Theatre companies of sanctuary: Building cultures of welcome for all

Colleague spotlight | Hannah Butterfield , BA (Hons) Performing Arts


Hannah is a lecturer in performing arts at Leeds Beckett University (LBU), theatre director, Associate Director at Stand and Be Counted (SBC) Theatre and an LBU alumni. Since graduating from the MA in Performance Works in 2012, Hannah has developed a theatre-making practice built on the ethos of ‘hospitality and welcome’ for people seeking sanctuary in the UK. Hannah’s solo work and collaborative work with SBC Theatre has toured nationally and internationally. SBC Theatre are proudly the UK’s first Theatre Company of Sanctuary.

Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working with Leeds School of Arts?

I did a top-up degree in contemporary performance practices at (the then named) Leeds Met (now Leeds Beckett). Top-up programmes are rare these days, but it was a perfect move for me. I was really interested in theatre, I had lots of experience, but I was frustrated with the archaic processes associated with the industry. I think I had always wanted to make my own work but had no reference points or role models in this area until joining the top-up.

Here, I was taught by experts in making performance work for a range of contexts. Here, my pre-existing understating of ‘theatre’ and its limitations were exploded, challenged and tested. I took risks. I learned to devise performance work in collaboration with my peers.

Fast-forward almost a decade and I’m so proud that some of these inspirational teachers are now my colleagues. Back then, the department was small, innovative and leading the way for training in contemporary performance. Now, we are a much larger team of practitioners whose practice spans broadly across the performing arts. I have guest lectured at numerous universities, but I have never worked in a place where the teaching team have such a diverse range of experience and practices.

What makes you passionate about your work around performing arts and why is it important?

I’m interested in the relationship between theatre and campaign. ‘Art’ and human nature are intrinsically linked.

Stand and Be Counted (SBC) Theatre became the UK’s first Theatre Company of Sanctuary in 2015 whilst we were making and touring TANJA – a live performance work about the detention of women seeking sanctuary in this country. Lead performer and activist Emily Ntshangase has first-hand experience of being held in detention whilst the Home Office were dealing with her claim for sanctuary.

This work presented and challenged the ‘hostile environment’ in association with movements such as ‘Set Her Free’ and ‘No Human is Illegal’. We presented extracts of this work at the Houses of Parliament in 2015.

This period of time was the start of a group of theatre artists’ commitment to making work ‘WITH’ not ‘FOR’ people seeking sanctuary, and to be a public-facing part of the discourse in this area. We had been making work in response to policy around asylum and refugee law. Now, we aim to make work that may influence new policy. The culture of our work is rooted in creating spaces of ‘welcome’ for people seeking sanctuary in the UK.

How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?

My professional practice as a theatre director, my work with SBC Theatre and my teaching practice are increasingly connected. Even when making solo work, the process is extremely collaborative.

A dear friend and mentor often speaks of the rise of the ‘magnificent generalist’. This industry used to be built upon the notion of the ‘specialist’, but I have seen less and less need for specialism – particularly within socially engaged practices. Instead of the ‘experts by training’ we need the ‘experts by experience’ to lead the way for making socially responsible performance work. This goes way beyond the conversations around representation – ‘we’ don’t need to ‘represent’ people who are willing and able to speak for themselves. ‘We’ need to listen. ‘We’ need to collaborate. I want to find new ways of making performance work together.

Collaborating with people from different cultural and creative contexts is about bringing your expectations and assumptions with you, and allowing them to be challenged, in real time. We can’t ‘exchange’ culture, but we can attempt to. In trying, we can find something previously invisible, unknown, unfelt. I think this is where the most interesting work emerges from.

What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working in Leeds School of Arts?

Bringing students into my professional practice has always been a priority in my teaching. Performing arts students at Leeds Beckett have had the opportunity to make and perform at a number of festivals including Latitude in collaboration with SBC. I want to offer students a model for making socially responsible theatre. The best way to do this is by, well, doing it for real, sharing work and process with audiences. It has been genuinely inspiring to see students presenting their work and engaging deeply in the discourse around performance and sanctuary. These experiences provide important training opportunities for the next generation of theatre-makers.

The network of Theatre Companies of Sanctuary is growing in scale, ambition and impact. Most of these companies are small and have little core funding (or none at all). Together we have created the Welcome Consortium in order to share practice, ideas, resources and experiences. Together we are attempting to influence policy around resettlement and refuge (rather than responding to it). The holistic support for people seeking sanctuary provided by this network is so important. Participants of projects have often reported a steep development in their confidence, conversational English and general wellbeing. It’s not a new idea that creative engagement opportunities are vital and valuable, but these practices are deeply political and directly challenge The Hostile Environment. In November 2020, SBC initiated an open letter to Rishi Sunak ahead of key decision-making around the UK Resettlement Programmes. You can read our open letter here.


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BA (Hons)


Student dancing on stage bending backwards holding a veil in the air

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