ALL too often, the UK is described as a country divided. Yet one of our proudest outputs is the wealth of cultural activity on offer in cities and towns up and down the country.
The arts define and reflect who we are, bringing us together in an exploration of our shared identity. It’s important that everyone has a voice in shaping that identity – even those who are only just calling it home.
This is why West Yorkshire Playhouse, as the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary, recently joined with 19 other theatres across England in writing to Robert Goodwill, the Immigration Minister, regarding the hundreds of vulnerable children and young people currently in refugee and migrant camps in Calais. We urged him to speed up the legal process to ensure their legal entitlements to be reunited with their families in the UK will be honoured.
Is it the place of arts organisations to get involved in such matters?
In 2013 we mounted a production of Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel Refugee Boy. Alongside it we ran a festival of special events, projects and workshops for, with and about refugees and asylum seekers.
We continued to work with refugees, asylum seekers and charities and organisations who support them to explore what we as a theatre could offer people facing enormous uncertainty, often with little practical or moral support following the trauma which may have brought them here.
We went about creating a choir called Asmarina Voices, specifically designed for female refugees, in consultation with women who had met through the Refugee Council’s Health Befriending Network in Leeds. By 2014 we were also operating a weekly drop-in for newly-arrived and unaccompanied minors to meet and socialise in partnership with the Children’s Society.
We also offer free tickets to refugees, representing a warm welcome and offer of integration into the culture and community of this city.
This activity led to the Playhouse becoming the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary in 2014. It’s significant that Leeds was the city to pioneer positive cultural action for this marginalised community, blazing the trail for other UK theatres to follow in our steps.
This work is part of a much wider commitment to deep community engagement at the Playhouse. We offer a huge range of opportunities and enriching experiences to thousands of local people with a variety of needs, whether it’s Our Time for people living with dementia, First Floor which engages with hundreds of young people, many with a learning disability, or our recent production of Kes which toured to communities across the city.
For the thousands of people we work with every year we provide vital, life-enhancing opportunities to connect and engage with others, sometimes from very different backgrounds.
Great cities should enable these kinds of activities to thrive and we’re lucky to be able to work with such a diverse range of people in Leeds. Refugees and asylum seekers are part of this rich diversity, but we are equally driven to provide tremendous opportunities for entertainment, personal development and community cohesion for all.
And it’s not just a one-way street. The vibrancy and energy that Leeds gets from its culturally, socially and economically diverse population brings vitality to our stages and community projects, allowing us to tell incredible stories.
At a time when public services face cuts, the arts have not necessarily been a political priority. However we should remember the contribution that artists from Yorkshire have made in the lives of marginalised and underprivileged people.
People like the late Nadine Senior, the celebrated founder of Northern School of Contemporary Dance whose efforts to pioneer dance at Harehills Middle School led to the creation of this wonderful organisation, and later, Phoenix Dance Theatre, founded by three of her pupils.
People like Joe Murphy from Leeds and Joe Robertson from Hull who founded the Good Chance theatre in Calais for refugees. A member of Asmarina Voices recently told us that coming to West Yorkshire Playhouse and being part of the choir made her feel “like a real human being”.
As artists and organisations, it is vital that we support and give platforms to underrepresented voices. By doing so, we can connect the community as a whole and eliminate the forces that would otherwise divide us.
James Brining is Artistic Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse.