Rosie MacPherson

The director of a new play about a man facing deportation to a country he left when he was six months old explains why it was a back to front production

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Opening a new show is always daunting but, as I reflect on the last two years of exploring, experimenting, (over!) thinking and collaborating, I find myself charged up and hopeful that collectively we’ve made something urgent and exciting that gets people talking on their journey home.

I am co-founder of Stand and Be Counted (SBC) Theatre, the UK’s first theatre company of sanctuary. Our new show, Where We Began, is a direct response to our last, Tanja, which explored life in immigration detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood from the perspective of female asylum seekers held there.

Tanja starred Emily Ntshangase-Wood, who had herself been detained three times, and she drew heavily on that experience in order to give audiences a truthful and scarcely heard insight. Tanja enjoyed two national tours and was performed at the Houses of Parliament.

It was on tour in 2016 that we were lucky enough to meet Taf (Tafadzwa Muchenje), who now stars in Where We Began. He approached us after seeing Tanja and shared his own story of receiving a deportation letter from the Home Office.

He was in the middle of a lengthy appeal process and his life had been put on hold. It’s a case, like many, that beggars belief. His family were all given right to remain and he was facing being separated from them aged 20 and sent to a country that he couldn’t even remember because he left Zimbabwe when he was six months old.

We knew instantly that we wanted to work together. This was something audiences deserved to know.

Where We Began is led by five international performers, each with their own personal relationship to the themes explored. At times it’s highly autobiographical.

As a writer I’m used to sitting in a room on my own, stewing over individual words and then going into the flurry of research and development and rehearsal. But for Where We Began we consciously worked back to front.

Alongside Taf, we wanted the artists we cast to be able to shape what we made from the start. We are joined by the immensely talented Zoe Katsilerou, a physical performer and voice artist from Greece, Shireen Farkhoy, a British Persian actor, and Fernanda Mandagará, an actor, director and writer from Brazil.

There was no story outline or set intention – it was about the people in the room, who all have differing relationships to migration, having their say. We started with a four week research and development period, in January 2017, in which we talked a lot about “home” and what that means to us. We played with different styles of performance and techniques, and, after spending time getting the work on its feet, it was then time to make sense of it all on the page.

I see the process of making this show as the best training a writer can get. I got to see all the possibilities of live work before I had to write a word. I’ve been able to spend months getting to know the real voices and characters of the performers before creating parts for them to play.

“Where We Began is not always straightforward. In fact at times it is deliberately misleading and confusing.”

At times I’ve felt way out of my comfort zone but always safe in the hands of Hannah Butterfield, the show’s ever inspiring director. Our job is to support the telling of these stories but never to get in the way.

Where We Began is as much about the issues it explores as it is a device to put you, the audience, in the shoes of those experiencing the immigration system. It’s not always straightforward. In fact at times it is deliberately misleading and confusing.

The piece is a surreal exploration of home and identity and the impossibility of fitting neatly into a box created for you by bureaucracy. The themes are global but uniquely personal to all of us and our hope is that audiences on every stop of our tour will find themselves reflected through the madness!

The process of making the show has thrown up more twists and turns than I think any of us had expected! The fictional future world we were creating often had far more in common with reality than we predicted.

We’ve consistently sought to pull apart what we have and ensure we really interrogate the best ways to say what we want to say, while leaving room for audiences to have theirs too.

We deliberately looked to work with performers from very different performance backgrounds, to fill the room with as many different skills and possibilities as we could. To work with theatre makers from all over the world has instantly meant that the physical act of making the show is a celebration of cultural exchange – it wouldn’t be what it is without each of them.

It’s been a very supportive and generous process since the beginning. Everyone involved has been open with sharing their own experiences, hopes and concerns – and we don’t always agree! But we’ve always found ways to listen and respect, ask questions and connect.

Where We Began is a fast paced and searingly honest tour across the globe. In a future where every citizen has to return to their place of birth, Where We Began examines where we are now and where we could end up.

The Where We Began tour includes dates at Cast, Doncaster (13-14 Sept), York Theatre Royal (15 Sept), Square Chapel, Halifax (4 Oct), Carriageworks Theatre Leeds (6 Oct), Unity Liverpool (9 Oct), Sheffield Theatres (11 Oct), and Theatre in the Mill, Bradford (12-13 Oct)

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