Good Chance Theatre’s latest production features aSyrian puppet that will walk from Gaziantep to Manchester, to raise awareness on the refugee crisis
Little Amal is setting out to look for her mother. The nine-year-old is a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, who will walk from the Syrian-Turkey border to the UK, in search of her displaced family. Along the way, each village, town and city she visits, will welcome her with a slew of events ranging from performances to art installations.
Amal might be a 3.5-metre-tall puppet, carefully created by the Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town, South Africa, but her journey encompasses the real tales of numerous young refugees and countless children who get torn away from their homes and separated from their families, not just in Turkey and Europe, but all around the world.
The Walk, as this production is called, is a travelling festival of art and hope by UK-based Good Chance Theatre — presented by its producers, Stephen Daldry, David Lan and Tracey Seaward — in association with Handspring Puppet Company. Little Amal is based on a character from Good Chance’s first production The Jungle, a play about the Calais migrant camp. Theatre writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi joined the project as artistic director in 2020, developing the hundreds of international collaborations across the route.
At 3.5 metres, Amal might appear taller than your average nine year old. The Handspring Puppet Company developed and crafted the physical form of the protagonist over a two-year period of workshops and testing. “She is made from robust, lightweight material like moulded cane and carbon fibre, to achieve a puppet that can be operated for long periods of time in varying conditions, to withstand rain and heat,” says the team at Good Chance, sharing information both over email and a recently-held video call from the UK. Interestingly, there are three puppet Amals, just in case a spare is required. She will also have a team of puppeteers and technicians who will look after her as she walks.
Amal’s epic journey begins on July 27 at Gaziantep, where an outdoor light installation featuring qandeel lanterns light up one after the other to highlight a path that she can follow. The 8,000-kilometre route will end in Manchester, in November, and involve around 250 partners and artists. “The route is the culmination of migration routes which have been used during the refugee crises of recent years,” says David Lan. The West Asian and African routes have been connected by passing through Italy. The specific cities of welcome have been chosen either because there was a willing partner located there who wanted to welcome Amal, or because there were particular cultural institutions of importance or historical significance in those cities, add team members of the theatre group.
Manchester International Festival invited Little Amal to Manchester, where she will start the next chapter of her life. “The city is one of many towns and cities in the UK that is doing a lot to welcome refugees, with Greater Manchester having the highest concentration of dispersed asylum seekers in the UK outside of London,” adds the team at Good Chance.
The planning stages of this magnum opus production involved a huge number of exploratory conversations with a range of potential collaborators across the route; artists and arts organisations, grassroots humanitarian organisations and major NGOs, representatives from civil society, and early funders who believed in the idea from the start. “Most importantly, there were conversations with people young and old living all along the route — people who’d been there all their lives as well as more recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers — to explore whether the idea of Little Amal’s journey was one that would be welcomed. The response was overwhelmingly positive in all locations across Europe and in Turkey and Lebanon,” say the organisers.
While sections of the journey will necessarily involve Amal being transported by vehicles or by boat, she will walk for the majority of the duration. “The stopover destinations along the route have been offered a simple idea: Little Amal is a 9-year-old girl who is coming through your community. How will you welcome her?, explains Amir Nizar Zuabi.
For example, in the Turkish coastal town of Cesme, Amal will follow a path of empty shoes that leads her to the beach. Created by K2 Contemporary Art Centre, this art setup represents the many thousands of people that have lost their lives while crossing the treacherous sea.
In the Italian city of Bari, she will be welcomed by a comforting large puppet of an Italian nonna (grandmother) who shares wisdom on how to overcome the obstacles she may face on her way; in Paris, an installation of a refugee camp will be created outside the Institut du Monde Arabe, where Amal will explore the rows of tents, hoping to find her mother. From each tent she will see and hear glimpses of shadow art and soundscape, representing the many countries that refugees have journeyed. Every narrative, performance and work of art is intricately woven into the whole story.
The collaborative production is a celebration of creative and artistic excellence. According to the plot, when Amal reaches Athens in Greece, she gets scared about losing her way and will tie a thread of bright red yarn to a lamp post, and leave a trail as she walks through the city.
This is where she will face a minotaur, puppet of course, created by Unima-Hellas (an open organisation that promotes puppetry), and decide whether she can face her fear and befriend the beast.
Meanwhile, Amal’s birthday celebrations are being planned in London, where she will turn 10 on October 24. The day begins with a dawn chorus performance at the Royal Opera House followed by a party at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with kids invited from all across London. In the finale, Amal will successfully reunite with her mother in Manchester.
(Photos by Bevan Roos and Nick Wall)
The list of events is available on https://www.walkwithamal.org/events/