Anybody Everybody Tottenham

Dreaming of a Theatre for Haringey - Lara, Legal Aliens

December 18, 2022 Jamila Season 2 Episode 30
Anybody Everybody Tottenham
Dreaming of a Theatre for Haringey - Lara, Legal Aliens
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Today is International Migrant Day - what a perfect release date for my conversation with Lara Parmiani from the theatre company Legal Aliens who are working right here in Tottenham with migrants and refugees. I really like the thinking behind the workshops for migrants to empower them to use their presence and voice. I also appreciate how self reflective and critical Lara is about their first efforts.

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Jamila  0:07  
Hi I'm Jamila and anybody everybody Tottenham is bimonthly podcast introducing the good people of Tottenham to you. 18th of December is international migrant day. And today I'm talking to Lara from legal alien theatre company, right here in Tottenham, an organization that was founded by migrants and is run for migrants and refugees. Today on the pod, I've got Lara Parmiani from the theatre group, legal aliens, is that what you would call it? a theatre group? How do you describe the ...?

Lara  0:44  
 Theatre Company

Jamila  0:46  
So, welcome. (Thank you). Can you tell me a little bit about how you "ended up" in Tottenham or Haringey?

Lara  0:54  
Yeah, of course, well, I am a migrant in this country. And by pure chance when I landed in London 23/24 years ago, I ended up in north London. And I've always been living in in the area. It was just by pure chance. When I arrived in London, I didn't know anyone and I just found a room in the house of a musician from Scotland.

Jamila  1:25  
What were your first impressions of London of Haringey? 

Lara  1:29  
Well, I think Haringey has always been incredibly diverse. And I think that, as always, kind of made me really excited. I always liked the fact that I wasn't the only odd one out the way that you know, there were so many people who were foreigners, like me, who have accents, who kind of looked a bit different. And so I felt that it was a very welcoming place. And I think Haringey still is. 

Jamila  2:01  
And how have things changed, would you say maybe particularly in Tottenham over the last few years,

Lara  2:07  
Tottenham has really changed you know, the station is quite a you know, it's quite symbolic of I remember, you know, as, as somebody with not much money coming flying in from Italy always going to Stansted and so you know, obviously Tottenham Hale was like, where all the trains from Stansted Airport arrived, it was rundown. And, and now there's all this kind of redevelopment all around it. So there is a fear that redevelopment like in other parts of London, may push may push away people who can't then afford it any longer. So I really, you know, I really hope that that won't be the case. Because it feels it feels like a pattern that is repeated itself in many areas. And I really, really hope that that won't happen. But I mean, I'm not holding, because it seems to be, you know, the moment an area starts looking nicer, and, um, you know, cafes and things like that, you know, pop up, immediately prices go up, and people can't afford it anymore. So I think is still very much a place where migrants move to and where there are communities from from all over the world. So that hasn't changed.

Jamila  3:29  
So can you tell me a little bit about your background and how it then came to the foundation of legal aliens?

Lara  3:36  
Yeah, sure. I was born in Italy, in a part of Italy that probably looks more like Tottenham than, like, you know, Tuscany. It's, it was a very, very kind of industrial, post industrial town on the outskirts of Milan, it was quite cold and gray in winter, but with a very, very strong sense of community. And, and funnily enough, we do have a migrant kind of tradition but within Italy. So like where I was, there were a lot of people including my mom's family from the south, migrating at that time that you know, they were considered migrant, you know, to the north, so that there was a sense of community again, people from all over Italy in that case. Although my other grandmother was a Hungarian refugee, so you know, all sorts of stuff. And I studied theater at university and also at a drama school in Milan, but the situation in Milan was - in Italy in general for women was in I thought untenable, like the kind of misogyny that I met trying to be a performer was really heartbreaking. I mean, I was only like in my early 20s, and on the verge of a of a mental breakdown because of the constant harassment and so I had a singing teacher at drama school who was from London and she said, "Oh, you know, there is Central School of Speech and Drama, they're having some summer workshops. Why don't you try?2 So I ended up in north London. And when I came to London, yeah, I fell in love with London and with this sense of being able to be anything, in a way. And it was a bit of an illusion, because it wasn't really real, because then I met other walls and other obstacles. But at the moment, I thought, oh, I can be invisible, I can be anything, I can be powerful, because, you know, everything is possible here. And there was this. And at that point, I tried to be an actor and a performer in this country. And I realized that it wasn't possible that there was no one like me, there was no one with a foreign accent that, really, you didn't see migrant actors on stage or on TV, if they needed a foreign accent, they will get a British person and do a fake accent. And so I really felt like because I had an accent, I was completely invisible. And the rest of me didn't count. I felt that I was treated like I was stupid. And so it was really quite a shock in a way to see that this place that felt so welcoming and so open actually had all this kind of much more invisible structures, because in Italy, the obstacles and the walls are really in your face, like you know that there is no way in, I think here it is much subtler, it's a question of class as well. You know, who did you go to school with? I didn't know anyone when I came here, literally nobody. I didn't have a partner. I didn't have my family here. It took me a while. But I realized that if I wanted to make theater and art that I cared about, I had to just do it myself somehow. So and because I met other people like me. So I decided, Okay, let's get together. And that's how illegal aliens were started. So it was first of all, to platform, migrant artists, make different theatre, tell different stories, using also different kind of methodologies. But then the next step was, Okay, try to have a voice, how can we also become people for our own communities. So that's why I thought, I really also wanted to go, not only to make professional theatre, which we still do, but also to bring theater to communities and to, again to migrant communities and refugee communities. And people who never - maybe have this big dream of performing, but would never dare.

