Chicks Chat with….
Emma Manton, not content with working full time for the RSC in the West End (currently appearing in Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Haymarket Theatre). Being a mum to Ted, aged 6. Emma is also training for her second London marathon. She’s filling her spare time (seriously, what spare time?!) raising funds for the UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency). Moving Stories is just the latest in a series of fundraising events that she has organised, and she’s been totting up some impressive amounts of money in the process. Last year’s total earned her the London Marathon Silver Bond Award with a fund-raising total of £32,000. Moving Stories was first conceived last year at the National Theatre, an afternoon of theatre featuring an array of talent from stage and screen, performing specially commissioned short plays, songs, and poems. This year Moving Stories returns, but has moved over the river to the beautiful Haymarket Theatre in the West End. This year the audience will once again get to see a whole host of incredibly talented folk perform work written especially for the event, and the tasty cherry on top, is that it will be hosted by Mel Giedroyc of Great British Bake Off fame. And all for the bargain price of £15. I recently met up with Emma, just before an evening performance, to ask her about her inspirations, her aspirations, and how Moving Stories began.
So, Emma, here we are, in the historic Haymarket Theatre to talk about this event you’re organising, Moving Stories, and how it all started. Firstly, we’ve all watched the news and said, ‘this is awful, what am I going to do?’ so what was the moment when you said, ‘I have to DO something’?
I think the turning point for a lot of people was the picture of that little boy on that beach, Aylan Kurdi, in that would have been the summer of 2015, and that September, my friend Ros Ereira, put out a call on Facebook saying, ‘We’re marching about this right?, We’re marching on Parliament?” and, she says herself, she expected maybe fifty of us to stand next to her and wave a placard, and within 10 days she was managing an event of 100,000 people. It’s transformed her life, but part of that was looking at how just doing anything, a shout out on Facebook, can make such a massive difference, and it did – it changed policy. The government that week went from saying we weren’t going to take any refugees, to the fact that we were going to take 20,000. Whether that’s happened or not is up for debate, but in that moment it was a victory. So I just thought what could I do? I’d been running a lot, and London marathon was coming up, and everyone says, if you’re going to run the London Marathon, and you’re going to run for charity, and commit to raising a lot of money, choose something you can really get behind. So I thought well let’s see, let’s just see if any of the refugee charities have a place.
So, how did you find UNHCR?
I just emailed them through their website and well, I didn’t really know anything about the refugee charities, they were one that popped up, basically just doing an internet search. I emailed them, and apparently it seems that was literally a job given to an intern, and my email popped up on her screen, and she leant over and said, “shall we give it to this person and just make sure she raises some money?” and that was that. Once you’re committed to raising this money you have to find a way to do it. And you know, I could do bake sales and rattling buckets and things like that but, probably being quite lazy in the first point, but how can I just do it all in one go? I can put on a show! Initially I just thought it would just be few of us in a room above a pub reading a few poems and raise £500.
Okay… so how did “over a pub with £500” become the National Theatre?!
Well it just never happens this way: these stories do not pan out this way! I’d just finished the RSC season in Stratford so I phoned our producer and said, if I commit to raising two grand will you help me? And he sort of muttered yes, and we had a coffee, and in the way that producers of his calibre do, he just instantly thought way beyond the way I think. “Just start with the National, start at the top. Ask the National, and then we can ask the South Bank, and work down from there.” So I was just… okay, I’ll just ‘ask the National’. So I did one of those ridiculous phone calls, phoning stage door and saying “Hi it’s Emma Manton here, I’m just trying to get a message to Rufus: have you got his PA’s email address?” And they just went, ”Yeah sure”, and gave me the email address. So I emailed them… and as luck would have it it seems Rufus is very involved in refugee work. He took his family out to Calais, and he’s involved with Good Chance Theatre, so it was obviously an issue that he was really keen to support. It couldn’t be a National Theatre production, so by me coming along and saying ‘do it in my name’ they could offer a space and resources, and they were absolutely amazing. And I’m now discovering, a year later, doing it without the support of the National theatre, just how much support they gave me last time.
This year it’s at the Haymarket Theatre. What else is different about this year?
Well we were really keen to try and make this mainstream. The long term, underlying aim of a lot of the refugee charities is to make supporting people displaced by war just something that we support, that we just naturally support, and for it to be seen as a slightly strange view not to support that. SO this time we’ve got Mel Giedroyc hosting, of the Great British Bake Off, which is sort of as main stream as it gets! Last year was Jeremy Hardy, who was extraordinary, but he’s not available this time, and I think it already it feels lighter. And we’ve got Joe Pasquale, and Rufus Hound again, lots of comedians involved, as well as some new material.
What can we expect from Moving Stories?
They are mostly short plays by people I badgered until they wrote something)! (Richard Bean, David Edgar, Phil Porter, among others.) Something like six or seven short plays, three songs and two poems. And it’s not just a lot of misery: they are all responses to the refugee crisis, in fact I don’t think any of them are about what it’s like to be a refugee, they’re about what it’s like for us, as British people to respond to this crisis. And some of them are really funny, and some of them are sad, and some of them are both. So it’s a complete range of things based on a theme.
Tell me about when you went to Calais.
