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The Politics of Participation:

Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres Sur Les


Chemins De L’Exil

Susan C. Haedicke

On a cold and rainy day in February 1999, an actor greeted me at the


door when I arrived at the large “circus tent,” a warehouse-like structure that
became the performance space for “Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres Sur Les
Chemins de l’Exil” (A Voyage Unlike Any Other on the Road to Exile) outside
the Paul Delcouvrier Pavilion in Parc de la Villette (an arts complex) in Paris.
I was ushered into a small area, about ten by twelve feet, surrounded by black
drapes. Approximately twenty people already occupied the space, and the one
available bench was taken. We waited, patiently and quietly at first, but after
about five minutes in this crowded and uncomfortable makeshift room, we
began to grumble. We were promptly told to be quiet and wait our turn. Finally,
we were led into a large and brightly lighted room, created by temporar y walls
about ten feet high, which gave the impression of a run-down bureaucratic
office. In one corner, a man in uniform was seated on a tall stool behind a
high counter. As I approached him, he ordered, “Turn around and choose. Then
come to me—not before.” On the opposite wall were twelve seven-foot tall
placards, each with a life-size picture and a short biography of a refugee
ranging in age from twelve to sixty-five. They came from Algeria, Bosnia,
China, Colombia, Iraq, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri-Lanka, Turkey,
or Zaire and sought asylum in the European Union. We, the spectators, had to
shed our own names, nationalities, and privilege and wear the identity of one
of these refugees. We would “live for an hour in the skin of a refugee.” 1

I, Susan, chose to become Wanmin, an eighteen-year-old girl from China


whose family had not been able to support her for years. In fact, soon after her
brother was born, she was “exiled” from her parental home although she was
still a child. She was apprenticed to a dressmaker in another city and never
saw her parents again. Now, she worked in a clothing factory and was barely
able to make ends meet. I, Wanmin, stepped up to the ver y high counter.
“Name.” “Wanmin.” The bureaucrat handed me my passport and summarily
dismissed me by gesturing in the direction of a dark corridor. He had never
really looked at me.

I headed toward the hallway created by a black carpet and black curtains.
Curtains or temporary walls formed all of the many spaces I would visit on my

99
100 Susan C. Haedicke

journey: the entire warehouse-like structure had been transformed into a


veritable maze of narrow hallways, small and smoky bureaucratic offices,
streets and shops of an unnamed town, a prison—places a refugee would have
to negotiate on the road to exile. Soon I reached another desk where the official
gave me a racial marking—a yellow dot on my forehead. Each refugee received
a dot of a different color to indicate his/her countr y of origin, and I soon
learned that my yellow dot, marking me as Chinese, would determine how the
people I would meet on my journey would see me. As I continued along the
corridor, I realized that I had begun my “voyage pas comme les autres” as a
refugee attempting to enter European Union illegally.

Setting Off on the Voyage

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations-sponsored


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), CIRE (Coordination et Initiatives
pour Réfugiés et Etrangers), a Belgian organization devoted to aiding immigrants,
developed the idea for an educational theatrical event, Un Voyage Pas Comme
Les Autres Sur Les Chemins De L’Exil. It would be an “interactive exposition”
aimed at cr eating a “moment of emotion which opens the doors of a
misunderstood universe . . . and gives the keys to a better understanding of the
world of the exile” (“Vivre et Comprendre” 4), thereby serving as a conduit to
raise public awareness of the dramatic shift toward restrictive refugee policies
in Europe over the last decade and a half. A refugee, as defined by the United
Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and Exiles, signed in Geneva on
July 28, 1951, is “a person outside his/her country of origin who is unwilling or
unable to return to it because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for
reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group,
or political opinion.”

The number of refugees seeking asylum in the European Union (EU) has
more than quadrupled since 1985, and this rapid increase has encouraged a
climate of hostility and xenophobia in Europe toward immigrants (fig. 1). The
result has been a series of measures by the EU to control immigration. The
Schengen Agreement (initiated in 1985 and fully implemented in 1995) established
a single external border for immigration checks and a single set of rules regulating
immigration and asylum policies. The Dublin Convention (1990) and the
Amsterdam Treaty (1997) refined these initiatives and developed stricter criteria
for assessing refugee status in the EU countries. 2

These agreements and treaties seemed to mark only the start of significant
policy shifts as political parties espousing anti-immigration platforms gained in
popularity throughout the EU. In response, ten human rights organizations—
including CIRE, Amnesty International, AIDA (Association Internationale de
Défense des Artistes Victimes de la Répression dans le Monde), the French Red
Cross, the League of Human Rights, the Catholic Committee Against Hunger and
The Politics of Participation 101

F IG 1. The refugee camp in the Brussels production of Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres Sur Les
Chemins de l’Exil. Photo by the Comité Catholique Contre la Faim et Pour le Développement.

for Development, and La Cimade, under the patronage of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees—partnered with the European Commission,
several French Ministries (i.e., Culture, Foreign Affairs, and National Education,
Research, and Technology), Libération, France Culture, Marianne, and various
non-profit organizations to produce Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres. Theatre
professionals (actors, directors, and designers) and refugees who had been
granted asylum in the EU joined forces with these organizations in the creation
of this pedagogic performance-based piece. Tickets were sold, but prices were
low (35 FF for individuals, less for students and groups—about $5 at the time).

