It’s all about trust

“Our Stories,” writing workshop, Schauspielhaus Graz, 2016. Photograph: © Sonja Radkohl

How might ZHdK best set up exchanges of ideas and experiences with refugee artists and designers? A working group at the university is exploring possible ways and means: Syrian playwright Mudar Alhaggi and Swiss dramaturge Erik Altorfer have been running writing and theatre projects with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan since 2015. ZHdK lecturer Andrea Zimmermann met the two theatre makers to discuss this pressing issue.


“The first writing workshop in Beirut resembled a course of therapy for war traumas,” recalls Mudar Alhaggi. Sitting beside him, Erik Altorfer adds: “What we know about Syria we know from the media. We wanted to contrast this media supremacy with a different perspective, one that gives young Syrians a platform and enables them to become actors themselves.”

It all began in Beirut in 2015. Theatre artist Alhaggi himself had fled Syria to Lebanon. The “Future Stages” writing project was his first collaboration with Altorfer. In a hotel in the mountains above Beirut, they met for three one-week retreats within a year. The eight participants, who had all escaped the Syrian civil war, worked on their first plays. The texts were strongly influenced by their war experiences: “A lot of suffering, a lot of mourning, a lot of unprocessed experiences,” Alhaggi says. Nevertheless, they managed to talk about the texts and not directly about what the writers had experienced. Maintaining professional distance is important: “Don’t get sentimental. No tears,” says Alhaggi. And Altorfer also recalls the potential of collaborative writing: while the young authors felt helplessly at the mercy of the reality of war, they experienced their plays as malleable and formable. According to one young writer, they had created a new — indeed a different — reality with their imagination.

Alhaggi and Altorfer continued their collaboration in June 2016 at the Schauspielhaus Graz: in a writing workshop titled “Our Stories,” young refugees from Syria and Afghanistan came together with Austrian youths. “We first did a lot of team-building,” explains Altorfer. They set up games and writing exercises, to help participants get to know each other and to break the ice. The youths had formulated what they wanted to write about on their own; the issues and concerns could be subsumed under the title “Fears and desires.” Alhaggi believed that this common theme would level out purported differences: for example, when a refugee said that he wished to become a policeman, the young Austrians got to know him through a concrete career aspiration — far removed from stereotypes or victim roles. The twelve youths shared this safe space for a month. Here they could try their hand at writing.

A right to repress

Erik Altorfer talks about a young Afghan who had written a story about finding a friend on his escape. Given that the writers’ workshop at the Schauspielhaus Graz had an autobiographical framework, the other participants assumed that the story was true. Later, however, the young man denied this and said that he had invented the story. In another text, written for a blog, he explained that it was simply too sad for him to write about his past.

Not animals in the zoo

Andrea Zimmermann, whose role as a ZHdK project manager brings her into contact with refugee artists, is interested in how to avoid attributions of identity while recognising flight and migration as important aspects of personal history. Alhaggi’s answer is brief: “Trust matters most.” Yet it needs to be worked on. Erik Altorfer mentions two aspects of his own experiences. On the one hand, “people who really mean well always want to attend rehearsals.” But there is still a danger that participants will feel observed, like animals in a zoo. It’s important to protect them from these “awkward situations.” On the other hand, they are taken seriously if they are allowed to tell their (or a) story in their own right — and in their own name. Altorfer mentions Olafur Eliasson’s “Green light” workshop as a negative example: while refugees make green lamps under supervision, neither the idea nor the materials are theirs. And as assemblers of Eliasson’s lamps, they are nameless — whether they like it or not: “All workshop participants are exchangeable,” Altorfer says.

Andrea Zimmermann: “How can an arts university promote cooperation between refugees and local artists?” Alhaggi believes that every single event helps because it creates opportunities for encounters and exchanges. Altorfer is a bit more demanding: “Many Syrian refugees have excellent artistic training. They should be employed as lecturers, which would also provide faculty with a different perspective on refugees applying for admission.”

ZHdK has developed a career guidance programme for refugee artists and designers. It helps individuals assess their professional circumstances in their country of asylum and provides a platform for discussing their options and perspectives with experts from the same artistic fields. The project manager and contact is Andrea Zimmermann (, a research associate and lecturer at ZHdK.
Dominik Busch ( is an author and radio play producer. His play “Das Recht des Stärkeren” premiered at Theater Basel in January 2018.
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