World Homeless Day: 'This is Not a Hat', applied theatre, and homelessness in Russia

Natalia Jafar-Biglou describes her work creating an interactive drama performance with marginalised women in Russia

 Artwork by Charlotte Ager

Artwork by Charlotte Ager

For the past six months I have been running an applied theatre project, working with women experiencing homelessness in Russia.

Broadly speaking, applied theatre is the use of theatre and performance for social change, often as a response to social or political challenges. It involves using theatre techniques with people who don’t consider themselves to be artists, creating work outside of traditional theatre spaces in order to discuss, educate or heal. All participants are involved as active theatre makers in the process and the aims of the project are dictated by what the community thinks they need.

I’ve worked with more than 30 women over the duration of the project. Some are affected by war, including the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine and South Ossetia in the Caucasus. Many have left violent and abusive partners and some have been defrauded out of their homes. Others have disabilities and ill health which prevent them from working, and they do not receive any support from the state. I’ve even worked with a participant from Cameroon, who came to Russia during the World Cup as a refugee using a Fan ID.

Their routes to homelessness are multiple. What they share is one thing: the way homelessness disempowers, makes invisible – the way they are by and large, silenced.

one of the biggest barriers to dealing with homelessness is the belief that people are homeless because of their choices

Homelessness is a big problem in Russia. Official government statistics say 3.4% of population is homeless – but it isn’t clear whether this includes ‘invisible’ people who aren’t registered. By way of comparison, 0.46% of the UK population is homeless. The problem has a particularly sinister way of affecting women, who face having a period without access to supplies, the risk of sexual assault, and being pregnant without access to services.

One of the biggest barriers to dealing with homelessness in Russia is the stigma that surrounds it: the belief that people are homeless because of choices they have made. This is a common belief across cultures, though the reality is homelessness is not a choice and safe, secure housing is a right for everyone.

applied theatre can use exercises or games to uncover essential truths about societies

My project culminates in a one-off performance of our play ‘This is Not a Hat’ on 10 October, World Homeless Day, in partnership with Russian theatre company Teatr.doc. The formidable creative team includes dramaturge Anastasia Patlay and designer Shifra Kazhdan. Our aim is to use theatre as a discourse and facilitate a dialogue about the stigma surrounding homelessness. The performance will feature both audience members and project participants.

Throughout the process of creating the play, I have used ‘exercises or games designed to uncover essential truths about societies without resorting to spoken language’, to quote Adrian Jackson, founder of the UK’s first theatre company focused on homeless people. The performance will feature a number of these exercises too.

For example, in one exercise, participants are asked to identify two other people in the room and label them ‘bomb’ and ‘shield’. Participants have to walk around the room keeping their ‘shield’ between themselves and their ‘bomb’. Discussing the response to this exercise as a group can help shed light on what it feels like to be someone’s ‘bomb’, what it feels like when someone avoids eye contact and rushes past you.

In another exercise, I ask participants to stand in a circle facing outward. I give them a word as a prompt (for example a dragon, a boat, the colour red) and they have ten seconds to turn in to the circle and use their bodies and faces to create a still image in response to the word. During one workshop I ran this exercise and prompted with the word ‘home’. In response, Kristina, a 34-year-old mother of one who has been defrauded out of her home in the far east of Russia, mimed being asleep. When I asked what she was dreaming about she said, “A world of love and safety. My family around me, around the table, with freshly baked bread and a glass of homemade wine in my hand”.

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Natalia Jafar-Biglou is a British Theatre Practitioner of Polish and Iranian descent. She uses theatre techniques to create spaces for conversation, empowerment and transformation in communities. For more information about Natalia’s work in Russia visit her theatre company: www.koloboktheatre.com.

For more information about ‘This is Not a Hat’, being performed at the Fergana House in Moscow, see the event’s Facebook page.

For more of Teatr.doc’s work, Pushkin House is hosting a reading of a new play about the deaths of the group’s founders, next Friday 19th October. Tickets are available here. Also, on 20th October we are showing video excerpts of the company’s most significant performances. More information here.