European theatremakers based in London, Nastazja Somers, Lara Parmiani and Alexandru Istudor tell Nick Awde about the difficulties they face as migrants working in the UK and the impact Brexit is having on their work
Almost 40% of Londoners are born abroad, and yet first-generation migrants are almost non-existent on the main stages of the capital or in their creative teams. These are voices that are not being heard, talents not being used, and three European theatremakers have joined forces to lobby for more migrants in theatre.
Based in London, Nastazja Somers, Lara Parmiani and Alexandru Istudor are looking to partner with a major venue over the issue. They are also part of a wider network that includes Global Origins and Foreign Affairs, companies also working in London that are focused on migrant and international work.
The history of UK theatre shows it has always benefited from the theatre of other countries and cultures. Its variety and depth owe much to the vibrant import, first from Europe and then the rest of the world, of talent, technique, genres and, indeed, stories. That benefit is measurable in the quality of our own exports: Peter Brook, Forced Entertainment, Katie Mitchell for starters.
‘It often seems that British theatre is the last bastion of traditionalism in the arts’ Theatremaker Alexandru Istudor
Educational exchange is another hugely positive tradition, particularly linking with Europe, and the openness in learning here often contrasts with the opaqueness encountered in working in the mainstream industry – itself contrasting with the freedom of fringe theatre.
Somers, who is from Poland and now sees herself primarily as a director, is a good example of that process. “When I first came here, I started as an actor, but that stopped quickly, once I realised the only roles that were out there for me were sex workers or cleaners. I also didn’t see myself fitting into British theatre so, I did an MA in applied theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama because I saw theatremaking as an opportunity to shift things and push for a different artistic narrative within the industry.”
Parmiani, from Italy, also started solely as an actor, and now, as well as acting, is a voice-over coach and director of LegalAliens Theatre Company. “I found the UK challenging, I didn’t expect accents to play such a crucial role in the casting process. It’s like everything else about you as a performer disappears.
“I felt creatively frustrated, so about 10 years ago I started experimenting with making my own work. I started to team up with people who shared my same experience of displacement. Mostly Europeans but not only – my long time collaborator Becka McFadden is American, and in our current LegalAliens ensemble we have a Brazilian and an Angolan.”
Brexit has added unwelcome uncertainty. “Up to this moment, the benefit was to be able to freely live and work here, create together, collaborate. Now European artists will have to prove to be ‘useful migrants’ or an exceptional talent, and who gets to decide that?”
However that’s decided, director Istudor, who came from Romania to get his MA in theatre directing at Royal Holloway, sees migrant theatremakers in the UK as an opportunity we shouldn’t be wasting. “Most European artists who moved to the UK have unique and enriching artistic journeys, being exposed to different theatrical traditions. As a result, most European artists probably share a common artistic language.
‘Women, and especially women of colour and migrants, are truly mobilising this industry towards leading a change’ Theatremaker Nastazja Somers
“All the other arts in the UK embraced internationalism. They managed to foster long and lasting relationships in Europe and across the world, invited artists to work here from all over the world, opened themselves to different aesthetics and practices. And yet British theatre seems to be completely immune to outside influences. It often seems that British theatre is the last bastion of traditionalism in the arts.”
Somers agrees: “Brexit will only cement British insularity and fuel the lack of representation – or misrepresentation – and the lack of interest in anything else but British,” she says. “That notion is very much built into British theatre: if you don’t follow a certain way of thinking or working, if you are not a product they are after, you are not of interest.”
Parmiani points out that in the 20 years she has been in the UK, she has observed a progressive insularity developing that wasn’t present in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “It has generated a suspicion towards anything different. But suspicion comes from lack of familiarity.”
Within continental Europe there is constant exchange between artists. Directors work across several countries, playwrights’ work is translated, drama students are encouraged to attend workshops with practitioners from across the continent.
“In a nutshell, this is what the EU has always meant for me,” says Parmiani, “a way to be united in diversity, an opportunity to expand beyond your own world. It’s something many people in Britain have never understood because Europe has always been ‘sold’ purely as an economic and bureaucratic construct.”
Istudor says: “I often feel that artistic directors don’t even take the time to engage with my work or show any real interest in you as a migrant artist. This attitude is part of a bigger problem caused by the dominant dimension of British culture. I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but it is a form of cultural colonialism where you are discarded and ignored as a migrant artist if you come from a non-English speaking, smaller culture.”
At the moment, intersectionality is one area that is opening doors for migrant talent. Somers says: “Ironically, grassroots theatre right now in London is one of the most exciting places to be, and the supporting network that women artists have created for one another is a thing to behold.
“I’m currently working with Peyvand Sadeghian, an Iranian British artist, María Inés Olmedo, a Mexican producer. On top of that I’ve just formed a theatre company with Romanian playwright Vera Ion and Slovakian producer Miska Groidlova, and I’m also starting a new project with British-Armenian playwright Abi Zakarian. Women, and especially women of colour and migrants, are truly mobilising this industry towards leading a change, and this is the greatest thing about living and creating in British theatre.”
Much of the energy and perspective for this sort of wave comes from a European perspective, and effectively throws up a mirror to the UK’s failure to document Brexit on stage, says Istudor. “The approach and attitude of most artistic leaders in UK theatre often feels like they say all the ‘right’ words and embrace a progressive and liberal position, but when it comes to real action and change, there’s hardly any.”
‘It’s like everything else about you as a performer disappears’ Theatremaker Lara Parmiani
Somers agrees: “Brexit showed theatremakers in this country are not prepared to tackle divisive issues, they are too worried about upsetting people so they don’t challenge their audiences.
“With Britain leaving the EU, the impact it will have on international collaborations will be devastating. There will be less money, thus less space for people who do not want to settle for the status quo and are hoping for a radical change. Many places will now try to engage with migrant artists, but it will still be through the lens of what they find acceptable.”
Parmiani adds: “I used to say LegalAliens was an ensemble of international actors but it sounded far too glamorous because the reality is we’re actors who are migrants to the UK with all the challenges that entails. The recent climate has affected us all deeply. And the theatre world has not thought it necessary to give a platform to our fears and concerns.
“But we’re here – migrants from anywhere in the world, all around you, in your cafes, your shops, your hospitals, your schools – but never really on your stages, and nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with it. Now that bothers me more than the absence of European theatre. So what I’m hoping will happen is solidarity between all minority voices. Because ‘power’ likes us being divided. And I want to contribute my voice to all those voices.”
Nastazja Somers: Theatre of Resistance: Eastern European Migrants in Britain is part of Morgan & Abi’s Power Share at the Bunker Theatre on March 20. LegalAliens Theatre’s Closed Lands is at Vault Festival from March 3-8, for more information go to LegalAliens Theatre’s website