Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

M1 Singapore Fringe 2022: An Interview with Sophie Besse on co-creating theatre in ‘Borderline’

Psychotherapist, playwright and theatre director Sophie Besse isn’t here to create theatre. Rather, theatre seems to be a natural byproduct of the method she uses to help her collaborators tell their stories through drama, and in the process, perhaps even assist in their healing.

All of this is done under her theatre company PSYCHEdelight, which uses drama as a platform to help people express themselves and have their voices heard, including running therapeutical drama workshops for young offenders in Fleury Merogis prison in France, as well as refugees in the UK and the Calais Jungle refugee encampment. The latter in particular, culminated in Borderline, a clown-based comedy about the Calais Jungle performed by both European and refugee performers, and makes its Singaporean debut online this week as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

As a refugee encampment, the Calais Jungle drew global media attention for its massive population growth. Existing between January 2015 to October 2016, the encampment catered to refugees during the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, and saw the already difficult problems of loneliness, isolation and alienation experienced by most of these refugees. Sophie started formally coming into the picture when the Dome of Hope was built on the premises, which allowed the refugees to explore and try out various workshops.

“Coming into the dome, it was clear that the refugees were really enjoying their time spent together,” says Sophie. “But at the same time, there were people who seemed to treat it like a zoo. Some people would come for half a day and interview the refugees for cinema projects and other things, and they were really just harvesters using their stories for their own benefit. What we need to do is find out more about the participants and what’s happening there and not just take it wholesale, so we wanted to do a co-creation and devise something where they have their own voice heard.”

Perhaps what is unexpected about Borderline is the fact that it leans away from the tragedy and pain of the participants’ situation, to find comedy within the darkness. “Part of the aim of Borderline and our other projects is to remove the stigma that these refugees are dangerous – my own family and friends worried about my safety when I told them I was heading there!” says Sophie. “All this fear and sadness does not represent the people I met in the camp – I was greeted with people who were extremely resourceful, and possessed so much resilience, fun and charm.”

“I remember how we came up with an idea to make fun of this ‘scared of refugees invading’ mindset, or there was this silly fashion show they did with the clothing donations they received, like wedding dresses, bikinis, and high heels,” she continues. “And it was all so brilliant to just take all of that and think about showing these people the ludicrousness of the items they chose to donate to refugees, who probably didn’t even take 5 minutes to think about or sort!”

The comedy then, acts as a kind of empowerment for them, laughing in the face of all they’ve been through. “Every time they’re featured on the news, people would ask them ‘did you lose someone in the family’, and it was always very draining,” says Sophie. “You have to consider their situation – receiving just 5 pounds a day, you can choose to eat or take a bus, but as refugees, they’re not allowed work or study, and this can last anything from 6 month to 7 years. Often, they hardly meet people, which can be such a difficult time for them psychologically. They’ve already been through hell and back, and once they arrive, they’re isolated in a hostel, the PTSD kicks in and the nightmares start.”

“Conversely, the act of making people laugh is a healing act, and the intent was to help the refugees feel less isolated by working together,” she continues. “It was a very welcome project for them because they finally had something to hold on to, and to find this space for them to meet and connect. What I wanted to do was to get them to bond, and I wondered about the upcoming challenge of creating a working theatre ensemble, combining trained European performers and refugees, with with so much diversity, across religions, sexualities, and languages.”

With any new programme, the participants were shy at first, and it took some coaxing and encouragement to gather her team. ” Nobody auditioned. My cast all comes from word of mouth, some of whom I met in Calais, some in the UK,” says Sophie. “Some people were shy and asked to bring a friend along, and of course I welcomed that. I knew it would be long hours of rehearsals, and eating meals and living together. And I trusted that together, these performers would create a safe space.”

Borderline then, was not focused on producing a stellar, West End ready show, but to focus all the energy on allowing the participants to tell their stories in their own way, and give them the toolset to perform, and to find joy and laughter in their lives. “It was never about excavating their stories, but to make a group bond. And that was a massive success to me,” says Sophie. “There was so much playfulness in the room; so many of them found connection over similar games they had across cultures but went by different names. It gave them levity against their tough journey, and so much of it was about being silly and child-like at times. By the time lunch came around, we started to gel.”

