Little Amal in Scotland
From the Turkish borders to Glasgow’s COP26, Little Amal is a puppet who has travelled far. In order to bring attention to the plight of refugees, Little Amal, coming in at a not-so-small three and a half metres, has walked eight thousand miles. For the arrival in Scotland – where she met with local giant puppet Storm – the project was met by Scottish creators, who provided events to compliment this epic mission.
Through the National Theatre of Scotland, Catrin Evans, Head of Creative Learning for the Citizens Theatre and Victoria Beesley, Associate Director for Learning and Engagement for Perth Theatre, spoke about how their contribution enhanced the presence of this activist production.
What aspects of the Little Amal project inspired you, and how did these inspirations manifest in the subsequent creative processes that you have led?
Migrant and climate justice have been important features in our work historically and, in many ways, it has informed how we make work with communities. It was vital for us that we brought together a collective of artists who were committed to these issues in their artistic practice, and so we worked with Tawona Sithole, Zoe Bullock, Paria Goodarzi, Franciso Llinas, Alice Dansey-Wright and Camilla Crosta.
We were also really interested in working with schools and giving children the time and space to explore migration, climate justice and activism and the intersection of all three, to find their place and their voices in relation to these topics and to make them feel that change is possible and a compassionate future is within their grasp.
We wanted Amal’s presence in Glasgow – and most specifically how we welcomed and walked alongside her - to framed by the city’s rich history of climate occupations, migrant solidarity actions and youth movements. It felt important that the young people could see they could lead a call for change, whilst being inspired by the work of those that have come before them, so that they can be confident that that others will stand with them.
Is this a typical process and project for you both?
We’re not sure any process is typical! When you’re working in participatory arts, you’re constantly responding and adjusting to the particular groups you work with and tailoring processes to be as useful and successful as possible for the group and individuals you’re working with.
We worked with 6 schools – 2 in Perthshire, 4 in Glasgow – and 8 artists. We spent time as a collective, developing creative ideas for the final event and for the workshops leading to the event. The artists then went into schools and began creating work with the children, some activities being the same across all schools, others being tailored to the specific interests and experiences of the young people we were working with.
We were then liaising with Good Chance about what was/wasn’t possible for Amal to do – was the bridge going to be too windy, could she hold a flag, how long were her footsteps? Unlike a usual performance, there was no possibility of a dress rehearsal.
We walked the route with the Lead Puppeteer and explained what we hoped would happen at each stage of the event, and the following day we walked the route separately with the drummers - and that was as close as we got to a rehearsal which meant the morning of the event was a little nerve-wracking as we waited to see if everything would work. And thankfully it did!
How far do you feel the puppet as a medium is important in this project, and did this inspire any aspects of the young people's response to it?
The puppet of Amal is vital to this project, without her it wouldn’t exist. She connects with lots of people on a very emotional level – her size, her movements, her story, her journey all mean that an encounter with her is a quite a moving experience.
The young people we worked with had tracked her journey from the border of Syria to the UK. They had watched videos of her meeting different people along her journey, had watched her climb off boats and walk through city streets. The work we had done with them delved into what Amal might have seen on her journey, how she might be feeling to have left her home and to enter these new and unfamiliar places, what her aspirations were in coming to COP26 and the role that they themselves could play in Amal’s journey.
Her scale is so compelling, and we were all so struck by the nuance of her physicality when we encountered her. Something that we all felt strongly about throughout the whole process, was making sure that we worked to resist European theatre’s tendency towards presenting the ‘endearing refugee’ (Jeffers, 2012) on our stages.
We sought to position Amal as a young person who - like many of the young people who have sought refuge in Scotland - understands her rights and has the capacity to be bold, to be creatively rebellious and to speak truth to power. That meeting point between being a whole rounded human being – as well as a theatrically inspiring puppet – is where the impact was, and it meant that by the time the schools met her they felt like they knew many things about her. There was a mutual respect between them. She had invited them to come and protest, and they were joining her in this activism.
I think for a lot of us working on the project, the sounds of the children shouting her name and yelling with joy and excitement at the sight of her will be long remembered.