Moving Responses, Moving Conversations

Chills run down my spine as I hear the menacing border ask ‘are you in the UK illegally?’ and answers itself by shouting ‘GO HOME or face arrest!’ in the performance of ‘Moving Responses’ by students from Westwood Academy in Coventry in December 2018. I have read and heard this phrase what seems like hundreds of times since the ‘Go Home vans’ campaign by the Home Office in the summer of 2013, but nothing had quite provoked such an emotional reaction in me. I felt afraid. “The border” kept appearing throughout the performance as it would aggressively sort people into the desirable ones that could stay and the undesirable ones that had to leave.

The Border, Westwood Academy
The Border, Westwood Academy

When the border was not sorting, it was making sure everyone knew it was always watching as characters went about their daily lives, telling us their stories and opinions, as if waiting they would slip up. The border was constantly present and all-powerful yet almost invisible. In the final scene tables turned when the border was the one getting pushed and shoved by “the target”, “the concerned”, “the activist” and “the heard” as the performers asked the audience ‘Where should the border be?’, ‘What do you think?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’

This performance was the culmination of a 10 week theatre and education programme on government communication on immigration enforcement. The questions at the end in particular demonstrate the students’ own learning and engagement with the topic throughout the course of the project. The project explored many questions including: What were the ‘Go Home’ vans? Why did they drive around six London boroughs? What was their purpose? Did it achieve it? What impact did they have on local communities? On immigrants? On those concerned about immigration? What is a border? And what does it mean to go home anyway?

Westwood AcademyThese were just some of the questions we explored in our recent project Immigration Otherwise. Last year actREAL teamed up with researchers Dr Yasmin Gunaratnam (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Dr Hannah Jones (Warwick University) to bring their research and these discussions into the classroom through a bespoke script written by actREAL’s Ida Persson based on their research project Mapping Immigration Controversy.

I was clearly not the only person who had been provoked into an emotional response and a questioning thought process. The question and answer session that followed the performance showed just how many moving responses there were – not just the ones reflected in the play itself but also those provoked by the play. Opinions and perspectives varied. Most people had never really thought about immigration enforcement and the impact it might have on people who are the target of it. Everyone acknowledged how little they knew about this topic. Students in particular learned that the news does not tell you all angles to a story and are now approaching it with a more critical eye. Some people in the audience were concerned about immigration, concerned about ‘illegal’ immigration and what it means. Others were concerned about the negative image portrayed about immigrants in the media and turning this around through more positive messages, action and experiences.

Westwood Academy 2
Where do we go from here?

Despite different opinions, everyone came together in an open and engaged dialogue between students, researchers and the audience. Prompted by the students’ theatrical performance to bring empathy into the conversation, perspectives were aired and listened to in a respectful manner. Something that can be rare given the polarised topic of immigration. What prevailed was a mutual investment in dialogue and hearing young people’s voices. It felt we were all part of and contributing to a powerful moment. As one audience member said: “All of you together and individually are really powerful… Never underestimate the power that you have as young people.”

One of the students promptly took up this invitation and also reminded us of our responsibility. She asked everyone in the room to tell someone else about what we learned tonight, tell them what you felt and have a conversation. Good advice I think and something we aim to do in every one of our projects. So let’s go and have conversations!

The project was funded by the University of Warwick and ESRC (grant reference ES/M500434/1).

By: Vanessa Hughes

Moving Responses, Moving Conversations

Stepping into the Stories Behind Immigration Data

By: Will Allen, COMPAS, University of Oxford

When we see a chart or graphic (sometimes called a data visualisation), it’s tempting to think ‘these are just fancier ways of presenting a lot of numbers, right?’ In a way, that’s exactly what these images are: different ways of representing data to enable understanding. But in another way, these actually can become windows into a variety of stories contained within the numbers.

In November 2018, as part of the ‘Festival of Social Science’ hosted by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, I worked with actREAL to creatively explore what it might be like to step inside visualisations about immigration. We developed a series of short performances and activities that aimed to communicate two key points: there are human voices that make up datasets like censuses or surveys, and people often bring different perspectives when they look at the same image.

We started with an opening sketch to introduce the idea that many statements about a whole group (like ‘38% of people in Oxford’) are actually made up of lots of individual responses. These individuals, although they may give useful answers for specific questions, can’t be reduced to a single aspect.