I’ve been to Calais twice. The first time we went we went with some donations just Ros (who organized the march) and a Syrian friend of hers. We organized meetings with some volunteers who’d been working there and they introduced us to one of the Syrian leaders who talked to us about… well …how crap it was. It was just crap. And that was when it was the camp was at its best. It was just after the evictions of the North bit, so there was just this big, empty, flattened dust plateau, with a wonky church in the middle of it, and then just this space that had just been filled with people’s homes; that was just really sad and you could tell people were quite traumatized by it. It was a tough thing to talk about. And then just as we were leaving we were with this Syrian friend of ours, and someone called his name, and it was his cousin. And they’d been there for six months, and hadn’t told any of the family they were there. And then we had this awful moment: they took us into their shelter and had tea, and we all smiled and shook hands and had a wonderful time, and then it came to the end, and we could go, and they couldn’t. And it just seemed so unfair, that this guy could go because he was a few years older than them, and he happened to come to the UK earlier. And he has a life here. And they can’t.
“There are things we have to do. Be on the right side of history…”
The second time we went we took Ted, my six year old, and we’d explained to him that there were these people that had lost everything and they want to come to this country to make better lives and that’s difficult, so we’re going to take them some socks and some pants and some toothpaste and things like that, and in six year old terms that’s enough. So we went to one of the warehouses and did a bit of sorting and then we went into the camp and as soon as everybody saw this young child everyone started trying to give him stuff. So he came away with dates, and soft toys, and as many hugs and handshakes as he could handle, and it was so shaming that there’s such a culture in the middle east, as far as I can tell, of just open-door welcome: Ros had worked a lot in Syria before all of this started and said you could just couldn’t go anywhere without somebody offering you something, and she was just so shamed that now, in their hour of need, our country was being so inhospitable.
How did Ted find it, and how did you find it, watching Ted?
He really took it in his stride, I was so proud of him. As much as anything else it makes you shy to get that much attention, but he got over it, and he just sort of smiled at everybody and took the toys! But he does still talk about it, and one of the toys he keeps in his bed with him, because he understands that he was a long way from home and he needs looking after, so he looks after that.
So although on paper it might read, that here you are, this amazing woman – a mum, with a full time job, doing fundraising, running a marathon – there must be days when you just think , I can’t do this anymore, can it all just stop!? What’s been the hardest bit for you so far, and how do you keep going?
The hardest bit was when Donald Trump signed that executive order, last week. Because I’ve been to Greece as well, and there are so many women and children there, children who just want to play, and the thought that they were the people he was slamming the door on was heart-breaking. And it’s so different in the camps in Greece. It’s a lot more families. And there’s definitely a sense of hope, because everybody who’s in the camps is being processed and they are in the system of being relocated around Europe and they’re well aware that might take months, years possibly, but families do leave. And then other families come, and there is a sense of hope. And then the biggest country in the world shutting their doors on that hope seems so cruel. That was a tough day. But also, that was the most galvanizing day.
And the main feeling is, if not us then who? Somebody’s got to stand up to this. What I think, I hope, with events like Moving Stories, because of the brilliance of the writing, is that just for a second we stop and either imagine ourselves in this position, or look at times that this has happened before: we know how this turns out, we know who the good guys are, and we can choose that. We have to be the good guys. I know – I just know – that in fifty years’ time I want to be the person who said “I fought”. And I can hold my head up high, knowing that I did.
So if there’s someone sitting on their sofa, thinking, ‘Ah, but what can I do?’ what would be your thought for them?
Well there are so many things you can do. Obviously not everyone has time to give up weeks and months of their lives to go to Greece and Calais, that’s a huge commitment. But I think there are great little charities – for example there’s a Facebook Group that supplies phone credit to refugees so whacking a fiver over there every now and again is within the reach of a lot of people. Signing petitions; we see how protest works. It really does work. I know the government is back-tracking on the Dubs Amendment, which is heart-breaking, but that came about because of a groundswell of public support. It happens in incremental steps, but it does matter. And before I started any of this, I was on a list – well I still am – for my local foodbank, and because I have a car occasionally they just drop an email out saying ‘Sainsbury’s in Woolwich is over-flowing can anyone go and pick it up?’ so you can drive down, pick up the stuff and whack it over to the warehouse – it takes me half an hour, and that’s maybe once a month. And foodbanks are supporting a lot of asylum seekers now.
“There are things we have to do. Be on the right side of history.
The hashtag now has to be, bridges not borders.” Emma Manton
Interview by actress Emma Pallant
Moving Stories at the Haymarket Theatre is on Sunday 26th February at 4pm.
Work by: Richard Bean, David Edgar, Phil Porter and more.
Performers confirmed include: James Bolam (New Tricks, The Likely Lads), Rufus Hound (One Man, Two Guvnors, Celebrity Juice), Anna Jane Casey (Billy Elliot, Spamalot), Natalie Casey (Hollyoaks, Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps) and Denise Gough (People, Places, Things), Joe Pasquale. Also performing are Edward Bennett and Lisa Dillon who are currently starring in Love’s Labour’s Lost & Much Ado About Nothing.
*Tickets from £15 (up to £55)
For more information on Moving Stories
Haymarket Box office: 020 7930 8800 – https://tickets.trh.co.uk/WEBPAGES/EntaWebHtmlSeatPlan/HtmlSeatPlan.aspx
Phone credit for refugees and displaced people – https://www.facebook.com/groups/1709109339334305/
Emma Manton’s Just Giving Page (London Marathon 2017) https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Emma-Manton4
Follow Emma Manton on Twitter for regular updates.