I’m scrawling out the number written on the board onto my Home Office form, surrounded by a frantic crowd. Behind me a little boy is getting his fingerprints inked onto his own form while a computerized voice drones in the background that if we do not hand in our forms in three minutes we will be detained.
The Welcoming Party completely blew away any misconceptions I had about children’s theatre. Staged by Theatre-Rites, a theatre company known for making experimental work for children, this installation is both a beautiful work of art and a valuable teaching experience for children and adults alike, tackling the subject of immigration with both empathy and powerful creativity.
It uses puppetry, live music and dance to appeal to family audiences. But its ideas are surprisingly weighty for children’s theatre. I spoke to its director Sue Buckmaster, who’s AD of Theatre-Rites and has been working with the company for over 20 years. She said, “What people don’t understand about children’s theatre is that the simplicity has come out of complexity.”
“When people worry that we shouldn’t be exposing children to this- I think it’s more worrying when they just see an image. This exposure is safe, where people are looking out for them. It is a safe exploration of tricky subjects and issues around them in their life. Young children are basically young versions of ourselves. It is only the facts that are different. They already know what it is like to be frightened, happy or excited.”
The Welcoming Party takes the form of a promenade performance held in Manchester’s 1830 Museum of Science and Industry. The cast gather us around to welcome a refugee who’s hidden in the wonderfully atmospheric cargo room. As we move from room to room, gradually it becomes apparent that he isn’t the only refugee in the cast. One by one they step up to tell their own real life stories, until the spotlight turns on the audience and we are swept up into the story ourselves.
The story told by Mohammed Sarrer was a particularly powerful piece of theatre, almost cinematic in its intensity, that filled me with awe and almost moved me to tears. We watch his memories unfold through puppetry: his parting from his mother, a tiny jeep travelling across the Sahara desert, the raft with orange life vests travelling across a cellophane sea where a puppet kicks and nearly drowns. The image of the raft is one that many of us, including the children in the audience, will have seen many times. This familiarity seemed deliberate. There is something so emotionally effective about the use of the various puppets: a mother emerging from a scarf, a man drowning in the sea and finally a little girl pulling her pigtails out.
Sue Buckmaster explains that “puppetry has a very strong impact on people. It’s almost as if the things that can’t be said through language can be said within puppetry. It allows people to project their own thoughts and own significant feelings and that’s what I love about objects.”
We watch Mohammed wait out stormy weather in the Calais Jungle through a powerful dance sequence. Finally, after hiding away in a cargo box, he makes it to the UK and the cast let him out. The audience’s cheer of welcome, especially the children’s, is genuine and heartfelt, but then the atmosphere shifts. A stark white light switches on. One door glows Citizens and the other Asylum Seekers.
“Mohammed, this means you’ll have to enter the system.”
The Welcoming Party acts as an exploration of how many artforms the craft of storytelling can take, as we move seamlessly from puppetry to music to spoken word. When another cast member, Amed Hashimi, is asked to produce his papers, he uses a handheld camera and exquisite visual art to illustrate his experience as a child refugee from Baghdad to London.
It looked effortless and magical, but like all the best magic tricks a lot of work went into to it. Talking to Sue reminded me of the sheer bulk of research that underpins The Welcoming Party‘s apparent simplicity:
“We met 120 people to find our 7 cases. The stories told are their own stories. I made small tweaks but what I’ve done is work with the creative team to listen to their stories. The casting process took six months. There are hidden voices within the piece; a Syrian refugees who didn’t have the right to work yet and a Syrian actor who couldn’t be in it because he was fighting for his five year right to remain so that was why he represented in the play.”
Part of the emotional power of the play came from watching the childrens’ reactions to it. A little boy gave a cry of acknowledgement when Mohammed said he was from Sudan. Sue said there had been a Syrian boy in the audience another night and his friend asked, “Have you been through this?” and the Syrian boy said “yes.”
“I’ve seen child refugees surprised that their own stories were being told. We are human beings not cargo, whatever your politics, we are all human. It is important to remember good work is being done, but more can be done.”
This is the most exciting pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time. For many children and adults it will be the first time they see these stories brought to life. Theatre-Rites invites them to encounter the lived human experience of migration, and to encounter emotional truths that cannot be expressed by a single picture.
The Welcoming Party is on until July 16 2017 at Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, as part of Manchester International Festival 2017. Book tickets here.