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February 7, 2019

Refugees, Australia, and Nauru, as told by schoolchildren

Written by Samara Hersch and Lara Thoms and performed by seven schoolchildren, 'We All Know What's Happening' explores the relationship between Australia and Nauru and the human lives caught in the middle.

  • Words: Johnny von Einem
  • Pictures: Bryony Jackson

In 2015, the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, washed ashore in Turkey.

Alan and his family were fleeing the war in Syria with the intended destination of Canada, where his aunt worked as a hairdresser. Along with Alan, his five-year-old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, did not survive the journey. His father made it to the Turkish shore alive.


We All Know What’s Happening
Performances at 2pm & 7pm on 9-10 February.
Waterside Workers Hall
11 Nile Street, Port Adelaide 5015
Tickets: $15-30

The images from the tragedy were arresting and quickly disseminated worldwide. While there was overwhelming sympathy for the boy and his family, Alan’s death did little to bring polarised opinions on refugees into line.

The news provided a malleable narrative to suit either side of politics – sparking compassion in those in favour of accepting refugees, while also providing justification in the minds of those in favour of boat turn-backs (our dinky-die PM, Scott Morrison for one) – but it was a rare moment in that the heartbreaking death of a three-year-old boy could not be dismissed.

Theatre-makers Samara Hersch and Lara Thoms noticed, when the narrative of refugees was centred on a child, “there was a kind of deeper empathy that was coming through the media,” Samara says.

“I found this personally very confronting and very frustrating, what was happening. But I was both interested in how children can speak about questions of justice differently to adults.”

Samara and Lara’s response to the story was the beginning of We All Know What’s Happening – a performance, stylised as a pantomime school play, in which seven school children discuss the history and recent developments of refugees held in Australian care on Nauru, and the strange relationship between Australia and Nauru.

“It’s a bit of a timeline from 100,000,000 years ago to today, so as the news changes, so does the script,” Samara says.

“It’s a bit disarming, which is the intention, to present kids teaching the adults a kind of traditional panto school production but then pulling the rug out, I guess, around what is this history we’re talking about. So I think it’s formally a kind of trick,” she laughs.

The performers range in ages – when the work debuted in 2017, some were as young as 10 – and all were scouted during a call-out in which Samara and Lara asked for a recorded speech about one thing the children would change about the world.

They encountered an incredible level of political engagement during the audition process, which has grown into activism as the performers, with Samara and Lara, created and performed the work.

“We did a lot of work with Save the Children, and they’ve been a huge support for us around best practice in talking to children about trauma and how to talk to children about what’s happening,” Samara says.

“Their feelings of frustration probably prompted their own desire to do something, and we get that response a lot.

“We recently shared the work in Campbelltown and it was amazing, the kind of kids who came to see the show, just like ‘How can we help?’”

We All Know What’s Happening is showing at the Waterside Workers Hall in Port Adelaide this weekend as part of Vitalstatistix’s 2019 season, and is intended for an audience diverse in age.

“It’s a family-friendly show. We invite all ages. It’s really great for kids to perform to kids their age as well,” Samara says.

“Not to give too much away, but there are multiple experiences that start to emerge in the work that are age-specific. So although the material’s very heavy, of course, it’s catered to different audiences so that it’s not inappropriate for them.”

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