Jamila  7:31  
Yeah. Because you mentioned class, which I find quite strong here in the UK. And then I wonder about because you work with different migrant groups. Is there also a class element in many other cultures regarding theatre and drama? Or is it more like democratic in other countries? What have you found?

Lara  7:52  
I think that class is a very British thing. I, obviously, I think in every country in the world, if you come from wealth, you can afford being an artist much more than if you don't have money. There's absolutely no doubt about it. But I think what's different in this country is, for instance, how people get judged for their accent. So like for instance, in Italy, I think in other European countries, at least, the moment you walk into a room and open your mouth, people don't immediately kind of judge on the basis how you speak. You know,  Oh, you know, she's middle class. She's upper class. Usually, that doesn't really ...

Jamila  8:35  
It's more a  regional thing. No?

Lara  8:37  
it's more of a regional thing. Yeah, absolutely. So you know, you can tell Oh, yeah, she's from the south. She's from the north, but not like, she's rich. She's poor. And I think here it is very much like that. And there is almost like an identity that comes with being working class being, middle class. Well, I do feel at least where I was, where I came from, there was much more mixed in a way and, and less. But what I found here, and I think it is something that a lot of people fail to recognize. The migrants, I think have no matter what you have back home, we do tend to have much more in common with working class people because we don't have networks because we don't we don't know people we start from scratch. When I have friends in the industry who are working class British people. There's that kind of communality of, you know, we are not part of those rooms, where people are going to university together or you know, their dad is a friend of you know, such and such. And so we are outsiders, very much so, unless unless you are super rich.

Jamila  9:45  
And how did you go about you know, founding this company? What were you doing to finance yourself? What was your your day job?

Lara  9:54  
We weret quite lucky because quite soon we started getting funds from The Arts Council for instance, and also smaller funds from we got funded by the lottery several times, we got funded by some smaller funds. But personally, me what I did do in Italy before coming here, in Italy, there is a big tradition of dubbing and voiceovers and I started doing that when I was literally a teenager. And so I came here, let's say with this very specific tools and techniques that I had, you know, the voice linked to the voice world. And so I managed to sign up with a voice agent, and therefore kind of supported myself through that. At the very beginning, I also taught Italian, I basically taught anything that could possibly teach - how to present yourself in public - how to use your voice - how - yeah, my mom was always laughing, because like, "you always find that kind of a different way to kind of sell what you do and put them to support yourself. " I've always tried to yeah, I have almost like a parallel income because you know, living only on theater, that's when class, you know, it goes back into it.

Jamila  11:15  
So tell me about how did you go about so you were like, I want to start this company. What did you do?

Lara  11:21  
Well, at the beginning, we just basically got together and said, Okay, you know, what do we do? And the first thing that we noticed was that in London despite all this amazing kind of diversity, there was very little in terms of theater in translation, like you didn't see plays from other countries. So we thought, okay, you know, let's, let's do a play in translation, thinking t  hat there would be something somehow easy and we didn't realize how difficult even just to ...

Jamila  11:51  
What does it mean - a play in translation?

