The Belfry debuts ‘Being Here: The Refugee Project,’ a fusion of journalism and theatre

Photo Credit: The Belfry Theatre official website
Photo Credit: The Belfry Theatre official website
Sarah Suleman - CFUV - VictoriaBC | 15-03-2021

The Belfry Theatre will debut its newest production “Being Here: The Refugee Project” tomorrow.

Created by Joel Bernbaum and directed by Michael Shamata, “Being Here: The Refugee Project” centers around the lives of a diverse array of refugees and their sponsors. The production, which runs March 16-21, will stream online due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The play was created through a form of theatre called "Documentary" (or verbatim) theatre which builds dialogue from the transcripts of interviews that Bernbaum conducted with refugees and their sponsors across Canada. Bernbaum said that while the entirety of the transcripts are not used, this fusion of journalism and theatre allows complex topics to be approached in ways previously unattainable.

“I do believe verbatim theatre is a type of journalism and you can do more than the traditional media, because even long form print, for example, has certain limitation, a time limitation and a word limitation. Whereas we have the luxury, much like a documentary, where you can allow people's stories to breathe a little longer. And, I think that's what gives us, I hope, that's what gives us the latitude to not fall into traditional tropes about people and their very human stories,” said Bernbaum.

The identities of the people interviewed are kept anonymous and given pseudonyms in the play. Bernbaum said that the anonymity adds an extra layer to the audience experience.

“Truly, the diversity of people reflects the makeup of our country right now. And I think there's some value not only to protecting people's stories, but to showing this really we to be hearing from the stage from our, our neighbours, and we don't even know it,” said Bernbaum.

The actors approach

In regards to transforming the interviews into a production, Bernbaum further steered away from imitation by allowing the actors to discover the people behind the transcripts themselves.

Monice Peter, one of the actors in the production, speaks to the way she approached the transcripts. Peter explains that to discover the people interviewed, she researched the political conflicts that drove people to immigrate.

“I did some, me personally, did some general knowledge of what's going on in Syria? What's happening in Palestine? What's going on in Ghana? Even because some of these people are coming through the state," Peter said.

"So at the time, what was happening with refugees, either coming from the States into Canada, or however that process went. Having to look up to what was the political state like in the US at that time? so just doing some general and specific research about that," she added.

Peter further elaborated that the research she conducted was rewarding, not only to her understanding her role, but because of her personal family history.

“I, myself, am a child of immigrants. So it's interesting. Again, I guess most of us are here in Canada are children of immigrants. But it's a different story when you're a refugee, and you're either escaping because of fear, or any kind of persecution that you may face. That's a different type of lens to look through. So I find it very rewarding. Not just my characters, but all the characters,” said Peter.

'Home is a beautiful word'

“Being Here: The Refugee Project” is not the first production put on by the Belfry that has utilized Documentary Theatre to tackle complex subjects. Bernbaum, a self-described “theatre rat,” wanted to pursue theatre professionally but lacked the confidence and choose to complete a degree in journalism, a profession he stated had similar qualities. Eventually, he found his way back to theatre and combined the two focuses to study documentary theatre specifically.

Bernbaum and Shamata, the current artistic director of the Belfry, previously collaborated on a play in 2014 called “Home is a Beautiful word” that addressed homelessness.

“People had pitched them stories about fictional stories about homelessness, and they hadn't seemed right. And then when I started doing my schooling about verbatim theatre, and we started talking about this is a potential approach, he invited me to come and interview people in Victoria and we came to the agreement that the best way to do that would be to interview a kaleidoscopic view of people. So not just homeless people, of course, homeless people were part of the stories, but to interview housed people and children and senior citizens, politicians, business leaders The whole city of Victoria is responsible for homelessness, because it's everybody's issue. That's why it's there.” Said Bernbaum.

A 'kaleidoscopic view' of the refugee experience

It was this previous approach that informed the content of “Being Here: The Refugee Project." During 2015, when there were large waves of Syrian Refugees being welcomed into Canada, Shamata reached out to Bernbaum inquiring about creating a theatre project around the issue. After cycling through many iterations of scripts and approaches, they realized what was missing was that “kaleidoscopic view” of including multiple perspectives they had first utilized in “Home is a beautiful word.”

“We thought, what is really interesting, in addition to the incredible stories of refugees, what is really interesting is the relationships that are formed between the people that are helping and the refugees, and that's both challenging, and rewarding. And so now, we have a script that features both the stories of the refugees and their journeys to Canada, and the relationships with the people that have helped them,” said Bernbaum.

Bernbaum states that while the stories, both from refugees and sponsors, are diverse in nature, one sentiment that rings true throughout the production is the basic wants and needs that human beings have.

“One of my favourite speeches in the play is the character. And it's weird to call them 'characters' because they're people, but the voice of the person who we've given a name, Hannah, talks about the feeling of safe, like she just wanted to feel safe. And that to her was having a country where she could feel safe," he said.

"And I think that when I sat and listened to the stories from these people over and over again, they were also fascinating, but the one thing that kept running ringing true for me was how this is this person has every right to have the same feeling of safe or the same basic needs met as I do. And yet, inevitably, we don't. And how unfair and unsettling that is,” added Bernbaum.

Performing virtually

Bernbaum states that that live theatre has taken a hit because of the pandemic and while he would have liked this production to be experienced live, he is proud that the Belfry Theatre allowed it to continue online, instead of completely cancelling.

“It's my hope that theatre takes people a little further down their path of thinking about and feeling about the world around them. And so if we've done our job right, I hope that people will develop an empathy for their fellow human beings that maybe wasn't there before,” said Bernbaum.