Another crew experience….
“It is a Thursday afternoon, sunny, warm. I am not outside soaking it up, instead I’m elbows deep in a suitcase, rummaging through someone’s underwear looking for chocolate and hard drugs.”
“Fake drugs, just to put that out there – tic tacs or sugar in little baggies, usually.
I am crewing an experience called The Quota. 52 participants from all over Europe descending upon a disused prison in the midlands. For three days, they and the organisers are transforming it into a detention centre for migrants desperate to cross the border from England into Wales.
And why am I here? Well, that’s the question at the forefront of my mind as I pocket this particular detainee’s kit kat. I am volunteering for the experience, playing a range of roles, but mostly one of the detention centre’s unfeeling guards. In my particular case, Officer Smith, one of two guards whose main roles are to keep the contraband game running. Hence, being the one conducting bag searches whilst processing new detainees. Hence, up to my elbows in underwear.
But this moment is interesting to me for reasons other than the snacks I’m slowly collecting. This is one of the rare moments during the experience that I found myself unwilling to fulfil the role required of me. My brain is screaming at me that rummaging in people’s personal luggage and taking out items to confiscate just to sell back to detainees or eat in front of them, is more than a little morally dodgy. I manage to fulfil the task, but cannot bring myself to take quite everything I spot – I hope one detainee enjoys their bottle of ginger beer.
Perhaps, then, it is more shocking that this is one of a very small collection of moments that ‘Erin’, hiding within Officer Smith, felt uncomfortable in the moment. One of my biggest takeaways from this experience is the ease with which terrible things can become ‘normal’.
After my guard’s inevitable firing on the final day, I ventured back into the facility as an observer in order to grab my lunch. What I saw as myself, something like a fourth wall coating me, was a strange and alien world. One that should never become normal and routine, and yet just minutes before it had been familiar. Ordinary. Even boring. The speed with which unacceptable situations can become routine is frankly scary, this is my first lesson learned from The Quota.
The second, relates specifically to the guard role I fulfilled. With the archetype of ‘Trickster’, Smith was designed to be a necessary evil in the lives of any detainees wishing for some forbidden home comforts. Her actual reception was completely different, though.
Smith was a character whose entire essence was selfish – driven by money and pleasure, and nothing else. She went behind detainee’s backs; she stole from them; she never cared; she actively enabled a large amount of terrible behaviour from the detainees. And yet, despite all these actions, because she provided the occasional handout, mostly to raise awareness that she was dealing contraband, she became popular.
The morning after Smith’s climax of evil (though she’d tell you she didn’t technically do anything at all), I had walked to my breakfast with a real trepidation. The character, I had expected, was about to receive large amounts of verbal abuse and hatred from the detainees. Instead she was met with smiles, with cries of relief that she was back after a rumour that she had quit. And that was when my heart broke. For a character trapped without hope in a hostile world, the hand that feeds is a friend, regardless of the human attached to it. And this is lesson number two: the world can be a terrible, terrible place. So let’s try not to keep it that way.
The third lesson relates to the experience of leaving the site. On the journey home, sleep-deprived and craving any food without ridiculous amounts of sugar, it becomes clear how amazing this life is. I own the freedom to eat what and when I like; to say and write whatever words I please; to come and go from my house, and to travel all over the world should the fancy take me. And I have never been more grateful.”