Between 1998 and 2000, several cities in Europe, including Rome, Brussels,
Paris, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Luxembourg, hosted the participatory
theatrical event (called mise-en-situation by the organizers, literally translated
as “put in the situation”) for several months at a time. The Paris performances,
staged at Parc de la Villette, were given several times a day, five days a week
(Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), from November 12, 1998
to April 4, 1999. Small audiences of about twenty-five people entered the space
every twenty minutes, and the entire experience lasted one to one and a-half
hours.

The literally thousands of visitors to Voyage understood that this was not a
play to watch but an experience requiring participation. The press release that
appeared on October 19, 1998 stated:
102 Susan C. Haedicke

By adopting the identity of a refugee who flees his/her country, which is


subject to war, persecutions, or dictatorship, the visitor discovers all the
stages of a request for asylum. By becoming an actor in this history, the
visitor is put into the situation so he or she can live the fear, the uprooting,
the wandering, and the difficulties of acclimating to the receiving country,
beginning with the flight from one’s homeland up to the moment of being
granted or refused refugee status.

Each of the twelve refugee identities, described on the large placards from which
the spectator chose a persona, represented a composite of experiences and
memories garnered from actual refugees; none of the identities was a specific
real-life individual. Their “biographies” often combined the stories of two or
more refugees to create a form of historical fiction, but one that could represent
a documentary for the spectator. After the spectator was ethnically “marked”
with a colored dot and the journey on “the road to exile” had begun, s/he was
guided along the way, in part, by a series of instruction cards hidden in small
metal boxes attached to the walls of the performance space. These instructions
gave information like how the refugee traveled to and entered the EU and what
she did while waiting for a decision on her refugee status and after being granted
asylum (fig. 2). The instructions insured that each refugee’s journey through the
eleven “zones” the exposition was very different—zones that included the flight
from one’s homeland, the request for asylum, illegal work, the detention center,
and the outcome of the asylum request.

The spectator, at each stage of the journey as one of the refugees, was also
guided, intimidated, befriended, or exploited by the various people an exile
would meet along the way—soldiers, companions, bureaucrats, police, judges,
thieves. These roles were performed by professional and non-professional actors.
Many of these actors were actual refugees who had been granted asylum in the
EU. As a consequence, the lines between actor and audience blurred as the
spectator became the actor in a narrative that resembled, if not replicated in
various moments, the one lived in real life by many of the actual actors. The
actors who were actual refugees were, in turn, given the opportunity to
experience the “refugee problem” from the other side. (The term “actor” will
apply to all these individuals performing the people who guided the spectator-
refugee at Voyage throughout the rest of the essay.) The production elicited a
variety of responses from the spectators (to whom I will refer interchangeably
as “participants” or “spect-actors,” as used by Augusto Boal). For many, such a
close-up view of the hardships faced by a refugee was a new and eye-opening
experience that they often recounted in the “livre d’or” (a notebook set up in
the lobby just outside the exit of the performance space and used to record
immediate reactions to the experience). Some participants wrote: “Thank you
for plunging me into the real life of an asylum seeker.” “What an unsettling
voyage, terrifying, but so compelling.” “It is truly an exposition ‘pas comme les
autres.’” “The whole world you created made us cry a lot. An unforgettable
experience.” For others, it offered a way to work through their personal memories
of exile. I spoke to a woman and her two sons after the production, and they
The Politics of Participation 103

F IG . 2. The passport office in the refugee’s country of origin, from the Brussels production. Photo
by the Comité Catholique Contre la Faim et Pour le Développement.

told me that this was the fifth time they had participated. As refugees themselves,
they wanted to “try on” each of the exiled identities on the placards to better
understand their own experience as asylum seekers in the EU.

Even though people with a wide range of life experiences in reference to


exile were drawn to this production, the stated goal of Un Voyage Pas Comme
Les Autres was to educate the general public so that they could reach their own
conclusions about the issue of refugees. The production, however, clearly guided
the participants to be sympathetic to the refugee’s plight, to fear the increasing
xenophobia in Europe, and perhaps most importantly, to question the current
restrictive legislation determining the granting of asylum. The unstated goal,
therefore, seemed to be to initiate a grassroots mobilization campaign to revise
EU asylum policies, an objective that was considered an essential aspect of the
104 Susan C. Haedicke

hoped-for response to the rise in anti-immigration rhetoric and behavior.


Explaining this dual approach to changing both attitudes and laws, Elaine Scarry,
in an article written in response to hate crimes against foreigners in Germany,
argues that identification with the plight of the Other, what she calls “spontaneous
imagining,” will not in and of itself reverse anti-immigrant feelings. Those calls
for tolerance and acceptance must be accompanied by constitutional and legal
measures: constitutional design “provides the frame in which [spontaneous
imagining] can take place” (Scarry, “Difficulty of Imagining” 40). Voyage combined
“spontaneous imagining” in the form of participatory performance strategies
with opportunities for genuine political action. After “living for an hour in the
skin of a refugee,” audience members could share their experiences with the
actors and with representatives from human rights organizations, they could
write their impressions in the “livre d’or,” and they could learn what they could
do to help reverse current policies. In addition, several lectures and symposia
on EU asylum policies were organized around the production. Although Voyage
received government support and positive coverage from the mainstream media,
it represented what Baz Kershaw calls “radical performance,” a democratized
performance “actively engaged in widening the bounds of political processes, in
opening up new domains of political actions” (Radical in Performance 84). It offered
a dramaturgy that both transcended and transgressed representational performance.
In addition, its performance strategy undermined traditional aesthetic conventions
with its lack of “real” acting and rewrote the relationship between spectator and
event by placing the text in the body of the audience member.

