Newcomer Play Project performance photo. Man speaking at a microphone. Photo by Lucy Gellman.

New Haven , CT

Contact Name
Elizabeth Nearing
Project Dates
September 2017-June 8, 2018
Tags
Social action and justice, Event, Cultural Heritage
Newcomer Play Project is a partnership between Long Wharf Theatre, a professional theatre company, and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a non-profit refugee resettlement agency, that connects, collaborates with, and empowers refugees by using theatre to create and inspire belonging. The project consists of theatre-based workshops leading to a collaborative work of theatre conceived, written, and performed by an ensemble of refugees. Their cultural identities, religious beliefs, and life stories become the foundation for building understanding and empathy among New Haven’s diverse residents through storytelling. In this politically charged moment, the Newcomer Play Project lifts up our newcomers to further acceptance, cultivate joy, and celebrate our common humanity.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
The Newcomer Play Project aims to engage IRIS clients in a nine month workshop process, create a performance piece on the Long Wharf stage written and performed by refugees, provide accessible tickets to that performance, and provide IRIS clients an opportunity to see all professional shows presented at LWT. We aimed to ensure all performers were paid for their time on stage, professional artists were paid to produce the show, and audiences financially invested in this work. Through those pillars of NPP, the program seeks to deepen the integration process for immigrants and refugees in Long Wharf’s hometown. It also helps IRIS empower their clients to become active citizens by providing facilitated access to new relationships and experiences. This program engages a population that frequently feels like an outsider at mainstream institutions and provides them with a physical and imaginative space where “otherness” is celebrated for its inherent value in sharing and understanding the human story. Their cultural identities will be reflected through personal retellings shared with our entire
Community.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Elizabeth Nearing, Long Wharf Theatre, Community Engagement Manager, creates, implements, and manages community engagement and audience development programming for the Theatre, including partnerships with community organizations
such as Sandy Hook Promise and Long Wharf’s participation in national theatre projects like
Every 28 Hours Plays, illuminating the Black Lives Matter movement. She designed and led the
inaugural Newcomer Play Project program and was co-director of the final production.

Aurelia Clunie, Long Wharf Theatre, Community Engagement Associate, a part-time associate position created to facilitate the partnership with IRIS. She conducted outreach, corresponded with ensemble members, planned curriculum, facilitated workshops, and was the co-director of final production.

Long Wharf Theatre professional production staff support including Nicole Bouclier Plummer (Interim Director of Production), Michael Hanrahan (Lighting Designer and Master Electrician), Brian Fagan (Properties Master), and more.

William Kneerim, Director of Employment and Education Services at Integrated Refugee and
Immigrant Services (IRIS). For Newcomer Play Project, Will helps Long Wharf
identify and engage IRIS clients who would best benefit from our program and helps coordinate their needs throughout the program.

Ann O’Brien, IRIS, Director of Community Engagement at Integrated Refugee and
Immigrant Services (IRIS). For Newcomer Play Project, Ann helps Long Wharf
identify and engage IRIS clients who would best benefit from our program, coordinates IRIS volunteer efforts to support (such as transportation and childcare assistance).

Ensemble members, New Haven based Refugees who wrote, devised, and performed the final project. hey were Azhar Ahmed and her 10-year-old daughter Lames (Sudan); Mohamad Chaghlil (Syria); Ruben Kwigwasa (Democratic Republic of Congo/South Africa); Joseph Kazadi, his 10 year-old son Joe, his 12-year-old daughter Drysile, and his 16-year-old daughter Mariame (Democratic Republic of Congo). We also worked closely with an Afghani family—Yar Jan (a professional dancer), his brother Khalid, and three children.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
There is a long and rich history of community based theater in the U.S. Our team at LWT worked with and learned from models around the country including Public Works at the Public Theatre in NYC, and at Seattle Repertory Theatre; Voices of Now at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C; as well as trainings in best practices at Sojourn Theatre, Center for Performance and Civic Practice. Our primary inspiration through all of the process, however, was the NPP ensemble with whom we built a play.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Establish the Partnership.
Meet, research, and plan with IRIS staff to lay the groundwork for the partnership. Be clear who is doing what, what benefit it will have for both organizations, and ensuring that it doesn’t strain the core service work of IRIS. This partnership serves IRIS’s mission to advocate for refugees by furthering their narratives and serves LWT’s mission to create theatre that delights and provokes audiences. Staff members from both organizations took trips to other theatres doing community based work to learn from their practices. It took us over a year working with IRIS staff to obtain funding, research other models, and implement the project.

Craft the Invitation.
IRIS identifies up to forty clients who are ready for NPP. IRIS and LWT staff members determine the best way to reach each individual client—email, phone, or at IRIS programs—and we collaboratively invite them to participate. All participants had been in the United States for at least six months and had stable access to life’s necessities—housing, food, transportation, and a path to employment. By working with refugees whose basic needs had been met by IRIS and their partners, participation in the Newcomer Play Project was a positive activity for participants that did not drain their resources, energy, or time.

