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Sue Buckmaster - Journey of a Refugee Interview

Inspired by true stories of refugees and displacement, Theatre-Rites with Agudo Dance Company bring Journey of a Refugee to London in February 2024.  This powerfully moving piece is inspired by Theatre-Rites’ acclaimed 2017 and 2018 production The Welcoming Party, with this timely and engaging production exploring the journey and arrival of a refugee to the UK and the universal theme of people searching for a place they can call home.

Ahead of the show running in London we caught up with director Sue Buckmaster to discuss the show.

What attracted you to this project?
The journey of artistic research and development started, for me, 8 years ago. I was talking with the Ruhrtriennale Festival about making a piece of work inspired by the welcoming of Syrian refugees in Germany, and at the same time I was in discussion with Manchester International Festival about creating a site-specific show to reflect on the narrative accompanying the Brexit vote that asylum seekers were an unwelcome burden on the UK. Both these productions happened with the title The Welcoming Party. Since then, I have been in communication with several asylum seekers, refugee organisations and artists committed to this area of work. In particular I have stayed in contact with Mohamed Sarrar who was the starting point of our performance in Manchester. He arrived in the UK 8 years ago from Sudan and has remained to tell his story and make beautiful contributions to the arts scene. Theatre-Rites has always wanted to create an immersive experience in Croydon as it is the place where many child refugees are sent to get their asylum requests assessed. When Croydon became the London Borough of Culture it felt like a natural progression of ideas to join forces with Croydon based Agudo Dance Company and Stanley Arts to create a new production. When Mohamed agreed to tell his story again and Adi, a 20-year-old refugee from Ethiopia who arrived in the UK 3 years ago as a minor, applied to take part too, the current project Journey of a Refugee was ignited.
How have you approached bringing the stories of the refugees to the stage?
This show is aimed at anyone aged over 8. It therefore needs to be gentle with its politics, inspired by human resourcefulness and magical in its telling. We learn through play rather than didactic teaching or ranting. This show is a playful visit to the trickier aspects of our lives. It enables children to practice having emotional and political responses to subjects that will continue to impact their lives. 

The use of puppets, objects and movement can be useful tools when wanting to create magic realism. They provide poetic metaphors rather than confrontational dialogue. They allow visual elaborations which are open to projection and interpretation from an audience regardless of their age and in respect of their own experience, or lack of it.

Part of my job is to identify performers who have chosen to share their story and are passionate about reaching others.  I work closely and respectfully with them in order to truthfully represent their experiences.

Do you have to do any research in preparation for the production?
Journey of a Refugee is the outcome of an enormous amount of research and engagement and is devised by the company, delicately guided by me as an overall director.
The production emerged through a carefully managed devising process. Each person involved has influenced its content, whether aesthetically, emotionally, metaphorically, factually, or practically.

The Welcoming Party (2017 and 2018) was a site-specific production and my vision was always to create Journey of a Refugee as an immersive experience. The audience is encouraged to be part of a local welcoming party in Croydon for those seeking asylum. In the show no refugees turn up. What grows out of this is the re-telling of Mohamed’s difficult journey and his challenging experience of the UK system. He explains that 8 years ago it was already so hard for him and others to make the journey, and how today the hurdles placed on those seeking permission to come to the UK are restricting arrivals and forcing even more young people to risk their lives to come to find safety. The audience are given a chance to hear and reflect on the lives of those who are seeking to remain in the UK and make it their home. It is a humble attempt to humanise these experiences that are so often dehumanised, particularly in current times. The overall vision remains the same, whilst the political context that revolves around it has an ever-evolving complexity and influence on our process.
What can audience expect from the immersive elements of this production?
The show begins with the audience as an active member of the welcoming party. As the performance progresses, the audience can feel close to Mohamed and his group of friends who attempt to re-tell his story with whatever props they can find. More and more the audience get caught up in the journey Mohamed went on, particularly as he enters the UK asylum system, which the audience experience directly through interactive elements in the show. The promenade aspect to the production, the close proximity of the professional performers, the evocation of the atmosphere and landscape through lighting and music and the interactive elements all help the audience have a magical, empowering, sensitive and eye-opening experience. 
How important do you feel it is that audiences feel, engageand have a reaction to the stories they’ll hear in the show?
As we have seen so brilliantly with the Post Office TV drama, art can be impactful and there is something inherently powerful in simply seeing real stories unfold before you.

Our job is not to tell people what to think but to allow them to observe the world in a slightly different way or through a different lens. Journey of a Refugee condenses down the experience of millions and allows the audience to observe and empathise with a very human story.
What keeps you inspired as a creative?
Collaborating with inspirational creative people. On this production we have the incredible composer and sound designer Frank Moon, the wonderful Installation Designer Simon Daw with the evocative Lighting Designs of Mark Doubleday. In the rehearsal room Jose Agudo, the Movement Director, and I are always bouncing off each other’s ideas. The Workshops in the local schools run by Jose, Francesca Matthys and Claire Cunningham reminded me of how inspiring young people are and how hungry they are for artistic experiences. 

On a daily basis I always remember my ancestors. I am the fifth generation of theatre practitioners in my family so it is literally in my blood. This helps me face the hurdles of continuing to lead a creative life.
What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing Journey of a Refugee?
We wish for it to be fun, moving, magical, immersive, playful, thought-provoking and inspiring. We want it to take a small step to encouraging a more welcoming atmosphere in the UK to those seeking to make it their home and to strengthen the imaginative lives of young people who should see creativity as a right not a luxury.

Journey of a Refugee runs at Stanley Arts Centre from 3rd to 18th February 2024. Tickets are available from

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