by Tom Mansfield
The British Council boardroom is a pretty exciting place to be. High up in the organisation’s central London offices, the view from the massive windows takes in Admiralty Arch, Whitehall and looking across the Thames to the London Eye beyond. It looks like the set from a James Bond movie – especially to me, since I’d been to see Spectre the night before. Although those of us weren’t exactly international superspies, at least as far as I know, I certainly felt like part of a movement with wide international links, even if I’m more Q Department than 00 Section.
I was there for a meeting organised by the Creative Europe Desk UK, the organisation that looks after British applicants and beneficiaries for the Creative Europe programme, which is co-funding Phone Home. Before I arrived, I’d imagined that it would be a nuts-and-bolts meeting about the rigorous financial and logistical challenges of our projects and of the EACEA’s funding programme. And although we did talk about this (which was helpful in pointing us in the right direction), the majority of the meeting was much more interesting!
We talked a lot about marketing our projects in particular, and advocacy for the EU’s creative funding in general. What this comes down to, I think, is the question of what’s valuable about working with European partners – which in turn means we have to ask ourselves some even more fundamental questions, which themselves feel like they’re at the heart of Phone Home. What is it to be a European artist, as opposed to British, German, Greek? What is it to be European at all? How different are ‘Europeans’ to ‘Non-Europeans’, and what defines us as either? Several of the Phone Home UK team weren’t born here in the UK, but they’ve lived here for the bulk of their lives. They might not be British citizens, but are they – at least to some extent – ‘British artists’? Who gets to define what makes you British, and who’s allowed into Britain?
As we think about migration, both in the forced exodus of refugees from the likes of Syria and Eritrea, and in what commonly gets referred to pejoratively as ‘economic migration’, that last question becomes more and more paramount. My country made a choice to admit 20,000 Syrian refugees over a five-year period, while Germany welcomed hundreds of thousands in a few weeks. Our different experiences as countries, our contrasting geographies, histories and politics, cause leaders and governments to react very differently to the challenges of mass migration, despite our own national responsibility for the conflicts many are fleeing.
Civil society here in the UK, though, does seem to be doing its best to help, through organisations like CalAid as well as donations to the bigger charities. Especially since those horrible photographs of Alan Kurdi were published, there’s been an outpouring of public sympathy here for refugees, yet the problem still seems very far away to many people, and that sympathy seems unlikely to translate into change on a policy level. The historian Robert Winder wrote recently that ‘there is nothing so likely to make a British audience melt as an individual plight, and nothing so likely to harden its heart as the translation of individual pleas into collective demands’. That’s even truer of our politicians.
My feeling today is that while we as artists don’t get to decide who gets allowed into the country, we can help to influence this as citizens – an interplay which is inevitably, and rightly, going to keep on informing our artistic work. But as artists what we can certainly do is advocate for, and embody, the reasons for collaboration across borders. We have to show through the work we do with our colleagues in Greece and Germany that ideas and artistry can transcend narrow national and cultural boundaries. Through the work that we’re all doing with people who’ve arrived from elsewhere in the world, we can share understandings and, through that, find a new method of making theatre.
It feels like we’re living in a world in which the barriers are going up; where leaders are increasingly appealing to a narrow national-cultural identity. Phone Home and projects like it demonstrate the opposite – that by working across national and cultural boundaries we can create work that celebrates our uniqueness as British, German and Greek theatremakers, and at the same time brings us together across those boundaries. Walt Whitman put it well in Song of Myself:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
We’ll tell our own stories, alongside others telling their stories. And all be richer for it.
Tom Mansfield is the Artistic Director of Upstart Theatre