Gracie Hays speaks to The Jungle’s writers, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, about their first days in Calais, the meaning of Good Chance, and sharing the stories of refugees.
GRACIE HAYS: This show came out of the time you both spent working in a refugee camp in Calais, France, called the Jungle, where you created a temporary theater called Good Chance. How did you two decide to make that trip in the first place?
JOE ROBERTSON: We decided to go a little bit by accident. It was 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, and we, like many people in Europe, were shocked by the images we were seeing in the news and on social media. There was a hysteria in the response to what was happening, but not, it seemed to us, answers to some very basic questions—who these people were, why they were traveling, and what they hoped to find. So we just decided to go and try to find out for ourselves. There was sort of this need to bear witness, I think.
We didn’t intend to stay in Calais, but we found the Jungle there. By the time we arrived, it was a sort of city—there were thousands of people from twenty-five different countries.
They were living in this horrible place, a landfill site outside the port. There were a couple water taps to go around for about eight thousand people. But there was a sense of industry and an attempt by everybody there to try and find a way of living together, even temporarily. So there were restaurants built by people from Afghanistan and Pakistan, there were churches and mosques of different denominations. It was a very hopeful place, in spite of the atrocious conditions.
JOE MURPHY: I suppose the decision to build a theater made very simple sense. Because of what people had been through on their journeys, lots of them were telling stories in order to process their experiences. For us, theater has always been a space to tell stories, to learn about each other. There was a logic that even though people are talking and telling stories on their own, perhaps we should build a place that can hold some of those stories, and that would let people reflect on the situation and hopefully imagine a better future.
GH: Would you talk about how the theater got the name Good Chance?
JM: It was named really by many, many residents of the camp. English was the common language—not everyone spoke it, but everyone knew these two particular phrases: “Good chance” and “No chance.” “Good chance” referred to the likelihood of crossing that night. People would say there’s a good chance of getting through the port, or there’s a good chance at the train station to get on a train or a lorry. Whether this really reflected any truth about the likelihood is another matter, but they were common phrases, and people began to call the theater Good Chance. It was a different kind of good chance. I think it was another way to escape.
GH: What kind of expectations did you have of the Jungle before you visited?
JR: I think we expected terrible conditions. Mud, illness. And I think we also expected a certain kind of person. Certainly, I had very naïve ideas about who a refugee was and what a person who leaves their country looks like, sounds like. The very simple realization was that there’s not just one experience, but thousands. There’s eight thousand different people who all have different reasons for fleeing, different hopes and dreams.
GH: Did your understanding of the situation there change, over time?
JR: The first thing people would say in the Jungle was “Where are you from?” When we said, “UK,” people would say, “UK is the best country in the world.” And we’d say, “Why do you think that?” And they’d say, human rights, education, freedom of expression, school, universities, David Beckham, you know, all the things we take for granted. We felt like, this is insane, why’s everyone coming to Britain? You know, there’s more work in Germany probably. So it was a learning experience for us, understanding the clout that Britain has around the world. We got very used to this kind of reaction. But by the end of our time there, with everyone trying to get to Britain every single night, the good chance was becoming more and more no chance. I remember very distinctly, after six months of being there, someone asking, “Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from the UK.” He said, “Fuck the UK.” Certainly that belief in what the UK stood for completely collapsed.
GH: Some of your cast members actually lived in the camp, as well. What was it like, writing for them?
JR: It was constantly enlightening, and challenging in the best way. We worked together over many, many months. Everyone in the company brought a humanity to their roles that we wouldn’t have been able to create ourselves. The story of movement is so universal—even people you might not expect would say, You know, my grandma was a refugee. I think for audiences that’s really quite profound.
GH: What kind of police presence did you see in the Jungle?
JR: We were just there last week—there’s a section in the play that includes film that’s very up to date on the situation, so we go back fairly often. I think the phrase that was used the other day was “securitization of the border.” Wherever you go, on every road to the port, near the railway, and in the Eurotunnel, there are these huge swaths of high white fences, and often they’re in layers of three or four. There’s a big wall that’s been erected that wraps down the motorway for several miles. There are of course British naval battleships in the Channel now, intercepting people. There are drones, apparently. When we were there, at any one time there were hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of CRS officers—the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité of France, who are the very famously tough riot police. It might have helped if there was communication between the authorities and the people who lived in the camp, but there wasn’t, really. The police would come into the camp fully clothed in riot gear, with their shields, guns, batons, tear gas cannons. They would do daily walkarounds, and then there would be nightly battles.
JM: I remember a moment during the eviction of the southern half of the camp when I saw an officer crying, standing on a mound, watching over a pretty horrible scene. In a way the police were part of this tapestry of people who don’t have a lot of choice in what is a pretty intractable situation. They’re performing a job that some of them may be enthusiastic about, but others won’t be. Many will have great conflicts. That’s important to show.
JR: I think the same could be said for the lorry drivers. They’d be very worried about people jumping on their trucks. They can get fined a lot of money. And then the people in Calais—it’s a very difficult, upsetting situation, having an event of global import right in your town, in clear view on your way to work. We always said in the Jungle, the situation is never good for anyone. I think we try to admit that in the play, and just sort of say, so what can we learn together? What can we all learn about how to deal with these situations in the future? How do we live together better, and how do we respond more humanely?
GH: Tell us about what it was like to be there for the eviction.
JM: It was a very complex situation. Nobody wanted this place to exist. Everybody recognized that it was not a place where human beings should be living out their lives, especially when you think of families living there with young children. So you had a very peculiar thing happening where, for those resisting arrest and trying to hang onto a very basic wooden house or a tent, they also ultimately didn’t want to be there. I would describe it as a very contradictory situation. There were people fighting for something that they didn’t want to fight for.
GH: What do you hope San Francisco audiences take away from The Jungle?
JM: Our hope would be that this play represents a chance to spend some time with people you’ve perhaps never met before, from countries you haven’t come into contact with. I hope that this can be a chance for people to search for their own answers. We’re not trying to say, for example, that people shouldn’t be concerned about mass migration. Instead, I think we should be encouraging people to speak to each other. Hopefully, this can be a great space for the people of San Francisco to think about some tough questions.
JR: When we first went, people would sarcastically say, “Oh, the white saviors are going to Calais,” or the right-wing press would go, “Oh, look at these ‘activists’ building a theater, a night club in a refugee camp.” You couldn’t really win either point. And then you have some people saying, you’re preserving the situation by helping. We try to examine all the complexities of volunteering, too.
GH: If you could go back and experience that first visit to Calais again, what advice would you give yourself?
JR: Go to the hospital sooner. I had a really bad infection.
JM: Joe was in the hospital for ten days. There were lots of illnesses going around.
JR: I ended up in a really nice hospital in Calais that was basically empty apart from refugees who had injured themselves trying to cross the border, or had similar bacterial infections as I did, so I became a kind of mediator between many of the doctors and the patients.
JM: The most obvious thing would be something that I actually wouldn’t want to change, and that would be the fact that we entered with a very deep naiveté about the situation. Being so naïve meant that we opened ourselves up to listening more than we perhaps might have done if we’d felt that we really had a handle on things. The fact was that we didn’t. It forced us to listen, and to think on our feet. Even though it might have made us more comfortable in the first few months if we’d had a better understanding, I don’t think it necessarily would have resulted in us being more useful. So again, I’m finding contradictions in my thoughts, which is I suppose is an interesting reflection of the situation, which itself was very, very contradictory.