Have you ever seen a theatre performance in which real experiences of discrimination are collected and performed scene by scene? In which the discrimination experienced in a city is exposed to that very city by a bold and honest performance in a public place?
These words, repeated again and again in a powerful chant, getting louder and louder, created a feeling that something revolutionary was happening. The place – a metro station in Athens, a windy afternoon in March: 2019, a group of young performers with story to tell, and amazed crowd gathering to listen.
This was just part of one scene that made up the whole performance, which showed a variety of situations in which the performers have experienced discrimination. This performance was the result of a long creative process.
It wasn’t until we had discussed a few different ideas that we decided on theatre as our tool of expression. We had many different nationalities involved in the project, including Togolese, Guinean, French, Polish, Ivorian and Congolese. We had been meeting since the end of January, brainstorming ideas to try and find an effective way to communicate to as many people as possible our message: that co-existence is possible.
Art is often compared to a mirror of society. Theatre is an art form that is highly impactful and impossible to ignore. It’s a flexible tool, requiring no materials other than ourselves and our experiences. The scenes we performed were all inspired by real life experiences of refugees who came to Athens. We voted to use the art form of theatre to tell their stories, to show back to the city what its minority groups are facing on a daily basis, without being heard. Some scenes, such as two refugees being refused treatment at a hospital, were emotionally powerful and a startling education in inequality.
Our aim was not just to give voice to suffering, but to give the overall positive message that diversity can be a bridge, rather than an obstacle. A bridge to understanding between cultures, languages and different backgrounds, providing an opportunity to an open-minded perspective.
The rehearsal process was not without challenges, as none of us had any professional experience in theatre. We rehearsed once per week, more often leading up to the performance, and really bonded as a group.
Our creation process involved people sharing an experience, and then the actors improvising a scene to portray it. It was rough and raw – we never wrote a script, which made every scene unique and feel real and fresh.
We were inspired by Theatre of the Oppressed: some of our scenes involved direct contact with the public in order to engage them in the reality of the situation.
The most striking part of this process was seeing the change in ourselves: the growth in confidence of some team members, and the discovery of unknown acting talent was amazing to see. One of the actors shared : “It was the first time I played in the theater group, at the beginning I was very shy, but after several rehearsals I realised that I can do it !” Since most of the team members were French speakers, it was very rewarding to see them gain confidence week by week in using English. An other participant shares : “Regarding the language it made me want to express myself more and I progressed a lot in english !”
We performed three times: once in Welcommon Hostel, twice outside Thissio metro station. This meant performing to two very different audiences: the first was a secure audience, with friends and connections already involved in the field of refugee work; the second audience was unpredictable, as we performed to the general public, not knowing how people would react.
We were all nervous on the day, and faced many unexpected challenges, the greatest of which was having to project our voices very loudly to be heard outside in the wind.
Yet the feedback was wonderfully positive – the Thissio performances attracted a very diverse audience of both locals and foreigners, tourists and friends, young and old. We even recruited new volunteers from keen audience members, who were moved to get involved by what they had seen. One audience member described the performance as ‘engaging, eye-opening, and very powerful’.
This performance was just the beginning for our group. We are still meeting regularly, and planning how best to continue speaking out about our ever-important message: co-existence is possible.