Josephine Burton (JB):
We’ve pulled together a panel of three quite different people to look at one issue from different perspectives. Miriam is, of course, British born and making a piece about her Slovak background. Bojana who is a non-EU citizen and based in London, is originally from Serbia and is making work which we’re going to hear a little about in a moment. Victor is originally from Romania and living in London. And I’m sure with you here in the audience, you’ve got very different takes and very different ideas and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts, there will be moments throughout the evening to throw in your questions and ideas and thoughts.
JB: Tell us a little bit about your work Bojana? So you are originally from Serbia. How long have you been in the UK for?
Bojana Janković (BJ): 9 years almost to date. I came here originally to do an MA in Performance Making at Goldsmiths and that’s where I met the other half of There There, Dana and so we both just stayed here and started making work together.
JB: At what point did the theatre company emerge?
BJ: We don’t actually make Theatre anymore, that’s a thing that happened in the UK. We both arrived here as theatre directors, that’s what we both studied. We did an MA in performance and we turned more towards performance participatory projects and installation.
We were friends but what actually brought us together during that first year while we were studying is realising, that this whole thing of who is Romanian and who is Serbian is completely irrelevant and we’re both just eastern European. So that became a thematic focus of our work and a lot of our work explores this idea of being Eastern-European and what it means to be that particular immigrant identity.
JB: So you’re no longer making theatre in the conventional sense of the word?
BJ: No, actually the last time we did was just before the referendum and then afterwards it kind of started seeming irrelevant….well just not fit for what we were trying to do.
JB: And so tell us a little bit about what you’re trying to do now?
BJ: So let me try to not talk for too long. I was actually just thinking as you were talking about that, that the last time we did a studio performance in this very building it was upstairs. It was called “Eastern Europeans for Dummies”. It was an ongoing project we had been working for it for a while we had this whole tour planned out –
JB: And this was when?
BJ: Two months before the referendum. It was a very big project for us…at the time we wanted to tour it, especially outside of big cities in the UK where there is a higher proportion of Eastern Europeans but there’s usually no cultural infrastructure. We had some dates and the first of them was in Sheffield and it was 48 hours after the referendum, so very excited about this. Then the referendum happened and we were just sitting in my living room thinking that the show is now irrelevant – nothing makes sense anymore. The funny thing was, before the referendum people were telling us “oh you know you’re a bit too harsh… it’s really not that bad, this is all going to go well,” then not only did it not go the way most people in our arts circle thought, there was this huge spike of violence against Eastern Europeans and it was as if someone took our tour list and just started burning houses in places we wanted to go.
So that’s when we really reconsidered this idea that we are on stage and that’s not to say that it doesn’t work for everyone, just that it stopped working for us…this distance that we had between us and audiences. We started thinking more about how can our work create relationships between cultural institutions in our community, which we think of as eastern European community, which is very diverse and very heterogeneous. From that it naturally grew into participatory performance, though performance just not theatre and installation based work…so in a way I’ve just realised, when you asked that question or you were introducing that question…it’s actually changed our work in so many ways including formally, everything that happened in the last 2 years.
JB: And all the people that you’re working with now, are they largely Eastern Europeans or what maybe in the West we would classify as Eastern Europeans?
BJ: Oh no classify away… I think our politics is that we’re reclaiming this brand.
JB: So I have to clarify, does it include central Europe?
BJ: So this is the thing, we don’t get to decide. I don’t know that you would personally agree with this classification but that is what the majority of the population of this country would think, right?
JB: You would consider the Czech Republic and Slovakia?
BJ: Yeah, if you think of A8 and A2 countries and if you think of former Yugoslavia and if you think of Baltic countries that all gets called Eastern Europe in this country. No one who lives in these country calls themselves Eastern European because we have layered identities. But I think here, our experience is, it just gets plastered on you as an identity and then you do something with it. But in answer to your question, we work with a lot of participants who we try to share the agency with I suppose because another thing that happened after the referendum is that we kind of became poster kids for Eastern Europeans making art. We got so many calls from so many people. It was great and it was devastating, because suddenly we were just called to represent and we don’t want to represent 1.5 million people. So we just thought, let’s start sharing this space with other members of our community, who identify as being part of this community. So while yes we mostly work with eastern European immigrants we don’t do it on our own where only the immigrants can see it. We think about how does it exist where the audiences are mixed and where the audiences are diverse. I mean you can create opportunities for people to talk about immigration in a way that’s low key but it’s also low pressure but it’s also removed a bit from the headlines and from a very toxic environment because I think it’s actually a bit of a taboo, so we tried to create environments where that’s not the case.