Of course in spite of the lightheartedness and humour, Sophie is also careful to ensure that proper care is in place for when tragedy does strike. “Some people would receive difficult news during the night or find it hard to cope. We would make sure to always be checking in, and try not to bring up the miserable things, but how they are as human beings, and learning to trust and respect each other. That’s what makes people feel comfortable enough to talk, and it can be very cathartic,” says Sophie. “Sometimes we would weave these responses and check-ins into devised work, like pretend to be police dogs. The stories would all come from them, and we wanted to find an appropriate way to put these in the performance and show the audience.”

Again, empowerment is important, and while Sophie technically led them, there were also plenty of times she handed over artistic direction to the participants to decide how they felt it would be best to represent their story. “Metaphors are really important in having a good laugh about something painful, like there’s this scene, where it thinks about frozen refugees hidden in lorries, and they pretend to be frozen like ice cubes!” says Sophie. “I also had an actor, quite a private person, who wanted to have this scene about sitting on the boat and crossing the sea. After trying it out a while, I told him to get out of the boat, sit beside me and get him to tell the story by directing the actors. Because it’s his story, and only he could get the precision of the portrayal he wanted.”

Eventually, the production was ready to be staged, premiering in London in November 2016, before touring internationally to Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and India. “What’s important to me is that my performers are proud of what they did, and for audiences to feel the story,” says Sophie. “There’ve been shows about the Jungle that I brought some of the performers to, but some left at the interval and didn’t understand the show. It was written by English people for English people, and it was an amazing show, but it was not for refugees and asylum seekers. I don’t want to change my performers’ stories into something they no longer understand; their friends and family need to love it, and I want to raise awareness that their voice is the one that needs to be heard.”

The tour was unfortunately, brought to a halt when the pandemic struck, coupled with the ongoing Brexit drama that required all her performers to get visas, but Sophie never lost hope, and continued to run her workshops online. “The most important thing for me was to ensure that my participants were coping ok,” she says. “By shifting online, some people found it much easier because they no longer had to commute, and we were welcoming of even their families joining in from overseas, like Syria, and it was about having fun, communicating on the phone.”

“Of course, some people also did struggle with the Internet, or some didn’t have data or didn’t know how to use a computer. So I managed to organise some home visits to set up data, train people to go on Zoom and help them with the first session. We’ve managed to stay in touch with almost everyone in difficult situations, like a wife who was pregnant, we still did a lot of home visits. We created our own little community, like a family,” she adds.

It’s worth noting that the show has been deemed a Theatre Company of Sanctuary, recognising its genuine effort to welcome refugees to work in an ethical way based on practices and how well they work with refugees. For now though, Sophie is happy that they’ve managed to capture the show on film back in October 2021, and are preparing for a brand new live work come March. “People don’t really go to the theatre anymore, and it gives me some anxiety. We’ve lost the habit after one and a half years of the pandemic,” she says. “Hopefully, the film helps draw people in and acts as a good lead-up to our new production at Southwark Playhouse in March, Mohand and Peter.”

As for the future of the refugee situation, Sophie knows that theatre alone cannot change things tremendously, and there’s still a long way to go before things get better. But for now, she hopes that in her own way, her work has helped her participants, and helped audiences see them for who they are – fellow human beings in need of support. “There’s a lot that needs to change on the political side of things. I don’t have the power to do that, but I strongly believe that through my workshops, for both refugees and non-refugees, each and every one of us becomes more conscious of their situation,” she says. “What I want to do is to re-humanise the refugees and make people see they’re not invading us, by giving them a voice and a personality.”

“We can be so narrow-minded sometimes, and stick so closely to our own circles and not realise there is so much more to discover,” she concludes. “These are just people looking to connect and make friends, and how they are fellow human beings. There’s no shame in joining them for a drink and a dance, and sometimes, we forget how difficult it can be to be isolated and excluded, when all you need is to have a good laugh with someone and just a walk and to be open. And I believe in these little steps towards greater solidarity.”

Photo Credit: José Farinha

BORDERLINE streams online from 12th to 23rd January 2022 as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here

The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here

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