Lara  11:54  
So basically a play in that case, it was Italian, I had just been to the theater in Italy. I remember during Christmas, I you know, went home, I went to see a play called the return - Il ritorno. And I really liked it. And I thought, oh, you know, it only has what four characters quite simple.  How I can translate it into English and try to put it on, it's just that at that point, all the difficulties of - a lot of difficulties, A. the difficulties of translating something that is very cultural specific into another culture in another language, because you can't just translate as if it was a piece of text for, for a website, we did the first translation, and we realized that the English version first of all was like 20 pages shorter, because English is so much kind of compact as a language. And also, it came across as very violent, because in the original, the characters were like, swearing at each other a lot, but in a way that was very funny in Italian, and it was very linked to Catholic kind of imagery. So it was quite funny. And all the fun in English completely disappeared. So basically, we realized we had to spend literally ages to rewrite to find the equivalent to and then we realized that we'd really like to play with multilingualism. So we just left stuff in Italian, like, you know, the swearing was all done in Italian for it. And then it was a question of okay, we have a play, what do we do with it, which is incredibly difficult, you know, if you don't have already a venue attached, for instance, something in Tottenham that I think is really lacking there is I would say probably one theater. But there isn't really a theater space that programs a lot of stuff. And I think it's something that is really for such a big area, I would say the whole of Haringey, in fact.The fact that we don't have a theater where you can pitch an idea and they would kind of try and do it with you. It's  really sad and it's something that in my dreams of dreams, you know, I would like to, to have a space and open a theater and finally you know have the possibility of doing that. So it takes months to find where to present this play. And we had the backing of the Italian Institute with that. No, we did it for a few nights at the Camden theatres festival. And then we did it at the St. James's theater. So we did it in different places, and it went really well. So you know, that's how we started. But each project at the beginning each project was taken for ever, we can really try and present stuff with our group of professional actors, but at the same time, we want people who are from this kind of migrants and refugees communities to be part of it, to watch the plays but also to try and and do something themselves. So we also brought some extras  

Jamila  15:01  
How has this been with the refugees?

Lara  15:03  
It's been amazing. It's been that was the beginning of our community outreach program, which has been, I would say probably one of the most successful things that we've done so far. And we've done it in collaborations with some amazing organizations in Haringey one is Haringey Welcome. And then the Engine room in Tottenham Hale, basically, what we did was with the with funding from the Arts Council and the lottery community funds, we started running these sessions that run every single Monday, every week, free for migrants and refugees and people with English as a second language. So basically, what we realized was that there was a lot of talking about doing things with migrants or refugees, we are talking 2016 /17, you know, when people saw the picture of the dead body of the child on (the beach) and everyone was like, oh, you know, we need to help refugees, and a lot of artists very well intended, just started saying, "oh, you know what, I'm going to go to Calais and do a Shakespeare show, or I'm going to go to a refugee center, and do workshops, asking them to share their stories." There was a lot of that. And to be fair, you know, I put my hands up, I was almost part of it. Like I thought, okay, you know, I want to do something with refugees and migrants and recent migrants and to try and empower them and blah, blah, blah. So I did, the first few sessions we did them as a one off. And I realized that they were really, first of all, nobody was really particularly interested in coming to the session. (laughs) Like, you know, like, because I remember, it's so and I realized, gosh, how arrogant is it? Like for theatre companies to, to just send emails to random migrant charities and say, "Oh, we're doing a theater, show a Theatre Workshop, send us people", you know, any charity dealing with migrants and refugees, they're so tired, they're so understaffed, you know, that they will ask, okay, what is the point of all of this? What do they get out of your one day Theater Workshop? And they are right. You know, like, of course, they didn't have any interest in helping us or anyone else. Because it did feel very much like, Okay, you're doing it for yourself, you know, to clean your conscience. But you know, what does this do? So then there was a charity that doesn't exist anymore it was called Migrants Resource Center in Tottenham, and they said to me, people really need an alternative to ESOL conversational classes, because there's not enough. And so if you want charities to work with you, why don't you kind of explain that for people coming to the theater class is as an excellent way to practice English. And, and if you keep that in mind, and you focus also on the articulation and on the vocal techniques and how to present themselves, that is something that actually would be really useful to people. And it will be useful for anyone running ESOL classes, because sadly, there's not enough provision. So we teamed up with that ESOL classes, and that's when the project started. And that's when I realized, you can't just do it once or twice, you have to do it like a class, like an English class, there has to be a regular space that they know it's there. Because it's so important to develop relationships over time, people, especially the people that come from trauma. And not everyone in the class comes from trauma, some are European migrants that feel really isolated for instance. But you know, like especially people who come from trauma, don't want to go to a class and immediately kind of go for it. They kind of, you know, they want to kind of study you a little bit and say okay, who is this person? You know, are they genuine? You know? Why are they doing this for free? There is a lot of things like why is this a free class?

Jamila  19:11  
Yeah. What do you normally do? What is the layout of this class? If I because I'm obviously English as a second language, so if I'm coming next Monday, what can I expect ?