To achieve these ends, Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres used audience
participation to firmly establish identification between the participant and the
assumed persona of the refugee psychologically and physically. This connection
was achieved as the participant embodied the experience of another within a
performance context. The spect-actors shed their own identities for that of a
refugee and created, through the choices they made in reaction to the situations
in which they found themselves, the narrative text of the life they inhabited.
This interactive exposition, radically different from representational theatre,
immediately engaged the spectator in an event in which multiple activities
produced a multiplicity of subjectivities, responses, and interpretations. These
various and varied responses overwhelmed a single privileged perspective, and
thus created an open, heteroglossic performance text rather than a single narrative
line. In fact, there were as many narratives as there were spect-actors since the
biography and instructions associated with each refugee identity provided the
scenario for an open narrative that was then completed by the reactions, words,
and feelings of the spect-actor.

Voyage also differed in significant ways from “living history” museums and
sites, like Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities in Minnesota or Old Williamsburg in
Virginia, where visitors retain their own identities and cross time to converse
with the first-person characters (performed by actors) who “live” in the time
period represented by these sites. Here, the visitors vicariously experience the
The Politics of Participation 105

past. At Voyage, on the other hand, the participants grafted the identities of
specific refugees onto their actual identities, a performance strategy that
influenced how they experienced the exposition by altering how they were
viewed and treated. Here they did not watch a documentary on the plight of the
refugee or interact with actors performing the refugees from the security of
their own identity. Instead the participants in Voyage lived the experience and
thus contributed to the construction of its documentation by creating new
memories for themselves from the very different perspective acquired by living,
however briefly, not as secure citizens, but as exiles unsure of their destinies.
The “documentation” was created by and encoded in the body of the participant,
not in a prescribed text. Rather than showing with news-like accuracy what the
refugee experienced, Voyage let the audience feel what it might be like to be a
refugee. Thus the production made porous the border between the recorded
history of actual experiences of real-life asylum seekers and new memories of
experiences actually felt by the participants, but which occurred only within the
theatrical frame. One visitor wrote in the “livre d’or,” “I was Tarik [Iraqi] for a
few short instants. I believed he would achieve his goal up to the last moment.
I had hope for him, hope for me . . . what a hard reality.” What is striking here
is the identification between the spect-actor and the role he adopted even after
he left the performance space.

In many ways, Voyage resembled environments that try to particularize the


visitor’s experience of a moment of history by assigning him/her an identity of
someone, whether real or fictional, who lived through the events. The Holocaust
Museum in Washington, D.C. is just one example. The personalization of the
spectatorial experience at such places enables the visitor to follow in the footsteps
of a witness from that time period. The addition of the participatory performance
element in Voyage, however, does not give the spect-actor the choice to remain
distanced from the experience of the assumed persona. The actors constantly
treat the participant as a refugee, so it is quite difficult to retain a stance of
cognitive witnessing. Actually doing the actions compels the spect-actor to
experience frustration, irritation, even fear.

The form of hands-on pedagogy used in Voyage to draw attention to policies


affecting refugees is seen as confrontational in societies with a tradition of top-
down education where information flows in one direction only. Pierre Bourdieu
identifies a process here that he calls misrecognition. Here particular symbols
and meanings that maintain the dominant ideology and that legitimate inequality
are imposed upon the general population in such a way that they seem natural
and neutral. Misrecognition blinds the population to the ways in which they are
being manipulated to support the interests of the powerful. This “symbolic
violence,” as Bourdieu calls it, occurs in educational institutions certainly, but
also more generally in “diffuse education” (the many ways in which knowledge
is transmitted to people by the media, popular entertainment, and even social
groups and informal discussions). In such environments, ideas supporting the
dominant hegemony are passed on and accepted without question. An “interactive
106 Susan C. Haedicke

exposition” such as Voyage puts a spotlight on misrecognition as it encourages


the spect-actor to understand and experience the implications of current
immigration policies through role-playing. Also it highlights how inaction is a
form of support for the current shift toward tightening restrictions for asylum.
This production thus introduces a new educational model based on Freirian
“problem-posing” and critical thinking.

A few steps after the desk where I received my racial marking, I


encountered a guard who sent me into a holding cell, a freestanding metal
box filled with several other “travelers.” The young man next to me began to
laugh. “What do you think is so funny?” barked the guard. “Nothing,” he replied
with a smirk, well aware that this interrogation was not real, but only play-
acting: he had the luxury to challenge. The guard immediately motioned for
him to stand and herded him out of the cell. We could not see where he was
taken. An audible intake of breath reverberated in our cell, and as the guard
returned, he slammed the outside wall of our metal box with his rifle so that
our bodies felt the sound as it echoed in the walls. The mood in the cell had
changed. The guard filled the doorway and stared at us, challenging another
to laugh. He pointed to me. I stood up, almost trembling, and followed him. He
seized my passport, crumpled it, and threw it on the floor. I had to beg for its
return as he mocked my pleas. When he got bored with this game, he sent me
toward a darkened opening about thirty feet away, created by black curtains,
which set off the next space I would experience. As I walked through the narrow
gap in the curtains, a shrouded figure stepped in front of me to block my
passage. My stomach rose into my throat and my heart pounded. Even though
my mind knew that this was a performance, my body accepted the events as
real. The figure smiled, not a friendly smile, but one that frightened me with
its maliciousness. “If you want to get any further, you must pay me. Otherwise
you won’t make it. Give me your necklace,” she said. I refused. “Fine, have it
your way.” I could not proceed; I could not go back. My tentative foray into
resistance yielded nothing but dismissal. I couldn’t argue since the yellow dot
marked me as someone who simply did not matter: she just would not engage
with me until I finally gave up my necklace. No words were spoken when she
pocketed my necklace and let me pass. As I continued on my way, I could hear
her laugh. I, Susan, was not sure I would see the necklace again.

