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The first ‘Theatre of Sanctuary’ Network Gathering at Leeds Playhouse

Last Friday (15th November 2019) was the first ‘Theatre of Sanctuary’ Network Gathering, bringing together 35 individuals from across the network working within theatre to promote sanctuary in their practice.

The gathering which was held at, and run in partnership with, Leeds Playhouse (the first official ‘Theatre of Sanctuary’ in 2014) was a reminder of how deeply theatres, along with theatre companies and festivals, are engaging in making their organisations places of sanctuary from those seeking refuge from war. There was representation from more than 11 Sanctuary-awarded organisations, including two recently awarded organisations, Curious Monkey in Gateshead/Newcastle and Cardiff-based Sherman Theatre who on Friday became the first Theatre of Sanctuary in Wales.

Rose McCarthy reminding us that the City of Sanctuary logo (arms creating a home!) reflects how only together can we create places of sanctuary, whether homes, schools or theatres.

The positive developments across the network include the vast work organisations have undergone to support refugee artists platform their art, increase access to theatre for people seeking sanctuary and new commissions for art that challenges existing notions of what it means to be a ‘refugee’, with examples of work that has gone on to win international acclaim. We were then reminded by Tom Green at Counterpoints Arts, who have recently partnered with City of Sanctuary to produce the first ‘Sanctuary in the Arts‘ resource pack,¬† how crucial City of Sanctuary local groups have been in encouraging theatres to get involved and sustain the network.

The gathering also gave individuals the opportunity to reflect on the challenges of being a Theatre of Sanctuary which including the need to be more sustainable in terms of resources and funding, giving audiences opportunities to learn about the wider context of refugee issues, and how organisations can better access mainstream arts institutions. The importance of developing art in the context of reaching those less sympathetic to refugee issues (and the wider need to ensure cities are places of sanctuary for all) also featured throughout the day.

Rosie McCarthy from Refugee Council reminded everyone of the need to reflect on the journeys people seeking sanctuary face from “Dispersal, to Detention, to Destitution, to Decision” and how the arts might respond to the complex challenges of seeking sanctuary. And after lunch, the group were entertained by the Asmarina Voices – an all-women sanctuary seeking choir – who brought home a lively and inspiring message of hope!

Exploring the four challenges people seeking sanctuary face: dispersal, detention, destitution, decision

The afternoon workshops included scheduling and commissioning artists and works for Refugee Week, working to ensure people seeking sanctuary are at the centre of theatre (in terms of creativity and attendance), and finally an open discussion on the challenges of funding to sustain sanctuary in theatre.

The day wrapped up at 3pm with an official thank you from Leeds Playhouse and a commitment from City of Sanctuary to help support future theatres interested in applying to becoming a Theatre of Sanctuary. (Please visit the Arts page of the website or contact City of Sanctuary via Sam Slatcher if you’d be interested in following this up!). There is likely to be a follow up meeting in February 2020 in Sheffield. More details to follow!

An all-round inspiring day and as one participant remarked: “I look forward to seeing how the theatre of sanctuary movement strengthens and grows. With networking events like this, organisations can connect, build on and draw from one another, inspire others, and motivate those to get involved”

Leeds Playhouse, who hosted the event, has recently undergone a stunning new refurbishment