Diary of an Expat is a comedy about an immigrant’s journey towards full Britishness during Brexit. Co-writer and performer Cecilia Gragnani tells IAM her hopes for the show and how it has been received in both the UK and Italy.
I’ve always thought I could be a citizen of the world, until Theresa May killed my dream when she declared that, “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.” Diary of an Expat is my response – a show about belonging to more than one nation, a feeling I try to convey to all audiences.
I’ve now performed it in both the UK and Italy, and the reactions are different because of the perspective from which the story is told. In Italy I’m the native who has left, in the UK I’m the immigrant who has arrived. It’s very interesting to perform it in both countries because, however different it is, the main objective is the same: to not be scared of strangers.
Strangers are not a threat; on the contrary they are a resource. But to realise that you have to get past the message that ‘whoever comes from outside steals or damages’ your country. After all, the European continent as we know it is built upon the encounter, exchange and layering of several cultures and civilisations.
Today there is a lot of confusion and populist rhetoric around these themes, fuelling hatred and turning people against each other. Through the story of one person I try and dismantle the lies built around immigrants and our place in the society that welcomes us.
I grew up with the Erasmus project, which has allowed me to live and learn in countries other than the one I was born in. Erasmus exchanges were among the most enriching experiences of my youth. They taught me to be more curious of life across borders and I firmly believe that closing those borders is not the solution and is not the future.
In both countries, through my story, audiences start asking themselves what it means to become a citizen of another country. It’s not easy – you have to try and settle somewhere else and negotiate the diversities and the distance from your culture of origin.
In the UK, audiences are very surprised when they hear how Brexit affects the lives of millions of Europeans – how two years of uncertainty (we’re a month away from leaving and the status is far from being settled) have changed the future of many people and what the citizenship application actually entails.
I deal with these difficult issues in Diary of an Expat, but I also try and share funny moments of everyday life. These show how immigrants contribute to society and how hard they work to fit in and be part of a community.
Often people apologise to me after the show. They ask me if I’ll be ok, what will happen to me. I find this very touching – and of course, I don’t want any apology. But if people empathise, I feel like the show has had an impact and done its job.
I want audiences to become curious about the issue. I want people to become better informed and to learn to care about those around them – no matter what their nationality.
Perhaps this is idealistic in a society that has become more and more individualistic, but I do believe in the power of theatre to connect people and that laughter is a powerful ingredient in that process. In fact, I think laughter always makes the best recipe for survival.
When I perform Diary of an Expat in Italy there’s a different curiosity, as people see the life of a native who has left, what it’s like, if it was worth it. But there’s also an extra layer that resonates with audiences. The number of young people who emigrate from Italy is extremely high – London was rated as the fifth largest Italian city last year – so the show also addresses the issues of a country in which the younger generations have lost hope.
Roberto Saviano, an Italian writer has synthesised this beautifully: “generations of men and women going abroad to see their talent realised. To make whatever dream come true. Leaving, always. But what stays is the distant love for a land that could be but is not and perhaps will never be.”
I think the power of the show is that it addresses a macro issue through a singular story with irony. It isn’t preachy or didactic: it’s purposefully entertaining and specific. It’s my story but it could happen to anyone.
Diary of an Expat is on tour from 27 March – 21 June with stops in Guildford, Newcastle, Brighton, Bournemouth, Sheffield and Exeter. It is produced by Paper Smokers/Fumatori di Carta.