Sue Buckmaster on Journey of a Refugee

Theatre-Rites, along with Agudo Dance Company, are creating an exciting new production as part of London Borough of Culture in Croydon. This production is inspired by Theatre-Rites’ acclaimed site-specific show The Welcoming Party, originally co-produced with Manchester International Festival, Z-arts and the Ruhrtriennale Festival.

A powerful and moving theatre production that explores the journey and arrival of a refugee and the universal theme of people searching for a place they can call home.

Journey of a Refugee will be a beautiful blend of puppetry and performance for both school and family audiences and will be supported by a comprehensive workshop programme.

We spoke with director Sue Buckmaster about how the piece came to life.

Q&A with Sue Buckmaster

What can you tell us about your production of Journey of a Refugee?

‘Journey of a Refugee’ is Theatre-Rites’ third production responding to the experience asylum seekers have when arriving somewhere they wish to call their home. It is part of This is Croydon 2024, London Borough of Culture. Theatre-Rites is creating it as a promenade performance at Stanley Arts and have collaborated with Croydon based Agudo Dance Company who have run movement workshops in numerous schools, youth centres and refugee groups.

The show will be an immersive experience for anyone aged over 8, performed by 4 professional performers, two of whom have lived experience of being an asylum seeker. The performance will involve installation design, physical performance, puppetry and object manipulation and music. It will tackle important subjects with a magic realism which Theatre-Rites have become renowned for.

What was it that drew you to the play and the game story?

Journey of a Refugee is the outcome of an enormous amount of research and engagement and is devised by the company, carefully guided by me as an overall director. There was no existing play or script.

The journey of artistic research and development started, for me, 8 years ago. I was talking with the Ruhrtriennale Festival in Germany about making a piece of work inspired by the welcoming of Syrian refugees in Germany, and at the same time I was in discussion with Manchester International Festival about creating a site-specific show to reflect on the narrative accompanying the Brexit vote that asylum seekers were an unwelcome burden on the UK. Both these productions happened with the title The Welcoming Party. Since then, I have been in communication with several asylum seekers, refugee organisations and artists committed to this area of work.

In particular I have stayed in contact with Mohamed Sarrar who was the starting point of our performance in Manchester. He arrived in the UK 8 years ago from Sudan and has remained to tell his story and make beautiful contributions to the arts scene. Theatre-Rites has always wanted to create an immersive experience in Croydon as it is the place where many child refugees are sent to get their asylum requests assessed. When Croydon became the London Borough of Culture it felt like a natural progression of ideas to join forces with Croydon based Agudo Dance Company and Stanley Arts to create a new production.

When Mohamed agreed to tell his story again and Adi, a 20-year-old refugee from Ethiopia who arrived in the UK 3 years ago as a minor, applied to take part too the current project Journey of a Refugee was ignited.

Did you have a clear vision of the play when you first read it, and has that vision changed as you’ve worked on it?

The production emerged through a carefully guided devising process. Each person involved has influenced its content, whether aesthetically, emotionally, metaphorically, factually or practically. The Welcoming Party was a site-specific production and my vision was always to create Journey of a Refugee as an immersive experience. The audience is encouraged to be part of a local welcoming party in Croydon for those seeking asylum. In the show no refugees turn up.

What grows out of this is the re-telling of Mohamed’s difficult journey and his challenging experience of the UK system. He explains that 8 years ago it was already so hard for him and others to make the journey, and how today the hurdles placed on those seeking permission to come to the UK are restricting arrivals and forcing even more young people to risk their lives to come to find safety.

The audience are given a chance to hear and reflect on the lives of those who are seeking to remain in the UK and make it their home. It is a humble attempt to humanise these experiences that are so often dehumanised, particularly in current times. The overall vision remains the same, whilst the political context that revolves around it has an ever-evolving complexity and influence on our process.

You’re dealing with complex and difficult stories in the production, is it a challenge to bring these stories to the stage in an accessible way?

This show is aimed at anyone aged over 8. It therefore needs to be gentle with its politics, inspired by human resourcefulness and magical in its telling. We learn through play rather than didactic teaching or ranting. This show is a playful visit to the trickier aspects of our lives. It enables children to practice having emotional and political responses to subjects that will continue to impact their lives.

The use of puppets, objects and movement can be useful tools when wanting to create magic realism. They provide poetic metaphors rather than confrontational dialogue. They allow visual elaborations which are open to projection and interpretation from an audience regardless of their age and in respect of their own experience, or lack of it.

What do you hope audiences take away from the show?

The show begins with the audience as an active member of the welcoming party. As the performance progresses, the audience can feel close to Mohamed and his group of friends who attempt to re-tell his story with whatever props they can find. More and more the audience get caught up in the journey Mohamed went on, particularly as he enters the UK asylum system, which the audience experience directly through interactive elements in the show. The promenade aspect to the production, the close proximity of the professional performers, the evocation of the atmosphere and landscape through lighting and music and the interactive elements all help the audience have a magical, empowering, sensitive and eye-opening experience.

We wish for it to be fun, moving, magical, immersive, playful, thought-provoking, inspiring and to take a small step to encouraging a more welcoming atmosphere in the UK to those seeking to make it their home.

Journey of a Refugee is at Stanley Arts Centre from 3 – 18 February 2024.