'Finding Refuge in Pittsburgh': Prague's Archa Theatre delves into the immigrant experience

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The immigrant story in Pittsburgh is an old one. A theater company from the Czech Republic is here in town to explore and present a new perspective on the immigrant/refugee experience here in the 21st century. 

This weekend’‍s performance of “Lost and Found: Finding Refuge in Pittsburgh” is co-produced by Archa Theatre and by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, the North Side nonprofit that serves as a sanctuary for writers in exile and presents a full slate of cross-cultural literary programs throughout the year. 

“Lost and Found: Finding Refuge in Pittsburgh”

With:  Archa Theatre and the Allstar Refjudzi Band.

Where: Alphabet City Tent, 318 Sampsonia Way, North Side.

When: June 28 and 29. Theater performances at 6 p.m. Concert at 8:30 p.m. 

Information:  Free admission.  For reservations, call 412-323-0278 or cityofasylumpittsburgh.org/events

Archa Theatre, which is based in Prague, produces contemporary stage art that’‍s not limited to conventional genres, performing in theaters and public spaces. Among their productions is a series of performance pieces based on personal stories of people who have had to leave their homeland. 

City of Asylum co-founder and president Henry Reese invited them here to create a similar project, weaving stories around the experiences of several newly arrived immigrants who were granted asylum in the U.S. and have settled in Pittsburgh.

Visiting artists from Archa came to Pittsburgh for a week in February to meet with the refugees they’‍d be working with, and returned to start putting the show together earlier this month. Jana Svobodova and Philipp Schenker of Archa Theatre are the creative directors for the theater production. 

They met with the people in their homes to begin the process of establishing a connection with them. “I never had such an experience -- to go to the home of a person who just emigrated from a very complicated country,” Ms. Svobodova said. “They are full of fear about their life, but they are also full of hope and memories. All these people are very happy that they are here in the United States because it solves a big problem in their life. At the same time, they left a lot behind in their heads.” 

“You must create a certain level of trust. Otherwise those people don’‍t have any reason to work with you. Our work is to create a comfortable space and environment so they can express themselves on stage.” 

The four stories will focus on people from Congo, Bhutan, Iraq and Nepal, who are establishing new homes here. The scenes will be performed by both Archa actors and some of the refugees themselves. Each will be set in a different location in lots around Sampsonia Way. The audience will be divided into four groups and taken to each of the sites. 

The performance starts and ends with the entire audience gathered under a tent, concluding with a concert by the Allstar Refjudzi Band. “In the head of the audience, it will come together in the end,” Ms. Svobodova said. “They will have the stories of people who are leaving their homes and finding new homes here in Pittsburgh, It’‍s all these complicated feelings. There are similarities in their life experience and also in our lives.” 

The Allstar Refjudzi Band includes an international lineup of musicians, along with several local musicians joining them for this performance. Their sound reflects their diverse cultural and musical influences, with elements of Kurdish folk and pop, East European, Chinese, klezmer, rap, cabaret and more. Michael Romanyshyn is the band’‍s musical director. 

The end result is documentary theater, which is a very different experience, Ms. Svobodova said. In a traditional play, “You’‍re watching somebody pretending that he‘‍s somebody else. Working with real stories and having real people on the stage can open the hearts of the audience in a different way than when they are only going to the theater to watch perfectly done ’‘‍Hamlet.’‍

“Documentary theater for me means real sources, working with real stories of real people, and close collaboration with those people who told you those stories. 

“We are not journalists. We are theater-makers. We are using tools for theater-like music and visual art and storytelling, telling the story of all of us.”

Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865

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