As I sat down to write this feature on New Year’s Eve the lead item on the 3pm news was that a small child was among the migrant families who had landed a small boat on our shores earlier that morning.
Phrases such as crossing crisis, migrant meltdown and call in the Navy were being bandied about in the national press, despite the fact that we were talking about just a couple of hundred people trying to find asylum in two months.
For me it became even more poignant that my subject was Phosphoros Theatre – a company that validates refugee stories with authentic drama from the lived-reality of its cast of migrant actors.
It was a desire to offer a counter narrative to the usual portrayal of refugees as either victims or criminals that led to the creation of the company by Derbyshire playwright Dawn Harrison and her daughter Kate Duffy in 2015.
“At the time Kate was a refugee case worker working at a supported house for unaccompanied minors in London.
“One of the residents said he had a big story to tell and (not knowing she had a background in theatre) asked Kate if she would help him,” said Dawn, a scriptwriter on some of our most popular TV shows including Emmerdale.
“She assembled a creative team and we started meeting for weekly drama sessions in the living room of the supported house. These went well and it was clear all of the young men had a lot they wanted to say.
“We applied for Arts Council funding to create Dear Home Office and Phosphoros Theatre was born.”
Back then the actors were a core group of eight young men – some who had arrived in the UK just weeks before.
“They came to stay at our home here in Kniveton and we had several intensive rehearsals in the village hall before we premiered at the Southbank in Refugee Week in 2016.”
The play went to the Edinburgh Fringe where it was shortlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award.
It was the summer when the ‘refugee crisis’ was all over the news which meant that project became very high profile and the lives of the young men, many who had never even been to a theatre let alone acted, were transformed as they appeared on television, and gave interviews on radio and to the press.
Their new play Pizza Shop Heroes will be performed at Derby Theatre on February 2 and, again, Phosphoros aims to overturn perceptions of refugees as victims.
From the precinct of a fictional pizza shop the four actors Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi, embark on a journey across time and continents to explore how they got here, where they’re going and what they’ve learned along the way.
They all made their journeys as children. One was detained in Libya, another in Greece, and three spent time in the Calais Jungle.
The play was first performed at Camden in London in November and ahead of the opening night Tewodros told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “Every refugee has a reason to leave their own country – no one would be here if their country was safe.
“Some people have a negative attitude. They have to know how hard the journey was. If they knew that, they would at least treat refugees in a nice way.”
In Greek, Phosphoros means the bearer of light, which is why this theatre group chose the word as its name.
“Our tagline is ‘bringing the unseen to light’ and our mission is to make revealing, authentic, resistant theatre from the lived realities of our Phosphoros family and put it in front of as many audiences as funding will allow,” said Dawn.
Tickets for three shows at the theatre sold so fast there may be none left, but go to http://www.derbytheatre.co.uk to check for availability and cancellations.