September 6, 2016 | Sarah Stewart
Queuing for my last show of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I ran into a friend from my local Amnesty group. The show we were seeing (Dear Home Office) was about the struggles unaccompanied minor young men face when they claim asylum in the UK. As we took our seats and flicked through the brochure my friend let out a sigh: ‘I mean, they don’t lead to any huge epiphanies or changes, do they, these plays? Most of the audience will already be sympathetic. It’s preaching to the choir!’
Indeed. What difference does a piece of theatre make to people who need hearts and minds to be won and policy to change now?
An iteration of this question has come up at nearly every event I have attended since starting my PhD project in theatre of asylum. It is asked by members of the public, activists, academics in other disciplines, as well as asylum seekers and refugees themselves who have suffered the daily humiliations of the UK asylum system. What impact do Arts events, performances and publications about art have on ‘actual’ human beings? These are important, even essential, questions – and although the academics I know in my field are also deeply involved in charities, activism, community outreach and other ‘helpful’ work, the questions keep coming.
There are probably at least as many answers to these questions as there are concerned academics in a field that delves into representations of some of the direst cruelty imaginable. Though I still struggle with these challenges to my discipline and probably will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, one defense of ostensible choir-preaching has stuck with me. It came from an academic who could never be accused of ‘merely’ studying the issue of asylum: Prof Alison Phipps OBE, Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies and Co-convener of GRAMNET (Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network) at the University of Glasgow.
At a GRAMNET film screening of Everyday Borders (highly recommended!), an audience member asked what use our debate was if no policy-makers were there to hear it. To this Prof Phipps, herself a member of the audience, replied (and I am paraphrasing from memory) that this space of the like-minded is profoundly important to her, that these gatherings give her language as well as courage to bring the ideas and arguments that spring from them into places where these views are not so readily accepted. Clearly, the point is to foster nurturing spaces of the like-minded with an important aim being to move arguments and evidence out into other spaces where it will be useful. Also, you never really know who is in that room with you (and who is reading your Facebook feed), what hats they wear and what they will go on to do.
One of the reasons I returned to university to do a PhD was that I wanted the time and resources to forge a deeper understanding of the views, arguments and practices around the art and activism I was seeing and participating in. As in my case, so many others: ‘academic’ is only one function of a many-hatted person constantly collaborating with teams of other and differently multifaceted people. Particularly in the Arts, but also in perhaps a different way in the Sciences as well, an event or publication is rarely, if ever and for good reason, a silver bullet. It draws from and contributes to discussions that need to happen and to accumulate on many levels.
In often-losing battles to alleviate suffering and reduce oppression, it is tempting to be impatient with academia and the Arts, whose effects do not often stand alone pointing a confident finger to what must be done, and which also institutionally collude in many ways with inequality. However, spaces devoted to thinking together in places of education, in the Arts and where these intersect with the public and private lives of citizens are things I value intensely as a student, activist, writer, researcher, daughter, sister, partner, friend and thinking and feeling human being. Perhaps, then, a more constructive questioning might entail not whether work has a wider impact, but how and in what ways we can each strengthen it in each of our many roles.
I’m working on a PhD looking at representations of refugee and asylum seeker experience in the UK. I hold a BA (HONS) in English and Spanish, an MA in Comparative Literature (both from the University of Auckland) and am ever the student of literatures of displacement and resistance.
Edited by Bridget Moynihan and Adam Clay.
1. Phosphoros Theatre