The theme for this year’s Refugee Week is Restoring Hope. In this vein, the Ethnic Community Council of Victoria (ECCV), Multicultural Arts Victor (MAV) and Adult Multicultural Education Services (AMES) got the Playback Theatre Company to present a performance of stories by refugees with the goal of achieving community engagement.
Hope in Settlement is described in the MAV program as “actors and musicians bring[ing] the audiences stories of hope and resilience in a way that this is entertaining, surprising and transformative”. It intended to be an improvised psycho-performance staging of the narratives on settlement, housing and employment and politics of inclusion. The Playback Theatre’s methodology or approach is that by playing back the client’s life journey, the performance validates the client’s place in the world; rebirth from an evil land. It is meant to be a therapeutic approach to working with communities.
Themes of hope, struggle, trauma, freedom, courage, love, new beginnings, new homeland depicted by the backdrop of visual art works from the Heartlands exhibition are teased out by a facilitator coaching the audience to open up . Four life stories from the audience were explored by four actors. Essentially what was presented was a series of vignettes, skits, signed imagery, and a re-enactment of a story. At face value, Hope in Settlement did re-enact a person’s story well, and I believe the participant got a lot of lovely surprises in seeing their story played back to them. The audience was also genuinely entertained.
However, I believe that a number of environmental factors did not play well to the “transformative” angle of the performance:
The audience was mainly migrant or former refugee staff workers and executive of ECCV, AMES and MAV. However, there was a marked absence of members of the general public in the audience considering that the production is listed in the Emerge Festival program. Out of the four participants, only one clearly identified themselves as a refugee and I strongly believed he was planted because the facilitator admitted he knew of the client’s history prior to the event. This undermines the random, improvisational nature of the production. This initial narrative was of a client – a boxer of African background who sought asylum in Australia while competing here for the Commonwealth Games. The other three stories were from AMES staff – a housing worker, a migrant employment worker and the General Manager of AMES. The oral stories as a stand-alone public act were the most interesting, full and honest out of the whole show. The actors did do a commendable job with the material given.
I can confidently state Hope in Settlement was not empowering to any refugee sitting in the audience. With the limit of five minutes for a participant to tell their story, the participants fell back on clichés and set-pieces which projected the standard humanistic narratives about refugees. The themes reiterated signs, symbols, and myths of benevolence; the West assisting the “44 million refugees of the world, and that we in [a] rich country can do so much more” (AMES General Manager narrative). It was a play where the stakeholders can give themselves a nice validating pat on the back for doing a job well done at the end of the night. At best, it was preaching to the converted. At worst, it was self-marketing to brag about how fantastic your service is to fellow NGOs—a glorified networking exercise.
There was no mass body of any refugee community to really “create a unique performance from the stories of audience members” (Emerge Festival program). It takes trust to get a person to open up and be genuinely frank about their experiences. Usually, a Community Development project takes three to eight months to unpack raw emotion relating to displacement and the struggle to find a place “in the new heartland” (Heartlands Exhibition program) – the type of stories that I came to see and hear and that mainstream community members need to see. The production limited itself by not broadening its audience base, given that community engagement was the intention. There is no easy answer to breaking down the communication barriers and myths surrounding refugees but I believe a good start is to empower refugees by giving THEM the tools and the skills to tell their own stories, not through replication by a group of well-meaning Anglo actors and facilitators.