There are a few words I’m trying hard not to use when talking about what I’m working on at the moment. Words like scary. Daunting. Terrifying. Panic. I’m writing a text for performance, to be read by actual actors, and it’s the first time I’ve attempted such a thing since starting to write about performance nearly two decades ago. I spend most days with the faint taste of vomit in the back of my throat. But the subject is the experience of refugees evicted from the Calais camps in October 2016, amid fire, industrial diggers, intrusive media and administrative chaos. Refugees – really I should be using the word people – who had escaped desperation and danger in Syria, Afghanistan, a swathe of disregarded countries, risking their lives to save themselves. I sit at a computer, on a cushioned chair, tea steaming, taking refuge in biscuits, knowing I have no right to use the synonyms of fear.
But still it’s strange, this task of assembling words for the stage. I’m doing it at the invitation of Katharine Williams, lighting designer and founder of Crew for Calais, a charity that applies the specific skills of theatre-makers to aid refugees. In Calais that meant joining in with wider efforts to: build shelters for people who were otherwise facing winter in flimsy tents; relocate those shelters following the partial camp evictions a year ago; provide firewood to camp residents; help build communal kitchens; and distribute clothing. Now that Calais has been cleared, those efforts are shifting to Paris and Greece. And to fundraise for that, Crew for Calais are staging a three-week festival at the heart of the Vaults festival in February. Katharine wanted my writing to be part of it for many reasons, but one of them is that we’ve been getting to know each other through the work I’ve been doing with Chris Goode & Company, for whom she has designed lighting for four shows. This is how things work in theatre: much depends on who you know. There is an assumption that the same is true for refugees, that having family in a country like the UK automatically opens its border. I’m learning this isn’t the case.
I’m learning a lot – not least because I’m one of those cliche liberal lefties (to use another couple of words I’ve been trying, and failing, to avoid) who talks about this humanitarian crisis without doing much about it. I donated money to Crew for Calais in its early days. I’ve donated to Save the Children, and give regularly to Unicef and Oxfam. I’ve mentioned it in writing, perhaps in the odd tweet. And… that’s it. It’s just as well I haven’t needed to know anything to construct the text for the Vaults, because I haven’t engaged properly with the news for months. What I take in from the air I exhale out, mostly evading its poison.
Rather than make up a story, I’m attempting to retell a truth. The text I’m writing, also called Calais, is a distillation of two Twitter streams, those of Help Refugees and in particular Refugee Info Bus, aid organisations who were based in the refugee camp and live-documented the demolition in image and text. The story told here is quite different from the official narrative, which maintains a smooth line of quick and easy transition of refugees to accommodation centres before a steady dismantling of their improvised communities. It’s not that the UK media didn’t also convey a sense of tension and tumult, but the difference is also one of distance: the objective overview and the subjective eye-witnessing of people investing energy and emotion in providing assistance.
The obvious problem with working from Twitter is the disjointed nature of the source text. I’m trying to take as few liberties as possible but hashtags have come straight out, as well as monotonous mentions of the Dubs Amendment: passed in May 2016, this committed the UK to welcoming an unspecified number of unaccompanied refugee children. Twitter’s brevity engenders confusion, particularly in trying to comprehend the situation of children in the camp, who were, over the course of the week, relocated from the ad-hoc “jungle” to an official “container” camp – literally, a horseshoe of shipping containers – before finally being sent on to accommodation centres, later than the majority of the adults. Arranging these nuggets of text into a coherent narrative has been made much easier, however, by the fact that the Refugees Info Bus Twitter feed was managed throughout that week by Kirstin Shirling, a theatre-maker who specialises in community engagement: the tweeting voice is discernibly consistent, angry, kind and fair.
When putting together the first draft, I wrote a note to myself at the top of the page: “Think about trust – who is telling this story? Me, the performer, the eye-witness volunteers? What is truth?” Rather than remain invisible, I’ve inserted myself into the stage text, and in doing so invited criticism of my perspective. But then, I hope everyone’s perspective might be questioned, rather than generalised, in a way that erases the sense of them and us, and illuminates the individuality lost in faceless groups. It’s a basic point, but it is much easier to dismiss the refugees’ claims to common humanity when they are othered – and there’s a lot of othering, even demonising, going on, particularly in replies to Refugee Info Bus’s tweets. It took me four days to gather all the source material from Twitter, partly because there’s so much of it, but more because I stopped each time I became too demoralised by the petty callousness of tweets that condemned refugees as “illegal migrants” or “queue jumpers” who should be sent back “to their country of origin”. Each one felt like a punch in the stomach. But there I go again, bringing up my own emotions, when that punch is metaphorical, my body and mind entirely safe. I can so easily walk away.
On the other hand, that detachment is useful when it comes to the personal enormity of creating work for the stage as a known “critic”. I am able to shout from the rooftops about Calais, with confidence, with no trace of humility, because it’s not my story: it belongs to the volunteers and to the refugees. I’m able to contact actors I adore and ask them to work for free because it’s not for my benefit: it’s for Crew for Calais. I’m even ready to see a bad review (assuming it gets reviewed at all) as a reflection less on me and my approach to dramaturgy, than on the critical criteria being applied, which might not be useful or appropriate here. And this, too, is a problem of the refugee crisis: there are ideas about borders, sovereignty, nationality, that ought to be irrelevant in this circumstance and yet are being applied ruthlessly. Theatre-maker Anna Himali Howard, who performed an early draft of the text over the weekend, said she was struck by the number of times the word “eligible” came up. As though some humans are more eligible than others to live in conditions of safety, warmth, sanitation.
Will I write another text for stage? No idea. Will I be inspired by this work to join Crew for Calais in Greece? I don’t know. Has writing it changed me? It’s too soon to say. In a sense, the work I’m doing is familiar: I spent years as a features editor on a newspaper, I’ve spent years in and out of theatres and rehearsal rooms, thinking about dramaturgy, and now I get to exercise both those muscles together. But it has inspired a new thought. A guiding principle of my life is a desire to be kind, generous, think beyond myself. I don’t always manage it. I’m often disappointed by my lack of perspicacity when looking at the world around me. I’m more selfish and myopic than I want to be. In her own Twitter profile, Kirstin Shirling describes herself as a “kindness warrior”. I’ve discovered that if there’s going to be a label applied to me in this world, rather than “critic” or “theatre-maker” or even “writer”, I would want it to be that.
Calais is being performed in a double-bill with Borderland (by Prasanna Puwanarajah and Stephanie Street) at 6.20pm, 8-12 February. The Calais performers are: Rudi Dharmalingam (Weds 8), Sophie Stone with BSL-interpretation by Jeni Draper (Thurs 9), Yusra Warsama (Fri 10), Lucy Ellinson (Sat 11), Inua Ellams (Sun 12). The mini-festival begins with Still Waiting, a music-theatre show, playing 1-5 February at 8.25pm, and ends with Walk With Me, written by Katharine Williams, playing 15-19 February at 6.30pm.