, lack of comprehension, and arbitrary rules that can be a feature of migrant experiences.

The exit doors were then opened and the performers stood by the exit to hand out explanations and contact details, and to answer any questions. Not many questions were asked, however: the point seemed to be ‘well taken’, as several of the audience members commented.

The individual experience or collective rationale

Different types of theatre can appeal to different experiences by the audience, and can be used to send different messages, one no less powerful than the other.

The traditional theatre that the Capital City Academy students engaged in was set up with controlled boundaries and formal spectators invited to view and engage from a “safer” distance.  During rehearsals, students were encouraged to discuss the issues that came up while working with the transcripts, and work them into a play. After the performance, the audience could also share their thoughts on the issues that were raised. Migration was mainly discussed as a political or social issue, that participants were invited to form an opinion about. You cannot “live” what you are simply watching. It did however, based on comments from the students and audience, encourage reflections on personal family histories.

The Extraordinary Queuing Experience did not aim to raise sympathy for the issue of migration as a collective issue. Rather than discussing migration with the head, which happens all too often, we used very simple theatrical methods and metaphors to make people relate to migration with the heart and the senses through experience individual feelings of the exclusion, inequality and lack of transparency that migrants go through.

Author affiliations: Marieke Van Houte, Marie Curie Research Fellow, International Migration Institute