Donna Sherifi grew up in Sweden with her mother who had fled war-torn Kosovo when Donna was just a baby. She wanted to give back to fellow refugees who perhaps hadn’t had such an easy transition. So she used her training in acting and directing to start a community theatre, to give a voice to those refugees and a platform for them to share their experiences. We spoke to her to find out more about London Connect Theatre and her as a director.

So tell us about the London Connect Theatre concept

We are a theatre company that works with society to give displaced people – in particular refugees – a voice. A platform to share their experiences with an audience and open the conversation, essentially.

It was formed by four individuals who specialise in theatre – most of us involved are either actors or directors, and we also have one drama therapist on board.

And how did the idea come about?

The idea actually started over a cup of coffee. The other co-founder, Esra Ugurlu and I, were having a discussion about refugees – a very hard topic at the moment – she said she wanted to help somehow and wondered how we could contribute in our own field, and so the idea was born. The original idea was for a platform for any disadvantaged member of society to have a voice – be it disabled people, women who have experienced trauma, prisoners, orphans etc. However we decided to focus on refugees as it was the first thing we were talking about. It was very much a ‘well let’s do something about it’ sort of moment. So we did.

We roped in two more people – our producer Joana and drama therapist Lizzie. We met at least once a week to discuss our ideas. We then started approaching day centres in London. Many of them said no as they didn’t believe that refugees would be interested in a project like this.

Donna Sherifi - London Connect Theatre

The British Red Cross Centre in Dalston was the first day centre to say yes. They agreed to host a workshop as a trial run and it was very successful. This eventually culminated in a twelve week programme with a fully workshopped play ready to present at the end.

Our next problem was to find an actual theatre for the play. We realised that our difficulty was that our refugees were not experienced actors and theatres at the end of the day want to sell tickets and make money, and they weren’t sure if our show would sell. Arcola theatre was our first theatre to say yes and we finally had a date for our first performance.

The refugees must all come with different stories. How do you come up with a script?

We started by interviewing them all and finding out about their lives – how they lived, who their parents were, what they did before they came here, why they came here, how they got here, why they’re refugees – all these questions.

There were some great stories in each interview – from that we already had our script. Coming straight from them made it easier for them to act – in fact some of the quotes in the script were straight from the interviews. It was a good way for them to do this, even though it was difficult. We set the play 5 Strangers at a hostel in Croydon. That’s where most of them had been when they first arrived in London.

And are all the refugees UK based?

Yes, they’re based all over London and they come to the British Red Cross day centre in Dalston to pick up their food parcels. That’s how we got in contact with them. 

Were there any stories that strikes you?

There was a fourteen year old boy who witnessed his entire family being murdered. His older brother was a drug dealer who didn’t pay off debts and this was the result.

It was difficult working with this participant at first – he was consistently late despite saying he wanted to be an actor. We struggled to get him to commit and he seemed to want to be an outsider. Once we heard his story it all fell into place. He felt alone in the world and was scared to attach himself to something in case it got taken away. We gave him a lot of direction and showed that we care about him and his progress, in the end he did an amazing job, it was very touching to see that formation.

How many plays have you done so far?

So far we’ve only performed one play at the Arcola theatre but we should have given them more as they really enjoyed the experience and got so much out of it. We are hoping to do more than that in the future but obviously it depends on resources and money.

Speaking of money – how are you funding the project?

We started with a Kickstarter campaign and raised £1400, that’s pretty much it. I think for the future of London Connect Theatre, we’d want a big sponsor, because the financial bit is always the most difficult in any company at the start. With something like this, paying for their travel, paying for their food, paying the workshop facilitators and us. It’s a start-up.

You mentioned some of your partners. How many people are involved?

We are four girls. It’s me and Esra Ugurlu, whom I studied with; our producer Joana Raio and our drama therapist Lizzie.

So why this project in particular for all of you?

My parents experience war when I was a child, and Esras family were immigrants in Switzerland. I think this is a reason to what drew us to doing this project.

Joana is from Portugal. She is one of the most passionate person I’ve met and has a huge heart, she also has a lot of experience in community theatre, was always a step ahead of me and Esra. Lizzie, our drama therapist,  she works with helping us to debrief after the stress of hearing all the suffering which can be quite overwhelming.

So you spent your childhood in Sweden? How did that path lead you into theatre?

My mum was a journalist which resulted in us moving a lot and never put in one place. I grew up in many different places, seeing different cultures and people. I learnt from moving from one place to another- one is that I learned to adapt myself to different circumstances and second I learned that you can always start fresh and be exactly who you want to be.

Startup - Donna Sherifi - London Connect Theatre

I was educated in Sweden and moved to London when I was 16. I was doing modelling at the time but after the age of 18 I wanted to do something else, I auditioned at The Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts credited by Kingston University, where I did my acting and directing BA. I’ve always loved theatre , it’s like watching people live their lives though a keyhole (well hopefully if the acting is good) I find it fascinating.

I’ve always enjoyed reading plays. Anton Chekhov, Tennessee William, and Arthur Miller are some of my favourite play writers. Some of those characters always lived with me. I loved my training at The Kogan Academy and what I loved more was doing the directing course. Wow that was really fun!

What about your hobbies outside of theatre?

Dancing. I love dancing. Ballet, jazz, contemporary, Argentinian Tango and Brazilian Zouk. I’ve danced since I was younger, but with gaps. As I was a teenager, other priorities come in.

So tell me about the most exciting moments with LCT.

There are two most exciting things! One is when we handed the script to the participants for them to read and to hear their feedback. They didn’t like the first draft – it was too comical and didn’t show enough of what they had been through. Me and Esra had worked so hard on the script trying to write as truthful as we could but we understood quickly what was missing. When the second draft was presented to them they absolutely loved the script which was very exciting.

The second time was after the show. I was waiting backstage to help with prompting if they missed their cues. After the final scene they received a standing ovation from the audience and when they came off the stage.. their faces… Wow their faces so full of joy and achievement. They knew that they had achieved something really amazing. I will never forget those faces. At the same time I was looking at the audience, most of them were in tears, standing there applauding as much as they could. Then I felt very proud for what we’ve achieved.

What about the toughest moment, can you think of anything?

I think there were a few tough moments actually. You are working with people who have been through something extreme, they’ve lost their homes, some of them have lost their families and they’ve seen things that have caused them a lot of suffering. You have to be very sensitive. If they get angry, your instinct might be to get angry back. But you can’t. You need to put yourself in their perspective in the moment. One of the participants was screaming at me to the point where I really thought I was going to cry, but I couldn’t. You just have to put yourself in a mediation state and not take anything personally. Which can be very hard.

Finally, what’s your ambition for LCT? Where would you like to be professionally with LCT?

We would want to take the show to bigger theatres such as the Young Vic and Apollo theatre. Where we could reach a bigger audience. Then we would like to do it with another group of participants, through perhaps another organisation. We want to work with groups who are disadvantaged within society, so prisoners, women who have been through traumatic experience.

The last puzzle bit is to get a sponsor, once we have that we can take this company to the next level. These people could have a chance to perform in the biggest theatres in London.

We would also want to take this internationally, we would visit different countries and visit people in disadvantaged positions and create something with them. Obviously at this point we would be a bigger team and have more workshop facilitators. Esra and me would then be managing it from a bird’s eye view.

The reason we name it, London Connect Theatre, is for the audience to connect with these people, that we sometimes in the media might frown upon and might judge, as we don’t quite understand their stories. This is the essence of London Connect Theatre, to get another perspective to how these people live and to understand what they have been through. Also, to help them not feel judged and therefore feel part of our society.