A theater project promoting integration in Cologne, Germany | Credit: Ceno e.V
A theater project promoting integration in Cologne, Germany | Credit: Ceno e.V

A group of student actors has teamed up with asylum seekers in a theater project in Cologne, Germany. Their latest performance deals with the themes of integration, dislocation and racism.

The project is called "Der Geschmack von Sprache," which means something like "the taste of language." The idea is to find a way for young asylum seekers and local German student actors to work together on a broad range of themes related to integration. To do this, the actors choose a text from a migrant’s country of origin and give it their own artistic interpretation.

The concept is part of a larger project run by Cologne-based volunteer organization Ceno e.V., which has been facilitating partnerships between local Cologne residents and asylum seekers for several years. In this project, locals commit to helping a newcomer for three hours, three times, over six weeks. The help offered can be anything from going shopping, to language assistance, to visiting a museum. Ceno provides support to volunteers on how best to offer help with the aim of facilitating cross-cultural connections.

"Ceno just gives the impulse. We bring migrants and locals together and then what comes out of that partnership is different every time," Ceno spokesperson, Laura Bramann, told InfoMigrants

The same principle was applied to the theater project. It was started last October, and held for the second time in May. The result has been a rich diversity of experiences. Although the same framework was provided by Ceno, "the performances were completely different," Bramann explained.

This group focused on the issue of racism, with Bady (second from left) holding a monologue in French | Credit: Ceno e.V

Student actors and asylum seekers

The theater project is run in partnership with Cologne's Arturo acting academy. Eleven third-semester students, paired with eleven asylum seekers, take part. All are aged between 18 and 26.

"Due to the great success of the first collaboration last year, the theater project is now an integral part of the curriculum," said Bianca Lehnard, the project's artistic director and faculty member at Arturo. She explained that the participants have six weeks to prepare the performance and are given full artistic freedom. "They have to work it out independently. It’s a big task."

Lehnard says she initially agreed to the project because she wanted to expand her students' view of the world. "Many acting students, who move here to study, end up getting to know other acting students. I wanted my students to get to know people with real stories."

The asylum seekers who take part are not enrolled in an acting course. Ceno put the word out about the project through its network in Cologne. Posters were hung in migrant reception centers, and people who were interested were invited to come to a meeting.

Breaking the ice

The first time they met, the atmosphere in the group was "strained". Annetta Ristow, who works for Ceno as an intercultural advisor, helped break the ice by getting everyone to ask each other questions. "After two or three meetings, the atmosphere had completely changed," a student said. "It was no longer about us and them, we became 'we'."

Ristow told the audience she had been nervous before seeing the final product. "But I told myself, it's about trust. Every successful relationship is based on trust, not on fear. And that is what I was pleased to see come out of this project. We have to see 'differences' between people as resources," she said.

The second part of the performance focused on intercultural relationships | Credit: Ceno e.V

The performance

The evening began with a monologue in French by Bady, from Guinea, who described being a victim of racism after he arrived in Germany. Talking about the project he said, "To say what happened to me publicly allowed me to unburden my heart. I am not alone in Germany anymore."

A series of sketches followed, focusing on intercultural relationships and stereotypes. At times funny and moving, the actors managed to convey a commonality of experience. "Each person has their own story in Germany, whether they were born here or have come from somewhere else. One of the things we found is that it is not about differences. We are more similar than we think," said Paul, another student.

The final act was a rap song in French, with interpretative dance performed by a dancer with a strong limp. Other people, from other countries, regardless of how they got here, also have a need to be creative, to express themselves, to have fun," said student actor Lara.

And now?

"We will definitely be staying in touch. We have a Whatsapp group," one of the participants said. "We've become really good friends."

Simon, originally from Iraq, explained that, before this project, he had had no contact with any Germans. "But now I have seven German friends!" he said.

"We also have a film project in the pipeline," said his friend Paul. "That’s not a joke!"


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