LILIAN, the debut radio play from award-winning composer Kasia Głowicka, will premiere Friday, September 18 as part of the Warszawska Jesień (Warsaw Autumn) cultural festival.
Based on a true story and using real WhatsApp message transcripts as its source material, LILIAN takes us into the lives of a refugee trapped in the notorious Zitan Detention Centre and the human rights professor who is trying to aid him from her home in Europe.
John O’Regan: The source material for this play is an extensive archive of WhatsApp messages exchanged between a real-life professor and a young Eritrean man trapped in a Libyan refugee camp. How did you come to hear about it?
Kasia Głowicka: Several years ago I organized a seminar about Alan Turing, the computing pioneer. Professor Mirjam van Reisen was one of the speakers. She lectures on Computing for Society at Leiden University and she is absolutely fascinating to listen to.
We kept in touch after the seminar. One day, when I was visiting her at her office in Brussels, she revealed to me that she was in communication with a young man being held in the Zintan Detention Centre in Libya.
He had found her number on a document somewhere, stored it in a borrowed cellphone and then used WhatsApp to message her and plead for help with his situation. by the time she told me about it, they had been in communication for around eighteen months. When it was all printed out, it ran to 350 pages.
Although they were on different continents and really living in different worlds, through this constant messaging they became a daily presence in each others’ lives. It wasn’t just text: he would send her pictures and videos of the camp, things which were happening to him and around him.
J. O’R.: This young man was living through so much trauma on a daily basis but bureaucracy moves so slowly. What was it like for her, over the course of that eighteen months, to be trying to help him but unable to make anything happen quickly?
She’s a professor and a mother, so her day-to-day life is busy. Sometimes it was hard for her to balance that with her efforts to help this young man.
She would be physically present but her mind would be on Libya, or a new message would arrive and immediately draw her into this world again. At times she felt she was living two different lives simultaneously. She also felt a lot of guilt, both for not being fully present and available for her family and also for being safe from harm while Tesfay was at risk every day.
At the same time, there were often moments of humour in their conversations. Her daughter watches a reality TV show called Love Island. The show’s concept is simple – until you find yourself trying to explain it in writing to someone who comes from a completely different culture.
J. O’R.: What made you decide to turn this story into a radio play?
The transcript lay on my desk for a while. I knew I wanted to do something with it, but wasn’t sure exactly what format. I was thinking about some sort of interactive project, but then Warszawska Jesień approached me with the offer to write a radio play for this year’s festival.
At first I declined, because I’ve never done one before, but that was kind of the point of the offer: the festival likes to take artists out of their comfort zone. So then my mind turned towards this story and how it could be adapted into a radio play.
It was an interesting challenge for me because not only was it my first radio play, it was also the first time anyone would be attempting to take a WhatsApp conversation – complete with photos, emojis, and so on – and try and adapt that into a performative work.
In the end, I felt like I could do it. I had some experience with writing when I was younger and it probably would have been an alternative career for me had I not chosen music. Also, as a composer, you already have a sort of sense for the elements of drama, such as creating suspense and shock, and so on.
J. O’R.: What are you hoping listeners will take away from LILIAN?
For me, it’s a story which illustrates the power of hope. Two people from different worlds are united by their shared sense of humanity. Both are going through dark times – in the play, her character has a comatose daughter on life support – but they never lose hope and they carry each other through.
It also touches on some themes which are very relevant to our times. The refugee crisis has mostly disappeared from the front pages in Europe but remains a daily struggle for thousands of people.
As a sort of background character in the play, WhatsApp illustrates the power of technology to connect people no matter where they are in the world. People can be in each other’s lives despite being separated by geography and other barriers.
I’ve witnessed first-hand how a shared sense of suffering can unite people. I arrived in the Netherlands in 2001 to study music at the Royal Music Conservatory just a few days before 9/11 happened.
Back then the fees were very low, which meant that students came from all over the world: America, South America, Asia, Africa, everywhere. The community was amazing. When 9/11 happened, there was this sudden camaraderie. Everyone came together in empathy of pain as they tried to understand what had happened and how the world was about to change.
J. O’R.: Right now you are living through another global-level event. The coronavirus has brought the world almost to a halt for the past six months. Did that have any effect on producing LILIAN?
Usually a play would like this would bring everyone together in a studio, so there’s a uniform recording level and the voice actors can feed off each other. Because of travel restrictions, all the recording had to be done remotely.
That was a challenge but it was also an opportunity. I wanted to maintain as much authenticity as possible, so I worked remotely with a voice actor in Europe and a voice actor in Africa. That distance between the voice actors also mirrored the distance between the real-life protagonists.
There were some technical issues. The European voice actor had access to better recording facilities than the voice actor in Africa did – he had no noise-cancelling microphone, for instance – so there was some work to be done in getting the qualities similar. But I’m very pleased with how it all turned out.
J. O’R.: You’re originally from Wroclaw and Poland is your homeland. How do you feel about LILIAN having its premiere there?
K. G.: I think Poland is a very fitting location for the premiere, because of the political situation there. The ruling government is very right-wing and has been censoring broadcasters and trying to stifle discussion of social justice issues such as the ones in this play.
I’ve experienced it myself. Last year I had an opera in Poland, based on the writings of Afghan women. Well, one of the singers in the opera was transexual and I was told I was not allowed to mention or discuss that.
Entire groups of broadcasters and journalists have been departing national broadcasters to start or join independent broadcasters, where they won’t be subjected to political influence and censorship. Two of these independent stations will be airing LILIAN on Friday, September 18.
About Kasia Głowicka
Kasia Głowicka is an award-winning composer who creates musical scores for film, television, opera and theatre.
Her commissions include the musical score of a major documentary series for Polish national television plus internationally-renowned institutions such as the Warsaw National Opera House, Holland Symfonia, and ‘La Monnaie’, Belgium’s national opera house.
Głowicka has been a finalist in the Genesis Prize for Opera and the Edison Awards and has also received awards from the European Commission, the French Ministry of Culture, the Polish Ministry of Culture, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the International Society for Contemporary Music.
A graduate of the Wroclaw Academy of Music in her native Poland, she undertook postgraduate studies at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, Netherlands before going on to complete a PhD in music at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Today she resides in The Hague, Netherlands with her husband and their two children, where she lectures International Creative Business students at the Inholland University of Applied Sciences.
About the Warszawska Jesień Festival
First staged in 1956, Warszawska Jesień (Warsaw Autumn) is the largest contemporary music and culture festival in Poland. With its long heritage and global reputation, the festival frequently features premieres from international composers of note.
Warszawska Jesień is organised by the Polish Composers’ Union as an international and non-profit festival with no government association. The festival program is determined by The Repertoire Committee, an independent body appointed by the board of the Polish Composers’ Union.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.