Lara  19:23  
In the class? Okay, we always start usually with like, some games and especially if we have new people, we do you know games with the ball where you throw the ball, they say people's names and start to kind of warm up, warm up the atmosphere and making sure everyone knows each other. Everyone knows each other's names. Everyone knows how to pronounce some of these names correctly, which I think is very important. You know, so often people say, oh, you know, what is your name and they kind of use a variation of your name, which in itself, I think is quite insulting in a way. It's one of these kind of microaggressions that is. There was this guy called hasuan {??) and he told me, Don't worry, just say, gus, and I'm like, I want to learn how to say your name. And you know if everyone fails miserably. We can call you gus but, you know, I think people should really learn how to pronounce a name. It's not that much to ask. So we do that, then we do breathing. So I talk a lot about presence, and about what it is. Performing really has a place in people's lives, it also gives you some life skills. And I think one of the greatest life skills that you can acquire, especially as a migrant, where you are an outsider in somebody else's country, is to develop your presence and to develop as kind of a self confidence about your body in space. So and about your voice, as well. So we work a lot on breathing, we work a lot on voice placement. And just you know, we did a couple of sessions that were really beautiful, actually, about how you walk into a room. How do you walk into a room taking space with you, and not just shrinking trying to disappear? Because I don't know, you're shy, or you're scared, or English is not your first language. So you are scared of making a mistake when you go for an interview. So all these things are very at the basis of any performance technique. But I feel they're also the basic of any live interaction where you want to feel more powerful. And I think empowering is one of the most important things. We also do some free writings and improvisations. And then we work on text, but text is the last thing that we normally work on.

Jamila  21:38  
Let's talk a little bit. So legal aliens, you started in 2010. So it's been going for over 12 years. Now, what were some of the highlights?

Lara  21:48  
I would say the the Tottenham project is one of the things I'm mostly proud of, because I can really see the impact. It has on people, I love being there. And I do believe in the power of theater. And you know, I didn't know whether they were going to be successful. But you know, the group is growing. We have new people all the time. And I do feel that even if there's just a little, little, little tiny bit of difference that you can make in somebody's life. I'm also proud of the shows that we've managed to produce with a lot of sweat. We did a show called poker face that we managed to tour. It gave us a lot of joy in terms of the reaction that we had from the audience was it was definitely a very different show. During COVID. We did a podcast series it was a series of monologues called things I'm not - it was 10 monologues written and performed by 10 migrant women, including myself, and then post COVID we had very little money and so all of a sudden I felt a bit lonely. So my goal what I'm gonna do so I I transformed my podcast monologue into a show called Shape shifting that was commissioned by the migration matters festival in Sheffield. It was the first time I performed out of London is like London, I feel in my little cocoon. I feel really safe in London, and I went to Sheffield and it went really well. So I would like now to take it back to London. But yeah, that's something that has given me a lot of joy as well.

Jamila  23:17  
Do you try to produce like one play every year? Or is there like a rhythm?

Lara  23:23  
Ideally yes, it's not always possible. I think we were on track pre COVID And then you know, you feel the post COVID cause also because of the rents, theaters don't want to take any risks. So it's really hard to pitch shows and to have venues kind of wanting to work with you. One of the other things if I can mention it that I was really proud going back to the community project was that we actually did a show devised by them last summer, and it was called ali in wonder(Eng)land. And it was really cool. I thought they were fantastic. And I really want to do it again. I really want to do it. I would like to do it in Tottenham. I would like to do it at the Bernie grant if I manage to. Yeah, as well. Not only 

Jamila  24:13  
Do you have at the moment, a show that people can go and see or?

Lara  24:18  
Not at the moment we are going to definitely do Ali in wonder(england) like again probably in spring so I hope that I am going to do shapeshifting in London, but the workshops we've just finished the last one.

Jamila  24:32  
Can you tell us a little bit about Haringey Welcome?

