Ellen Muriel spent six months volunteering in Europe’s refugee camps and her play ‘You, Me and the Distance Between Us’ is the result of this experience. Nina Klaff caught up with Ellen ahead of her Bristol show.
How did you decide where to start your volunteering journey? For others who may want to do the same, how did you find out about the charities and organisations you could join up with?
I stumbled into volunteering quite randomly actually. I was travelling in Europe last summer and was seeing images of the boats arriving all over the news. In September, I went to visit friends in Athens and decided I would try and spend a few weeks volunteering before heading home from my trip. They advised me to head to Lesvos where there was the greatest need for aid so I booked a ferry and turned up without really knowing what I would find. Once there, I soon came across a grassroots organisation called Starfish who ran a transit camp called Oxy and became heavily involved for the next few months. This experience led me to the Jungle in Calais where I worked for a well established group called ‘L’Auberge des Migrants,’ and after that set up a project with 4 friends called SolidariTea which ran a tea tent in Idomeni camp on the Greece-Macedonian border for several months.
What made you want to make a play about your experiences?
I came up with the idea to try and make a play about my experiences after my time in Calais as I was really struggling with how to process a lot of what I was seeing and experiencing and felt very frustrated by the biased and sensationalised perspective being shown in the media. On the other hand however I felt uncomfortable about the prospect of being another white, middle-class university graduate talking about a humanitarian crisis that I wasn’t living. After my time in Idomeni however, I felt so frustrated and angry about how little it featured in the British news media that I thought I had to at least try to use my background in theatre to get people talking about the realities of this situation. So I decided to begin with myself and my own experiences as they were the only stories I felt I had the right to tell, addressing my expectations and insecurities in the hope that it would resonate with people at home.
You perform songs, slam poetry, use puppets to tell your story. How did you decide in which medium to tell your stories in?
When I first started the rehearsal process I really had very little idea about what mediums I would use or what the final product would look like. I started from my diaries and the images that came alive when I read them. Then, through experimentation in the rehearsal room, I soon which found styles and forms best suited which stories and ideas. For me, the beauty of puppetry in particular, is that it can be used to gracefully express sensitive situations and subjects which are often so hard to otherwise deal with in a tactful way.
I understand you’re an Exeter graduate, was drama something you explored there?
I studied theatre at university, so I always planned to develop a career in this industry. I never really thought of myself as an actor though but instead focused on devising theatre as part of an ensemble. It has therefore been a challenging but empowering process to develop an hour-long show where it is only I on stage.
Why did you feel it was important for you to perform alone?
I didn’t intend to perform alone but at the time when I came home and felt motivated and inspired to begin working on this project the people who I was keen to work with were caught up in other projects. I thought I would incorporate them into it at a later date but as the process went on the piece developed a very personalised and simple style, entirely based on the relationship between me and the audience, and this felt important to maintain.
How have your experiences changed how you feel about how you use your time?
Readjusting to being back at home was a real challenge, which is why I haven’t managed to stay at home for very long. Instead I’ve found it easier to stay on the road, continuing to volunteer and then touring the show as much as I can, especially to the communities of those whom I shared the volunteer experience with. It’s been really therapeutic to visit volunteers again, from all over Germany and Denmark, and share the performance with them, their friends and families. Everyone deals with the transition differently but I think it’s important that we all work to our own unique strengths to bring the experiences home with us and channel the energy into something constructive, however big or small. It’s easy to let it overwhelm you, or feel that once home you are disconnected to the situation. But actually there are always things you can do, in your local communities, and so many ways you can get involved. When I first came home I felt so frustrated with my background in the arts, I felt so inadequate and that my skills weren’t useful, but over time, I to found my own way to contribute and this is something we all can do if we just accept ourselves and start from where we are.
Catch Ellen’s show with That’s What She Said and the University of Bristol Feminist Society on Friday 28th October at Hamilton House: https://www.facebook.com/events/348160362195044/