Build Trust and Create a Team.

Workshops: LWT’s community engagement department deliver theatre skill-building workshops at a central location in New Haven near public transportation, such as the downtown branch of the New Haven Free Public Library or IRIS’ offices. Workshops are open to any client to attend for as much as they are able. New participants can join anytime. This is a fun non-committal way for people to start to build trust, stories, and skills.
One-on-one meetings: LWT staff meets one on one with workshop participants who show an interest in the spring performance-based program form the NPP performance ensemble. All are welcome to join, knowing it is a larger commitment.
Creating the final product: The self-selected ensemble, facilitated by LWT staff, shares reflections on their fall workshop experiences and revisits themes and stories from the fall. Conversation and exploration through theatre-based techniques help the ensemble collaboratively write and identify the stories they want to share. Theatre-based, ensemble-building skills are also built alongside oral and written storytelling skills. LWT’s community engagement staff record and document the narratives as well as guide the group to create their own structure for their play, ensuring that each creative decision is driven by the ensemble.

Curate an audience.
LWT’s community engagement and external affairs departments along with IRIS’ community engagement department develop the marketing plan, ensuring outreach to a broad intersection of New Haven residents, including LWT’s Community Ambassador Program, civic leaders, faith leaders, foundations, local artists, immigrants, refugees, and social service workers. Approximately 150 complimentary tickets are set aside for program participants, IRIS clients, and other community members. Complimentary tickets are offered before paid tickets go on sale, to ensure we build a diverse and equitable house. Ticket price is set at $20 so that it is affordable for most New Haven residents, though discounted and free tickets are available to anybody who asks.

Celebrate.
The American Unicorn was performed by the Newcomer Play Project ensemble on Long Wharf’s Claire Tow Theatre in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre on Friday, June 8, 2018 at 7 p.m. The 110-minute performance was attended by a sold-out audience of more than 400 people from the Greater New Haven region, all of whom were eager to hear the stories of these actors brought to life on stage. Following the event, food was provided by Sanctuary Kitchen. A program of City Seed, Sanctuary Kitchen highlights the unique skills of refugees and immigrants in economically viable culinary pursuits that provide personal income potential while promoting their culinary traditions, rounding out an evening of shared cultures, and stories to improve understanding and appreciation throughout the New Haven community.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
As informed by our visits to peer theatres and, most crucially, in getting to know IRIS constituents and their needs, the final structure of Newcomer Play Project significantly changed from our original intent. We planned to have Newcomer Play Project closely follow the format of our well-established Elder Play Project, which consists of writing workshops before and after each Long Wharf Theatre production with a presentation of the group’s original work at year’s end. Elder Play Project participants are senior citizens residing at New Haven’s Tower One/Tower East, all of whom are retired and speak English as a first language. Newcomer Play Project participants had job, family, and school commitments and each person was at a different level of mastering English. These factors meant that Long Wharf’s productions were difficult for our ensemble to attend, connect to, and comprehend; the structure of Elder Play Project, which is heavily grounded in Long Wharf’s programming, proved to not be the right fit. Throughout our process, Newcomer Play Project was adapted to meet the needs of our diverse group.

As a result, drop-in theatre-based workshops were offered in fall 2017, which allowed program participants to come and go as their schedules permitted. The creation and performance of the original play took place in spring 2018 with a smaller, more focused group. We found that many of Newcomer Play Project workshop participants were excited by the flexible workshop sessions but were reluctant to commit to a long-term rehearsal process. Many could not consistently attend the workshops, and some of our most excited participants were only available for a few sessions. After getting to know the participants during the workshop period, Long Wharf staff met with each person to further learn about their goals and interest in our program. As a result of those meetings, eight of the 28 program participants committed to creating, rehearsing, and performing a play at Long Wharf in June 2018. These eight people created our performance ensemble, decided the format the play would take, what stories were included, how they were performed, and who we invited to the show. They created a piece of theatre through this process that was truly their own.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Working with refugees presents immediate hurdles to collaboration and time commitment. Our ensemble all spoke different languages, worked abnormal hours, and one performer even had a baby over the course of our working together. We had initially set a bi-weekly schedule based on our assumptions of everybody’s needs. We quickly learned that each and every person had different hurdles to arriving at rehearsal. If we wanted to be good collaborators, we had to adjust to meet everybody where they are.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
In nearly all instances, listening to the members of the ensemble and shaping the program around them, rather than around our initial assumptions. In order to overcome obstacles presented, our team had to be constantly flexible and listen carefully to the needs of our performers. In Western rehearsal processes, we expect people to be on time and present at every rehearsal-- this was near impossible with our ensemble balancing jobs, school, and family needs. As a result, we structured a schedule carefully with all schedules in mind, provided transportation or facilitated carpooling, and learned to rehearse without the entire ensemble present. By adjusting our process to fit our collaborators, we made a healthy, forgiving, and ambitious space for creativity. This facilitated the trust necessary to create our play.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Trust your collaborators fully and wholly. The community being centered knows best how to make things work. It is vital to remember the arts institution is working with this community not for them.

