Since its foundation in 2014 Corsham-based Folio Theatre’s mission has been to improve the cultural life of Wiltshire, particularly in rural areas. In tandem with that is to champion and nurture the role of women in theatre, which is why a piece of work with The Harbour Project in Swindon resonated so much with executive producer Liz Vogler.

The Harbour Project provides a welcome, support and advocacy for the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Swindon each year. When Liz became aware of its work, in particular its women’s group, she felt there was a golden opportunity.

The group, made up of myriad nationalities from across Africa, Eastern Europe, South America and the Far East, meets weekly, partly to sew, cook and do arts and crafts, but mainly to enjoy each other’s company, share and forge friendships.

“It just felt like a really strong alignment, because we do want to, where we can, champion women, so it felt like such a logical, natural fit and connection there,” says Liz.

She and Artistic Director Lizzie Stables held three taster sessions with the women and were encouraged by what they saw. “It was fantastic and we could see the positive response, so we knew that we wanted to try and come back, and thankfully the women and the team at Harbour Project agreed with that."

Funding from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Community Fund gave Liz the resources to embark on an eight-month project.

Through arts and crafts, drama games and songs often using sounds instead of words to overcome the language barrier, the women of the group began to find ways to express themselves and revel in the joy of being in a safe, encouraging space.

Liz recalls: “We played a game where I had pictures of animals and when I held up a picture everyone had to move around as the animal and make its noises. There was a woman in this one session who had arrived in the country just two days before and I could see that she was a little bit uncertain and wasn't as involved. I gave her the cards and she took control. The smile on her face at having control was quite amazing.”

All of the 71 women who took part over the eight months were given name badges so that their peers would know who they were, even if they didn’t speak the same language.
Liz says: “What I hope is that, because some of these women have come to this part of the country and don't know anybody here, they might be able to see another woman when they're walking through Swindon and be able to smile because you know each other, and been in an environment where they've supported each other and built a bit of trust.”

She brought in poet Louisa Adjoa Parker to work with the women and write a poem – but they were careful to be guided by them about its theme.

“At no point did we explicitly ask them what's happened in their life, because our intention for the project was just to bring joy.
“That didn't mean the women wouldn’t share something with us, and we would listen, but this was not a project where we were going to ask them ‘Can you tell us what happened to you?’ We just wanted to bring these women together, have fun and for there to be laughter. The poem was about these women coming together, what Louisa witnessed and what they shared with her.”

Liz commissioned a film of the poem being read over a montage of the women working together. “We held a screening for the group, which was really emotional, there were a few wet eyes afterwards”.

“They were an incredibly generous group and we of course knew they had all gone through something significant. They made us feel more than welcome and every time we came back they'd come up to see us and sometimes they'd give us a hug.

“I noticed there was this growing relationship, which said to me ‘There's a trust, there's a joy here’.”

The film below was made to celebrate the success of the project. It is a moving piece to watch and sums up just what a difference the project made.

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