Terra Nova Explore Multiculturalism With Arrivals

The negative and positive experiences of foreign settlers is explored in a collaborative new theatre production

According to the census information gathered three years ago, 220,000 of Northern Ireland's citizens are foreign born. However, as the recent petrol bomb attacks on the homes and cars of some of these people have demonstrated, there are those among us who are less than welcoming towards travellers from abroad.

It is perhaps timely, then, that Arrivals, a collection of short intercultural plays developed by Terra Nova Productions, will be performed with Accidental Theatre for four nights at the Crescent Arts Centre beginning on February 12, before embarking on a short tour.

'I am one of those foreign born nationals and we all have lots of stories to tell,' says director Andrea Montgomery, who conceived the idea of Arrivals. Montgomery, the daughter of a Canadian diplomat, was born in India and grew up in Thailand, Switzerland and Indonesia before eventually putting down roots in Northern Ireland.

'Terra Nova is a professional intercultural theatre company and our aim is to reflect the lives of the many nationalities that live side by side here,' Montgomery adds. Arrivals grew out of a weekend gathering in which members of various ethnic groups met with five Northern Irish writers and four professional actors to develop some of their stories and experiences into the five intercultural plays. The plays are linked by a musical score by composer Anthony Toner.

'Writers need to know something about the subject matter they’re writing about,' Montgomery explains. 'I realised this last year when I was in Greenland working on another project. Being there was vital for the process. In the same way having the writers of Arrivals in the workshop situation and hearing the stories of people from multi-cultural societies provided them with the fertile ground they needed.'

Belfast writer John Morrison – whose play, 'A Celebration', is one of the pieces – enjoyed the task that this new experience provided for himself and the other writers.

'We were working together on one theme from which we came up with five separate pieces. I’m not an immigrant, so the big challenge was getting inside the minds of these emigrants to Northern Ireland. We were told wonderful stories from Africa, the West Indies, Romania and China. It was great to hear how they came to be here, how they coped with the language and how they’ve been getting to know the place.'

'A Celebration' revolves around the lives of Chinese widow Ellen, her mixed race son Sami – who is reluctant to join a flute band – and Jackie, an Orangeman who lives next door.

'I got my idea from listening to the story of a Chinese family who came to Northern Ireland from Hong Kong before it was handed back to China,' says Morrison. 'Living here now they feel a shared kindred and sense of belonging through their Britishness and being pro-Union. They even put their flags out on the Twelfth.'

Director Montgomery – whose other most recent work includes The Ulster Kama Sutra and Eternally Scrooged with comedian Nuala McKeever – believes that the subject matter covered in Arrivals is relevant to the lives that the foreign born nationals are leading today in their new homelands.

In 'The Glass House' by Paul McMahon, a bar is the setting for the resolution of a dispute. The waiting room in a maternity hospital in Deirdre Cartmill’s 'No Paths That Are Ending', while in James Meredith’s 'Don’t Get Me Wrong', a man interrupts a meeting of the International Relations Club.

'Under Any Other Duties’ has been written by Shannon Yee, an American Chinese who has lived in Northern Ireland for ten years. Her play relates to a chance meeting between a Romanian model and a visiting Chinese woman who is seeking directions in Belfast.

'I loved the diversity of New York. It’s not the same in Belfast. While it’s changing here slowly, it still has some way to go,' says Yee, who has been on the harsh end of racist abuse. 'Walking along the street one day I was called a Chink by an eight-year-old. It was horrible and so belittling.'

Thankfully not all of Shannon’s experiences have been that ugly. Diversity work that she has undertaken in the Antrim, Ballymena and Magherafelt area has been positively received. 'It was a project called the Art of Regeneration. We had Polish actors speaking their own language on stage. The feedback was fantastic. Young people were really excited to see them perform in Polish and then to meet them afterwards.'

Being involved in the Arrivals project has given Yee a new sense of purpose in her writing. 'Previously I have felt very limited in terms of what I could work on. I’ve written plays where half the cast has been Chinese, but then these have stalled because there weren’t the local actors to play the roles. In this play there are four languages in use: English, Punjabi, Cantonese and Romanian. That is very exciting to see and hear.'

The cast of Arrivals – who feature in all five plays – are London-based Raj Bajaj, Michelle Yin and Cristina Catalina who perform alongside Belfast actor James Doran.

'One of the core aims of Terra Nova is to encourage actors from within our communities of foreign born residents to come forward in the next three to five years,' observes Montgomery, who admits there is a dire shortage of Northern Ireland-based ethnic actors. 'There are not enough opportunities to get people from these communities involved in the performing arts here.

'Where do I go to get actors who have a perfect Belfast accent, were born here, but happen to have Asian or Chinese parents?' she asks. 'It remains a difficulty, but it is something that we are determined to address.'

Arrivals will be performed at the following venues: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast February 12–15; Ards Arts Centre, Newtownards, February 19; Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, February 20; Market Place Theatre, Armagh, February 21; Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick, February 22. Visit the Terra Nova Productions website for more information.