They say that all philanthropy is ultimately selfish and it certainly began that way with me. I’d just started running and everyone was applying for the London Marathon - having little sense of what it might mean to run 26.2 miles, I thought it sounded fun and signed up. I’d watched and cheered from the sidelines over the years and the runners all seemed to be having a very nice time. I live at the one mile mark but I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that they might not be looking so happy after another 25.2. A quick Google told me that it’s important to run for a charity that means a lot to you, so I had a think...
It was that picture of Alan Kurdi that did it for me. I’ve no idea why that particular picture broke through, when so many other images had passed by, but it became impossible to look away. It became clear pretty quickly that something horrific was happening but, to my shame, I had absolutely no idea why. To be perfectly honest, I’m still not entirely sure.
My friend once described the amazing hospitality she’d experienced when visiting Syria some years ago. She talked about people stopping her on the street to offer dates and tea, and inviting her into their houses. She was stricken that these hugely welcoming people were being denied our hospitality in their hour of need. She thought that if people in the UK could have some sense of the people she’d met on her travels, they’d find the idea of bringing them to safety in the UK to be a lot less frightening. I’m an actor, it’s my job to describe things from other people’s point of view, and so I thought maybe that might help…
So I started to organise a show. It sounds pretty straightforward when I write it like that, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! None at all. Despite having been an actor for all my career, I didn’t know how the shows I’d performed in went from an idea to reality. I knew there were people called producers (they always seemed very nice and had something to do with raising money) and I knew the names of people who were in charge of theatres (they all appeared on the first day of rehearsals and came to say nice things on press night).
I had a better idea of what writers did, so I started there. Theatre writers, it turns out, are amazing people. Everyone I contacted offered to write something bespoke inspired by the stories they’d been reading in the press. And what stories! A wonderful mix of funny, heart-breaking and thought-provoking, the sort of stories that every actor dreams of being asked to perform. The National Theatre offered to stage the show and some of the finest stage actors in the country donated their time to perform.
The following year, UNHCR made one of the scripts, ‘What They Took With Them’ by Jenifer Toksvig, into a short film with Cate Blanchett, Keira Knightley, Peter Capaldi amongst others. They day they asked me to sit at a table and read through the script with those amazing actors was one of the most wonderful, and surreal, of my life. The film is here.
In total, over two years, with another performance at the beautiful Theatre Royal Haymarket, we raised £50,000, a little over my target of £2,000. One completely unexpected consequence of this was that we won the London Marathon Silver Bond award and another place in the next marathon. It’s seems a bit feeble to have the chance to run a marathon, never mind two, in front of cheering crowds when people are making huge, terrifying and epically long journeys on foot every day to try and find safety for their families. It’s not a comparison, but it does feel like a tribute.
This year, to mark the 20th Refugee Week, we’ve offered the scripts to anyone who would like to perform them – students, community groups, friends, amateur theatre groups. The performances around the country will range form fully-realised productions to script-in-hand readings. There’s bound to be one near you. Go and see them!
Emma Manton is an actress who has raised over £100,000 for refugees. Find out more about Moving Stories here.