“I think the crux of the immigration crisis can be reduced to a simple question. Do we claim what’s rightfully ours – that word throws up another entire question, I admit – or do we share it? When I had this experience, I was struck by two things: the first was that this crisis wasn’t happening elsewhere, it was here, right in front of me, and the second was how this whole thing boiled down to my reaction at the time. What was I going to do in the heat of the moment?”
Anima Theatre Company’s The Sleeper brings together true accounts from Syrian refugees and the very personal experience of artistic director Henry C Krempels, was longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, and described in The Scotsman as “an exceptional piece of theatre-making”. The company are now preparing to bring the play to London, opening at The Space on 3rd April.
“The Sleeper is set on an overnight train somewhere through Europe,” explains Henry. “Karina, a British writer, naively reports a refugee hiding in her bunk. I think first and foremost, the play tells a story familiar to thousands of refugees over the past few years who have become stuck between leaving home and finding a new one.
“It’s all based on an experience I had on an overnight train from Milan to Paris. I came back to my cabin at about 2 in the morning and found a woman hiding in my bed. I then wrote this play, based entirely on that moment, and weaved together the real testimony of Syrian refugees, which I collected over a number of months, and my own personal experience which was commissioned by Vice Magazine at the height of the immigration crisis.”
Because the play began life as a piece of journalism, Henry had plenty of research to work from. “I had interviews and transcriptions, photographs, my own notes and conversations with people and charities including Refugee Action, who were based at Milan Central Station at the time – they were operating out of the mezzanine, which has now become a plush restaurant,” he recalls. “After collating all my research and getting a first draft we workshopped the central ideas, did a couple of scratch nights, then I went away and wrote something more complete.
“We have also done workshops as part of Arcola LAB, with refugees and migrants. We’ve allowed them to critique our play, insert their voices and opinions and talk, if they wanted, about their own experience of travelling through Europe. This was a particularly rewarding part of the process. These people are so much more than the traumas they’ve endured. ‘Inspiring’ doesn’t cover the half of it.”
Alongside the play, the company are producing a number of events. “Two main things: we are running workshops as part of the production, based around authenticity on stage. The central question is once a story is told, who does that story belong to and how can you get to the truth of a story? I guess, also, what even is truth on stage?
“We’ve also set up a ‘Refugee Fund’. The idea here is for theatre-goers and others to donate to the fund in order to help pay for the tickets, travel and workshop expenses of 100 refugees over the run. We all feel that this play is, in many ways, by, for and about refugees and asylum seekers and we have to do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for them to see it. Money is the major obstacle in this case.”
Anima’s primary goal is “to get new people, new audiences into theatre. Theatre has lost its place in society, I think. And that kind of collective experience should be integral. As integral as TV and Twitter. We want to make things that push it back into that direction. Inexpensive, entertaining, intellectually stimulating and, I guess, most of all, totally relevant.
“The company grew out of this idea of making theatre that was inclusive and collaborative. My background in journalism has influenced not only the way I write – research, research, research – but also the stories I want to tell. I am endlessly fascinated by the faltering line between fact and fiction, particularly in the context of theatre. The idea of showing something truthful extends beyond fact and fiction in theatre, even beyond the emotion of a scene. We’re always looking for truth and I want to push whatever that means as far as it can go.”