Today marks the start of Refugee Week and an opportunity to look back on some of the work that we have been doing to become a Theatre of Sanctuary. Tara Theatre’s recent Artistic Associate, Beth Kapila reflects.
The first refugee crisis that arose during my time as Artistic Associate was the crisis in Afghanistan. As a theatre, we are in a position of great privilege and responsibility within our community. This comes from the fact that we have a building, a physical space in the community, and from the fact that as storytellers we can use stories to make sense of the world through other people’s eyes. Being aware of this position of responsibility and privilege meant that we felt compelled to act in response to the crisis in Afghanistan and we mobilised to host a fundraiser for the charity Women for Afghan Women who are working to secure the rights of Afghan women around the world. The fundraiser was a night of solidarity for South Asian artists to support a South Asian country in trouble and we raised over £1000.
Over the course of the year, we have spent time getting to understand the broader problems that refugees and asylum seekers face in the UK and how we might be able to use our resources to help.
One is that there is a lack of free and accessible public spaces. This becomes an issue with the small amount of money given to asylum seekers (£40.85 a week) and the fact that many are living in hotel rooms while waiting to hear if they are granted the right to remain. Our response to this situation was to start a weekly coffee morning for people seeking sanctuary in Wandsworth. These coffee mornings are a space for people to come to the theatre once a week for free hot drinks and breakfast foods. In collaboration with CARAS, we welcome a group of women and children who come and socialise, relax and importantly spend free time outside of their hotel accommodation.
It has been such a joy to start to open up our space, especially at a time when everyone is still recovering from the effects of the pandemic. I am learning that there is a big difference between saying that we are a welcoming and inclusive space, and then the reality of being an inclusive and welcoming space. There are many barriers for asylum seekers and refugees to simply enter a theatre. One big barrier is that the cost of travelling to and attending theatre is prohibitive. For our coffee morning group there has been an occasion where the monthly bus passes allocated to the group have run out and there’s no way for them to travel to the coffee mornings. Ticket prices are also prohibitive at any price when the priority is making the weekly £40.85 “cover their average essential living needs”, in the words of the Home Office. There is no opportunity for Asylum Seekers to gain more than the £40.85 per week as they are forbidden from working while they await the Home Office’s decision. When tickets for performances at Tara theatre have cost between £5 and £25 over the last year there is no room for additional leisure activities such as theatre. The image below demonstrates the Home Office’s calculations for ‘essential living needs’ for asylum seekers in their 2020 report.
Language is also a barrier, for requesting services from the Front of House staff and for understanding performances.
In order to overcome some of these barriers we have offered free tickets to CARAS and other local organisations. This has been taken up well and we welcomed a large group to our recent performance of Our Streets. This was also a relaxed performance, with a diverse cast and audience making the atmosphere warm and welcoming.
What I’ve learnt we could do, and all theatres could do, is to have ticket allocation for every performance for local asylum seekers. Something we would like to see happen here is a ‘Pay It Forward’ process, where people can buy a ticket for someone else when buying their own. This could cover the cost of groups to travel to the theatre, their tickets and refreshment so that it is an all-round enjoyable and stress-free experience. More relaxed performances are also key for welcoming audiences from all backgrounds. For the language barrier, it would be interesting to see how the National Theatre’s caption glasses could be developed to translate English performances into other languages for ESOL (English as a Second Language) audiences. Additionally, training for all staff (not just Front of House) to work with ESOL audiences is an important step in embedding this practice in decision making at every level.
With new measures from our Government making it harder for certain groups to safely seek asylum in the UK, it feels more urgent than ever to do what we can to make people feel welcome and supported. Tara Theatre is based in Wandsworth where we are fortunate to encounter the brilliant work of Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees who are constantly encouraging local organisations to play their part in making Wandsworth a proud and active borough of sanctuary. All of this work is part of our process towards becoming a Theatre of Sanctuary. If successful we would become the first Theatre of Sanctuary in Wandsworth, and hopefully not the last. This refugee week, we will be sharing the work of other organisations in the Borough doing excellent work and we hope that these are reminders that we can all do something to positively impact the lives of those around us.