Then we welcomed everyone to enter Visualisationville—a world inhabited by all sorts of visualisations on any topic imaginable. Even the sky contained ‘word clouds’ made up of public responses to visualisations, clustered by how positive or negative they were. As people explored this area, they got a sense of data in physical forms rather than mere tables.

Later, they formed themselves into a living chart that expressed where they had been born, by region of the world. In this activity, two individuals from Turkey chose to stand outside the given options that included ‘Europe’ and ‘the rest of the world’. This was an interesting illustration of how individuals may not fit into the neat categories presented by surveys.

Finally, we shared findings from two migration-related research projects: one on the perceptions of ‘Go Home’ vans that were promoted by the UK’s Home Office, and another on the experiences of young people who were living in the UK without immigration documents. We placed this concluding set of monologues, excerpted from real interviews, next to statistics about the affected populations in order to illustrate how numbers and narratives can—and often do—go hand in hand.

Although it’s too early to say whether these specific kinds of creative techniques are more effective and memorable than other approaches, what was clear from the immediate feedback was that participants enjoyed the opportunity to discuss and think about issues in new ways. They also liked seeing how emotions can go hand in hand with numbers—from the serious personal stories of undocumented minors, to the humour of some physical comedy. Going forward, I’d like to test to what extent messages conveyed through theatre and performances can impact what people think about political issues. (A colleague of mine did a fantastic studythat demonstrated how a play exploring themes of crime and justice from the perspective of young people caused shifts in audience members’ perceptions).

There are also benefits for researchers. When I talk about how I engage with theatre and performance in my research, I am often asked ‘what is the added value of doing those kinds of activities? Doesn’t it distract from doing real research?’ I often respond that the creative arts are more than just a means of communicating social science research to the wider public—although that’s an enormously important feature, especially when much of my research is publicly funded.

Rather, as demonstrated by these interactive evenings, these activities enable me to learn more about how people engage with information in real-time. As a result, they generate new questions and insights that shape the directions of my ongoing research, sometimes in ways I couldn’t have predicted beforehand.


Stepping into the Stories Behind Immigration Data

Talking about migration

How do we have difficult conversations about migration? This is a key question in a project that we are involved in together with Bridget Anderson, University of Bristol and William Allen, COMPAS, University of Oxford and other partners.

This has involved actREAL running a workshop with Year 13s from a local British school looking at their own migration stories and their understanding of migration. This workshop involved looking at migration and the media, definitions and public debates, as well as discussing our own experiences of (non)mobility, through activities and conversations.

The project also involved another workshop run by Pete Cranston with academic staff on facilitating difficult conversations around migration. The aim is for these facilitators to encourage conversations between people at a performance of George & the Dragon in April next year. This performance will be a bespoke take on the story, written and performed by actREAL specifically for this event. More on this to come!

As part of this larger project we have gathered personal stories of migration by those involved in the project and the school students. It aims to capture stories about our journeys to where we are now and ask “are we all migrants?”. All those stories can be seen on the blog “Here Be Dragons”. Do have a peruse to see all the different journeys! The most recent blog posted is by actREAL’s Ida Persson.

Talking about migration

Thinking creative impact in research

Yesterday we spent the day discussing and thinking about what research impact is and how to do it at the ESRC funded conference ‘Making a Difference: Impact in the Social Sciences’ at Oxford University. It was inspiring to see so many academics embrace impact because they believe in research as a public good and a tool for social justice and positive change. Some successfully influenced policy-change, others aimed their research findings at practitioners as was the case in Dr Shona Minson’s research on the consideration of the child’s best interested in the sentencing of mothers and others again aimed their impact work at the general public as was the case in a project on abortion and stigma.

The forms of engagement and impact were also impressively broad and depended a lot on the intended audience. These included embracing different styles of writing such as short policy briefings of key findings relevant to policy makers and stakeholders, short films available online or travelling exhibitions to give just a few examples.

What became clear was that all successful impact work, especially the more creative type, required the collaboration of experts in the area of the creative arts to help with the vision, conceptualisation and translation of research into other modes of communication, as well as its realisation. The better thought through and resources the engagement or impact work was, the more successful it was at reaching its intended audience and making a difference.

