Sisters at the Edge Project – 2011

Playback Theatre South West received a grant of £4,058.67 in April 2011 for Sisters at the Edge Project from The Funding Network in February 2011.

‘Sisters at the Edge’ is a long term project, with the aim to take Playback Theatre to women whose voices are not usually heard. Our objective is to stand beside these women and offer a creative and empathic response to their life experiences in order to help restore their strength and emotional well-being, after, often, very traumatic life events.

Background

This project was for women in the refugee and asylum seeking community in Plymouth. A women’s Playback Theatre company gave performances in an informal setting at a church hall, where the women regularly meet to sew. Holding the performances in this setting was an important aspect for the success of the project as it was a familiar setting for the women involved. The sewing group ‘Soft Creations’ was set up by our partner organisation, a charity START (Students and Refugees Together) as part of it’s programme. It is set for a time of day when the women can be away from their homes and domestic activities, while their older children are at school and they bring their younger children with them. The group is run by social work students on placement with START. During the performances the children are present in the room with one or two students supervising their activities.

The project began in April 2011 with six performances, when START asked the project to be delayed to allow new women to benefit from it. The project stopped for five months and began again in November, with a further four performances, with some new as well as known participants, their children and a new group of students.

Good communication with START added to the success of the project as the refugee asylum-seeker community by it’s nature is transient and attendance can be inconsistent. The staff and students worked to ensure a good sized group would attend the performances, making telephone contact and supporting the women to attend. It is also worth noting that attendance is made possible by the fact that the project gives £3.60 to each participant for their travel costs. This is the cost of a day bus ticket and many of the women would not be able to come without this financial support. After each performance time was spent reflecting on and evaluating the session with the students.

Issues addressed in performances

Each performance opened up different themes by inviting the women to speak about aspects of their lives that they felt were important. Many stories were about daily life in UK, family life, celebrations, remembering home and missing home. Stronger themes emerged as relationships of trust were built between the women and the women’s theatre company. The themes explored in the performances were

Stories of home where there is war

  • fear of returning to their home country where there is war, kidnapping of children and men, murder and deaths.
  • bombs in shopping centres.
  • outsiders coming in to the country and making trouble.
  • the Iraqi women whose husbands are here studying at university, knowing they have to return home and not wanting to.
  • how difficult life is at home where they have plenty of money but no electricity and water.
  • reflections on living in UK with very little money yet it is safe and they don’t need to fear for the lives of their children and their husbands.
  • owning houses at home that their extended families live in.

Relationships with men

The theme of relationships with men was talked about. There were very strong feelings expressed and there were differences of opinion amongst the women. They spoke about the differences between those who are have their refugee status and are living here permanently with those who have recently arrived – the way in which living in UK changes them as women in their relationships with their men. Issues around self-esteem and assertiveness were raised and how a new sense of self worth and being assertive can be perceived negatively by other Muslim women. One woman spoke about how she is still a good Muslim woman and that nothing she has learnt is out of integrity with her values.

There was a lot of agreement about how a Muslim woman has to work hard to fulfill her domestic duties and therefore they get old earlier than western women. One thing that surprises them in England is that older women look young. In Iraq, men look younger for longer.

Other stories on this theme were about:

  • not being able to go out at night
  • their men being in control
  • never raising their voice to their men
  • hoping their men will appreciate the meals they cook for them

Mothers-in-law

Another theme was of mothers-in-law and the role they play in the lives of women. In the culture of Iraq there is a tradition of mothers-in-law having control of their sons and mothers-in-law disrespecting the new wife. Many colourful stories were shared and the women laughed together.

Participants comments

“Usually we don’t discuss our feelings publicly, only with very close family, but Playback Theatre has created a ‘feeling of family’ amongst us”, so during the project these women were openly sharing their feelings. Mostly the women don’t tell their husbands what has happened during these sessions.

Seeing their stories ‘played back’ created a feeling of being understood. “ We saw ourselves there and can say, yes, that’s what I am like”. Recognition of themselves in the enactments.

A curiosity developed from the participants to hear about the lives of the women in the theatre company. They especially wanted to know about relationships with men and about the freedom of white western women.

Benefit to Students

This project benefitted the students present, as the performances gave them insight into the lives and concerns of these women. They said that usually the women speak to each other in their own languages and hearing the personal stories spoken in English has increased their understanding of the people they are seeking to help in their work with START.

The students have requested a Playback Theatre performance for staff and students at START, to give them an opportunity to talk about how it is for them to hear the stories of refugees and asylum seekers, as a way of processing their feelings together.

Summary

This project was building on an earlier project funded by Big Lottery, Awards for All, so some of the participants had previous experiences of Playback Theatre performances in this setting. This supported a meaningful engagement with the work of the women’s theatre company as relationships of trust have been built over a period of two years.

There is no doubt from participant’s feedback that the form of Playback Theatre facilitates deeper conversations between communities of people, when the reflections are a true representation of the teller’s experience, which allows recognition and shared understanding. This has the effect of lessening feelings of isolation amongst women who are away from their extended families, culture and homeland.

One of the benefits to the participants is the way telling stories then watching and listening to the enactments in the ‘playback’ helps their understanding and speaking of English. A further benefit is the way sharing their stories has built a feeling of community between the women who are away from their families and communities at home.

A further development that has come out of this project is that some research has begun, by a Clinical Psychology student doing her third year dissertation on the impact of Playback Theatre on audiences.