Mark Maughan - 'Directing The Claim has been a tough but enriching process'
Whenever we’re asked about the making process of The Claim, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when it all truly began: was it when I tentatively met Tim Cowbury (the writer of the play) after an excellent performance of Gym Party at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 by Made In China, the company Tim is co-founder of; was it the animated conversation we had at the end of the first week spent together in a rehearsal room exploring ideas, both in complete agreement that this piece had to be specifically about the Home Office’s asylum system; or was it the silent tube ride back into central London from the Hatton Cross Immigration Tribunal Courts – where we had observed asylum seekers have their cases crushed before their very eyes, often watching via Skype from a detention centre – both of us dumbfounded and yet entirely convinced that this piece needed to be made as soon as we possibly could?
Just as Serge, the asylum seeker character in The Claim, is asked to try and ‘begin at the beginning’, I will try and do the same.
For me, the day the project truly began was after we shared some early material with a room made up of other theatre people. Amongst the feedback from that audience that I’ll always remember as happening on the same day Theresa May was appointed PM, someone commented that there were no asylum seekers or refugees in the audience. And neither of us had a good enough response as to why that was the case.
We’d already worked with brilliant organisations like The Refugee Council, Detention Action and Counterpoints Arts to meet asylum seekers and refugees, who told us their stories of how and why they came to the UK. People shared personal details and we came to understand that an asylum claim is never as simple as perhaps we’d like it to be: it’s messy, sprawling, hard to keep track of… just as any life is, despite our best attempts to package it up neatly for someone else to try and understand.
The Claim focuses on the system that clicks into action once someone is on UK soil, so we had also asked people about their experiences of the interview process. The stories we heard were equally as harrowing. Tim read reams of incomprehensible letters from the Home Office detailing how they had reached equally incomprehensible decisions: one man, for example, living in the UK discreetly as a bisexual being told that there was no danger in him returning back to his country of origin – where the LGBTQ+ community is openly persecuted – since he had not provided evidence to suggest he would ‘suddenly start to live an open lifestyle with regards sexuality’ if he were deported.
But despite this level of insight, the comment made by another artist that day after sharing some early material stuck. We’d met people whose stories and experience had influenced the piece we were making, but we realised that those same people had to be as present at this stage of the making process as they had been previously, especially for a piece that looks at the experiences of the people on both sides of the interview table. And that is what initiated a secondary, more in-depth research and development period.
One of the key figures that supported us at this crucial moment was Professor Alison Phipps (GRAMNet Coordinator and UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts). Alison become something of a mentor, sharing many nuggets of wisdom with us, including the ethos of Australian migrant organisation RISE: ‘nothing about us without us’, that informed the process from that moment forwards.
The asylum seekers and refugees who joined us in the room for the second stage of our process were from a range of backgrounds and experiences. Over time we had built up relationships with other organisations like Right To Remain, Ice and Fire and Freedom From Torture, who encouraged the people they work with to take part in our project. We asked big questions of the piece, like: What is it talking about? Who should be in it? Who is it for? How do we reach those people? The process not only allowed Tim to share, question, tweak and develop the script with those who have direct experience of the asylum system, it also started the process of designing the other activities that accompany our performance on tour today. These include post show discussions, inform themselves via legal advice workshops, listen to our sound installation in theatre foyers to name but three activities.
I cannot speak on behalf of all those who contributed to the process, but we found the research process enriching, informative, productive and fun, despite the subject matter. It was often tough too, but I wouldn’t expect anything less.
We hope that everyone who joined us felt like they were the advocates of their own experience whilst in the room, that their opinions were heard, and that they can join us again to see what we’ve made.
We’re also constantly grateful to the brilliant team who are making The Claim happen right now across the country. They are working as part of a wider circle of people who have supported us in the past and whose voices I hope the project still carries with it.
- by Mark Maughan, director of The Claim
The Claim is on a UK tour, and visits Shoreditch Town Hall from 16th to 26th January.
Top image courtesy Richard Davenport