Being Here Descriptive Introduction

VocalEye Descriptive Introduction for Being Here: The Refugee Project

Prepared by Ingrid Turk and VocalEye for the Belfry Theatre

This introduction includes:


Being Here: The Refugee Project is verbatim theatre, made from real people’s words. A form of documentary theatre, it allows theatre makers to explore events and themes through the words of the people at the heart of them. The play is written by Joel Bernbaum and directed by Michael Shamata.

The action takes place in Canada in locations similar to where the playwright interviewed his subjects, such as offices, community centres, and over Zoom. In one scene, we’ll hear someone speaking on a cell phone. The actors are careful to faithfully reproduce the text that has been transcribed from the playwright’s interviews. In cases where the interview has been translated, the actors speak with a neutral accent. Otherwise, the refugees and many of their supporters speak with accented English that reflects their country and language of origin.

The stories are told from multiple points of view; from the refugees themselves and from their sponsors and supporters. The stories are told in a non-linear fashion, weaving and sometimes overlapping in a montage of monologues and conversations. The first 50 minutes introduce us to the refugees and the Canadians, moving through the process of choosing Canada and travelling here, and the challenges of getting settled. The second half gives us a sense of the refugees’ current circumstances.

Being Here: The Refugee Project is 90 minutes long, and there is no intermission.

The multi-racial cast of 7 actors is composed of 4 men and 3 women who portray 19 people. These portrayals are differentiated by vocal quality, accents, hair styles, accessories like glasses or scarves, and clothing, as in the case of Hana who wears a black chador, a heavy veil that covers her from head to toe, leaving only her eyes visible.

Descriptions of Characters, Costumes and Locations

The Characters

The Refugees:

Sayid – Syrian, in his 40s, in Victoria, British Columbia

Minka and Sabir – Ghanaian, in their 30s, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Abbas and Sarah – Palestinian, in their 50s, location not identified

Hana – Iraqui, in her 40s, in Calgary, Alberta

Mohammed – Syrian, in his 40s, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Their Sponsors and Supporters:

Ann – Canadian, in her 60s, from Nova Scotia.

Amena – in her 50s, in Winnipeg. She only appears in the first scene.

Eman, Gerry, Rima – are middle-aged women, members of an interfaith group in Saskatoon.

Joseph and Bonnie – Ghanaian, in their 50s, they live in Winnipeg.

Omar and his Mom – Middle Eastern, he is in his 30s and she is in her 70s, in Calgary.

Donald – Canadian, in his 40s, in Victoria.

Faza – we hear only her voice at the end of the first scene.

Julian – Canadian, in his 70s, in rural Nova Scotia

Bruce – Canadian, in his 60s, in Victoria

Eileen – Middle Eastern, in her 40s, in Victoria

Costumes and Locations:

Sayid – in Victoria, wears a freshly-pressed lined tunic, buttoned up the front. His stylish glasses have slightly shaded lenses, and his black hair is neatly slicked back.

Minkah and Sabir – in Winnipeg, sit at a table with takeout coffees. Both wear lightweight black mittens and Sabir wears a brightly patterned Ghanaian tunic over a grey, long-sleeved tee shirt. He has short, curly black hair and a goatee. Minka wears a red sweater with blue and green patterning. He is clean shaven, and his curly black hair is also worn short.

Abbas and Sarah – in an undisclosed location. They sit at opposite sides of a kitchen table which holds 2 mugs, a crumpled dishtowel, and a bowl of apples. Sarah’s blue and black headscarf covers her head, neck, and the shoulders of her boxy, black, suit jacket. She wears unfashionable glasses and goes without makeup. Her hands are resting in her lap. Abbas’s black hair is slightly long and is pushed carelessly back from his face. He has a short, dark beard and wears a puffy, black, winter jacket.

Hana – in Calgary, wears a black chador that conceals everything but her dark-rimmed eyes, which shimmer with gold eyeshadow.

Mohammed – in Saskatoon, lounges on a mat, wearing sweatpants, a white tee shirt, and an unbuttoned black, white, and red, plaid flannel shirt. His feet are bare.

Ann – in Nova Scotia has long, wavy brown hair. Her face is bare but for a touch of lipstick. She wears a brown, orange, and yellow plaid scarf on her shoulders, a solitaire diamond ring on her left hand, and small, silver coins dangle from her ears.

Amena – is a Black woman. She appears for a moment in the opening montage.

Eman, Gerry, Rima – are members of an interfaith group in Saskatoon. Eman wears a sky-blue scarf that covers her head, neck and shoulders. Gerry’s greying hair is pulled up into a messy bun and she peers sharply over top of her blue owl-eye glasses. Rima wears a red and black flannel shirt with a white and black checked scarf. Her long, frizzy hair is pulled back.