JB: And what kind of places..what kind of spaces will you use to do that? Are they theatres, are they community centers?
BJ: So we try to work a lot in cultural institutions. So, for example, the project that we’ve been working on for a while…by which I mean we develop it and do it over and over again.. is called “Trigger Warning” and it’s a collection of games. They are fair games, very British games that we’ve given an immigrant twist. You can steal a job, scrounge on benefits, you can be a health tourist, you can live the life of an immigrant right and so the first time we did that we actually did it in the Tate Exchange space at Tate Modern and that was a huge deal for us because there are not a lot of Eastern Europeans in Tate Modern. There’s a bit of Marina Abramovic and there’s a bit of “oh look it was so sad in communism… here’s a photo” but there’s very little of that. So we thought OK we made it and people come and play it but what we did is, we had this open call for everyone who identified as eastern European and we then worked with six and we called them “individualators” but basically six people, very different second-generation immigrants, people who were born here, not recognised or identified by people who have been in London for a month and we explain the project to them and we just let them do it. They can disagree with us and do whatever they want really and they play the games with the audience. And I just want to say this, very importantly, because we find the institutions don’t always think this is the case, we pay everyone the living wage for at least every hour that they work with us.
You have something ridiculous… like four thousand people coming over a weekend, most people, a lot of them, you know are not immigrants, a lot of them are tourists and you get to help create situations where eastern European immigrants who are exposed to all of this hostility actually get to lead the conversation with visitors who are British, who are tourists, who are all passports. So there are big institutions like that but there’s also a lot of festivals that we do it in, we’ve also travelled quite a lot with our installations. The last place that we did it was B-Side Festival in Portland, on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. In Portland there’s a very small immigrant population but interestingly Weymouth, which is like a 10-minute drive, has quite a big one but no one in Portland thinks about that… it’s kind of a place that’s very proud of being a bit isolated geographically. So I think this is important. I don’t want to say it’s a big cultural institution but it’s important for us to bring this conversation outside of the diasporic context, because it’s very easy to just get stuck in there and then it’s just the immigrants talking about how bad it is, so that’s not what we want to do.
JB: You’ve been on a journey personally over the last 3 years I suppose before and after, it sounds like it’s been your journey. Have you seen your audiences respond differently now to your work?
BJ: Yeah, I mean it also depends on where you do it…you know that’s what I think is a great thing about it…you really get to experience the political differences of the UK and in a way you know it’s very nice for me to sit here and say Tate Exchange four thousand people… great but actually those audiences mostly voted remain and those audiences… if they had a right to vote… and I think there’s something great about what we see is people enjoying the opportunity to just vent… people love venting and you can see that there’s no opportunity for them to do so or maybe when there is, it is within the same circle like all of us whatever the subject, in the same circle of friends or family so it’s nice to be able to do it in the public arena because galleries and theatres and festivals are the public sphere right? But I also think when you go to places that are a little bit more undecided, when there is a bit more an obvious split when you go to institutions that are not so we also did it as a National Maritime Museum…very different audience and also a lot of young children and then you see parents having… kids love the games… one of them is called hook a job so it’s like hook a duck…kids just run for it and so you see parents having to explain this like having to figure out how they’re going to explain to their kids what’s happening so that’s been very interesting because what we’ve seen is parents had to figure this out over the course of the last 2 years because kids inevitably hear what’s happening and pick up on stuff and I think we’ve seen the negotiation, the five stages of grief or happiness or denial to depression and now I think we’re working our way towards acceptance except it’s difficult because no one knows what’s going to happen.
JB: So Bojana and I were having a very brief conversation upstairs about her own personal experience and I referenced it earlier by saying she was Serbian and not an EU member…. do you think that, you actually being a slight outsider to the whole thing has had an impact on the work? On your work? And the way that audiences responded to that?
