In October 2009, Jonathan Fox came to Plymouth, UK, to facilitate a week long course Encounters at the Crossroads, a course exploring how Playback Theatre can provide a space that builds dialogue between long-standing immigrant populations in developing communities.
This training was a part of the on-going work of the Centre for Playback Theatre in applying playback theatre to critical social issues. PT Responds provides trainings in specific locations relevant to critical social issues. In talking about why Plymouth was chosen as a location for this course, Jonathan Fox said, ‘Plymouth was an ideal site for the training for two reasons. Firstly, the Mirror Mirror Playback Theatre Company was very active in the community, and second, Plymouth is one of the cities chosen by the British Government to accommodate asylum-seekers.
The course was hosted by the local Playback Theatre company, Mirror Mirror, at the request of Jonathan Fox and in partnership with the UK School of Playback Theatre. 17 delegates attended the training from a range of countries around the world including Austria, South Africa, Ireland, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Lithuania, Hong Kong along with Jonathan from the United States of America, bought a rich diversity to the work through the week. The training provided participants with opportunities to focus on ways in which playback theatre can ease tensions, build bridges, and create a space for an integrated community narrative.
Mirror Mirror had been developing work in the local community particularly with refugees and asylum seekers and also with young people. Plymouth is an ancient community whose long-time residents have had to make space for political refugees and other immigrants, in addition to dealing with the challenges of growth. In many ways the city has responded with generosity and imagination but problems remain – problems recognisable to communities throughout the world. This was an opportunity to demonstrate to the local community that people from all around the world are prepared to gather together because they want to engage with these issues in a meaningful way.
Jonathan Fox reflected, ‘Them problem of migration of peoples for political and economic reason is a huge one. We felt excited to be tackling this issue as playbackers and also overwhelmed at times. The combination of workshop exploration (telling our own stories), community interaction (visiting community centres, inviting guest speakers), and group diversity (participants from eight countries) made it a rich learning experience.’
During the week participants visited the Islamic Centre speaking with the Imam, a police community support officer from the police diversity unit, an NGO working with asylum seekers, toured an area of the city currently undergoing regeneration; spoke with educationalists, youth workers and a young activist to better understand the issues in the local community.
Delegates also had the opportunity to watch Mirror Mirror performing at the Plymouth Centre for Faiths and Cultural Diversity, conducted by Jonathan Fox asking the question; what happens when different communities live side by side for the first time? What are the stories that can bring people together ? On the final evening, all seventeen participants took part in a performance at the Cultural Kitchen, a regular social evening for refugees and asylum seekers to be together with students and to share food. As well as providing an opportunity to perform, participants were able to sit and share a meal and talk with asylum seekers living in Plymouth.
Over the course of the week participants were invited to present their own local community portrait to reflect on areas they were either currently working on or were planning to develop . Time was spent looking at the complexities and difficulties of working in diverse communities and with those who have experienced trauma. Significant questions emerged about how we, as playback actors, playback stories of deep trauma? How do we avoid perpetuating prejudice and stereotyping? How do we, as actors, prepare ourselves to play such stories? What right do we have to go and work in communities that are not our own and are we not just perpetuating a western colonial model? How can this work be sustained in communities where there is unease and turbulence?
What became clear is the need for companies to be aware and responsible regarding the social, economic, gender and ethnic differences between themselves and their audiences determined by the communities that the companies seek to work in. Jonathan Fox describes this as the need for companies to be aware of the congruence between themselves and their audiences. Alongside this participants discovered the critical importance for us in Playback Theatre companies to be willing to face our personal stories of pain and trauma which ultimately gives us the strength, capacity, humility and honesty to offer this work to those whose stories are the most difficult to hear.