Walk with Amal: The Five-Thousand-Mile-Long Theatrical Provocation

Structure and Audience

“Daddy, I want to follow her,” the little boy cried out when he spotted Little Amal once more. And follow is what we did, from Gabriel’s Wharf in London, then up the river walkway to the Southbank Center and the National Theatre, where Little Amal could meet the public—both those who were expecting her and those who woke up that morning with no idea they would meet a twelve-foot-tall refugee girl. On this particular stretch of the walk, Little Amal was invited to a storytelling event at the Royal Festival Hall and a community chorus at the National Theater (part of their Public Acts Department), but she was also getting out of the theater buildings and being in spaces where people could just “stumble” across her.

The urge to follow Little Amal—I was with her for around six hours that Saturday in October—was palpable from the crowds. Robertson says it allowed the audience to “form an interpretative community and give live commentary,” which is something most unlikely to happen at a play in a theater. It gave people a wider sense of belonging. “Because Little Amal was always moving, the audience moved with her,” Robertson continues. “They were able to feel like they were a part of it, and they felt empowered to take on a character that welcomes Little Amal.”

Gary, a Public Acts community member at the National Theater, agrees. He shares that his experience singing “My Way Home” to Little Amal gave him goose pimples. He was able to see beyond her as a puppet and think of her as a real person. Similarly, associate producer of Public Acts James Blakely says Little Amal reminded him “of the barriers that can be leapt over when taking work out of buildings.”

Little Amal tilted the conversations around refugees and provided a new perspective for many. However, her travels also (unintentionally) brought out localized hostilities such as the fascist demonstration and the anti-fascist counterdemonstration when Little Amal was in Larissa, Greece. The fascist demonstration was a negative reenactment of how some people—who pelted the puppeteers and Little Amal with stones—feel towards refugees. But it was disempowered because it took place against a puppet and was countered by all the warmth that Little Amal did receive.

Having such an open, accessible, and flexible structure—ie, Little Amal visiting various places with a loose narrative—meant that communities could invent Little Amal’s story to a certain extent. Artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi worked tirelessly on Zoom with all the groups involved to support their endeavors to welcome Little Amal. In the end, such groups were the driving forces behind what happened when she visited. The WWA team’s willingness to be flexible also allowed them to respond when communities felt that they needed them. Turin, Italy was fifty miles off Little Amal’s route, but it is home to many Syrian families so when they requested a visit, WWA complied and made the detour.

Where You Think Theater Happens at the Moment Isn’t Actually Where It Is Happening

Has this project changed how the theater community might think about theater forever? Potentially—and it certainly provides possibilities for some of the debates currently raging in the United Kingdom such as: Where does and where can theater take place? For whom and by whom? WWA is about refugees and at its core, is a plea to remember them and to see them as human beings with basic potential. But it’s also a very bold exercise in exploring how big theater can get. Just how many people can it reach? How many people from different cultures and countries can it involve? Although the WWA did purposefully engage with political leaders such as mayors, speakers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in England, and religious leaders such as Pope Francis, its larger audiences were people outside those arenas and occupying different social spaces. Even the stone-throwing fascists in Greece are included in this audience.

In co-producer Naomi Webb’s words, it is allowed people from all backgrounds to come together, have a response, and engage with a subject matter that is normally characterized by fear and hostility. For Murphy, it’s about responsibility: “We have buildings that are effectively run with beautiful programs dedicated to certain audiences, but the audience we want [is] terrified—we have to be willing to go to them. It’s the artist’s responsibility to find a good way into those situations for new audiences.” With sudden passion he adds, “Rip off our first way of doing it, this rolling festival across Europe.”

Little Amal might have ended this journey in Manchester, greeted by a chorus of wooden swallows and a beautiful video overlay voiced by her mother and directed by Simon Stone, but her story continues. She is now being invited to other places all over the world—she was most recently at Cop26 (the UN Climate Change Conference 2021) and in The Hague in the Netherlands. It seems something has been started that has no end in sight, as long as she is needed by the world and refugees.

Little Amal’s journey also created a “corridor of friends”. When David Lan, one of the producers, coined this phrase and started using it in articles and interviews, I didn’t think it was meant to be quite so literal. However, as Murphy and Robertson tell me, such a corridor has come into existence by way of nongovernmental organizations and charities along the route who previously didn’t know of each other’s existence or who never worked with each other before. These groups were able to cooperate to provide stronger support for real refugees along the route now and in the future. If anything, this is one of the potentially lasting legacies of this first WWA project—an unbelievable achievement.

Milo Rau, artistic director of NTGent in Belgium once said to me, “You can only pragmatically relate to something. You can’t have an idea. You can only construct society in bringing people together and then work on a project.” The United Kingdom conservative press practically ignored WWA—a deliberately toxic Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail found fault that Little Amal was female, and I wondered if the response would have been the same if the puppet had been a young man. But perhaps what he and others really dislike and fear about WWA is not just that it is a positive representation of refugees to counter the media hostility and change hearts and minds, but that it was and is incredibly successful in bringing people together in hope and love .

Leave a Comment