The passageway opened into a large desolate space around which was
scattered debris like tires, wooden boxes, wire and wire cutters, rope, and old
clothing and boots. Here I read the first of the instruction cards hidden in a
small metal box labeled Wanmin, which was attached to the temporar y wall.
Mine revealed that I, Wanmin, took a series of flights and was able to enter
France through a small provincial airport without much trouble. It was when
I applied for asylum that my difficulties started. Other refugees that I spoke to
after the performance had long sojourns in a refugee camp or grueling
journeys overland from their homelands to Europe, sometimes crossing mine
fields.
The Politics of Participation 107

The performance space representing Europe was divided into several


areas: a waiting room surrounded by many tiny offices with large desks, a
street, shops, a post office, a prison. All the refugees were eventually herded
into the waiting room and handed forms. I, Wanmin, was faced with one
bureaucratic office after another, one incomprehensible form after another.
As soon as I filled out one form, I was handed another. And I waited . . . to
receive forms, to hand forms in, to talk to an officer. Often the bureaucrats
would tear up my form and yell that I had done it wrong. I had to fill in
information about Wanmin that I did not know, and I was shuffled from one
office to the next and stood in one line after another only to find out it was the
wrong line. During one of my interminable waits as Wanmin, I saw one of my
friends who was a Turkish refugee and went over to ask a question. An officer
appeared out of nowhere and stopped us from talking. “Anyway,” he said,
looking at the different colored dots on our foreheads, “you don’t speak the
same language.” Chagrined, we turned from each other. I, Wanmin and Susan,
felt a sharp pang of loneliness and a loss of bearings.

What was most disconcerting, however, was the way people spoke to me—
with impatience, irritation, and lack of respect. I speak French quite well, but
I was terrified that I would not understand, would not be able to make myself
clear, would be mocked. I realized how rarely I had experienced such
dismissive, even cruel, treatment.

Embodying the Experience Through Participation

Voyage relied on participation in the form of role-playing (of borrowing


the identity of another) as a strategy to alter the way in which the spect-actor
perceived what was happening around and to her. More significantly however,
the role-playing altered the way in which she was perceived and therefore treated.
Participation decentered the spect-actor’s ego and stimulated the process of
identification. Once the dot was applied, the identity of the “spectator” ceased
to exist in all exchanges between the spect-actor and the actors playing those
individuals whom an exile meets on her journey, and since the participants
were never given the opportunity to talk together, all of their exchanges were
with the actors. The people encountered by the spect-actor saw the colored dot,
the illegal refugee, and responded accordingly. Clearly, the spect-actor’s identity
could not disappear altogether, but the actors kept it contained quite effectively
when the spect-actor tried to assert himself, as seen in the man’s attempt to
diminish his imprisonment in the metal cell with laughter or my attempt at
resistance with my necklace. To proceed on the voyage, the spect-actor was
compelled to keep his own identity hidden and to respond to what was happening
to him as the refugee. This situation forced the spect-actor into a defensive or
reactive posture that, in turn, reduced the participant’s sense of agency. The
powerlessness experienced by the spect-actor here enabled the participant to
feel on a visceral level, rather than on an intellectual level, the powerlessness
experienced by a refugee, even though the scale was quite different.
108 Susan C. Haedicke

When the “spectators” at Voyage stepped into the skin of the refugee, they
relinquished their roles as passive outside observers. Participation in the “voyage”
turned their spectating bodies into performing bodies—bodies that were
implicated in the actions of the adopted identities by performing the necessary
movements and responding to how they were perceived. So many moments in
Voyage pushed the experience into the body, as when the guard hit the outside
wall of the metal cell with his rifle. Holding the experience in the body was
intensified because spect-actors could not talk together during their voyage;
they could not diffuse the tension but had to experience it alone. In fact, not
only were spect-actors prevented from talking together, they were often in a
space alone. No one else was near when my necklace was taken or when I
crossed the debris-filled area representing the trip from China to France for
Wanmin. This physical isolation also forced the experience inside the body.

The process of identification established through participation in Voyage


forced the participant to bear witness to events made visible through performance.
That notion is complicated however since what is made visible is the absent
body of a refugee who is re-formed in the fictional body represented through
the stories and instructions provided by the production and through the
experiences felt, remembered, and learned by the spect-actor. This fictional body
is grafted onto the actual body of the participant. The absence of the actual
refugee acquires a presence in the body and voice of the spect-actor, but that
presence, in turn, highlights the fictionalization of reality. The gap between the
experiences of an actual refugee and their fictionalized rendering is made smaller,
if not closed, by the spect-actor whose body is actively engaged in the process
of reproducing the plight of another. This witnessing, not just with the eyes, but
with the body, results in an active spectatorship in which the spect-actor not
only contributes to the narrative of the refugee in her reactions to the treatment
she receives, but also begins to create her own memories of exile.

