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Balancing act

Alastair Stewart and John Martin

John (left) and Alastair (right) in conversation at ITN offices

12 October 2015

Pan Intercultural Arts, a social arts company led by Artistic Director, John Martin (BA 1972), is expanding its work to Bristol in autumn 2015. Here, ITN broadcaster, Alastair Stewart OBE (1970-73, Hon LLD 2008), and John trace their common dramatic roots as students and discover that many of their political and cultural perspectives coincide to this very day.

Alastair (A) One of the key things I remember about the 'drama life' that we shared at Bristol was precisely that:  sharing.  There I was, a social scientist in politics and economics, thrown together with chums who were studying English or drama. There was also a fabulous relationship with the Bristol Old Vic drama school.  Given what you’re doing now with Pan Intercultural Arts, John, there’s a hint that, even in the 1970s, we knew there was something bigger than standing on stage and showing off.

John (J) Yes. What I loved about Bristol was that there was normal student drama, centred on the Students' Union, always experimental yet also doing and redoing the classics, and then there was the Drama Department. The department was only in its second year: there were very few students, but we were taught by fresh young minds who made us think differently.  Drama in Bristol had a political, as well as a dramatic edge to it.

A Yes, a holistic strength that Bristol was incredibly proud of.  Our contemporaries were people like Kevin Elyot (BA 1973) who went on to write My Night with Reg, reprised recently at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and who recently sadly passed away. Do you remember Thirzie (BA 1971) and Richard Robinson (BSc 1971) who became great puppeteers?

J Of course. We should also mention Julia Donaldson (BA 1970, Hon DLitt 2011) and her husband, Malcolm (MB ChB 1973), who wrote music, sang songs and pushed us through Christmas pantomimes.  So many great people, including our lecturers and workshop leaders who, instead of encouraging us to go to drama school asked us: 'How else can you shape theatre?' 

Promoting social change

A So how has that had an impact on what you’re doing now?

J That inquisitiveness about theatre and the other roles it can serve has led me to work with some very marginalised people.  The first Pan project in Bristol this autumn is a group called Amies for women who have been rescued or have escaped from trafficking.  We will use drama and music to reshape them, to allow them to re-imagine themselves.

A Is this therapeutic drama?

J  It is therapeutic rather than therapy.  In trauma, the sense of imagination shuts down to the immediate: ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight? What am I going to eat today?’  If that happens, you can’t imagine the future.  But through drama and role-playing, you can create a narrative, and rehearse your future before you have to live it. Plus, you get an enormous amount of enjoyment.

A It’s always good to sprinkle pleasure upon pursuits with such a strong endgame. One of the charities I support is Care International which is very concerned with trafficked women.  Think about it: you’ve lost everything; what are you left with?  You’ve got to sell your soul and body. That’s why I was so thrilled to see what Pan is doing because our common roots as students have spread into mutual interests today.  I am no longer in drama –though I am a bit of a drama queen on the news – but I see the merit in art in all its forms. 

J People used to say art was a luxury, a distraction, but they now see that it actually functions.  Art is a method of rebuilding people, and when normal mechanisms don’t work, the government is increasingly looking for alternatives. I think the time will come when people realise the strength of arts-related activities in international development.

Reaching out

A So what’s the magnet for Pan back in Bristol?

J We want to take our lengthy track record and successful models of working with refugees and victims of trafficking, torture, gun and knife crime, to other places where there is a problem.  Bristol’s name emerged as it is host to a terrific organisation, Unseen, which is both a refuge and an advocacy unit for female victims of trafficking. Once we have got the Amies project established in Bristol, we will engage in other local issues too.

A Bristol as a city also has a legacy of slave trading: trafficked women are victims of modern slavery. When I went to Bosnia on the anniversary of Srebrenica, to make a film, I noted the delicacy with which we had to tread.  I’ve always felt very strongly that if good is to be done, it should be done professionally and carefully. 

J Agreed.  We have been invited by government and other agencies to work in Sri Lanka, after the tsunami and in Burma after Cyclone Nargis and also in conflict areas as well and our expertise is recognised outside the UK  But there is also an increasing dilemma about people who have come to the UK from countries where crime is rife. At Pan, we worked with a young Afghan migrant, who got into crime because other Afghan boys told him that that is what you do. Now he’s taking a Fine Arts degree and wants to be a designer. Another traumatised young man, once a boy soldier in Uganda, has managed to get a training bursary for nursing and is working at an A&E Department in London, treating victims of violence. He says: 'Now, I am paying back'.

Measuring success

A So who reports and logs what you perceive to be progress and success? I’m a sceptical journalist. I know your heart is in the right place, and that Pan has thirty years' experience, but prove success to me.

J Our outcomes are about changing people’s behaviour, prejudices, and attitudes.  That’s not the same as measuring how many schools you’ve built.  A decade ago, at the end of a project, we just wrote that everyone was happy.  Now we have to say, percentage-wise, what we have actually achieved.  It’s a challenge because most of us are from arts backgrounds and don’t naturally slip into template mode. We do measure changes in our participants’ eye contact, which indicates growth in confidence.  But, we also have hard evidence of success, like getting 61 per cent of women involved in our Amies group into education, training and employment. 81 per cent of them also improved their language and communication skills. Many of Pan’s stories are astonishing but there are no stories without statistics and no statistics without stories.

Thank you, John.  I've really enjoyed our conversation.  Let's stay in touch.

Further information

To find out more about Pan Intercultural Arts, please visit