While there were healthy critical debates on the current “impact” agenda as it is being pushed by the REF (Research Excellence Framework) and other measurement criteria, the general consensus seemed to be that engaging the public in research and making a difference was part of the academic’s role. This sentiment was encapsulated in Dr Julie Bayley’s opening plenary when she asked the audience “What would you do, if you weren’t being measured?” And many had been doing this kind of work for many years. As Aileen – the organiser- said in her opening talk ‘we are all impact mad here. This was also the day’s hashtag on twitter – #impactMAD – check it out for more interesting discussion!

In our own session we discussed some lessons from our own now three years of practice working on public engagement and impact projects with academics through the mode of theatre and other creative methods. We’ve been developing the scope of our work, creating bespoke and unique packages of work to fit with the researcher’s aims and objectives. It always includes a theatrical element, either in the form of a script that is rehearsed or through the creation of bespoke drama activities that are based on the research.

Together with Will Allen we discussed how we turned his research on media information and perception based on quantitative analyses and outputs in the form of charts, graphs and words into activities for the curiosity carnival.


We also shared some of our key guiding principles:

  1. Don’t assume anyone will be interested in your research
  2. It’s not about you, the researcher
  3. Be clear on whyyou are doing this; how you are doing it; and who your target audience is
  4. Adapt to your audience, in terms of age, background, prior-knowledge of the topic and so on
  5. Respect your audience as experts of their own lives and equals in the discussion
  6. Make it relevant to who you are trying to engage
  7. Don’t underestimate the time and resources it takes!

And finally we made some researchers a bit uncomfortable by making them do some activities – not something most of us are used to as part of academic conferences! Going by the feedback on twitter this was a successful move however!


We had a great time talking to researchers and others about how and why they do impact and public engagement. Thanks to the conference organisers for organising such a worthwhile event!


By: Vanessa Hughes

Thinking creative impact in research

Same, same, but different: Learning from the students

Young people are often not credited with the ability to deal with complex subjects, and are therefore kept away from them. In a modern age there is a constant feed of information with very little space to process it and consider it from a personal perspective. Young people need the space to challenge not only themselves but also the information they receive and where it is coming from. In doing so they can turn learning and teaching on its head.

For the project “The Ethics and Politics of the Refugee Crisis” we worked with two London schools (Skinners’ Academy and City & Islington College, CANDI), completing the second programme at the start of December 2016. The students at these two schools struck us by showing us how the same process can produce such different results, in the best possible way.

At CANDI we worked with students on developing a performance based on research around media representation of migrants and issues around the refugee crisis. The students discussed and debated these with exceptional awareness and sensitivity, willing and open to have their opinions and knowledge expanded and challenged. They pulled together a powerful performance in a short amount of time, with only 4 sessions available to them. They impressed not only the project partners, but also all those who saw their performance in video format at a large final project event on 2 December at Rich Mix in London, which included academics, NGO’s, charities, and many others.

The teachers, students and parents who saw the performance by the Skinners’ group were also impressed with their maturity in dealing with the topic and the personal development of the students individually. They impressed by making clear that they were continuing conversations and asking questions in their homes, not just in our workshops.

These groups are a great example of how things can be so similar, yet so different. The two groups were hugely different collections of people. While actREAL creates bespoke workshops for each school, a programme within any particular academic project will deal with a specific topic. Each programme is broadly the same in how it is set up and its final aims. Despite this, however, it is entirely impossible to say that any group of students has been the same. Each group has different dynamics, different awareness of the subject at hand, different levels of engagement and willingness. Each group approaches workshops differently and they always produce a very unique performance, reflective of them.

When young people present a new perspective on information they receive, having been allowed to explore it personally and taking charge of its new form, they are able to take on a variety of challenges: they challenge themselves to know more information and to possibly unlearn what had come before. For example, a student from CANDI stated at the final event “Everything I’d heard about refugees before this was negative”. It gives them the opportunity to decide where they sit, at that moment, on a topic, to challenge the academics that provided the source material by presenting a new way of looking at it, and to develop an emotional bond with the material. In this process the students also positively challenge academics and us as they make unexpected choices, challenging the information itself by applying their own circumstances and realities to it to try to make sense of it. Importantly, they also challenge what it is to learn and teach, as they take on both roles themselves by immersing themselves, their intellect and their emotions into a topic and presenting it to others in turn, no doubt, teaching the spectator a thing or two.