Joseph and Bonnie – in Winnipeg are both seated, somewhat apart. He wears a heavy sweater unzipped over a casual blue shirt and faded black jeans. He wears a faded black baseball cap over his short dark hair. Bonnie sits primly, holding a mug of coffee. She wears a geometric-print blouse in shades of brown and her thick hair is braided into a crown around her hairline.

Omar and his Mom – in Calgary. Omar sits in an office chair beside a desk, with his legs crossed, and wears light grey slacks, a pale pink button-down shirt, and a lightweight, grey, checked, suit jacket. His glasses have shiny black frames. His Mom speaks from a cellphone propped on the desk, beside an open laptop computer.

Donald – in Victoria, sits at a desk with an open laptop and a lamp. He wears an oatmeal-coloured sweater with the neck unzipped. His glasses are half-rimmed.  

Faza – only heard at the end of the first scene.

Julian – in rural Nova Scotia, sits on a bench wearing a grey cable-knit sweater under a black winter jacket. His glasses have black frames, and he wears a black knit beanie. His beard is neatly trimmed.

Bruce – in Victoria, wears a baseball cap and stands with his hands in the pockets of his blue windbreaker.

Eileen – in Victoria has long, dark brown hair that has been dyed red at the ends, and she wears modest hoop earrings.



Ghazal Azarbad spoke the words of Hana, Eman, and Eileen

Austin Eckert spoke the words of Sabir and Omar

Evan Frayne spoke the words of Donald and Julian

Kayvon Khoshkam spoke the words of Abbas, Mohammed, Sayid, and Bruce

Adrian Neblett spoke the words of Minkah and Joseph

Monice Peter spoke the words of Sarah, Bonnie, Rima, and Omar’s mother

Celine Stubel spoke the words of Ann and Gerry

Creative Team

Director: Michael Shamata

Production Designer: Carol Klemm

Costume Designer: Jeff Chief

Lighting Designer: Sophie Tang

Composer & Sound Designer: Tobin Stokes

Videographer and Video Editor: Candelario Andrade

Dialect Coach: Adrienne Smook

Stage Manager: Jennifer Swan

Assistant Stage Manager: Becca Jorgenson

Assistant Director: Jennifer Swann 


Playwright’s Notes

This project has changed my life.

Thanks to the generosity of the Belfry Theatre, I had the opportunity to travel across Canada and sit with hundreds of people who openly shared their life stories with me. 

As I sat and listened, I could not help but realise that for my entire life I have taken my country and my upbringing for granted. The situations faced by refugees in so many countries around the world put my privilege as a white middle class Canadian into perspective. My family is not wealthy, but I have never felt unsafe in my home.

The resulting play (on film) that you will see is a type of theatre called “verbatim theatre.” This is a term for theatre where the script for the play is constructed out of transcripts. These transcripts can be of interviews, court proceedings or tribunals. There is no one right way to make verbatim theatre – it is an art after all – but due to my training as a playwright and journalist I believe in a certain way to construct a verbatim theatre script.

For this project (just as you may have seen in our production of Home Is a Beautiful Word seven years ago) every word you hear spoken by the actors was spoken to me in an interview. The interviews were then carefully transcribed, including every “um” and pause to accurately record the conversations I had. The actors worked from these transcripts to discover the real people they are channelling in the play. All names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the interview subjects, and any of the interview subjects that wanted to were offered the chance to approve their transcribed interview. 

This project is four years in the making and has had many iterations. The one you will see not only includes the voices of refugees, but also the people who help them. As we hear, the relationship between these two groups can be both challenging and rewarding. To the people across Canada sponsoring and assisting refugees, thank you for the work you do.

I am so appreciative of Michael, Ivan and the entire staff at the Belfry Theatre for their continued work in making Being Here a reality, even in this unprecedented time. Although I live in Saskatoon and work for a theatre company there, The Belfry Theatre remains my “home theatre.” I am grateful to each and every one of the interview subjects for trusting me with their stories. Even though only a portion of the interviews were used, each and every person’s story had an impact on me.

I hope that this play takes you a little further down your path of understanding all the people you hear from. At the end of the day, we are all people living here together, and it is up to us to do the work of creating the country we share.

Joel Bernbaum

Artistic Director’s Notes

Little did I think four years ago, when I asked Joel Bernbaum to create a theatre piece about new Canadians arriving in this country, that I would find myself on a film set, directing a documentary. But I suppose the past 12 months has found all of us doing things we never imagined—and never believed ourselves capable of—!