BJ: I don’t mean to sound harsh but I don’t think people don’t know that I’m a non EU citizen. I think when you say you’re from Serbia there’s one of two things that you hear back.. well three… “Ok”, Siberia and stuff like that and then there’s the war crimes that we’ve committed and genocide that we’ve committed so that’s one thing that you get..people love talking about that and then there’s Novak Djokovic who’s the tennis player so that’s it. I really think I’m happy to talk about well not happy to talk about war crimes but I think it’s important to talk about them and I don’t know how many people know where the EU stops. It has had an impact on my personal life because I was put through an entirely different immigration system and at some point I switched and I’m now a proud feminist who is legally classified as a family member of other citizen so I’m not a person in my own right and so that means that having being expelled from the kind of EU route because there’s no more ways and having transferred to the EU for the second time experiencing this complete insecurity and I mean it’s just such a tiny minority of people that we are not …but no one has mentioned us yet we are at the bottom of everyone’s list I think so I think yeah that has influenced the work.
I think if I had to kind of pin it down Dana Recolecksov who is the other half of There There, she is Romanian and I think how different legal statuses has meant that we have had to look at this whole idea of Eastern European immigrant in a more layered way because I think that instinct to go oh no everyone is the same and everyone has the same experience and that’s not true because here on this stage we have four different experiences of citizenship I would venture to say having having met all of you half an hour ago and Dana she arrived here as a Romanian by the time when transitional agreements was still in place she needed a work permit which is very restrictive and difficult to get and pushed a lot of Romanian Bulgarian citizens into low paid jobs. I on the other hand, if you’re a non EU citizen it’s very difficult to get here without… you can’t get a visa if you don’t have some money in the bank and that money has gone exponentially up since I’ve been here and we have ways of moving that money around but you know you can’t unlike a EU citizen arrive here with a £100 so I think it’s influenced our lives and by extension our work and I think it’s giving us a different set of insecurities but it’s also made as… just know that that not everything is the same there are no two similar experiences that are the same.
JB: When did you come to the UK? (Victor)
Victor Pătrășcan (VP): Unfortunately I am Romanian, hello everybody. When did I come over here? I came here about 6 years ago I came here with a heart full of dreams, just a backpack full of clothes and an asshole full of drugs. (Laughter) Anyway there’s going to be a lot of that so sorry for everyone who’s attended, so yeah I came here to do comedy. I came here to do comedy as and an MA as well to study film at UCL
JB: So you were already performing?
VP: No I started over here because I found out about stand-up through piracy, I just pirated a lot of specials from Jerry Seinfeld and I saw Jerry Seinfeld do comedy and I thought I can do it too and probably no. That’s how I got in contact with stand up comedy as an art form into itself there was nothing like that in Eastern Europe. There was monologues and actors doing one person kind of shows but stand up like as an art into itself, there was none of that. But now it’s starting to become more and more popular and there are scenes in any of the eastern European countries and there’s comedians and people doing stand up.
JB: I guess you are going to give us a sense of your performance through your witty repartee, but do you draw on your background as part of your gig?
VP: For a while, I didn’t like to because I tried to consider myself as anyone else on stage, so just a normal person just talking about all sorts of weird stuff that I had in my mind. But after a while I realised that it’s an elephant in the room. You know, it’s like people here my accent and immediately they go ‘where is that from?’ You know what I mean? So I just decided that, let’s address it. You know, there’s nothing wrong with that. And as I addressed it more and more, I became more comfortable with saying that I’m Romanian, and doing jokes about it. It comes with time.
JB: So you started on the comedy rounds a couple of years ago?
Yeah, about four years ago.
JB: Then coming back to my question to Bojana about how the referendum impacted on her work, have things felt different to you in the last couple of years, to how they were before and if so how?
VP: A bit, I think people are a bit more vocal, you get a bit more heckles and people shouting out all sorts of random things –
JB: What sort of things?