(All images by Jahan Khan)

By: Ida Persson

Same, same, but different: Learning from the students

Improve the migration debate, engage young minds

Michael Rosen recently emphasized the importance of introducing the immigration debate to young people as a way to combat racism in society, with particular focus on the rise in racist incidents after the EU referendum. He suggested that we should urge schools to start conversations about the benefits of migration and the historical context to current migration attitudes. (Dear Nicky Morgan: this is how to deal with post-Brexit racism, The Guardian)

We entirely agree. This is why actREAL works with schools to engage young people with complex social and political issues, focusing to date mainly on migration. Using theatre and other art forms allows discussion within schools about migration, exploring the topic from different angles (such as the migration crisis, or the experiences of undocumented migrant children), to open up an honest, personal and reflective debate around how migration plays a part in the every day lives of students and their communities.

Migration is always topical because it is constant, and a spotlight has (again) been shone on it throughout the EU referendum campaigns and their aftermath. Throughout the referendum campaigns migration was a recurrent theme. “Less immigration”, “stopping people from coming”, “controlling numbers” were (and still are) common phrases. Concerns were raised about the EU and world immigration, and often the two were conflated. There also seemed to be a lack of in-depth, genuine understanding of the realities of migration to Britain and its consequences.

Migration has simultaneously shaped British society and been the cause for social tensions. It is therefore important that the immigration debate does not exist in a vacuum, as this inevitably leads to confusion and unhelpful generalizations. It should be a topic for discussion, one that can lead to empathy and understanding of personal stories and real life perspectives. What it should not be is a political game piece leading to manipulation and misunderstanding by interested parties.

Schools are obliged by Ofsted to find opportunities to promote British Values. This is defined in part as “mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”. Schools are therefore well placed to engage constructively in this debate. They are also required to adhere to the PREVENT strategy, to combat radicalization. The latter has been criticized for closing down free speech and debate within schools.

Today’s students will play an important and influential role in the shaping of our future society. They need to understand and relate to differences and conflicting needs and demands by different players within the debate. This can best be done through a complete, comprehensive and holistic engagement with the topic, and in a way that satisfies the many requirements and pressures that schools already face.

actREAL strives to generate empathy with, and understanding of, the various lived realities of migration in young people. In the process we develop life skills that help young people to better navigate and critically assess this multi-faceted debate as they encounter it in their everyday. Working towards finding our similarities, sharing experiences with our neighbours, and understanding the myriad of different perspectives goes a long way to combating hatred, blame and misunderstanding.

Below is an example of a poem written by a 15 year old student who recently worked with actREAL. It demonstrates the sophistication, creativity and insight young people are capable of when difficult subjects are introduced to them in a stimulating and engaging fashion. We should encourage them.

I’m just another migration statistic (reprinted with permission).

I’m just another migration statistic,
One of the thousands, a number, no characteristic,
Just one of that huge number, another benefit scrounger,
Just laying in a flat, like a lazy lounger,
It’s not like I’m in desperate need,
I guess it’d damage your economy, too many to feed,
You think we come and drain your economy,
It’s as if unfair is your policy,
Leaving to cross the border, leave a country that is war torn,
Making opportunity broader, in the boat just a wrapped up new born,
We don’t come to steal your wealth and property,
We just have nothing and are in desperate poverty,
We have come for a safe life, we are in danger back home,
We’d give you our best work , nothing we can give that we own,
I’m just another migration statistic,
One of the thousands, a number, no characteristic,
You haven’t lived in the places we’ve been
gone through the devastation we’ve grieved and seen
Traumatised, broken, it’s all devastation,
Risking their life for a safer nation,
Seeking only safety and happiness,
Wanting to leave behind the home stress,
They’re worked up, mind is a mess,
All they want is safety, why do they deserve less?
But the border isn’t just a physical country definition,
Citizens’ xenophobia is a built in mental position,
Yeah the country is full,
But their stomachs aren’t full,
And our heads are full of the propaganda its awful,
Getting indoctrinated by the ill educated system
Dig deeper and learn into the story
Forget yourself, your pride and glory
I’m just another migration statistic,
One of the thousands, a number, no characteristic
– Kyle Eldridge

Improve the migration debate, engage young minds

Welcome to actREAL!


We are thrilled to launch our new website and blog!

This blog will keep you updated on our projects, thoughts and discoveries! The first official blog will be posted soon. In the meantime, why not have a look through the website and see if what we do is for you?

Welcome to actREAL where academia, engagement, personal feeling, and individual development cross paths!

Speak soon!

Ida and Vanessa (the ones who run actREAL!)

Welcome to actREAL!