Friday, March 13—part way through the first week of the 2020 SPARK Festival—the Belfry Theatre ceased all public performances. Life since then—both professionally and personally—has been one long improvisation—as it has for every other profession and every other person. We have done our best to maintain a presence—creating “theatre” on ZOOM—a platform most of us had never even heard of before the pandemic arrived. I am profoundly grateful to the audiences who attended these novice attempts—as well as the artists involved in our online readings of Two Rooms by Mansel Robinson, East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch, Bluebirds by Vern Thiessen, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, plus our online editions of The Flame storytelling event. While this wasn’t theatre as any of us had previously known it—you generously accepted it for what it was—attending in ever-growing numbers—and using the “chat” feature to provide the artists with “type-written applause”—!

In January, we presented our first online SPARK Festival—starting with a presentation of the Musical Stage Company’s Uncovered and followed by three evenings of new work by local artists—including plays, film and dance.  Again—attendance was heartening—and the results were well worth the effort. Through all of this—I have been joined at the hip with Keith Houghton, the Belfry’s Head Technician and Systems Administrator, who managed to make our fledgling efforts look and work as much like theatre as possible—! A huge “thank you” to Keith for being my creative partner through the past six months.

And now this remarkable play—based on interviews that Joel conducted across the country—from Charlottetown to Victoria. During the four years of its development, it has changed focus, changed titles—and now at last minute—it has actually changed form—! Given that it was created as a piece of “verbatim theatre”—in which every word in the script was drawn from those revealing interviews—it was already documentary in style. So as thrilling as it would have been to float these ideas across the footlights—live—in the intimacy of the Belfry—it lends itself—and hopefully even gains something—from the intimacy of the camera.

BEING HERE: The Refugee Project is, to my knowledge, the first real examination, in any medium, of the complex, surprising and sometimes challenging relationships between people forced to leave their homelands and the Canadians compelled to help them.

Joel Bernbaum has been an inspiration to me for many years. His enthusiasm, honesty, and unimpeachable ethics are the reasons why the people he interviews feel safe sharing their stories—the stories that make this play and this film what it is. Joel’s beautiful verbatim play about homelessness in Victoria—Home Is a Beautiful Word—will always be one of the most important pieces of theatre on which I have had the privilege of working—as well as one of my favourites.

The acting requirements in verbatim work are specific and unusual. Given the extreme detail of the text—including as it does, every “um,” “er,” hesitation, and sudden change of thought—together with the fact that these are real people—the actors are encouraged to be “vessels”—allowing the words and the thought patterns to reveal the character of each person—as opposed to making “acting choices.” We were blessed with exceptional actors, who dedicated themselves to these individual voices, honouring their words, and allowing them to flow through them. Thank you, Ghazal Azarbad, Austin Eckert, Evan Frayne, Kayvon Khoshkam, Adrian Neblett, Monice Peter, and Celine Stubel—your work is beautiful—and it was a joy working with you on this project.

I also want to express my enormous gratitude to our film crew—Candelario Andrade, our Camera Operator and Editor; Sophie Tang, our Lighting Designer; Greg Smith (Victoria), Darren Paine and Kevin Gault (Vancouver), our Sound Operators; Keith Houghton (Victoria) and Lucas Hall (Vancouver), our Lighting Board Operators; and Jennifer Swan, the Belfry’s Stage Manager, who acted as Assistant Director—and a myriad of other positions she needed to assume from moment to moment throughout the shoot—!

Michael Shamata

Executive Director’s Notes

Welcome to a truncated and unusual season for the Belfry. Over our 43-year history the Belfry has been through a number of challenges which could have resulted in very different outcomes than the well-loved success that we have become. This past year has been another challenge – one that is not yet over and remains unpredictable. What we can predict however is that our desire to produce outstanding experiences for you, our dedicated audience and loving supporters, remains at the heart of who we are and what we wish to accomplish.

The journey to this point – almost exactly a year to the day we announced the suspension of performances – has been fraught with uncertainty, change, ideas kept and discarded, stress and worry. Most of all this past year has been about our concern for you, our patrons, and how we can best bring you the theatre you love, and we love to make for you.  So, we have arrived here – a new approach to the theatrical experience that in some measure fills the gap of an extended delay before we are able to gather again as community to share the experience of live performance.

This and the programming yet to come is all because of you: our loyal audiences, our generous donors, sponsors, and grant providers.  It is our responsibility to you to produce the very best theatrical experience possible to honour that loyalty and generosity. We look forward to presenting you with more on-line programming and to eventually welcoming you again into your beautiful theatre.

Ivan Habel

Please enjoy the show!

Belfry Theatre | VocalEye | March 2021