Caro Meets Children's Show Interview

Sue Buckmaster: Journey Of A Refugee

By | Published on Friday 26 January 2024

Acclaimed experimental children’s theatre producer Theatre-Rites heads to South London’s Stanley Arts this week with ‘Journey Of A Refugee’. It’s an immersive show based on the real life stories of refugees in the UK, including the experiences of some of the play’s cast members. 

To find out more about the production and the company behind it, I spoke to Sue Buckmaster, director of the show and Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘Journey Of A Refugee’ – what is the concept and narrative?
SB: This is Theatre-Rites’ third production responding to the experience asylum seekers have when arriving somewhere they wish to call their home. The original version, ‘The Welcoming Party’, was created in 2017 for the Manchester International Festival and this new version is part of This Is Croydon 2024, London Borough of Culture.

In ‘Journey Of A Refugee’, one of the original ‘The Welcoming Party’ cast members, Mohamed Sarrar, a professional musician and performer and refugee from Sudan, will return to the production working alongside Croydon-based professional performer and refugee from Ethiopia Adi Detemo. Though the play is inspired by Mohamed and Adi’s stories, they will be changing their names because they wanted to incorporate stories from other refugees who have made similar journeys.

The audience is encouraged to be part of a local welcoming party in Croydon for those seeking asylum. In the show no refugees turn up. What grows out of this is the re-telling of Mohamed’s difficult journey and his challenging experience of the UK system.

He explains that eight years ago it was already so hard for him and others to make the journey, and how today the hurdles placed on those seeking permission to come to the UK are restricting arrivals and forcing even more young people to risk their lives to come to find safety.

The audience are given a chance to hear and reflect on the lives of those who are seeking to remain in the UK and make it their home.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
SB: Family, friendship, identity and feeling ‘at home’. It is a humble attempt to humanise experiences and people that are so often dehumanised, particularly in current times.

CM: Can you explain a bit about the way the play is staged? In what ways is it immersive? What style of performance can we expect?
SB: Theatre-Rites is known for its visual storytelling and for creating site-specific, immersive experiences that carefully guide audiences through worlds of installations.

In ‘Journey Of A Refugee’, the audience will travel through different spaces in Stanley Arts, which have been transformed by our incredible design team and – through a mix of magic realism, visual storytelling, dance, puppetry and music – they will experience key moments of Mohamed’s journey from Sudan to the UK and his submergence in the UK ‘system’.

The use of puppets, objects and movement can be useful tools when wanting to create magic realism, they provide poetic metaphors rather than confrontational dialogue. They also allow visual elaborations which are open to projection and interpretation from an audience regardless of their age and in respect of their own experience, or lack of it.

Towards the end of the piece the audience becomes immersed in an interactive part of the show which sees them placed in the centre of a rather surreal interpretation of the bureaucracy of the ‘system’.

CM: This topic seems to me to be unavoidably political – would you agree? Does the show have a political message?
SB: I’d argue that all art is political. This show is for young people as well as adults and it therefore needs to be gentle with its politics, inspired by human resourcefulness and magical in its telling. We learn through play rather than didactic teaching or ranting.

This show is a playful visit to the trickier aspects of our lives. It enables children to practice having emotional and political responses to subjects that will continue to impact their lives.

CM: Who is the show aimed at and who is it suitable for?
SB: It’s aimed at everyone over the age of eight. With over 27 years experience of creating theatre for children, we understand how sophisticated an audience they are and how able they are to deal with complex issues.

I believe it is also important to offer hope to all our audience, not just the young members.

We have collaborated with Croydon-based Agudo Dance Company, who have run movement workshops in numerous schools, youth centres and refugee groups. Those workshops – run by Jose Agudo, Francesca Matthys and Claire Cunningham – reminded me of how inspiring young people are and how hungry they are for artistic experiences.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creative team?
SB: Our fantastic cast of four includes the aforementioned Mohamed Sarrar, a brilliant musician and performer from Sudan who we first worked with in 2017 on ‘The Welcoming Party’.

He is joined by the extremely talented dancers Kassichana Okene-Jameson and Vivian Triantafyllopoulou, who each bring a beautiful presence to the production. Our fourth cast member is the up-and-coming talented dancer Adi Detemo from Ethiopia, now based in Croydon.

It is fantastic to be working again with the incredible composer and sound designer Frank Moon, the wonderful installation designer Simon Daw, and the evocative lighting designer Mark Doubleday.

This team created ‘The Welcoming Party’ in 2017, and in 2024 I am also joined by choreographer Jose Agudo, who is both assistant director and movement director. As always it takes a village, and these names are only a drop in the ocean.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Theatre-Rites and the work it does?
SB: In 1996 Theatre-Rites created its first production ‘Houseworks’, which was a site-specific experience for the under-fives. It was a seminal moment for me as an artist and in the history of children’s theatre.

We are an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation and have created over 30 stage productions and site-specific experiences in the UK and internationally.

As well as directing, my area of expertise is puppetry and object-led theatre, and all Theatre-Rites work celebrates the power of visuals, puppetry and animation.

We believe children should be offered theatrical experiences that are challenging and inspirational and we work hard to create theatre with the same high quality production values and integrity of content as the best adult theatre.

CM: Can you tell us about yourself, now? How did you come to be working in the arts?
SB: I am the fifth generation of theatre practitioners in my family. My father was a puppeteer, my mother a musical performer, and before that, music hall entertainers. So I grew up surrounded by theatre and then trained at Middlesex and Essex University in drama.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
SB: Setting up Theatre-Rites 27 years ago and being able to make site-specific shows and dance performances, and present my work in Japan, Germany, Vienna and New York, amongst others.

Twenty-five years ago I had a career opportunity to collaborate with Theatre Complicite and through this I met Juliet Stevenson.

CM: What aims or ambitions do you have for the future?
SB: I wish to continue making, supporting, encouraging and protecting the creation of high-quality performance for children and those who care for them.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SB: I’ve had an incredibly busy twelve months. For Theatre-Rites I directed three productions in succession: ‘Zoe’s Peculiar Journey Through Time’, which toured throughout the UK last year; ‘Something In The Air’ for Schauspielhaus Bochum, Germany, which will be in repertoire at the Schauspielhaus over the next few years; and lastly ‘Journey Of A Refugee’.

Now is a moment for the company to reflect on the work we have created and to start planting seeds and developing new projects. 

In May this year I will spend a week with the brilliant South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and a selection of performers developing ideas for a new project. Theatre-Rites collaborated with Gregory in 2021 for a Manchester International Festival production, ‘The Global Playground’, and I cannot wait to be back in the rehearsal room with him.

I am the director of ‘Chotto Desh’ for the Akram Khan Company, and I will continue to support the production as it tours internationally. I also have a lot of consultancy work as a dramaturg and puppetry specialist in the pipeline. But immediately after this, I go on holiday.

‘Journey Of A Refugee’ is on at Stanley Arts from 3-18 Feb. See the venue website here for more information and to book.  

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