Pulse Festival: Telling Other People's Stories

Analogue's Hannah Barker

After a long history of invaluable support from the New Wolsey, we are very excited to be back on Ipswich soil and part of the wonderful Pulse programme. And it feels all the more exciting to be bringing a work-in-progress that enjoyed some vital, early development with the theatre's Young Company as part of the Big Ideas series back in 2012.

If you haven't heard of Big Ideas, you should. A week to devise and perform a show to the public, it's a great way for a bunch of talented young performers to get a sense of working with a professional theatre company, and allows the theatre company to explore some early ideas for a show.

We gained hugely from that week and learnt so much about what the show might look and feel like, but it was one audience member's reaction to the stimulus we brought that has arguably had the biggest impact on the show we are scratching at this year's Pulse Festival.

A few years before we did Big Ideas, we came across a tragic real-life story. It was about a young man from Pakistan who climbed into the wheel arch of a plane from the Middle East bound for the UK. As the plane began its descent into Heathrow, the man's frozen body was tipped out into the morning sky, falling into the car park of a DIY superstore in a wealthy suburb of London. It became clear that this was not an isolated incident. There were many stories about desperate journeys from India, Africa, South and Central America. Some were stories about escape, others were about running toward something seemingly better. All of them involved incredibly risky journeys.

These stories made a deep impression but we told ourselves these were not our stories to tell. How could we, as white middle class British citizens, possibly begin to understand and accurately portray a story so deeply removed from our own experiences?

But it stayed with us and so when we were invited to do Big Ideas, we decided to use it to explore whether this was something we could do. After the show, an audience member got in touch. He was concerned that by asking white middle class UK young people to express the desperation of the third world refugee, it trivialised the person who died trying to make a better life. He felt it was not real and they have a different story to tell.

I think it is fair to say he had summed up some of our own fears in his reaction. However, what was interesting was in the same message, he acknowledged that he had liked our previous work - work inspired by often extreme true life stories, which bore no resemblance to our own. But despite that, these shows did not attract the same scrutiny as the one we had brought to Big Ideas. Were they judged to remain within our remit of understanding because no matter how extreme their particular experience was, the protagonist was from the West?

By asking this particular group of people to accurately express the desperation of someone from a world so different from their own is perhaps asking for the impossible. But what does it mean to not tell this story because it belongs to someone else removed from the lives we lead? And what is it about this particular story that feels so uncomfortable for us to tell? Could we only do it justice if refugees were telling it, even if it wasn't their story they were telling?

It has been almost two years since we received that feedback. Our research has taken us back in time to the British Empire, across continents to artists in India, between disciplines from dance to writing, and into meetings with migrants, asylum seekers and refugee organisations. And through all of that, those comments have acted as our driving question: How can we tell a story of this kind that does not belong to us?

PULSE Festival 2014 runs at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich from Thursday 29 May to Saturday 7 June 2014. For information and tickets visit www.pulseipswich.co.uk

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