Vivian M. Patraka notes a similar phenomenon in what she calls the


“spectatorial performance” of Holocaust museums. She argues that the museum-
goer is the performer in a site-specific space “where we are asked to change
from spectator/bystander to witness, where we are asked to make our specific
meaning into historical memory” (122). Inherent in the concept of witnessing
for Patraka is an insistence on the significance of the body—not just seeing, but
also feeling, smelling, hearing—in understanding, interpreting, and
contextualizing the objects, the events, the memory. In one vivid example, Patraka
analyzes how the smell of the piles of disintegrating shoes that fill one room at
the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. not only reminds the museum-goer
of the dead bodies from whom the shoes were taken, but also compels the
visitor’s body to respond to what is seen (and smelled). The memory of the
Holocaust is imprinted on the visitor’s body.

Even more directly than in the Holocaust Museum experience, Voyage


implicates the spect-actors’ bodies in such a way that they come to recognize
themselves in the refugees and the refugees in themselves—the “I” and the
The Politics of Participation 109

“you” become intertwined. Kershaw, drawing on the work of Victor Turner,


defines the dual identity of spectator/character in participatory theatre as “a
liminal role, in that it places the participant ‘betwixt and between’ more permanent
social roles and modes of awareness. Its chief characteristic is that it allows the
spectator to accept that the events of the production are both real and not real”
(Politics of Performance 24). I responded “betwixt and between” when my
necklace was taken. As the spect-actor finds herself in situations experienced
by the refugee whose identity she has assumed—even though those performance
situations do not carry the same consequences for the spect-actor as the actual
ones did for the refugee—she responds, especially in her body, to what is
happening to the character. As Augusto Boal insists, the spect-actor sees and
acts on what is seen.

For Boal, the active participation of the audience replaces and negates the
negative impact of an empathic identification in which the “spectator assumes a
‘passive’ attitude, delegating his ability to act” (102). Empathy, he argues, is “the
most dangerous weapon in the entire arsenal of the theater and related arts
(movies and TV). Its mechanism (sometimes insidious) consists in the
juxtaposition of two people (one fictitious and another real), two universes,
making one of those two people (the real one, the spectator) surrender to the
other (the fictitious one, the character) his power of making decisions” (Boal
113). Participation, on the other hand, strives “to change people—‘spectators,’
passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon—into subjects, into actors,
transformers of the dramatic action” (Boal 122). For Boal, what is essential here
is the performing body: “No matter that the action is fictional; what matters is
that it is action!” (122). Going through the action with one’s body gives a reality
to that action: though the situation might be fictional, the act itself is real. Standing
in line in the adopted persona of a refugee makes one’s back hurt just as much
as standing in line as oneself: “What is remembered in the body is well
remembered” (Scarry, Body in Pain 152).

Identification in Voyage went beyond that of active spectatorship and the


performing body. In Voyage, identification between the spect-actor and the
assumed identity of the refugee invited a reconstruction of a sense of self not
only through how one sees, but also through how one is seen by the actors. The
application of the colored dot effectively erased the “spectator’s” identity for
those she met on the quest to obtain refugee status and replaced what had
seemed a relatively stable and secure identity moments before with an unfamiliar
and evolving one. The spect-actors in Voyage, positioned as “other” through
participation in the performance, found their identities not fixed and secure,
but relational and situational, and they were forced to confront the possibility
of the other within their own person. This challenge to one’s identity occurred
not only in theoretical discourse, but also in face-to-face confrontation that
compelled the participants to feel discrimination based on physical indices—in
this case, the colored dot. Given that the actors refused to acknowledge the
participant’s actual identity, she had to recognize that the very real possibility
of revising her image of herself.
110 Susan C. Haedicke

The same technique was used by Jane Eliot, an elementary school teacher
in Iowa, who decided to teach her third graders a lesson in discrimination after
the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—a lesson documented in the film A
Class Divided. She divided her class according to eye color over a two-day
period. On the first day, the blue-eyed children were “superior” and so were
allowed extra recess time, second helpings at lunch, and other advantages, while
the brown-eyed children were “inferior” and so had to wear “collars,” which
looked like wide ribbons pinned loosely around their necks, and had all their
mistakes and shortcomings pointed out. On the second day, the positions of the
two groups were reversed. Eliot found that the children’s personalities changed
very quickly based on how they were perceived: they responded more to how
they were perceived than to how they saw themselves. In fact, how they saw
themselves became less secure. On the day that a young boy was wearing the
collar, he had to explain the cause of his belligerent behavior toward a boy
without a collar. He answered, “He’s better than me . . . well, not that.” Clearly,
his sense of self was slipping. This effect played out in test scores as well: the exact
same test resulted in unusually low scores for the children on the days that they
wearing the collars and unusually high scores on the days without the collars.
Like Eliot’s experiment, Voyage destabilized the individual’s identity to such an
extent that it became difficult to resist the infiltration of an alternative identity.

