A Collaborative Performance Tells the Stories of Refugee and Asylee Communities

Collaborative performances have served as a platform for communities to own and transform their past, present, and future selves and stories.

As Colin Dabowski recognized in his 2011 review of Ujima Theatre’s “Unheard Voices:  Giving Voice,” in which non-actress women from Buffalo’s refugee communities performed their real-life experiences for two hours, “sometimes the most powerful theatrical experiences can be the simplest.”

The stories we tell in our daily lives are complicated, and the stories of Buffalo’s refugee, asylee, and immigrant communities are no exception. Giving life to our stories through our voice can be the most powerful and simple performance we possess.

Ujima began an incredible dialogue, and I looked for follow-up collaborative performances with our immigrant populations in Buffalo.  Instead, I found Mammalian Diving Reflex, a Toronto-based theater company founded in 1993 by Artistic and Research Director Darren O’Donnnell. The company is also a “culture production workshop that recognizes the social responsibility of art, fostering a dialogue between audience members, the performers, and the material.”

In September 2015, the company collaborated with teenage German asylum-seekers, refugees, immigrants, and nationals to create a performance called  “Millionen! Millionen!” As Russell Smith’s 2015 review of the performance, “Asylum seekers are the star of this Canadian arts initiative,” explains:  “In collaboration with a German theater collective called Mit Ohne Alles, they (Mammalian) got a bunch of teenagers of diverse immigrant backgrounds to go camping for a weekend.”

I sat down with Jenna Winter, who was about to leave for Germany in a few days, at the Gladstone Hotel in February.  We spoke about “Millonen! Millonen”, and O’Donnell’s newest work with German asylum-seekers.  We discussed what such a work could look like with Buffalo’s refugee and asylee communities.

GB: What does process-based and collaborative mean to you?

JW:  We’re always working with local people and non-actors wherever we go.  When we go somewhere new, we take time to train people in whatever they will be doing in their performance, and to do social activities so we can get to know each other.

We need that kind of in-depth time to make people feel comfortable participating in our projects, and it’s a deliberate effort to spend time instead of just coming in and out.  We are trying to, through an intervention into a local place, mix things up and allow participants to see themselves in a new way. The process of intervention is as important as, or more important, than the final project or show.

GB:  How do these concepts manifest in your “Millonen!  Millonen!” Performance?

JW:  We performed three shows for a small audience in September, but we spent almost six weeks before that preparing and rehearsing.  We went camping together for three weekends in June and then we came back in September and made a show.

Our local contact found it really hard to get in touch with refugees and asylees staying in temporary homes, as those communities are moving around a lot. So instead, she found a youth group in a German language course for newcomers, who had spent between 3-8 months in Germany.  Although they didn’t necessarily have all their asylum claims settled through the bureaucracy, they were more established.

It was awkward at first: pairing Germans with non-German speakers, and people from many different groups.   There wasn’t a lot of interaction.  Initially, we wanted to see what would happen. We thought, ‘will they hang out, will they talk?’  Then we took the approach we always take — play games and do things that are fun and kind of ridiculous. We went on night-walks together and had campfires with a lot of singing, water balloon fights, and canoeing. We paired people with others they didn’t know, and everyone started to talk to each other.  Canoeing is popular in Canada, but not where they were from, so it was a challenge for everyone to work on together. It was as if we’re in this boat together, and we have to figure out how it works!  What we did in making the show was tell a bunch of stories about what we did when we went camping.

Only a handful of them were really excited to be in a show or make a show, but most of them were really into the group and hanging out together. It was going through all the hardness of rehearsing and doing the show that made this group really bond.  Even now, we still get together and everyone comes every time. The ages range from 12-20 and some can barely speak German, some can only speak German, and still, it is this really tight-knit group.  That’s what happens from the process:  the show was important, but it was what happened before the show and in making the show — that was really significant.

GB:  Has story telling transformed your participants?

 JW:  We don’t say transformation is one of our goals, but to me it underlies every aspect of what we’re doing, and I’ve seen it a lot.  Even if the transformation is temporary.   But so much of the time, it goes beyond that for people. Saying intimate things out loud is powerful. The participants often say:  “I never thought in a million years I would have the guts to do this” or even, “I never thought I would do this because it’s such a weird thing to do.”

It can be a liberating experience to come to terms with your life on stage.  One participant was going to be assessed at her school as a mute; after doing our project, she began to speak.

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