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21st August 2017 Bea Udeh

Crossing Borders – easier said than done in Shakespeare’s County #ADA

ADA 2.0 Fellow Notza Howell-Jones reflects on the empowering stance taken by her organisation to re-vamp its programming this year, by taking calculated risks and align with new impromptu relationships.

In a bid to broaden its audience the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been shaking things up at the 64th Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry festival, the UK’s longest running poetry festival. Programming this year has been the most diverse, the most current and the most experimental in terms of pushing the boundaries for our existing, very loyal, audience.

From Shakespeare and the Islamic World, to Kurdish Poetry, Greek storytelling and Native American writing the festival took in discussions and art from across the globe. On the Thursday evening of the festival a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered (me included), to join Inua Ellams for ‘An Evening with an Immigrant’. The show promised to be a ridiculous, fantastic, poignant immigrant story, and did not disappoint. Hearing an uncompromisingly personal story about the frustrations, aggravations and injustices of being a refugee fleeing an unsafe Nigeria helped me see past headlines and prejudices and challenged some of my naive views about solutions to the refugee crisis. The informal, comfortable, conversational set up of the show, as well as fact that Inua broke down on three occasions telling the story deepened my understanding and my sympathy and galvanised me to be more proactive in my efforts to help. I’m now currently helping to organise a visit for 50 refugees to Mary Arden’s Farm, the home of Shakespeare’s Mother – a tiny gesture in a gulf of struggle – but something.

Inua said that poetry saved him – not figuratively or emotionally (maybe it did that too), but by landing him a sell out show at the National Theatre and some very influential mentors there who fought for him in court and prevented him from being deported. I’m glad Inua came to Stratford and shook things up, I’m glad that he told us all uncomfortable truths about our government and our immigration system, but  I’m sad that those without his talent might not be so lucky.

The audience listened mesmerised, in the palm of Inua’s hand, but some were noisier than others. The usual crowd limited their support to sharp intakes of breath at shocking moments and rapturous applause at the end of each poem, the new crowd, some of them recently arrived immigrants were more vocal, sometimes discussing the show between themselves. The clash of cultures and expectations was palpable, but useful and though provoking and needs to form part of our thinking when we are reaching new audiences.  Commissioning new, exciting and risky artists is important in so many ways, and whilst engaging new audiences can be an inexact science, the more we all come together and learn about and celebrate our differences, the bigger and more engaged our audiences will be.