“Rather than trying to break or warm hearts we are using theatre as resistance”: An interview with Phosphoros Theatre on Pizza Shop Heroes
Challenging preconceived ideas about refugees and breaking the dominant mainstream narrative, Phosphoros Theatre will be performing their daring new play Pizza Shop Heroes at Camden People’s Theatre this November. Consisting of artistic directors Dawn Harrison, Kate Scarlett Duffy and Juliet Styles, as well as migrant actors from across the world, the theatre company – which was shortlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award in 2016 – brings fresh and new ideas to the stage. In their latest production they are hoping to go against the grain and bring the reality of lived refugee experiences to UK audiences – shattering the usual portrayal of refugees as either victims or criminals.
We caught up with cast members Syed Haleem Najib and Goitom Fesshaye, and Dawn Harrison, Pavlos Christodoulou and Kate Scarlett Duffy from the show’s creative team to talk about Pizza Shop Heroes, the impact of the play on other refugees and the importance of the stories Phosphoros Theatre tell on stage.
Thank you for your time. To start us off, what is Pizza Shop Heroes about?
Dawn Harrison: Pizza Shop Heroes is set in a pizza shop, but it’s not really about that at all! It’s a shared workplace construct from which our four Lived Experience actors explore their pasts, presents and futures, both good and bad. From the long journeys to get to the UK in boats and lorries, to conversations with absent mothers, to imagining the fathers they’ll be when they’ve got teenage sons of their own. It goes back to where we started three years ago, with our actors Syed, Tewodros, Goitom and Emirjon essentially being themselves on stage and gaining more control over how they are represented.
Thinking of the creative process, what inspired you to put together the production?
DH: The play grew from five days of R&D with the actors, an immigration solicitor and a refugee policy expert. We talked about our company mission of “bringing the unseen to light” and what this means in terms of the stories we have told, and the stories we would like to tell. We are also interested in the particular meaning of “story” for refugees and asylum seekers who have to tell theirs repeatedly in institutional settings (courts, social services, the Home Office) so this play is a conscious attempt to reclaim what we see as systematic and structural silencing.
Were there any significant hurdles you had to overcome in the process?
DH: Timekeeping is still a challenge! In this play there are a smaller number of actors than our last shows, so no-one can hide! There’re lots more lines to learn, and we’ve had a movement director working with us too, which is a new discipline. Then of course there are the behind-the-scenes daily challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers; our actors navigate a complex web of asylum appeals, risk of destitution, bad news from home countries. All these worries come in and out of the rehearsal room but we’re all really close so support each other when needed.
What impact will Pizza Shop Heroes have on other refugees?
DH: There aren’t many theatre companies at all who perform on mainstream stages with a cast of refugee actors. We have had so many refugees and asylum-seekers from all over the UK come to see our previous work and the most common response is “Wow. This was me. You told my story”. We recognise, validate and represent refugee stories – particularly those of Unaccompanied Minors – in a way that is accessible, funny and nuanced! We know that there are so many reasons why people from the refugee community don’t want to share their stories (and why should they?). For our company, theatre is our form of resistance against the UK’s hostile environment. We hope that refugee audiences will see our show and think: “These guys went through what I did, and now they’re speaking up about it”.
How and where did you guys meet in the first place?
DH: Phosphoros started in a supported housing project in Harrow, which my daughter Kate was managing at the time for a refugee charity. One of the residents said he wanted to tell his story – not knowing that Kate had a theatre background – so after a series of Friday night drama sessions in the house front room, we got Arts Council funding to make a play and the company was born. Tewodros and Syed joined later, and now help Kate lead our outreach work nationally.
Since we’re talking pizza: what’s your favourite pizza topping?
DH: Margherita, keep it simple.
Syed Haleem Najibi: Hard one. The traditional Italian flavour of Tandoori chicken.
A question for the actors: what was it like standing on the stage for the first time without any formal training?
Goitom Fesshaye: Standing on the stage for the first time was scary. I was sweaty and nervous, and my skin-hair was standing up because I didn’t know who was speaking first or second, I couldn’t remember my cues. But after we’d done it once I felt happier. And now we know loads more about how to act and perform and tell our stories.
A question for Dawn and Pavlos: what is it like working with non-professional actors?
Pavlos Christodoulou: Professional actor is a more fluid idea than we make it out to be. There are so many amazing artists who have been incredibly successful despite no formal training. There are some great things that come from working with this group. Their priority (as is ours) is to tell their story, and the performative aspect only serves that. As a result, a lot of the ego and fear of failure that comes with working in more commercial contexts is not present. We are all working together for the stories and making sure we do the best job we can to tell them.
What did it mean to you being shortlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award 2016?
DH: That came in the middle of a totally surreal Edinburgh week. It was in 2016 when interest in the “refugee crisis” was at its peak, so every day we had interviews with TV and radio and had audiences waiting to talk to us afterwards. It was great that Amnesty singled out an applied theatre company for such an honour.
What “central message” are you trying to convey to your audience, both with Pizza Shop Heroes and Phosphoros in general?
DH/Kate Scarlett Duffy: We want to offer a counter narrative to the dominant stereotypes abundant in British media and politics where refugees are framed as either victims or criminals. Our narrative is led by experts of their own experience. Our actors speak directly to our audience when they say “We are not here to make your conscience feel better. We don’t need you to feel sorry for us”. Rather than trying to break or warm hearts we are using theatre as resistance.
What’s next on the agenda after Pizza Shop Heroes?
DH: We have a UK tour of Pizza Shop Heroes pencilled in, depending on funding, and if we can go back to Edinburgh this summer it would be great. After that we would really like to grow the company in different ways, as we have a lot of requests from social workers and refugee practitioners to include other young people, so there is definite scope for a Youth Theatre or open access arm; as well as developing the workshops and staff training we currently offer to schools, local authorities and refugee organisations.
Brilliant, thanks a lot all of you!
Photo: The cast of Pizza Shop Heroes –
Syed Haleem Najibi, Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye and Emirjon Hoxhaj
Pizza Shop Heroes is at Camden People’s Theatre as part of the No Direction Home Festival from 9th until 11th November 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
For further information about Phosphoros Theatre visit the website here.