A Statement Against 'Othering': Exploring the Need for Somewhere to Call Home

It’s the morning of Tuesday 28th June 2016. I’m sitting in a café in London with a director from Germany, a director and dramaturg team from Greece, and a playwright from Leeds by way of Zimbabwe. We’re about to start a week of writing and development on an international theatre project. But all we can talk about is the result of the Brexit referendum and what it means for the future.

The British team, myself and playwright Zodwa Nyoni, are still in the state of shock that characterised the 48% immediately after the referendum result was announced. Michael Sommer, our German colleague, is concerned and sympathetic; while our Greek counterparts Eri Kyrgia and Yannis Kalavrianos combine empathy with our utter confusion at the result with a sense of resignation. They’re living through their country’s own convulsions in its relationship with the European Union, and they know how it feels to have your certainties vanish without warning.

The show we’re all coming together to work on is Phone Home. It will be performed simultaneously in London, Athens and Munich in October 2016, with our three venues linked via video-conference as well and the whole show livestreamed worldwide. The themes of the project are migration and communication in Europe. What happens when you leave one home in order to find another, and how is that experience thought and spoken about across the continent?

That July morning, those questions seemed more urgent than ever before. Since we started making Phone Home, Europe’s refugee crisis has intensified; the right-wing insurgent party AfD has captured a significant minority of votes in Germany; and Greece has gone through a period of intensifying financial and political meltdown. And, of course, the United Kingdom has voted for Brexi

more like a concept album than a traditional play

Against this background, telling a story together, as a group of artists from across Europe, couldn’t be more important. Our first challenge was to identify which stories we wanted to tell. In this vast and populous continent, there are as many stories to be told about ‘home’ as there are people. But it’s been clear to all of us from the outset of working on this piece that the sharpest expression of the atavistic need to call somewhere home is found in the experiences of those people who’ve come to Europe on the so-called ‘refugee trail’ - and in the response of politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens to the growing numbers of refugees arriving in the continent.

So, over the past two years, we’ve been running a series of workshops in Athens, Munich, London and Birmingham, with people who came to our three countries as refugees, alongside other people who came as so-called ‘economic migrants’ and others still who were born inside the EU. Here in the UK, we’ve worked alongside the music charity Fairbeats to write songs with refugee and migrant children; we’ve run writers’ workshops with the incredible Write to Life group at Freedom from Torture; and we’ve worked with asylum seekers in Birmingham to stage their own version of a Malian folk tale. And along the way, we’ve talked - about childhood memories, favourite foods, songs, first experiences of coming to the UK - and we’ve read, obsessively, about the experiences of and reaction to the refugee crisis: news articles, comment pages, blog posts, social media comment.

During that week in July, we distilled everything that we and our groups of actors had read, heard and seen into fifteen scenes – which, as I write, we’ll be presenting both live and online in just over a week. In its form, Phone Home is more like a concept album than a traditional play. It’s a series of short scenes, each of which tells its own story but connects to a larger whole. And as with an album, we’re also fusing together a variety of styles - from realism to poetry to storytelling to dance. Our goal has been to find the right way to tell each story, and to do it in such a way that we can tell that story across our three stages using the videoconferencing technology.

we are all part of one human family with a deep need to call somewhere home

For me, one of the key stories in Phone Home is one we call ‘Referendum’. In the summer of 2015, the Swiss village of Oberwil-Lieli voted to pay a €280,000 fine rather than take in a group of ten asylum seekers. Eerily, the 52-48 referendum majority almost exactly reflected the UK results. Although I’d come to this story through a disconcertingly approving Daily Mail article, I became particularly fascinated when reading the campaign materials from both sides on the local government’s website. While the campaign to take in the refugees emphasised the moral imperative to help people in need, the campaign against presented the issue as a purely financial one. Ultimately, it was argued, it would be more cost-effective from the village’s point of view to pay the fine, as this would cost them less than the expenses incurred by accommodating the group of asylum seekers.

As I read this, this single Swiss village started to feel like a synecdoche for the whole of Europe, and especially the UK: torn between our desire to feel like a part of a larger whole, and a stultifying combination of complacency, hostility and self-interest - with the latter winning. The best way to tell this story was not going to be to satirise it, but to make it almost a folk tale, a foundational shared text about how a balance sheet can prove that it’s not only okay, but necessary, to keep a stranger from your door.

In other words, the scene ‘Referendum’ presents the exact opposite world to the one that I hope Phone Home is an argument for. Above all things, Phone Home is a statement against ‘othering’. A reminder that we are all part of one human family with a deep need to call somewhere home.

Phone Home is at Shoreditch Town Hall, 19th – 30th October.

Tom Mansfield is Artistic Director of Upstart Theatre and director of Phone Home in the UK.

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