Kaja Silverman explores this destabilization by looking at how an individual


develops a sense of self and what can undermine it. Drawing on a wide array of
psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Jean Laplanche, Paul
Schilder, and Henri Wallon, she argues that an understanding of “self” is
dependent on a visual identity (or a picture we form in our minds of our own
image) and bodily sensations aroused by how that image is perceived by others,
or to say it another way, how we see ourselves and how others see us. A strong
sense of self, what she calls the moi, occurs when the visual identity and bodily
sensations complement each other; however, when they contradict one another,
the sense of self fades, leaving disorientation and discomfort. This process is
the core of the performance strategy of identification used in Voyage: as the
spect-actor realizes that others do not “see” her as she sees herself and so do
not treat her as she is accustomed to being treated, her previous sense of self
can slip, leaving space for a sense of the other to take hold.

In one of the many interviews I had in the process of trying to gain asylum,
another Chinese, another Wanmin with a yellow dot on her forehead, joined me.
At first, I felt camaraderie—together we could beat the system—until I saw that the
officer preferred my answers. Only one of us would get through and I was tired
of waiting, tired of being moved from one bench to another. I found myself
playing up to the officer, competing with my fellow Chinese, and I got past that
post. My Wanmin was granted a temporary residence visa until my demand
for asylum could be examined. The other Wanmin was sent back to fill out more
forms. I had won—until I, Susan, realized what had just happened, what I had
participated in with such ease, such triumph. I had proudly played into the
hands of the bureaucrats, siding with those in power against a potential ally.
The Politics of Participation 111

I left the catacombs of tiny sterile offices for the “outside” world—an
anonymous European city. Here the temporary walls created a space that gave
the impression of narrow, winding alleyways and small, dingy shops. Another
Wanmin instruction card told me that after many days on the streets, I found
a very distant relative who agreed to give me a bed in the back room of her
laundry and spending money in return for long hours of work in the shop. I
entered the tiny space filled with an ironing board, a large table piled high
with clothing, a broom, a bucket and sponge, a washbasin and washboard,
and numerous other items. There was barely enough room to move. My first
job was to fold a pile of shirts. I was determined to do well. I worked ver y hard
to get to the bottom of the pile, but as I got to the last shirt, I discovered that it
was torn, stained, and glued to the table. My heart started to race as I hid it
under all the shirts I had so carefully folded. Yet again, the disconnection
between the reaction of my mind, reminding me that the participator y
performance would end soon, and the reactions of my body accepting my
experiences as real jarred me as it had so many times before in the hour I had
lived as Wanmin. I was sure that I would receive abuse for the ruined shirt,
but luckily for me, a new immigrant arrived, and a new pile of shirts was
thrown on the ones I had folded. I advanced to ironing and as I finished my
second shirt, I heard my boss berate the new Wanmin who had hurriedly and
carelessly folded the pile of shirts. “Why can’t you fold like her, the one before?”
as she pointed to me. I felt pride and a sense of superiority, accomplishment.
Here once more, the sudden awareness of the nature of those feelings startled
me. I, Susan, was experiencing a willingness to stand passively by, doing
nothing to alleviate another’s pain in order to ensure my own survival—I had
not even known I could feel that way and will never forget how easy it was to
adopt that stance.

I, Wanmin, spent my days working. I ironed. I swept. I washed windows.


I did what my boss told me to do over and over again. I, Susan, began to
experience the tedium of this existence as I swept the tiny space for the tenth
or fifteenth time. Twenty minutes passed for me, but as many months passed
for Wanmin. After many questions about my demand for asylum, I, Wanmin,
learned that my request was refused on the grounds that I faced no real danger
in my homeland aside from poverty. I was labeled an illegal alien and given
three months to leave France or be forcibly deported. My instruction card
explained that I went underground. I never left the laundry. Several months
later, I received a letter from home. My friends missed me; they hoped I had
enough to eat and was happy. The letter was chatty and told me of each of my
friends’ small daily triumphs and disappointments and of their hopes and
dreams. I, Wanmin (or was it Susan?), felt tears well up in my eyes. My
temporar y visa had expired, and if I were caught, I would be deported.
Nevertheless, I became careless and walked in the streets, even during the day.

Very soon, I was picked up, interrogated, and thrown into another
holding pen, this time surrounded by a chain link fence. I remember the police
officer who arrested me as being rough, as grabbing my arm and literally
112 Susan C. Haedicke

shoving me into the prison space so that I tripped. I know that did not actually
happen to me, Susan, since the actors never touched me, but my connection
with Wanmin was such by this time that my body remembered what I imagined
happening to her. I was alone in the relatively large and completely empty
space. I could see nothing outside the fence. Again, I waited, but not for long.
I, Wanmin, was sent back to China. As I, Susan, approached the exit to the
performance space, I confronted life-size posters of the twelve refugees again,
this time accompanied by the stories of their successes or failures to obtain
refugee status. Only two had been granted asylum.

I took off my yellow dot as I left the performance space, which for me
represented China and France and all the pain in between. I was exhausted
and very glad that my ordeal was over—I thought I could be just Susan again
in France legally. Once in the lobby, I sat for a minute with a cup of coffee.
Amazed, I realized that my entire “journey” lasted only one hour—I was sure
that I had been behind those black curtains for several. I was joined by a
woman whom I recognized as the one who took my necklace. She smiled and
asked if I wanted my necklace back. I almost felt guilty for saying yes. I told
her that she had been so real that she had scared me. “That’s because I met
that person,” she replied.

Evaluating the Efficacy of Voyage

Voyage not merely encouraged but rather compelled participants to venture


into new territory characterized by shifting borders of identity. This process not
only called into question the assumed integrity of the self, but also forced an
uncomfortable habitation in the border zone between the self and the other:
“Living on the border is frequently to experience the feeling of being trapped in
an impossible in-between” (Lavie and Swedenburg 15). This “impossible in-
between” moved Voyage beyond an interesting and unusual theatrical experience
to one that could perhaps impel audiences to social action.