Be willing to change everything. Figure out what the given circumstances are--what absolutely must happen for your project to be a success. For us, this was that we had to put on a play on the long wharf stage in partnership with New Haven refugees. We wanted this play to be autobiographical by the people performing it. Nearly everything else was changeable.

Know your values and integrate them into every step of the process from outreach to rehearsal to ticket sales. Every part of the project is community building. For us it was important that this work was rooted in joy, imagination, and inclusivity.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Newcomer Play Project is proof that the concept of listening, learning, and collaborating can build impactful theatre that unites our City. The further understanding and integration of New Haven’s newest residents was clear in the enthusiastic testimonials of participants. Often the only refugee narratives shared are centered solely on suffering. In this production performers and audience alike were able to experience the complex personalities, joys, turmoils, and humanity of stories so rarely given the spotlight. The impact of The American Unicorn performance on its audience and performers is still coming to light. Our two youngest participants now want to be playwrights, while one of the adults, Mohamad, is thinking of auditioning for more plays as he feels more confident in front of a crowd. A participant in high school entered Newcomer Play Project confident that he did not want to attend college; he called us an hour after the show and told us he now wants to attend Yale.

NPP is a natural outgrowth of Long Wharf Theatre’s mission, which aims to help artists and audiences better understand themselves, each other, and our world. This particular collaboration with IRIS further integrates newcomers into our community while building understanding among their neighbors about how and why they arrived in the United States. Audiences gain access to powerful, daunting, and celebratory experiences of being newcomers—told by the newcomers themselves. Preconceived notions of refugees and immigrants are humanized, personalized, and altered. The “other” gains a name, a face, a personality and NPP ensemble members find greater acceptance, dignity, and belonging.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We successfully produced a full length play created with, by, and for our refugee ensemble through partnership between LWT and IRIS. We consider the event a success due to the sold-out audience, positive press, and community response. Feedback from the ensemble-members, IRIS and LWT staff, and our audience was overwhelmingly positive. All performers were paid for their time on stage, professional artists were paid to produce the show, and audiences financially invested in this work, netting in ticket sales to support the performance.

The success stories that came out of the NPP pilot are inspiring. For example, one year after participating in NPP, eleven-year-old Lames, a refugee from Sudan, has been recognized on the streets of New Haven and at parties for her starring role on LWT’s stage. When she began working with us, Lames was soft-spoken and struggling with some of her English vocabulary. Today, she speaks enthusiastically, both in Arabic and English, and she now serves in a public role as a Refugee Ambassador for IRIS. In this capacity, Lames spoke in November 2018 at the Early Child Peace Consortium, a gathering of global leaders, including researchers from Yale University, UNICEF, ACEV Foundation, and the John E. Fetzer Institute. At the New Haven event, Lames wrote her own speech, which she delivered: “[I came to America] as a refugee when I was seven years old. I speak Arabic, Nubian, and I learned English….One thing I would say about being a refugee kid is that my parents told me, ‘Never stop dreaming, and believe what you think. Don’t believe what other people think about you.’ In my own words, I believe if you keep your faith, you keep your truth. You keep the right attitude. If you are grateful, you will see God open new doors.”

We aspire to provide a public platform for courageous voices like Lames. NPP’s collaboration with IRIS fosters a sense of belonging among and beyond our program participants, empowering and raising the volume of refugee voices. LWT creates an adaptable environment that gives newcomers creative agency and authority over the sharing of their personal stories while building community among participants from different countries of different faiths and deepening understanding between performers and audiences.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Success of the project was measured in quantitative and qualitative metrics in two categories: impact on ensemble members and the audience experience. To measure the impact on the ensemble, we tracked attendance and noted how much and how often performers participated in conversations. We noted a greater investment and attention to detail as the process went on, as well as improved English speaking in most participants. The audience was measured in quantity and response. There was a sold-out house of 400 people, 60% of whom paid full price and 40% received complimentary tickets. The audience was comprised of friends and family, IRIS and LWT staff, IRIS volunteers, LWT community members and subscribers, and more. We conducted digital surveys of the audience to limited response. The in person audience response was joyous with audience members ages 4 to 94 from all walks of life laughing, crying, cheering, and chanting along with the ensemble.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
The success of the pilot year has influenced the larger community engagement strategic plan for LWT. This pilot year shaped the program’s structure and proved that the concept that listening, learning, and collaborating can create impactful theatre that unites our City. Moving forward, NPP will be a part of a new weekend-long festival, the NEW HAVEN PLAY PROJECT, which will present NPP performances alongside culminating presentations from ELDER PLAY PROJECT, our nationally-recognized collaboration with The Towers, an assisted living center, and individuals in recovery from Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC). Like NPP, all of these programs feature personal narratives told by the participants.