My name is Caitlin Gleeson and for my MA placement with the Institute of Cultural Practices I worked with CAN (Community Arts North West) on the second year of their women’s refugee theatre project. This culminated in a performance, Rule 35, in March 2015 at Z-arts in Hulme, Manchester and my primary role was as a drama facilitator.

CAN are nationally-renowned for their arts for development work across different communities in the North West, particularly with refugees and asylum seekers, and have a programme of refugee arts, Exodus, that has been running since 2004. This project was developed specifically for women refugees because, as has emerged in previous projects there are more specific requirements to enable them to take part, for example the provision of childcare and the establishment of a ‘safe space’ in which to create art.

There are several factors that influence how community arts projects with refugees and asylum seekers are carried out. Essential to enabling participants to take part in and enjoy the creative process is an understanding of the politics that affect them. While sometimes the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are used interchangeably, they in fact have very different legal meanings. In the UK, a refugee is someone who has fled persecution and so has been granted asylum, whereas an asylum seeker is someone who’s claim for asylum has not yet been accepted by the Home Office.

The project began in September 2014 with a series of outreach workshops to ensure that a wide range of women were involved. The theme of the play was detention; this was something that a number of participants felt needed to be discussed. The detention of asylum seekers in immigration removal centres, has been much criticised; there are widespread allegations of abuse, and the indefinite detention of people who have come to the UK for protection is widely argued to be a breach of human rights.

The subject of detention is not often engaged with in refugee performance; by sharing their experiences, the participants of Rule 35 engaged with the current often inflammatory discourse surrounding asylum seekers. Several participants who had experienced detention played the role of guards and, using their experiences, shared representations of the treatment they had received while detained, complicating the familiar and problematic misconception that the UK is ‘too kind’ to asylum seekers.

Rule 35 was performed just after Channel Four filmed an undercover documentary at Yarl’s Wood that showed the mistreatment of detainees, and coincided with a nation-wide campaign to close immigration removal centres. Consequently, there was a lot of media interest around the participants and their experiences both in detention and creating the show; Rule 35 was written about in The Guardian and featured on a BBC Radio Four news programme. As the subject of detention was so current and the participants had been so passionate about sharing their experiences, I felt that the work CAN was doing was incredibly important, not just in the field of theatre but in the field of human rights. For me, this was exemplified by a participant saying ‘if I can stop just one person from going to Yarl’s Wood, I will be happy’.

Production shot from Rule 35
Production shot from Rule 35