VP: You know, ‘go back to your country,’ or really explicit stuff. But to a certain extent, that can be seen as vitriolic and I understand that. Most of the times, it’s just people want to get involved, right? At the beginning, I thought people are just mean, ‘ah this thing just happens after Brexit.’ But after I started talking to people, people just want to laugh about it. And of course, they are going to mention that I’m Romanian and stealing lots of stuff but you know they are British and I am going to say that they steal stuff too. Sometimes it can seem vitriolic and you can read into it and say this is a mean person but no, it’s just a little bit of back and forth. There’s a lot of comedians these days, there’s a lot of immigrant comedians and everyone’s doing their own things but I can see some people, most of the time, not giving people the benefit of the doubt. I think we’re too quick to judge that people are mean, or that people are bigoted or hateful. Most of the times they are just curious, or they just want to have a little rapport. People get upset when someone asks them where they are from, what else do you want people to ask you, they have just met you, they barely know your name. Of course they are going to ask you where you are from! I’ve seen English people ask each other that. ‘Hey where you from?’ ‘Oh I’m from that village,’ ‘I used to date a girl from that village…’
JB: And you are touring the country?
VP: (Chuckles) Yeah…that’s just too much. I’m just gigging anywhere that will have me basically.
JB: Well then I guess the question is whether audiences have changed? Do you have different responses to your shtick outside London?
VP: To a certain extent in that each audience is an organism to itself. Like this audience right here, is different to any other audience ever.
JB: In a good way?
VP: Yeah. People are going to be different. There is something in me that quite enjoys the fact, that I know that that area votes leave and I still go there and people are like, yeah if it’s funny, it’s funny we’re going to laugh at it. If it’s good, it’s good. I’m not saying that mine is good. People are decent. I honestly believe that most people are normal people, they just want to love their partners and raise a family and be safe. That’s everybody, right? Wherever you’re from. I feel like we divide ourselves too much into too many little nationalities and of course, we can take this to an extreme. And of course there are things that only Romanians know or care about and only Serbians or people from Burkina Faso, or wherever people are from. I feel like we don’t look at our human nature and what are the things that connect each other. And we are too ready to judge.
JB: Do you find that at the end of the night people want to come and talk to you? –
VP: (Laughs) Not if I bomb! No!
JB: Alright, not if you bomb. But let’s say you have a good night and you are sitting having a relief pint at the end of the evening, do you have quite interesting comments? Do you find that people want to come and engage with you?
VP: Yes sometimes, people ask me if I am really from Romania! Like I would put this on and choose Romania! So sometimes that, sometimes ask me where I am from, and they go ‘Oh I visited Romania during the communist times and this is what happened and there was no food in the stores,’ ‘Oh I visited Romania two years ago and I got robbed.’ If I was to meet a British person, I would go ‘Oh I lived in London for a few years and it was horrible and I went through depression.’ It’s just building connections, what are you going to talk about?
JB: And do they engage you directly on the referendum?
VP: Not everyone but there are people who do that. If you think about going to a show and there are 300 people in the room and you go ‘I need to talk to the performer, it’s me now,’ you need a special type of person to actually do that in the first place. Most of the times people are nice. Of course, I have met some really nasty people and been scared to leave the club. But that’s going to happen.
JB: So tell us a little bit about what you have done because this year I became aware of your work because you launched the Eastern European comedy festival for the first time. Tell us about it and the genesis of you creating this new project?
VP: So the whole project started from a bunch of Romanian comedians who are based in London who left Romania because their career wasn’t going well and me. We started doing Romanian shows for the Romanian community and we figured out that there are people who left their countries and still want to hear their language, the language that they grew up with and want to meet people that have shared their history and references. We realized that maybe there are other countries in this world, with people who feel like we do and we realized that all of Eastern Europe is full of countries just like that! So we started it this February, we started the Eastern European Comedy Festival. Which is a festival for the communities and for the local people as well. So what do I mean by that? For example, we got comedians from about 12 – 15 countries something like that. So people from former Yugoslavia who speak Serbian to do shows for the Serbian people, Russians to do shows for people who understand the language, Romanians doing shows for people who understand Romanian and so on and shows in English for whoever could speak English. Do shows in English to prove to the British that we are just humans.
VP: Aw I got an Aw.
JB: How did it go down?
