Director, writer, and manager of creative projects, Sheila Hayman tells us about her involvement with NW Live Arts and her work with Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life group ahead of the culmination of our collaboration together at the Belonging concert on 21st May.

My involvement, or rather interest, in NW Live Arts dates back to its beginnings; Caroline the artistic director is an old friend – in fact, we were at school together – so when I heard that she was planning to use her experience and creativity to bring music to the community in which we both live, I was excited. Not just for myself, but for the writers with whom I work at Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life group.

Freedom from Torture, based in normal times just up the road in Holloway, is a unique charity providing holistic rehabilitation and support to survivors of torture from around the world. ‘Holistic’ in this context has several meanings: when people first come to us, it means that they get legal, immigration and welfare support as well as conventional therapy, on the reasonable basis that if people are worried about homelessness, deportation or their families far away, they’re unlikely to respond so well to therapy.

But it also refers to a range of other therapeutic and creative activities offered to the clients as they progress and heal. There are groups for gardening and bread baking, there is art therapy, and there is Write to Life.

When I first joined this group as a volunteer many years ago, it was three or four clients, meeting to write together, for themselves and each other. But the writing was so exceptional, and their desire for their stories to be heard so strong, that before long we were adventuring into literary festivals, and after that a play, a musical narrative, films, promenade performances and collaborations with the Tate Gallery, the Roundhouse and the V&A, amongst others.

So when NW Live Arts asked if we’d be interested in collaborating with the world-class, world inspired musicians in their stable, the possibilities were exciting.

This is our second collaboration: the first was on ‘Music and Body’, with different writers and musicians. For that, the music and the writing were developed separately, and the performers only came together on the day. This time we did it a bit differently, introducing the musical possibilities before the writing was done, and I hope and believe that this will be reflected in the final outcome.

The theme of ‘Belonging’ – what it means and where it can be found – obviously resonates very strongly with the writers, all four of whom have been forced, in fear of their lives, to flee homes, families and lives on different continents, bringing with them nothing but the hope of a new start and some kind of reconciliation with the past. So there’s a lot of sadness and loss in these pieces, as well as shoots of hope and the sweetness of nostalgia.

Inevitably, a lot of what we produce in Write to Life is sad, or painful, or angry. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be beautiful. We have found over the years that the rocket fuel for writing can be deep anger, pain or sorrow; but sheathing it in beautiful words, music and images can turn this work into a kind of stealth weapon, slipping behind the defences of the indifferent or even hostile audience, who would run several miles from a rant about asylum or immigration in a newspaper or on social media.

We hope that the work we’ve produced for this concert will speak to our common humanity as social beings, looking for a home amongst strangers. In the current, explicitly hostile environment to asylum seekers and refugees this is desperately urgent.

After all, every one of us reading this is descended from migrants. And it’s not going to change any time soon.

Sheila Hayman