The possible efficacy of such a performance event is very difficult to


measure. Kershaw defines efficacy as “the potential that theatre may have to
make the immediate effects of performance influence, however minutely, the
general historical evolution of wider social and political realities,” and he argues
that attempting to establish a causal connection between theatre work and societal
changes is not helpful (Politics of Performance 1). Instead we should “pay more
attention to the conditions of performance that are most likely to produce an
efficacious result.” To evaluate efficacy more convincingly, we must “consider
the potential of performance (both in its specific sense as ‘individual show’ and
in its general sense as ‘a collection of practices’) to achieve efficacy in a particular
historical context” (Kershaw, Politics of Performance 3). It is the performance
strategy of identification through audience participation that provides the key
to determining the potential of Voyage to achieve efficacy. Elin Diamond implies
that permanent change can be a result of identification with another: identification
The Politics of Participation 113

is “an assimilative or appropriative act, making the other the same as me or me


the same as the other, but at the same time it causes the I/ego to be transformed
by the other. What this suggests is that the borders of identity, the wholeness
and consistency of identity is transgressed by every act of identification” (396).

In Voyage, however, the source of a potentially permanent change is perhaps


not the identification that comes from a métissage of the actual and assumed
identities of the participants in Voyage, but rather from the ability to be self-
reflexive about the experience. While participation in Voyage results in
identification between the spect-actor and the refugee, that does not mean that
the spect-actor simply loses herself in the character. Instead she becomes
conscious of watching herself be the character and, in turn, becomes acutely
aware of her own identity. The participant in Voyage witnesses the refugee
responding to the traumas of going into exile and seeking asylum and watches
herself “living” in the body of the refugee. This reflexivity creates a Brechtian-
like alienation effect whose purpose is, as Fredric Jameson explains, “a political
one in the most thoroughgoing sense of the word; it is, as Brecht insisted over
and over, to make you aware that the objects and institutions you thought to be
natural were really only historical: the result of change, they themselves
henceforth become in their turn changeable” (58).

The reflexivity of the performance strategy not only establishes identification


between spectator and refugee, but it pushes each audience member to reassess
his or her assumptions about and understanding of exile and of the powerful
cultural myths of homeland. An audience member must also recognize his or
her own subject position in those master narratives. Participation in the production
shatters what is often assumed to be sure knowledge regarding what exile means,
who a refugee is, and who receives asylum. Stuart Hall, in “Encoding, Decoding,”
distinguishes between the literal meaning—denotation—and the associative
meaning—connotation—of a sign. While the literal meaning is universally
recognized, seemingly natural and fixed, associative meanings are fluid, emotive,
contextual. Connotations offer implied significations based on a “quality, situation,
value or inference . . . ‘maps of meaning’ . . . with a whole range of social
meanings, practices, and usages, power and interest ‘written in’ to them”; they
have the power to “alter and transform signification” (133–34). The aim of Un
Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres is, I think, to add associative meanings to the
literal meaning of the word “refugee.” By layering not only faces and stories of
refugees, but also emotions and memories engraved on the bodies of the spect-
actors, onto the definition provided by the United Nations Convention on the
Status of Refugees and Exiles, the production acts as a cultural intervention, an
interruption, in the dominant discourse on immigration.

For Hall, an overlay of connotative meanings on “already coded signs”


adds political, even “more active ideological dimensions” to signs that once
seemed neutral (133). By personalizing an issue that is distant for many people,
the production prevents a dismissal of the problem, which is easy when the
refugees are just statistics. But the production goes one step further in
114 Susan C. Haedicke

empowering its audiences to act for social justice by providing what Hall calls
an “oppositional code” so that spectators can rethink and re-vision immigration
policies from an “alternative framework of reference,” from the perspective of
someone fearing deportation and experiencing isolation and dislocation. The
production acts as a form of cultural intervention that encourages not only a
reassessment of the justice in granting asylum and a revised definition of who is
a “deserving” refugee, but also a re-evaluation of the ordinary citizen’s complicity
in sustaining a government policy that grants asylum to less than 20% of the
refugees.

How easy it is to be in complicity with the power structures is a lesson


engraved in the participant’s memory as she is placed in numerous situations
where silence or consent is clearly the easiest way around the obstacle. My
reactions in both the interview where I played into the hands of the immigrations
officer and the shop where I stood by as my boss berated the other worker
shocked me as I recognized, after the incident, that I had behaved in a way that
supported and strengthened the power structure. In addition, the reflexivity
encouraged by the performance strategy enabled me to see the hidden and
powerfully persuasive agenda of the dominant ideology, to become aware of
Bourdieu’s “symbolic violence.” Thus Voyage acted as a radical performance
designed to encourage interrogation of immigration policies, to awaken public
ire, and ultimately to contribute to social change.