VP: Fantastic. Over the moon. We did the shows and people came. We didn’t think it was going to work but we are planning to do another one next year and we hope that Brexit is going to help to sell some tickets. We are advertising the festival as this is the last time you are going to be able to see this.
JB: You are now performing stand up in Romanian as well as English?
VP: Barely Romanian, very strange because it feels like I’m doing it in a second language. It’s very strange because you can’t really translate jokes. Some you can, some you can’t. But mostly in English because that’s why I came here, to do it in English.
JB: How many of the performers are able to transcend language and perform in English?
VP: Most I would say, because that’s how they learn the craft and they discover it, going online and seeing Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld and Patrice O’Neal and Bill Burr and other people. They go ‘Oh I like this’ but you need to kind of learn it in a way, because it’s very anglo-centric right now, so the biggest comedians in the world are from this country or from the United States. They are the people who everyone looks up to when they start. Most of them know English.
JB: Thank you so much Miriam, for sharing your work with us this evening. Can you tell us about it? Tell us about why it came about and when.
Miriam Sherwood (MS): I don’t actually know when I had the idea to make the show because in my grandmas flat, which I grew up spending time in. There were his cabaret posters everywhere. I knew what he was but I had never met him and we didn’t actually talk about him. I remember in 2014 telling Tom, who you saw perform, ‘Oh I have this idea’ but I didn’t do anything.. Then later that year my grandma died and she was living in Munich.
They immigrated. They were persecuted by the communist after my grandad spoke out during the Prague Spring like lots of other people and they were allowed to immigrate and they moved to Germany. Anyway, so my grandmas flat was rented, because everyone in Germany rents, so we didn’t have much time to pack it up.
We talk about it in the show but the flat was quite larger than life – like she was. Every inch was covered in something of hers but behind all of that stuff, as I mentioned in the extract, was all of my Grandads stuff and cabarets. I used to say in the show that we thought all the cabarets were lost but then my Mum corrected me and said ‘No you thought all the cabarets were lost!’ She knew perfectly well that they were there but she didn’t ever think to mention that to me. So then it started to be a bit more of a real thing in my head, that maybe we could find a brilliant script and perform that. Then I found out that there wasn’t any one script that we could do in its entirety and that a London audience or a British audience would really enjoy.
I started reading my Grandads old biographies and finding all these things that I felt connected to and decided to make the show that told his story, that is amazing but used his tricks and his format and the idea of the cabaret which isn’t really what English people really think of as cabaret. More like a variety show, a monologue, a joke. And I found a book that he wrote that was how to do a variety review and I read that. There’s a heading that is called ‘Acrobatics’ and then it says ‘Acrobatics are not necessary.’
Then I got Will and Tom involved and they are both composers and they wrote the music for it. I started with a 10-minute scratch, which was meant to have a Slovak band and I put some ads out on the internet and no one got in touch. It wasn’t supposed to be a one-woman show and then I did some better Googling and I found a Slovak community theatre group in London and a phone number and I called them and they said: “We’re rehearsing today, come and meet us!” They agreed to be in the first 10-minute scratch.
They were calling me Mirca within 10-minutes and no one has ever called me that in my life! And they were excited to meet an English person who spoke Slovak. So they helped me with the 10 minutes. That was at BAC and then we started to develop it a bit more.
JB: So that was a year an a half ago?
MS: We started in 2016 just after the referendum and then we have been developing since then. It was 10-minutes then it was 40-minutes and now it is 90-minutes.
JB: Have you been learning about your family through this process, has it given you a place in this world?
MS: I was thinking about was Victor was saying about resisting talking about where you are from, because my whole life people have asked me where I am from in London. Like people have walked up from behind me and said “Where are you from” and they haven’t even seen my face. And I used to really resist and I’d say “I’m from down the road” and then if I was in a good mood I’d say “I was born in London but my mum’s from Slovakia and my dad’s from Hungary.” Yeah I think over the course of the show I think it’s made me more likely to default to that, I am happy to say that and I think that’s the only thing that the referendum vote really affected about the show for me, is that I felt a little bit like actually, I should say (that). I think it’s important if you sound English and you look English, that you should say ‘I am an immigrant’ or ‘I am a child of an immigrant’ and that’s a good thing and I am proud of it. So I think that’s what came a bit stronger.