Caro Meets Dance & Physical Interview Theatre Interview

Lara Parmiani: Ali In Wonder(Eng)land

By | Published on Friday 30 June 2023

Coming up at Jacksons Lane next week is the staging of ‘Ali In Wonder(Eng)land’, created by London-based theatre company LegalAliens.

It’s an intriguing piece that promises to be physical and funny while addressing important points. 

The play was put together by migrants and refugees, and – as you might already have guessed – it uses the story of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ as a starting point for the story they want to tell. 

To find out more about it, I spoke to Lara Parmiani, Artistic Director of LegalAliens, and director of the show. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what ‘Ali In Wonder(Eng)land’ is about? What story does it tell? 
LP: Using ‘Alice In Wonderland’ as a frame, the show follows Ali – played in turn by several performers – as they decide to leave home and follow a strange shiny Rabbit who keeps talking about an amazing foreign land.

But when they arrive in this country, Ali is faced with hostile people, absurd questions, random tests and a body that grows bigger and smaller for no reason. From time to time the main narrative is interrupted by short monologues where performers talk as themselves directly to audience.   

CM: What themes does the play explore?
LP: It’s clearly a metaphor for migration, how foreigners arriving in the UK feel and the randomness of immigration systems. But in a satirical, absurdist and OTT style.

Our participants – all migrants, refugees or asylum seekers – were adamant they didn’t want to stage stories of victimhood and trauma. We see so much of it in the media and, the truth is, those who are prejudiced against them have become desensitised, and those who care are just depressed and angry.

By actually showing how ridiculous some rules and attitudes are, we hope to subvert things a bit.

CM: Does it have a message? Would you say it is political? 
LP: The message is that we are all human beings and we were born in a certain country completely out of luck. Therefore we should all recognise the humanity in each other.

Every time the actor playing Ali changes, there is what we call a ‘mirroring scene’ where the old Ali discovers themselves in the new Ali, and that is the core of our message: if we take the time to get to know each other and to see the humanity in the person in front of us, we stop labelling people – foreigners, British, migrants, illegals, or whatever the label of the day is – and just start seeing each person for the individual they are. 

And yes, despite being a funny fairytale with a lot of grotesque and ridiculous moments, I do think ‘Ali’ is also a piece of political theatre.

CM: Can you tell us about the process of creating the play – who was involved and how did the creative process work?
LP: It’s a piece of devised theatre that weaves together materials that performers have created over a year and a half of weekly sessions.

The performers are attendees at LegalAliens’ free classes for migrants and refugees. This project is very much about empowering participants and giving them the space, time and freedom to choose which themes they want to talk about and how. 

The idea of using ‘Alice In Wonderland’ as a metaphor came organically from the participants – and they wanted to make it funny too.

My role as dramaturg and director, and my colleagues’ roles as facilitators, is to teach them the techniques and tools to transform the material they devise into powerful performances and create a coherent dramaturgy. 

Our style as a company is very physical theatre based and visual. We never start from a text. If English is not your native language, if the first thing you are given is a text, you tend to get stuck there, imprisoned by words and possibly terrified by them.

But if you start from the body, from improvisations, from telling a story, whatever the story is, then the words become organically part of what you’ve been creating. 

CM: What was the inspiration for the project? What made you want to create this?
LP: We have been running free theatre classes for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers for four years at The Engine Room in Tottenham Hale.

The group is completely mixed. We have people from all over the world, of any age, with different levels of English, and different immigration status. Every year we present a public performance. 

About eighteen months ago, we started improvising sketches inspired by the ‘Life In The UK’ test. Some of the questions are completely ridiculous.

At some point, someone in the class said that sometimes, in the UK, they feel lost like Alice in Wonderland. So I decided to read the book again. And discovered it’s an incredibly dark tale that has nothing to do with its Disney version. 

There are poems, for instance – referring in the original to naughty children – that mention throwing them back to sea because there is France on the other side.

So we took some of those poems and some of the most absurdist scenes from the book, like the trial, and swapped the Victorian treatment of naughty children with the government treatment of migrants… the fact that we hardly had to change any words is quite emblematic.

We mixed them with the sketches inspired by life in the UK and other materials that had been generated, and little by little the show was born. Some of our participants are also very talented musicians, so we have live music as well.

CM: Can you tell us about LegalAliens Theatre and its aims and ethos? 
LP: LegalAliens is a professional theatre company based in Haringey made up of artists who are all migrants in the UK.

At the core of our vision is a theatre that includes migrants as artists, creatives, participants and audiences. We’re interested in the complex intersection between migrant and international. As well as our professional productions, we also put on the weekly classes we spoke about earlier. 

Since 2012 we have been relentless in our effort to give voice to underrepresented communities and shed light on often ignored stories and events in order to change people’s perceptions.

We put migrant bodies on stage, speaking with foreign accents, often using multilingualism to bring further authenticity. 

To date we have produced original translations of plays with strong socio-political themes, devised productions and a podcast, ‘Things I Am Not’. We are also the initiators and co-founders of Migrants In Theatre London and have been awarded Theatre Of Sanctuary status for our work. 

CM: Can you tell us about yourself, now? Did you always want a career in the arts? What steps did you take to begin it?
LP: I consider myself a migrant, and an artist of Mediterranean and Jewish descent. I was born in a very industrial suburb of Milan, quite grey, not particularly attractive, very cold in winter and sticky and unpleasant in summer. Not the kind of Italy people have in mind. But it’s a place with an incredible sense of community. 

I left Italy fundamentally because of its misogynistic culture. I wanted to be an actor, and being 5’1” and flat chested, nobody was interested in me. This was the late 90s, the height of the Berlusconi era.

So I migrated to the UK, without thinking about it too much: I came to do a short course and decided to stay. 

I didn’t know a soul. I felt very isolated, but also very free and I think this is quite typical of the migrant experience.

On one hand, you are far from everything you know and people around you never fail to point out how different you are; on the other hand, you are free to reinvent yourself from scratch.

I’ve always been interested in the arts: I write, I act, I direct, and I’m also an award-winning voiceover artist. But since an early age theatre was my greatest love. I’m profoundly convinced that values and ideals are central to building better societies, and theatre – with its intimate sharing of humanity in a live performance – is a unique medium. 

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life so far? 
LP: I never quite know how to answer this. Having been able to be a full-time artist, without being forced to take on a part-time job on the side, is quite an achievement!

Of course you have to sacrifice the idea of having normal working hours or a steady income or a career with a clear progression. For instance, despite being in theatre for 20 years, I still fall under the label ’emerging artist’, which is funny since most real emerging artists could biologically be my kids.

I am certainly proud of what I have created with LegalAliens, and I hope that I will be allowed to develop the company into the ensemble that I have in mind.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
LP: On a practical level, I would like enough regular funding to build an infrastructure for the company to grow into a more established entity that could continue to play a role in the community while also developing national and international relationships.

Personally, I would like to leave the fringe and small scale behind and make theatre – whether as a performer or director – in bigger spaces that allow an artist’s creativity to be expressed to the fullest.

I would really like more people to be able to see what we do at LegalAliens, the voice, style and methodology we have developed. I would love to start co-productions with venues and develop partnerships nationally and internationally.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
LP: Our free classes for migrants and refugees will resume in September, and I am sure we will be welcoming new participants.

I am planning to tour my solo show ‘Shapeshifting’, about my experience as a migrant woman, to Prague in November, and I really hope to be able to perform it in London as well.

And I am incredibly excited to start working on a new R&D, inspired by Aidan Hehir’s book ‘The Flowers Of Srebrenica’. 

‘Ali In Wonder(Eng)land’ is on at Jacksons Lane from 10-11 Jul. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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