Playing host to mixed feelings

16th May 1997 at 01:00
A theatre production about Bosnian refugees has been welcomed into the classroom. Timothy Ramsden reports

The Dutch playwright Ad de Bont specialises in work for young people. His play Mirad: A Boy from Bosnia consists of two hour-long acts. Each has two actors who play many parts, telling the story of that war-torn land, making clear its conflicts and tensions. The play has been published and seen on TV, following its British stage premiere in a 1995 tour by Oxford Stage Company.

It is a powerful, direct piece and when I saw John Retallack's Oxford Stage production in Winchester I wanted to tear the action from the stage and put it where it seemed to belong - in the middle of a classroom. Then Mirad's uncle and aunt, Djuka and Fazila, would more closely resemble the refugees they are as they open the first act with a series of excuses, apologising for disturbing us, for lugging their suitcase existence into our midst - apologising for being alive.

Andrew Breakwell, director of the Ipswich-based Wolsey Theatre in Education company, saw the show and obviously shared this desire, as he decided immediately to programme it for a tour of Suffolk schools. In the Wolsey version the two parts would be played with a four-week gap in between, during which the target audience of GCSE students could carry out practical work on themes from act one. Following the second visit, students could develop their own work as a module for their drama examination.

To tie the project's stages together, Mr Breakwell decided that there should be a third "character" - the audience. For this he drew on Orphans of the Storm, a project to help young refugees initiated at Hampstead School, London.

So, at the start of the first visit, Wolsey stage manager Liz McGrath tells students at each school they are to play host to refugee children. The play that follows is part of their training for this. Having seen part one of Mirad, the students take part in a workshop. A month later they watch part two. Then in a second workshop they have a chance to show their own work to the actors. This might be closely related to Bosnia or take the theme further afield.

When the actors have left, each class uses the whole experience as the basis for further drama work. Both sides of the refugee-host relationship are examined. Why, for example are Djuka and Fazila apologising?

Students clarify each character's motivations. Djuka, they decide, shows resentment at having to use others' facilities, is being defensive and is apologising sarcastically because his situation is someone else's fault.

He regrets his loss of independence, feels sorry for himself, or is ashamed of being a burden to others. Maybe guilt and insecurity motivate him. Or perhaps his "sorry" is a way of manipulating the situation to gain sympathy.

This range of responses came from just one group, at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. They were equally full of ideas about Fazila, who they decided was trying to make people listen and accept the couple. And she was trying to support her husband, or maybe she was getting her apology in first to avoid other people denigrating the refugee pair.

Perhaps her apologies were really for having left others behind in a country at war. Feeling resentment, with shattered self-confidence, trying to fit into a new country - the range of responses acts as a reminder that various audience members can perceive the same play in very different ways.

Importantly, it also shows the thematic richness to be drawn from these characters and the wide spread of possibilities for the students' own playmaking.

As in any good training session, trainers and trainees interact. Groups of students are given, on a card, one of six responses potential hosts might make to the arrival of refugees. These are curiosity, pity, sympathy, sorrow, acceptance and hostility. In small groups the students form a tableau to express each of these attitudes and an actor stands in their midst to experience the feelings of the refugees. This shows that the emotion given out by the group is not always the one received by the actor.

Standing among a group of students representing sorrow, performer Lesley Mudd felt welcomed and of value among hosts who were non-aggressive. This contrasted with her reception by the hostility group, whose message was, she said, unambiguous in its sneering coldness. Her fellow actor, Philip Weaver, found himself surrounded by a sympathy tableau, which, despite its positive feeling, left an impression of insecurity, nobody knowing quite what this refugee might want. A pity group made him feel like a saint. Perhaps it was unsurprising that the curiosity group sent out mixed messages, with a welcoming handshake but with people leaning back from the newcomer.

On the second visit groups were asked to imagine Mirad's splintered family as they might be at various times in the future. Then teachers and students could use the whole experience as a stimulus for future work. While the main purpose in setting up this tour, with the unusual device of putting the audience in role, was to develop GCSE drama performances, it has been used more widely, in English and PSE lessons.

For one high school the programme encouraged students to use drama in an exploration of the ways actors create convincing characters. In another it became the stimulus for some powerful imaginative writing in English. One teacher commented on the imaginative force the actors created using no more than voice and physical action. This is a useful point for drama, where resources are few or where students believe they need to encumber their work with a mass of costumes and props. This production used, besides plenty of passion, just a couple of chairs and a table.

Some schools and colleges nowadays form their own theatre in education groups. For these, the Wolsey's model of two separated visits, giving the audience a specific role each time, could provide a valuable model.

Wolsey TIE:01473 226092

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