Budding actors and musicians from the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Group tour the world performing for refugee children
By: Omar Karmi
LONDON, United Kingdom – The ragged boy lurched forward and fell. Limbs flailed desperately until, at the last moment, they caught, leaving his body dangling precariously over a drop.
Relief seemed to spread across a face made up only of the blank, yellow side of a dish sponge, an illusion deftly conjured by three puppeteers, all budding actors and musicians in rehearsal at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Suspend belief and see a puppet made of recycled plastic bags and old pens hanging from a clarinet in a large, near-empty rehearsal studio. But engage the imagination and see a boy navigate a strange world with slapstick difficulty, a dilemma familiar to many of the refugee children for whom this puppet has performed.
I think it is so rewarding, there is a different energy in the air when you leave from when you arrive
The puppet, simply known as ‘boy’, is one of the key props for the Wind-Up Penguin theatre company, a London-based theatre group mostly made up of students from the Guildhall, that for the past 18 months has travelled Europe to perform for refugees in different countries and are scheduled to do so in the UK soon.
Originally conceived as a way for students at the prestigious performing arts school to perform for and engage with underprivileged children around the world – going as far afield as South America and India – the theatre company became a registered charity in 2015, three years after its founding.
That was also the year in which Europe’s refugee crisis exploded onto headlines across the continent. It gave the company a new focus.
“One of the things that really inspired me was the guy from Humans of New York, who was posting a lot of stuff at the time about refugees,” said Elisabeth Swedlund, 25, company founder.
The company arranged to perform in Berlin refugee centres in December 2015, and has since undertaken two more tours of camps and refugee centres in Belgium and Germany. Plans are being made to arrange more performances in Greece and Lebanon.
They have also set their sights closer to home. They are collaborating with the Welcome London Project, which organises afternoon activities every Sunday for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the Hackney Migrant Centre in the coming weeks.
The prospect of continuing to work with refugees clearly excites a young group of actors and musicians already inspired by their experiences so far.
“I think it is so rewarding,” said Mhairi Gayer, 21, a Guildhall acting student, who along with twin sister Leah, of the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA), hopes to bring a little colour and inspiration into the lives of children stuck in often drab and remote centres or camps. “There is a different energy in the air when you leave from when you arrive.”
Many of the children started off shy but blossomed as they found themselves in a safe space for them to come out of their shells
“We are coming into a space with the sole purpose of giving these children some attention,” agreed Leah. “Hopefully we can inspire them.”
The Wind-Up Penguin performance divides into three parts: a show, which incorporates the puppets (in addition to ‘boy’ there is ‘girl’); a show-and-tell segment, where the actors show off their individual skills and give the audience an opportunity to meet the puppets; and finally a workshop element, where the children get a chance to try some new skills.
“What was most rewarding for me was the journey some of these children went on from the start of the session to the end,” said Jay Jones, the troupe’s acrobat and an aspiring filmmaker at Bournemouth Film School.
Many of the children started off shy, the 23-year-old actor said, but blossomed as they found themselves in a “safe space for them to come out of their shells”. Others, those already “bouncing off the walls”, had their energy channelled into more “constructive directions, and as a group rather than on their own”.
“We try to provide a breath of fresh air,” said Swedlund, a classically trained singer and the troupe’s magician. “I think these children hold so much of their parents’ stress… Maybe some inspiration can be therapeutic.”
Across the world today there are over 65 million people who have been forced to flee their homes. More than 360,000 people undertook the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea just in 2016. In 2015, that number was over a million.
Despite the scale of the problem, Edward Holmes, 19, a clarinettist and music student at the Guildhall, it’s easy to feel “a long way away”.
Until you really experience the pain and desperation of these people, you are always on the other side of the glass
“Until you really experience the pain and desperation of these people, you are always on the other side of the glass,” he said. “We have so much going on in our own lives, and if we don’t get close to it, it passes us by.”
The group is determined to play a positive role going forward.
“I hear people say, ‘refugees are coming to our country and they have to learn to adapt’,” said Swedlund. “But it’s surely a two-way process. We have to engage them socially and culturally to inform them. If no one is doing that, then how will they adapt?”
And this is where the puppets – a uniquely effective way to communicate, according to Mhairi Gayer, that bypasses prejudice and stirs imaginations across cultural divides – play their considerable part. “When you watch puppets, you engage in a very different way. You watch with more openness, curiosity and wonder,” said the actress, whose work with the Wind-Up Penguin group had left her determined to use her art to help children in need in the future.
“I think because I have had that experience, I know how much more passionate I felt about that work, and I know now that that is the future that I want for myself.”
This story is part of a series exploring the ways people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome.