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Interview with Closed Lands Director Becka McFadden: Why is the "free world" obsessed with walls?

The fall of the Berlin Wall is still regarded as a momentous and significant event; a turning point in our collective histories towards unification and peace. Flash forward 30 years and the world is more obsessed with putting up walls than ever. What does this mean for our future and those whom these boundaries divide?

LegalAliens' Closed Lands seeks to explore these ideas through an ambitious blend of performance art and multimedia where actors rotate through a variety of parts: migrant, politician, citizen, CEO and VIP bot. This device starkly emphasises the arbitrariness of the roles we inhabit; our identities come largely from the place in the system we are born into and not our intrinsic worth.

As part of the Migration: Harbour Europe project and starring an all-female international cast, Closed Lands embeds its performers' stories and experiences within the production, in addition to conversations with migrants and refugees who have attended LegalAliens' theatre workshops. We caught up with Director, Becka McFadden, to talk more about this unique piece of art.

Kerenza Evans: Closed Lands incorporates a unique fusion of poetry, satire, reportage, multimedia and traveller's diary. What were the challenges in representing all these different art forms in a mere 50 minutes?

Becka McFadden: Closed Lands is written as a series of poems that writer Simon Grangeat calls ‘chants’. We hear different tones and voices in the text, which our staging works to highlight through the use of a number of archetypes (the Politician, the Citizen, the Migrant, the Media, the Logistics Specialist, etc.). The archetypes emerge from our reading of the text and correspond to particular tones. Showing them as clearly distinct from one another gives us the chance to break down that structure later and lean into the satirical and the grotesque, as well as to find moments of tenderness and humanity.
Kerenza: How did you showcase the varied range of locations and time periods within the play?
Becka: Our approach to this production embraces theatricality and artifice - we’re not aiming for literal representation here. Still, because we move from the Berlin Wall, to the border between the United States and Mexico and then to various entry points to Europe, it’s important to us that we provide enough context to orientate our spectator. We do this through the use of light, sound and projection and also through the physical work of the performers.
Kerenza: How does the use of technology enhance the performance?
Becka: Our production is very much a staging of the discourse around migration. As citizens, we consume this through the media, so it’s important to us that we see this process playing out. Having Media both embodied onstage and projected via a variety of means allows us to (mis)inform, direct and redirect the audience’s attention.
Kerenza: Your cast rotate through roles such as migrant, politician and citizen. What were the creative reasons behind this?
Becka: We want our staging to highlight that the political/immigration/security complex is a system, with a variety of interconnected positions. Where we stand in that system is an accident of birth and geopolitics. We see this most clearly with the citizen and the migrant - any of us could occupy either of those position at any time, there’s an element of randomness to it. We want our audiences to see each of the performers in each of those roles, to emphasise that any of us could occupy them, that it’s the position in the system that determines how much privilege and power an archetype holds, not the person.
Kerenza: The play is based on factual research - where did you uncover the testimonies that shaped the narrative?
Becka: Simon Grangeat was inspired to write Closed Lands after witnessing the arrest of the migrant father of one of the children at his daughter’s school. He went on to do significant research and was also inspired by Wendy Brown’s book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, which we have also read and which examines the contemporary global phenomenon of wall building. Because this piece is so much a staging of the conversation about migrants and migration as opposed to a literal representation of migrants themselves, a big area of research for us has been looking at news coverage of migrants, migration and borders, in the UK, in the United States and elsewhere. We’ve also spoken with experts in UK immigration and asylum law and the stories shared with us by the migrants and refugees who attend LegalAliens’ theatre workshops have also informed our process.
Kerenza: Closed Lands has an all-female international cast. Have you drawn any inspiration from their respective backgrounds?
Becka: Yes, it’s significant that all of us - and that includes every single person on our team - are veterans of immigration processes. We have shared a number of stories with one another as part of the research and rehearsal process and you can actually find some of these in our teaser videos. While our own experiences give us a way of connecting with the material and mean that we all have a strong personal investment in this story, it’s important to us to emphasise that our experiences are not uniform and can’t speak for the totality of experiences that fall under the umbrella of “migration".
Kerenza: As world affairs continually become more unpredictable and turbulent, do you feel a responsibility to make more political works?
Becka: Personally, I think all art is always political. We don’t make theatre in a vacuum and even claiming one’s work isn’t political is itself a political act. This is also very much the ethos of LegalAliens, which is why I enjoy working with them so much. All of us in the company do certainly feel a responsibility in the current climate to use the tools at our disposal to bring people together to really look at what is happening, to interrogate and discuss and to think about where we sit in relation to current events and how we might respond.
Kerenza: Are there any plans to tour Closed Lands around the UK or further afield?
Becka: Yes to both of these, assuming the UK government’s proposed artist visa plans don’t get in our way. We hope to be able to announce these soon.
Kerenza: Closed Lands is part of the project 'Migration Harbour Europe' - can you tell us a bit more about this?

Becka: Migration: Harbour Europe was a project LegalAliens initiated with New Tides Platform and Migrant Dramaturgies network in autumn 2018. It began as a call for plays in European languages dealing with the theme of migration. We were particularly looking for works from writers who had a personal connection to the topic. From over 150 submissions, we chose three plays to take forward to an R&D supported by Arts Council England in January 2019. Closed Lands was one of these; the other two were Genesis by Italian playwright Chiara Boscaro and The Sea is My Nation by Lebanese-French playwright Hala Moughanie. Genesis is currently being developed by the community actors in LegalAliens’ workshops for migrants and refugees and we hope to bring The Sea to full production in the future.
Closed Lands is at the Vault Festival from March 3-8 2020. Tickets are available here.

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