Approaching the ‘refugee story’

by Karen Berger

Each year, Melbourne Playback Theatre is honoured to be invited to perform at a number of gatherings for refugees and recent immigrants. In 2014 these included:

  • performances and workshops organised through SEAAC (Southern Ethnic Advisory and Advocacy Council)
  • a performance at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre
  • a performance for Whittlesea Interfaith Network
  • a Refugee Week performance at Footscray Community Arts Centre organised through the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria.

We started wondering: ‘How well are we serving the refugee and immigrant community through these shows?’ There are a number of company members who are immigrants to Australia, and two whose parents were refugees, but still we felt there was a lot more for us to learn. For example: What is the best way for a conductor/facilitator to invite people to share their stories in this situation?

As a result, on July 28th 2014, we organized a special rehearsal where people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds were invited to our North Fitzroy rehearsal space to share their stories and to then give us feedback on how we were doing. We were extremely lucky that these 8 generous and engaging people (children and adults from Afghanistan, Iran, South Sudan and Ethiopia) donated their time and knowledge to help us improve our work.

These are some of the thoughts that came up:

  • Why do we all wear black in performances? In many cultures wearing black is associated with mourning. (In Vietnam white is worn at a funeral.)
  • What are the other ways we could explain how a Playback show works before starting?
  • Can the company develop more expertise in ethnic dance and music (and food etc)?
  • Refugees and immigrants want to be first seen as people before they’re categorised by where they’re from. It’s important to hear funny as well as sad stories – and stories about everyday life.

Overall it was a very moving evening. A Sudanese guest related that she had thought that after years of living in refugee camps, she would be inured to the pathos of another ‘refugee story’. However she found the details and playing back of specific stories to make them emotionally engaging.

There was acknowledgement of the healing, dignifying and hope-building power of telling a story, and that Playback can offer a wonderful service to people from challenging backgrounds.

We are continuing to develop our expertise in this area and are currently organising to meet with the manager of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture to learn more about how Melbourne Playback can best serve storytellers with traumatic stories.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 4.03.47 PM

Melbourne Playback rehearsal exploring our approach to the ‘refugee story’.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 4.04.01 PM

Melbourne Playback’s Karen Berger with the Aminullah brothers.

Tesfaye G/Hana and Aminullah

Tesfaye G/Hana and Mustafa Aminullah

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 4.04.26 PM

Melbourne Playback rehearsal exploring our approach to the ‘refugee story’.

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