Some other participants in Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres were not as
affected by the performance as I was. I think my intense involvement was caused
in part by language. I am not a native French speaker, so I did not know some
of the technical terms on the forms and the heavily accented French spoken by
the actors, who were actual refugees, was hard to understand. I often felt lost
since I was unsure if I had understood correctly, so the gap between the
disorientation I actually felt and the dislocation that the production strove to
make the character feel was narrowed by language. According to Silverman, the
reactions of others who seemed determined to remain outside the experience,
who tried to keep a safe distance from the deidealizing image forced on them
through the assumed persona, are more common than mine. Drawing on Franz
Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, she argues that it is impossible to get “inside”
a negative image. “When held by the cultural gaze to an identification with a
deidealizing image, the subject often experiences it as an external imposition”
and strives to reject it or to keep it separate from the moi (Silverman, Threshold
20). The performance strategy of Voyage, however, tries to deny the participant
any space either for one’s own “visual identity” or for a self-imposed distance
from the identity of the adopted role. Even for those who tried to keep their
distance, the experience of being seen and treated as an undesirable alien entered
their bodies.

Although the performance strategy of Voyage seems disempowering since


the performance makes the spect-actor feel so powerless, it actually parallels
Paulo Freire’s strategy of empowerment, which he calls conscientization, where
The Politics of Participation 115

oppressed people develop a critical awareness through dialogue of their social


reality and recognize their ability to transform it through their own actions. It is
just a short step from critical awareness to action for social change. Applying
Freire’s dialogic ideas to theatre, Augusto Boal argues that “dramatic action throws
light on real action. The spectacle is a preparation for action. The poetics of the
oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates
power to the characters either to think or act in his place. The spectator frees
himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action!” (155). He explains
that when one “rehearses” an action on stage, that action or “experience is a
concrete one” (Boal 141). The key to efficacy, for Boal, is the performing body
doing the action—practicing “a real action even though he does it in a fictional
manner” (141).

The performing body is the source of efficacy in Voyage, but here it is the
identification, both physical and psychological, with what one is not—in fact,
an identification that is unpleasant and disconcerting since it is radically
deidealizing—that can result in attempts to affect social change. While in theatre
of the oppressed, the spect-actor experiences agency during the dramatic process,
in Voyage the spect-actor experiences the loss of agency and privilege, and the
memory of losing security, legitimacy, and home, and of being seen as “other”
is stored in her body. It is that embodied memory (as opposed to a rehearsal of
the action or a memory of role-playing) that has the potential to propel the
spect-actor to action after participation in the mise-en-situation. Boal writes
that “perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is
a rehearsal of revolution!”—a claim he makes several times in Theatre of the
Oppressed (155). Perhaps it is too much to assert that Un Voyage Pas Comme
Les Autres acts as a Boalian “rehearsal for revolution,” but to argue that it begins
to raise public awareness about government policies tightening restrictions for
immigration and to reverse public apathy about the plight of refugees is not. Yet
these changes occur slowly.

As I reflect on my experience, however, I ask myself if and how I have


really changed. Will I switch careers to fight for the rights of refugees? Will I
donate time to ease their plight? Will I do more than put money in the box by
the cash register for refugees from Rwanda or Kosovo or Afghanistan or wherever
the next conflict forces its citizens into exile? Probably not. And yet . . . I am
transformed. Wanmin is still with me. Her identity and mine have merged, and I
see her/my face when I hear stories about refugees. I look at issues of immigration
with different eyes. Elin Diamond argues that identification not only has
psychological effects, but political ones as well since it destabilizes our sense of
a secure identity. “Rather than upholding a social status quo, identification might
be seen as producing historical contradiction. . . . To identify is apparently not
only to incorporate but to be incorporated. To be radically destabilized” (391).
After such an upheaval, how could I be the same?

Yet to expect each spectator to alter his/her life course because of one
production is unrealistic and unfair as a criterion for evaluating its ability to
116 Susan C. Haedicke

affect social change. That does not mean, however, that the theatrical experience
lacked efficacy. In their work on postcolonialism, Ruth Frankenberg and Lata
Mani distinguish between “decisive” shifts and “definitive” shifts—political,
economic, and discursive—caused by decolonization. This distinction enables
the authors to acknowledge real changes in thinking and action (decisive shifts)
without claiming “a complete rupture in social, economic, and political relations
and forms of knowledge [definitive shifts]” (283). This distinction, I think, helps
explain the potential efficacy of Un Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres. Audience
participation allows the spectator to experience the situational and relational
nature of identity not in the realm of theoretical discussion, but in the body,
thus causing “decisive” shifts in attitude and understanding which can then be
translated into social action. Like the taste of Proust’s madeleine, that physical
memory remains, and it structures, whether through affirmation or denial or
dismissal, our attitudes toward immigration. Without a doubt, the yellow dot
remains on my forehead and although it is invisible to others, it continues to
influence how I see the other in me and myself in the other.

Susan C. Haedicke teaches drama at The George Washington University and


directs “Inside French Theatre,” a summer program that gives American students
the opportunity to work with Friches Théâtre Urbain, a professional theatre in
Paris, France every summer. She is the co-editor of Performing Democracy:
International Perspectives on Urban Community-Based Performance, (U of
Michigan, 2001). She also works as a professional dramaturg in Washington,
D.C. and Paris.

Notes

1. Throughout the essay, all translations of the published material (available on the Un
Voyage Pas Comme Les Autres websites), and words spoken during and after the
production are my own.

2. See “Asylum Policy”; Europe: Variations on a Theme of Racism; “Free Movement”;


Hamilton; Hargreaves; “Incorporating Schengen”; Loescher and Loescher; Mariner, Miles
112–13; Papademetriou and Hamilton; and Silverman, “Deconstructing the Nation.”

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