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Cardiff theatre awarded for work with refugees and asylum seekers

A local theatre is breaking down barriers to welcome more audiences inside and better integrate a sense of community. 

Sherman 5 coordinators Siân Mile (left) and Claire Bottomley (center) received the Theatre of Sanctuary award from Chair of Cardiff City of Sanctuary David Bacon (right). Photo by Tracey Padderson.

A Cardiff theatre has been awarded Wales’ first sanctuary status in recognition of its championing outreach and support for refugees and asylum seekers.

The accolade was given to Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre by City of Sanctuary on November 15. The Theatre of Sanctuary status comes as a result of pioneering initiatives to cultivate intimate access for asylum seekers and refugees by breaking down previous financial barriers and cultural stigmas.

“For a lot of people, theatre and opera is seen as the playground of the rich. That’s really not the case,” said Claire Bottomley, co-ordinator of Sherman Theatre’s outreach programme.

A celebratory performance from refugee and asylum-seeking non-profit OasisCardiff’s drumming and choir group followed the award. Photo by Tracey Padderson.

“This shows our commitment to making it a welcoming theatre, welcoming certainly in Cardiff but to all people who would feel that crossing the threshold through these doors could be quite worrying or threatening,” she said.

In 2013, Sherman 5 was awarded £500,000 from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation as one of five organisations across the United Kingdom to bolster an accessible theatre experience for underprivileged groups, such as refugees and asylum seekers, older audience members, visually impaired members and D/deaf members.

“I think a lot of people are scared of theatre,” said 42-year-old Susanne Koenig, who has volunteered since the programme’s origins with her 8-year-old daughter Lilith in order to open the world of theatre to her daughter.

“Many don’t grow up with it. They think it’s not for me, it’s only for posh people or etiquette people, people with money, not us. But this place, it’s for everyone,” she said.

Cardiff locals Susanne and Lilith Koenig pose inside Sherman Theatre’s foyer where the pair spend many evenings volunteering.

Sherman 5 opportunities span from discounted ticket prices and time credits for Sherman 5 members and free tickets to asylum seekers and refugees to on-hand volunteer opportunities for underprivileged groups to engage inside the theatre community.

“What’s really made it so special for me was the fact that they don’t treat Jordan as different,” said visually impaired volunteer Sharon Hale who volunteers with her autistic 23-year-old nephew Jordan. “They treated him like any other person, like he’s part of the team, not like he’s nothing.”

As volunteers, Jordan and Hale volunteer as ushers, greeters, behind-the scenes assistants or allocated companions for individuals  requiring access support and receive discounted tickets to shows Hale previously felt she couldn’t afford.

“It makes the theatre a place you not only want to be but can be when you have that support and opportunity there,” she said.

Volunteers Sharon Hale and her nephew Jordan working an event for Sherman 5’s Deaf Theatre Club last month. Photo courtesy of Claire Bottomley.

Others have similarly fallen for the theatre’s analogous allure. Since 2013, Sherman 5 has made over 13,000 theatre visits possible, registered more than 3,000 members, engaged with over 100 community groups and provided access provision and behind-the-scenes attractions for over 100 D/deaf, blind or visually impaired members.

“When people can relate, there’s more scope to engage emotionally and intellectually and a greater scope to see a reflection of themselves,” Bottomley said.

Sherman Theatre’s recent designation follows a four-year More and Better grant presented by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in January after initial funding ended in 2018.

While Bottomley posited the award as a landmark, she said foremost the recognition and additional funding point toward a future. It’s not enough for people to simply be inside the theatre anymore, she said. They need to be a part of it.

“Our role is not only to welcome, but to subtly educate our communities about what it is to be a member of these groups, the difficulties they face and how even the littlest of understanding and welcoming can make a huge difference in someone’s life,” she said. “A shared experience of something magical like the theatre can help to do that.”

Alongside persistent inclusion efforts for performance access, the new grant will focus on training and career opportunities in effort to aid more people from diverse backgrounds to successfully pursue careers in the arts.

Sherman 5 volunteers receive Time Credits for each hour of volunteer work. The ticket reads: “Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.”

“We’re moving beyond the theatre,” Koenig said. “Having responsibility gives you confidence, but things like health and safety, dementia friendliness, sign languages — all these skills aren’t just for here. They’re for everywhere.”

Bottomley indebted this need partly to Cardiff’s status as one of Wales’ four National Asylum Support Service dispersal cities.

While no exact data exists quantifying refugees and asylum seekers within Cardiff, 45,203 asylum seekers reportedly received support in the UK in June 2019, six percent of which were located in Wales.

However, asylum seekers cannot work until granted leave to remain. For some, the process can take up to six years, according to Bottomley.

“People become de-skilled, de-motivated. That knocks their confidence down,” she said. “So the question is, how do we engage with people who have become itinerant in the Asylum system so that they can have a better future?”

The brightly lit theatre foyer offers sweets and drinks. With the new More and Better grant, Sherman 5 plans to extend the space for free community use.

As Sherman 5 pilots new volunteering opportunities with council hubs and other volunteer groups, many volunteers have found the foyer’s rainbow interior to already serve a step forward in empowerment.

“When [Jordan’s] got his Sherman 5 sweatshirt on, he feels so important,” Hale said. “When people ask him where the toilets are, he shows them. When they walk into the theatre, he welcomes them in sign language and shows them to their seats.

“Before, he would ask me to speak for him. Now, he’s just thriving.”