Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tom Mansfield: Phone Home

By | Published on Tuesday 18 October 2016


When I heard about ‘Phone Home’ and what it sets out to accomplish, I was very intrigued and very keen to find out more. The show tackles an important theme – the refugee crisis – and it does so in an appropriately international manner: the show takes place in three different cities at the same time.
To find out more about ‘Phone Home’, and the creative forces behind it, I spoke to Upstart Theatre’s artistic director Tom Mansfield, co-director of the piece.

CM: Tell us about ‘Phone Home’ – what happens in the show? Is there a single narrative, or is it a collection of stories?
TM: ‘Phone Home’ is a unique theatre experience which happens simultaneously in London, Munich and Athens – one play across three stages, all of which are linked via video conference.

It’s a series of stories, all of which are about the idea of home in the light of the European refugee crisis. What does it mean to feel at home, what does it mean to be European, and what is it like to have to flee your home in order to make a new one? Once you’ve left home, how do you connect back with the place where you started, and how is that helped – or stopped – by the technology?

CM: Where does your material come from? Is it based on truth? Who created the script? Could it be regarded as verbatim?
TM: The material is based on truth. Some of it is autobiographical – using the experiences of the writers and performers – while others are based on conversations and interviews we’ve done during workshops with refugees and migrants in our three countries and others still are based on research and media reports. The script was created in a collaboration between the writers, directors and actors in all three cities.

I wouldn’t describe it as a verbatim show – although some elements are – but it’s one that’s absolutely based in truth.

CM: What kind of research and development did you do for this project, and how long did that take?
TM: We first started thinking about the project in October 2014 and we started R&D properly in spring 2015. We ran a series of workshops in all three cities, which were focused on getting to know people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. In London, we worked with Action for Refugees in Lewisham, Fairbeats Music and the Write to Life group at Freedom from Torture, all of which are amazing organisations with brilliant participants. We also spent a week at Birmingham Repertory Theatre working with a group of asylum seekers we met through the Journey MCC Church and Birmingham LGBT Centre. In spring 2016 we went to Munich and had a workshop with all the artists involved in the show; then we held another workshop in Athens at the beginning of September 2016 before coming back to London to start rehearsing our portion of the show!

CM:Why did you decide to create a production with these themes?
TM: The three directors – Yannis Kalavrianos, Michael Sommer, and myself – wanted to make a show about ‘home’. It’s one of the most fundamental ideas that human beings have – the need to call somewhere home. There are 65 million refugees in the world now, and since we started working on the project the European refugee crisis has intensified. Meanwhile the UK has voted to leave the EU and there’s a really profound examination that needs to take place about what being a citizen of this country means.

What we’ve learned through running workshops and talking to people who’ve come to the UK as refugees is something so obvious that you have to state it again and again so it doesn’t get forgotten: refugees are ordinary people, and anyone can become a refugee. And every single human being in the world deserves to have somewhere they can call home.

CM: So is it intentionally political? Do you think shows like this can raise awareness, or provoke change?
TM: ‘Phone Home’ is absolutely a political show, in the sense that it’s touching on issues that require political solutions. It’s a really tough question – in some ways, making art about the refugee crisis feels like it’s whistling into the wind – but I do think that the arts have a vital role to play in the conversation about political issues. The show isn’t part of a political campaign as such, but I think that by looking as honestly and as openly we can at both the human reality of what it is to flee your home, and what it is to see your home changed by inward migration, we can at least have a real conversation. I’m sick of seeing newspaper headlines about ‘swarms’ of migrants, for example, because that makes people less than human. Putting these issues on stage, where there’s a real living breathing person right there telling you a story, is an opportunity to re-humanise the refugee crisis.

CM: What made you want to make this an ‘international’ performance? Why did you decide to stage it simultaneously in different places?
TM: We’re talking about international issues, so it made sense to make an international performance! The clue’s kind of in the title: basically, we’re exploring international connections and the technology is at a point where it’s possible to put that on stage. Also, it’s an incredible adventure – to make it work requires some complex technical and dramatic challenges, and we were excited to see how we could overcome them!

CM: It must be pretty complex to bring a production like this together…? How have you approached it?
TM: Yep. Definitely! I could go on about this for hours – we’ve had to really re-boot all our assumptions about how you make a piece of theatre as in London, Munich and Athens we might mean different things by the same word! The biggest thing in our approach has been to work as collaboratively as possible – sharing script extracts, giving each other notes, sharing videos of what we’ve been doing in rehearsal, and above all spending heaps of time on video conferences. It’s a show about communication so it’s appropriate that we’ve been doing a lot of talking!

CM: Do you ever worry that things might go wrong, or that a connection might be lost (not that I want to jinx things, obv)?
We’ve tried to make a show that accepts that a dropped connection is not only possible, but likely – so there are all sorts of little extra scenes that we’ll go into if a connection goes down, for instance. It means that each show, each night, will be different – which is the point of theatre anyway!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Upstart Theatre – who runs it, and how did it all begin? What are your aims?
TM: Upstart is all about making theatre that deals with the biggest questions facing our society. It started as a student company that I set up with a mate at Birmingham University and since then it’s become, well, proper – a limited company and registered charity making international work. Which is incredibly exciting, but for me it’s a continuation of the kinds of thing we were trying to do in the beginning – make shows that are fun, energetic, exciting and proudly political. It’s now run by me, another brilliant director James Blakey, and our producer Emma Sampson.

CM: What are your plans for the show after the run in Shoreditch? Is it something that you see yourselves staging again at a later date?
TM: Good question! Putting this particular show together has been very complex and arranging the schedules of all three companies to do it again could be quite tricky. But we’re really interested in this kind of interconnected performance and are already starting to discuss some future projects with our partners in Germany. So even if it’s not ‘Phone Home’, you might well see something similar from us soon!

CM: What’s next for the company?
TM: We’re planning the second instalment of DARE, our festival of new theatre, with Shoreditch Town Hall for next spring, and we’re talking about a couple of other projects. One of the DARE 2016 shows is hopefully going to be out on tour next year, and we’re looking at maybe doing an adaptation of a classic novel, which would be a bit of a departure for us. We’re also planning an international project with partners in Germany and Macedonia….so keep an eye on our website or our twitter feed!

Phone Home is on at Shoreditch Town Hall from 21-30 Oct, for more info and to book see this page here for previews, and this page here for all the other dates.

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