Lara  24:35  
Yeah, Haringey welcome is an amazing organization it is a grassroots organization made of residents of Haringey and it's mainly a campaign group. So it's not a charity that let's say works directly providing services to migrants or refugees. It's mainly a campaign group that is in contact with a lot of other organizations who provide direct services. And basically it's a group to campaign for foreigners and welcome towards all residents of Haringey. No matter where they're from. It started very, very small, and I wasn't the original group that started in 2015. I think they started as a group called Refugees Welcome Haringey and with the intent of lobbying the council to resettle 10 Syrian families and we had a petition and a campaign and the campaign was very successful. So we decided that obviously the focus on refugee is still very strong, but we just wanted to do campaign for fairness towards all migrants and refugees in Haringey. So the name was changed to Haringey welcome. And so every year usually there is a different campaign and a different kind of goal that the group wants to achieve. We've run some very beautiful campaigns, the no recourse to public funds is a particularly important issue that we encounter many times because another campaign was in collaboration with Doc's not cops. So if it was about access to GP services, for instance. So it's about really raising awareness about the way that refugees and migrants with no recourse to public funds are treated in our borough, and all over the country. Really, we work locally, but the issues are not just Haringey related, obviously, because I think a lot of people don't realize they don't realize that some migrants don't have permission to access the NHS for instance, or some people don't realize that actually, GP practices don't have to ask for documents, you should be able to register with a GP without producing your passport. But and there is a lot of kind of discrimination made simply on surnames, you know, where people ask for your passport and that can really put people off especially if people have a like a, let's say a status in between or they're waiting to hear about interviews and blah blah blah, it can put people off and they are scared of accessing public services and that could be really detrimental to people's health. There is also a group called Welcome advisory board in collaboration with Haringey council so there's a lot a lot of activities there. Haringey welcome is involved in and I really you know I encourage anyone who wants to help to join Haringey welcome there are some meetings twice a month usually on Zoom and then different kinds of campaigns and activities that people can do to help the group and raise awareness.

Jamila  27:41  
Lara are you ready for some top tips Tottenham? 

Lara  27:44  
All our work is around Tottenham Hale and I really you know I really like Tottenham Hale and the hale village I think is as a redevelopment is a fantastic place and it has a fantastic community and we are at the engine room and I really encourage everyone to visit the cafe that has fantastic coffee and very nice food and I think 

Jamila  28:05  
This comes from an Italian! Nice coffee and nice food it has to be proper nice

Lara  28:10  
yah yah yah yah yah yah, yah, I think some of them are Italian are they Italian? I don't know. Now I don't want to say something that is not true. I I am acutely fanatic when it comes to coffee. And sometimes I travel to the other side of London, you know, if I if I am somewhere where I can't find coffee, you know, I just go slightly bananas, but their coffee is really good. So from an Italian just go. (Any other top tips?) I really like the walks along the marshes and the canals actually, again from Tottenham Hale just going and there is a beautiful pub there as well, just near the kind of I can't remember now what it was called now - I am terrible with names, yeah, it's beautiful. I mean, I liked the walks around and, and it's funny, like sometimes you live in a neighborhood and it takes years to discover certain things.

Jamila  29:01  
Anything else?

Lara  29:03  
I feel that Tottenham is not a place that people know much and they don't really don't appreciate like, you know, also the hidden gems in terms of architecture and sometimes it's just a question of like really taking a walk around and discover little snippets. I mean, sometimes I take my camera and take pictures of streets and kind of like the mix between old and new, which I think is typically London in many places. You know, you have like a Victorian house and and then you've had this superb kind of modern building. Some people hate it. I find it really, really interesting.

Jamila  29:42  
Yeah, I think it's very symptomatic. I like the layers of immigration. You can see you know, like when you're on green lanes, you see some of the Greek Cypriot what they left behind when they then moved on. So I like I like this layering of different ...

Lara  30:00  
I love the layering myself. Yeah, I do. I do. And here's how you can go from one. Yeah, from one country to the other almost from one wave of migration to the next and, and I think that especially somewhere like Tottenham and Haringey in general, I think there is such a beautiful mix. That's a big strength of the place, and something that people tend not to understand as well. And not to not to appreciate enough. 

Jamila  30:30  
So thank you very much for this interview. Thank you. I've learned a lot. Maybe I'm coming to a Monday session.

Lara  30:39  
Please do we are always open to anyone. And you can only just come for once and then if you don't like it you don't you know, nobody's going to chase you.

Jamila  30:51  
Thank you so much for taking the time. Thank you.

So I will link in the show notes. The social handles for legal alien, but also for Haringey welcome. They're quite active on Twitter. And they're running a couple of things at the moment. And also, I looked into the podcast series, but because it's only kind of running on Spotify, Apple, and I think she said Google, I don't quite know which one I should then link in for people to be able to access it. I might just try and do one of them. I have already recorded the next episode. And I'm thinking of releasing this next week. So just before Christmas, and then it has been 10 episodes since the last top tips. So I reckon I then gonna drop the top tips, the third top tips compilation. Hope you all survived the snow and strikes well and are getting into the holidays in a relaxed manner. I hope you enjoyed today's episode, learned something new. And let that Tottenham love grow. Take care and until next time, bye

Transcribed by

Connection to Tottenham
Lara's background
Class, Accents and Acting
Founding Legal Aliens
Beginning of Workshops
What is happening in Workshops
Haringey Welcome
Top Tips