Not By Bread Alone
by Chris Walters
June 24, 2019
Chris Walters is a playwright, director and teacher of Drama. You can follow Chris and his work here.
A group of us were having dinner in a local restaurant the other night. We are all volunteers with an NGO operating on one of the Greek islands, which runs a number of projects connected with the refugee crisis, and we were saying goodbye to one of our number who had finished her stint as an interpreter, and was returning to the “real” world, resuming her law studies in the States. Slightly ironic that it was a farewell, as the conversation turned to the arrival the night before of some sixty refugees in an inflatable boat. Another in the group had been one of the people who had helped to pull them out of the water; he normally volunteered at the communal vegetable garden on one of the projects, but he was also part of the rota of people who stayed up all night, maintaining a watch over the coast, looking out for just such events. The mood quietened, we asked about the procedure from that point. After being given blankets and hot drinks, they were given a basic health check, before being taken to be registered and provided with somewhere to stay. I felt humbled. I am a Drama teacher, and felt that my own role was so much more peripheral and inconsequential, in comparison with helping people floundering in the waves in the dark. In those desperate moments of need, James was helping to provide that most pressing and basic need for safety, for security, for food and warmth. While I was literally playing games.
Once that immediate emergency is dealt with, that next stage in the migrants’ desperate litany of traumatic events that form their journey met and overcome, they needed to return to some form of normality, to face the mundane and tedious daily reality that is the migrant’s lot – a bleak encounter, for the most part, with most plotting the next stage of their journey. I work with unaccompanied minors, those least able to determine their own future. Having survived one terrifying experience, tossed and turned by the wind and waves in the dark, they now faced the equally random vagaries of a bureaucracy creaking at the knees. These children and young people, having received food and shelter, albeit of the most basic kind, also needed an education. Even within that, I know that what I am able to offer is rightly regarded as being of a low priority. They need the basics of numeracy and literacy, the ability to communicate in the language of their new home (however temporary they hope that to be).
If their souls are not to be irredeemably crushed, they need to move beyond that bare and basic requirement, of words and numbers. They need to play, to sing, to laugh. And it is at this stage that I can at last make my contribution. The benefits of drama as part of a well-rounded education are well-rehearsed (sorry). It goes far beyond its role (sorry again) as the study and practice of a respected art-form. Above all, and uniquely, I would argue, it is social. It demands other people.
If you were washed up alone on a desert island, you might (once you had fed and sheltered yourself) turn to any number of forms of artistic expression. You might fashion a musical instrument, learn to play it, make beautiful music; you might use the natural resources to paint or sculpt. With access to some form of pen and ink, you might write: prose, poetry, an account of your daily life. You might even, for the sheer joy of it, sing or dance. What you would not do, unless you found yourself treading the path to madness, is act. Play a part. Tell a story. For those things, you need other people. Even a one-person show demands an audience.
Think of all those qualities that educators cite when pronouncing the benefits of drama. Communication – verbal, physical, facial. Co-operation – working as a part of a team with a common purpose. Even that most elusive and difficult to measure quality of self-confidence. All of them, I would argue, are social. And they are all part of a return to normality, to living alongside and in harmony with other people. For many, the migrant experience must have been at times a desperate, every man, woman and child for themselves struggle for survival. But they need to move beyond that, and this is when the drama teacher can help, to give them the opportunity to heal and to grow.
It includes that most non-serious of things: laughter. In my previous life as a teacher of an academic, school subject, I sometimes had to remind my students (and myself) that I was not teaching a course in comedy. That would mean abandoning one half of the art, one of the two masks that signify our subject. But laughter is so life-affirming. We laugh a lot in class – at each other, though never (all right, hardly ever) harshly; with each other, as a shared release; and at ourselves. And if there is yet one more thing that I am sure the young migrants have missed, I am sure it is laughter.
Finally, drama (and its cousin, theatre) allows the opportunity for people to reflect, in a safe environment, upon their own experiences; we play others in order to understand ourselves. I am currently working with a group of young Afghans on a greatly edited and adapted version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Briefly, it tells the story of a refugee, forced to flee her home, and taking with her an abandoned child. Given the probable experiences of the performers – we don’t ask – this does have the potential to invoke trauma. But theatre allows the story to be transformed. It is told as a fairy tale, of baddies mocked and defeated, of goodies cheered. We also take a stylised, frequently comic, theatrical style. And, crucially, our refugee triumphs, saves the day, and the child. And triumph, we hope, trust and pray, is what they will all do.