In the heart of East London, Foreign Affairs, a micro theatre company in Hackney, embodies the power of storytelling and the celebration of diversity. Here, one half of the team, Trine Garrett, talks about giving a voice to migrants on stage.
Camila França and I founded Foreign Affairs in 2010 after completing an acting course together. Despite considering London our home, both of us felt like outsiders within the industry. We often found ourselves cast for roles perpetuating generic stereotypes — I, forever destined to portray the 'Scandinavian person,' and Camila, the 'Spanish maid.'
Our identities were reduced to clichés. It highlighted the constraints imposed on actors who didn't neatly fit into predefined boxes. We wanted more, and so, in 2010, set up Foreign Affairs. The idea was to bring theatre from countries across the world to audiences in London, to provide a platform for voices too often overlooked, to challenge stereotypes, and to celebrate multicultural narratives.
In 2010, we presented our first performance as Foreign Affairs. We did it in a dimly-lit abandoned pub, filled with eager theatregoers armed with bottles of wine. The only electricity came from a roaring generator. One enthusiastic audience member spontaneously assisted with lighting the show by waving their arm to trigger the motion sensors. It was a true fusion of theatre and community.
Our journey took an unexpected turn following a chance encounter with a Danish contract killer (in the context of a play, of course) and an intimate relationship with a budding translator. These experiences led us to our current focus on theatre in translation, multicultural collaboration and performances in unconventional spaces.
"We've played in basements, shops... even among the specimen-filled jars at Barts Pathology Museum"
We've played in basements, transformed an empty shop front into a makeshift theatre (an impromptu crime scene for two short plays), and embraced the cosy vibe of community spaces. We've even performed among the specimen-filled jars at Barts Pathology Museum . Once, we performed in a swanky law firm in Canary Wharf, with lawyers and their briefcases coming and going, probably wondering what on Earth was happening.
A couple of recent productions hold a special place in our hearts. The Warmhouse by Anna Bro, another Danish play, translated by Paul Russell Garrett (yes, I share a surname with the aforementioned translator!) is a captivating ensemble play centred around a small community pub — a haven for society's overlooked and outcasts. It beautifully explores finding that one place where you truly belong and the people who inhabit it.
Where I Call Home, written by Marc-Antoine Cyr and translated by Charis Ainslie, delves into themes of identity and belonging from the perspective of a young teenager, the son of a migrant. Plus it has wolves in it! This was the first production following the pandemic lockdowns — returning to the rehearsal room was truly a magical experience, though also filled with anxiety and nerves.
For us, translation offers an opportunity to provide glimpses into worlds beyond our own. While these worlds may, at times, appear very different from our own, we often recognise ourselves in the narratives or characters. We learn something about our global society, which, although it may seem distant, touches us and affects us deeply. It highlights our shared humanity across borders. As an audience member said of one show, "it's very, very relevant to what's happening around Western societies all over, so I think it's a must-see personally."
"40% of London's population is non-UK born, but foreign accents are rarely heard on stage"
With The Wetsuitman by Freek Mariën, translated by David McKay, we continued to bring these transformative experiences to audiences. The play is based on a true story of two young men's attempt to cross the channel from France to the UK. Freek shared his insight on the play, highlighting how it delves into the refugee crisis but also explores broader themes of identity. "For me," he said, "it's about the refugee crisis, but the whole story made me think so much about identity. How we deal with our own identity, with the identity of others, and how the identity that we assume, or that we assume others have, plays an enormous role in what freedom we get, what we are allowed to do, and what we can do."
A cornerstone of our work is collaborating with actors and theatre-makers who, like us, don't necessarily fit into predefined boxes. Our aim is to champion voices that are otherwise unheard — especially migrant theatre-makers. Despite nearly 40% of London's population being non-UK born, foreign accents are rarely heard on stage unless tied to foreign characters. By intertwining these voices with translated plays, we offer a truly exceptional blend – a celebration of international theatre that resonates both locally and globally and celebrates our multicultural society. As one young viewer expressed to us, "I’ve never seen someone like me on stage before."
"We're committed to eliminating barriers to theatre access, especially for young people"
Foreign Affairs also run workshops and training programmes for theatre translators and makers, as well as Hackney-based young people. Despite being a micro company — a two-woman band, really — we've established a solid reputation for our translation work and Theatre Translator Mentorship (which is unique in the industry). To date, we've presented 13 new English translations, all UK/world premieres. And we’ve supported the development of 30+ new English playtexts partly via our mentoring programme.
As individuals who, at different times in our lives, have felt like outsiders due to our accents and backgrounds (I come from a working-class family with a single mother — not the conventional path into the arts in the current landscape), Camila and I are committed to eliminating barriers to theatre access, especially for young people. Since 2019, we've been running free workshop programmes for young people based in Hackney. We've fittingly named these programmes 'Make Theatre With…,' and each one is designed in collaboration with an industry professional, often a fellow non-UK born artist.
Raphael, one of the actors in Where I Call Home, aptly summarised what Foreign Affairs means to him: "They work in creative ways to get plays that don't normally see the light of day in this country, in buildings that don't necessarily house theatre, to audiences that would not normally come and see a play."
In times when collaboration and understanding across borders, both literal and metaphorical, are crucial, I'm truly proud of the journey that Camila and I have undertaken as Foreign Affairs. It's been quite an adventure for two actors who never quite fit in.
Foreign Affairs' show The Wetsuitman, is on at Arcola Theatre till 2 September 2023