Hats off to two very talented writers – Sonya Desai and Sarah Hehir – whom I met through working with them on their scripts via my website, and who have both also been on my ‘CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS’ course – who organised themselves to spend a day at the GOOD CHANCE Theatre in the Calais refugee camp.
I knew nothing about this venture until this week. Here is a powerful, inspirational 6 minute film that tells you about it.
‘Today is accidentally nice.’
And it was.
Last weekend I spent the day in the refugee camp in Calais, volunteering at the Good Chance Theatre with Sonya Desai and Katie Charlton.
We arrived feeling uncertain about everything: whether a bunch of writers and drama practitioners would be useful when there is no sewerage system, no proper shelter; whether the makeshift shops, the Afghan restaurants, the Eritrean church, the library and the theatre are somehow accepting that this camp is becoming permanent, taking the pressure off European governments to act humanely. There’s no getting away from the fact that you turn a corner and see a vision of hell. The ‘Calais Jungle’ is worse than a shanty town. 6,000 people, who have fled from persecution and conflict, are sleeping in broken pop-up tents and making shelters from rubbish. And yet.
This is what we found: a handshake on every corner; a ‘Welcome to Darfur’ sign and arms around our shoulders; groups of men wandering into a dome and grabbing a pen and writing and talking; poems written in many languages, translations in many hands; children painting; Abdul playing a guitar; theatre rehearsals; Medecins du Monde adding their poems in French and Spanish to the Farsi, Pashtu, Arabic, Urdu and English. What we felt was welcomed and valued.
Good Chance Theatre is a place to write and play, to create and imagine. It’s a good place and they are looking for volunteers: writers, artists, actors, musicians and teachers. I’d encourage you to go – even if just for a day.
Showing solidarity and working together on creative projects is not enough but it’s a good start.
When my friend Sarah called to ask if I wanted to go help out with writing workshops in the Calais refugee camp known as ‘the Jungle,’ my first reaction was – surely the last thing anyone in the camp needs is someone talking about screenplay structure? But, like most people, I want to help in whatever small way I can, it’s on our doorstep, and at the very least it would be a chance to talk about writing for a couple of days.
So off we headed – Sarah and her friend Katie with their wealth of experience in applied theatre (a new term for me) and running drama workshops, and me with good intentions, willingness to muck in, and – being honest – a dollop of cynicism.
The first thing you should know about the Jungle is that it’s anything but. When we arrived, wandering around the outskirts, it did feel intimidating, but as soon as we stepped into the camp, the general feeling was of order and organisation despite the dreadful conditions. And the conditions are truly dreadful. But all that is well documented, and what is harder to convey is how welcoming people are, how friendly, and how hopeful. People just wander up for a chat, pleased to see you.
The Good Chance Theatre was set up by two playwrights called Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who explained that it’s more of a town hall than anything else. A forum, a safe haven, where everyone is welcome. I guess that’s the true essence of theatre. They run workshops for the kids, painting sessions with a resident artist, music, singing, and writing.
The first person we met was Mohammed, a poet from Sudan, who was in the library translating his poetry from Arabic to English. And by library I mean a makeshift wooden hut with a wonky table in the middle and shelves crammed with donated books, despite how it’s portrayed in certain sections of the media. Just like the ‘disco’ is a makeshift wooden hut where someone blasts a radio and has got hold of some flashing lights. Just like the ‘shops’ are makeshift huts where people sell fruit.
But back to Mohammed. He showed us a poem that took our breath away. Not because of where we were, or the history behind the poem, but just because it was a really good poem. It’s easy to forget that these people had lives and dreams before they were forced to flee, as poets, writers, chefs, lawyers. And from walking around the camp it’s evident there’s a real enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit; forget the morality of the situation, all the people I met would be a real asset to Britain just in economic terms.
So we spent a good while working with Mohammed who was very focussed on translating his poems from Arabic into English, wanting to know if the precise word he used conveyed the deeper meaning in his highly poetic native tongue. Katie did some great workshops, with kids and adults, and it was surprising to see the quietest people suddenly spring into action. We ate some great chicken, (really, we couldn’t get over how good), messed around with the kids, and an ad-hoc group poetry session just sort of sprung up around Sarah.
When we first arrived an artist who volunteers at the theatre told us that this place gets under your skin, because of the connections you make. She initially came for just a couple of days, and now goes over for weeks at a stretch. And it’s true; you make connections in a very short space of time. Is this because of the desperate situation people find themselves in? Stripped away of everything else, you focus on what is necessary to survive; food, shelter, and human connection. And story facilitates this connection.
The cynic in me still asks – when I hear the theatre is trying to raise £20K – if those funds would be better spent elsewhere. But take that argument to the extreme, and there’s always something better to spend it on, and that leaves us in a world empty of art, of expression, of making sense of our journeys. Which brings me back to story. The big draw the day we were there was the promise of a film screening. Again, this is not comfortable seats and popcorn, this is some guy who shows up with a rickety projector and whatever film he can get his hands on. Two hours of pure escapism. One young man told me he loved Van Damme and Arnie action movies (the irony of watching overlong adverts for the US military while you’ve fled areas ravaged by wars fought with arms traded by Western governments? I won’t even go there). But what’s clear is the appeal of cinema, the magic of being absorbed in someone else’s story.
So keep writing. Whether it’s hard-hitting stuff with a social conscience, pure whimsical fantasy, dark, light, an attempt to open up and examine the world, or an attempt to escape the world. It’s all story. Story is important.
And in the meantime, if you can get over to Calais to help out with writing stuff or just general stuff, then do it.
A poem by Mohammed Omer ‘refugee in the jungle’
like the cloudless sky
on a sun-filled day
like the sleeping child
in a rocking cradle
like the sound of grief
through her gritted teeth
like the skeleton carried
in my deepest, darkest sleep
like the birth of my child
with a new mother tongue
like carrying a heaviness
over endless trails of fatigue
like arriving in my home
where my tears are my own.
Another excellent article on the ‘Good Chance Theatre’ initiative –
And you can follow them on twitter @GoodChanceCal and facebook – ‘Good Chance Calais’
It’s inspiring to see people like Sonya, Sarah, Katie – and Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson – voluntarily doing this work that our politicians have turned their backs on.
Also big kudos to Benedict Cumberbatch for his nightly curtain-call appeals to HAMLET audiences to give money to the cause of helping the refugees who are arriving in such numbers on the Greek island of Lesbos
And how he resisted physically attacking this arsehole of a Sky journalist, God only knows
And this in the same week as David Cameron complains to his local Oxfordshire council about ‘cuts to essential services’. You couldn’t make it up.
Until next week
All the best
November 13th 2015