“There are wonderful pockets of compassion and resilience in this country coming from ordinary people”: Playwright Grace Chapman on Don’t Look Away and the importance of helping those seeking asylum
Co-artistic director of NOVAE theatre and Idle Motion and theatre manager at the Space, playwright and actor Grace Chapman was nominated for the Adopt a Playwright Award in 2018. Her short plays (2017/18) include Beneath The Weeds, The Barricade, It’s Not A Sprint and Fixture, and in 2016 her full-length piece The Acceptance Speech was longlisted for the Bread & Roses Playwriting Award.
Chapman’s current production Don’t Look Away, directed by Nicholas Pitt, is a powerful, moving and timely work about the plight of a young asylum seeker Adnan, his rescuer Cath, who provides him shelter, and her conflict with her son Jamie, who wants his room back. The writer’s own family has hosted migrants, which inspired this story, as did the case of Rob Lawrie, a former soldier arrested for concealing a child refugee in his van in Calais. The work was longlisted for the 2017 Papatango playwriting award.
Hello Grace, thanks for chatting with us. I’d like to ask you about your upcoming play. Don’t Look Away focuses on the power of the individual in helping refugees. Do you think we as citizens should each take more responsibility for the welfare of migrants in this country?
I think, in an ideal world, the government would take on a lot of that responsibility. However, what we’re finding is that our government’s response is far from adequate and this is creating a vacuum of support which ordinary people are rushing to fill, whether that’s by setting up small charities, providing hot meals or opening their homes. Of course, everyone’s capacity to be able to help is different but I certainly think we can all find more ways of reaching out to asylum seekers and refugees in this country to help them feel welcome.
Your family has provided shelter for asylum seekers so the topic of immigration is clearly personal for you. How has this experience affected your outlook on life?
Yes, it’s definitely had an impact on me. Before my family started hosting asylum seekers I really didn’t know anything about the UK’s asylum process. So meeting people going through this, and hearing how challenging and upsetting it can be, really opened my eyes to it. It was shocking, to be honest.
Has the UK government responded inadequately to the refugee crisis in your opinion?
Absolutely. From not responding quickly enough when the crisis began, to our failure to protect enough unaccompanied minors through the Dubs scheme, to the culture of mistrust that dictates how asylum seekers are treated. It’s all been grossly inadequate.
Is the characterisation of your protagonist – young migrant Adnan – based on people you’ve known?
He’s not based on one person in particular but instead grew from numerous conversations I was having with asylum seekers and the charities that support them, and my own experiences volunteering. I have been lucky to work with the Refugee Council, who very kindly read a number of drafts of the script to ensure that Adnan’s experience of claiming asylum in the UK was as truthful as possible.
Who or what inspired the creation of his initially reluctant host Cath?
The idea of the character of Cath initially came from my mum, who hosts asylum seekers in our family home, and my Aunty who volunteers with asylum seekers up in Bradford. But she’s really an embodiment of lots of the people I have met who volunteer with asylum seekers. She’s the heart and soul of the show, a deeply compassionate person who witnesses the “hostile environment” and decides to act.
Tell us about the process of writing Don’t Look Away. Has the composing and production of this piece affected you on an emotional level?
There were some difficult days writing it, for sure. I wanted to make certain I was being as authentic as possible with the story I was telling and that meant extensive research into the refugee crisis and the asylum process in the UK alongside speaking to people directly affected. But there was also a great deal of hope that I found in this research. There are some really wonderful pockets of compassion and resilience in this country coming from ordinary people and discovering that was just brilliant. So, yes, very up and down emotionally. That’s probably why it took me over two years to write!
How do you anticipate audiences will respond to this work? What are you hoping to impart? What is its primary message?
I hope it opens their eyes to the process of claiming asylum in the UK and the impact this has, not just on those seeking asylum but also ordinary people who witness this. The show poses the questions: how much more can – and should – we do? Where do we draw the line? How much are we willing to sacrifice of our own lives to help others? Should we be expected to? It doesn’t provide the answers but I’m hoping it will trigger some much-needed debate.
Can theatre change the world?
I don’t know about changing the world but I have seen some shows that have genuinely changed my life – or my outlook on life – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. That’s always a good start.
You recently performed in your one-woman show It’s Not a Sprint – about turning 30, having too many choices and running a marathon – at Vault Festival. 30 is definitely an age milestone involving tremendous pressure, especially for women. Do you think we’re too hard on ourselves?
Ha! You are speaking to the queen of being too harsh on herself! I don’t necessarily think the “inner critic” is just a female thing but I do think for women, it tends to shout a little louder.
Running a marathon is a healthy outlet for stress. Likewise, helping others – such as asylum seekers – is ethical, but also therapeutic. Do you believe that as a society it is not only right but beneficial for our well-being to focus more on altruism?
God yeah. Connecting with other people, people who are different from you, who have had different experiences is absolutely vital for well-being.
Is your first love writing or acting?
Writing. Writing. Definitely writing. If I don’t write, I get pretty miserable!
Are there moments in your work that have particularly stood out and affected you as a dramatist and performer?
I sometimes think back to one moment in 2009 when I asked my friends if I could perform in a show with them at the Edinburgh Fringe. We then went on to form a company together for almost ten years which in turn gave me space to start writing. It was a tiny moment, just a passing thought really and yet it has shaped my entire career.
Have you ever considered a vocation outside of theatre?
Once a month I google “how do I become a teacher?”…
What are your professional goals and dreams? Is there a director/actor with whom you have always wanted to collaborate?
As long as I keep finding opportunities to write and work with talented people then I’m happy (though a play on at the Royal Court wouldn’t be too shabby either).
Can you describe other interests that are important to you besides your career?
Running and knitting. Two of my greatest loves. I’ve yet to find a way to combine them.
Do you have plans for future projects you’d like to share?
I have a new show which at the moment is just a blank page staring at me – hopefully not for long!
Thanks again for your time, Grace.
Don’t Look Away is at the Pleasance Theatre from 7th until 18th May 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here. Don’t Look Away is also at Cornerstone Arts Centre in Oxon 16th-17th April and Harrogate Theatre 24th-26th April 2019.