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Ms Emma Welton
Stockholm University
Study Abroad Studentship

Theatrical leadership in refugee theatre projects in contemporary Sweden

Many people think of Sweden emblematic of Scandinavian utopia. Where the Welfare State is a widely respected, well-oiled machine, and life is lived harmoniously between healthy working hours and plenty of (read: five full weeks in the summer) holiday spent with family and friends. But is access to this life afforded to everyone in Sweden? 

Between the years of 2014–2016, asylum applications doubled alongside crises in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea, with Sweden accepting many in dire need. At present, Sweden is embroiled in an intense debate on immigration, with a general election in the autumn and the far-right Sverigedemokraterna ascending in the polls. To appease many with growing anti-immigrant and refugee sentiments, the country have introduced controversial new laws, deporting young men back to countries such as Afghanistan, almost certainly to their peril. Though Sweden have developed an array of programmes to assimilate and rehabilitate refugees, I want my thesis to identify how refugees see themselves as leaders through theatre specifically in this particularly antagonistic moment, and how they are able to achieve this collectively, rather than individualistically through singular “good refugee” narratives peddled by many in Western media.

For the last ten months, I have been volunteering with a group of 13–19 year olds in Uppsala. We create devised pieces of theatre in Swedish: they decide whether they want to do a tragedy or a comedy, and they find their own characters. It is as much a project invested in language acquisition as it is developing the youngsters’ confidence as dramatists, and feeling ownership over the stories they want to tell. In my role, I see what we do as truly collaborative: as I struggle to give them directorial tips in as precise Swedish as I would like to, they fill in my blank stumbling moments with the Swedish they have accrued over the last few years. 

Underpinning my study with Utopian Performance Theory, I will interview the pupils on how they have developed as artists and as part of their community. I hope to devise a piece with them – Swedish-language, but with narrators and/or subtitles in English and their native languages – to showcase at the Stockholm Fringe Festival next year. Finally, I’m seeking to expand my study across Sweden, to see how different groups are enacting the world they want to see through theatre as a medium. 

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