by Celia Mellow - central team member - operations and design
The other weekend I had an immersive and thought provoking experience; I went to see A Thing Mislaid by Derby theatre company Maison Foo.
Poignant and powerful, A Thing Mislaid’s storyline perfectly represents how important safe and welcoming spaces like Local Welcome meals are.
As a Local Welcome central team member working remotely from Derby, one of my key roles is to oversee the operations of our projects here. When my friends and family ask what our cooking and eating events are like, I always steer them clear of any assumptions such as ‘volunteering’ or ‘cooking for refugees’. I describe our events as ‘fun’ and ‘social’ spaces for local people to meet and cook with refugees.
Maison Foo in Derby
I first heard about A Thing Mislaid through the grapevine at meetings with refugee support organisations in Derby. Maison Foo formed a refugee steering group at Derby Refugee Advice Centre (DRAC) who advised them on the play, with members helping to add a thick layer of authenticity to the characters and storyline.
The group also translated the script into Arabic so that a digital tool called the Difference Engine could subtitle the play for audience members in real time.
This is just one of the ways Maison Foo is making theatre more welcoming and accessible to refugees. They are very deserving of their Theatre Company of Sanctuary award from Derby City of Sanctuary. A few months prior to the opening night I met with Maison Foo’s Associate Producer, Phoebe Wall-Palmer. She told me they planned to harness the positivity generated by the play by inviting their audiences along to meet your neighbour events with refugees.
Finding a sense of belonging
The idea for A Thing Mislaid stemmed from the co-artistic directors, Kathryn Lowe and Bethany Sheldon’s, similar heritage. Both are three-quarters Derbyshire and one-quarter Irish. Both had grandfathers who emigrated to England in the 1940s. Both grew up hearing their stories of arriving and sometimes not feeling welcome in Derby. This is what inspired them to explore the themes of finding a sense of belonging and searching for a new home.
The performance and storyline held a beautiful simplicity and intelligent ambiguity enabling the characters, Flee and Wander’s, journeys to feel relatable for everyone in the audience. I spent the first twenty minutes with a multitude of questions whirring through my head…which country have they fled from? Which country are they in now? Yet quickly enough, I pinched myself, as I realised Maison Foo’s cleverness - they had successfully crafted a universally relatable story.
Miniature puppetry was used, something that I had never seen before, and this enhanced the anonymity - Flee and Wander would move to the sides of the stage to animate parts of the story. A camera captured these puppetry scenes in real time and projected it onto a screen for all to see. A favourite scene of mine captured two pairs of feet traversing over a miniature set. The scene evoked a multitude of terrains seasons; sprinklings of snow and autumnal leaves created landscapes to represent so many journeys.
Many of the scenes were upbeat, however, I did discover a lump in my throat at times.
I watched Flee pace about for months, waiting for a letter to arrive. I saw her fiercely jerk the umbrella she’d carried with her all the way on her journey away from invisible hands when she found herself surrounded by dazzling searchlights and the sound of snarling dogs.
Little traces of stories that my guests had shared at Local Welcome meals in Derby for the past year were detectable in so many of these moments.
It really hit home at the climax of the show. Upon Flee asking Wander where they might belong?, a bright light illuminated the audience. After peering at us for a moment, they uttered oh!...They look friendly!...Can we stay here with you?.
Fully wrapped up in the emotions of the moment, we all nodded fiercely and many cried out yes! Of course you can!
Welcoming refugees in Derby
This captures the importance of having members at Local Welcome meals perfectly. We can all sign petitions, post on social media and wear badges emblazoned with refugees welcome. However, nothing says you are welcome here more than taking the time to attend a meal and give a kind, welcoming face for a refugee to cook, eat and talk with.
There are many refugees in Derby who’d love to meet local people at Local Welcome meals. A refugee from the steering group at DRAC told Maison Foo’s team that, after living in Derby for more than two years, they had been the first people he’d talked with properly.
It’s so easy to do your bit to make Derby more welcoming for refugees. Find out about becoming a Local Welcome member here.
Also, check out Maison Foo’s Meet your neighbour event at Derby Theatre on Saturday 1st December 12pm-2pm. There will be music, dancing, food and conversation!