Drawing a Line – Participatory Arts with Young Refugees by Stella Barnes (2009)

Barnes, S. (2009) ‘Drawing a Line’ in Participatory Arts with Young Refugees. Oval House.



Stella Barnes opens the article describing a refugee performance from 2004, in which a refugee, mid performance, relives the trauma and finds it difficult to continue. Barnes discusses the ethics of the theatre company’s agenda or aim.


Barnes discusses the sharing of refugee stories and autobiographical performance. As privileged people, we want to know refugee stories and the details and context, but Barnes avoids using stories in her participatory art, as these stories carry a sense of exploitation. This allows the opportunity to bridge the notion of us and them, creating equals. As refugee projects and performances around this subject area grew, the question of ethics largely decreased, as many practitioners either do not hold a lot of experience, or have not participated in this critical debate.


In her own work, at The Oval House, Barnes uses role-play, person in role, forum theatre, story telling and physical theatre to engage emotionally, intellectually and physically (p. 36). The Oval House utilises an enjoyable and inclusive environment. As The Oval House works with people from troubled, traumatic backgrounds, increased by governmental bureaucracy and poverty, drama offers escape, relationships and allows participants to pick up skills of empathy, understanding and engagement with the world, and their personal challenges. To emphasise these, the theatre connects to the participant as people and the young people of London, and not by associating “refugeeness” to them, or other identities they do not like.


The Oval House focuses on four elements when working with young people:

  • Choice: The participants must feel they have choice, to create a cooperative working environment, with them as “partners in the process.” This allows self-definition and creativity, and relationship building. This brings alive their own ideas and creative processes, and identifies them as practitioners in their own right.
  • Respect: There is a mutual agreement and trust. As many of the participants have little experience of interactive, cross gender, mixed culture group work, it is important to establish respect and trust to create a safe space.
  • Equality: The establishment of equality is important, as many of the participants have lived in contexts of the repression of quality. As participants participate, they may still hold views that go against these elements, but The Oval House use a blame-free approach, as it is a complex issue, which is unlearned slowly. This helps the participant gain understanding and development in equality.
  • Safety: The Oval House commits to physical, emotional and psychological safety for young people, through assessment of creative and personal risks the young people may embark on.


There is an acknowledgement of the therapeutic effects of theatre and drama, whilst making it clear that it is not therapy.

The ethical framework is regularly assessed and new strategies are formed and improved. Ethics leads to safety, which allows room for creative and personal risks, as long as the work focuses around fiction. Fictional, metaphorical and symbols leaves space for creative transformations, allowing a tool for communication to develop. This keeps the safe environment, and avoids escalating personal risks and reliving trauma.

Drawing a Line – Participatory Arts with Young Refugees by Stella Barnes (2009)

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