Sunday, November 20, 2016

Weesageechak Begins to Dance

RELaps by Aria Evans
I've been in Toronto this week - thanks to the British Council here - for Native Earth's annual new writing festival, called after the Cree Trickster Weesageechak.  Being a trickster festival, "new writing" turns out not only to mean rehearsed readings, but new dance pieces presented as work in progress, and even extracts from a musical and an opera.

This is the 29th edition of the annual festival - from a company that will be 35 years old next year.  It dates back to the landmark moment in indigenous theatre, when Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters exploded onto the stage and offered a contemporary voice for First Nations cultures in North America.  Since Tomson, there have been a number of Artistic Directors - when we brought the company to the first Origins Festival back in 2009, it was led by the wonderful Yvette Nolan.  Today, the AD is a dynamic young Plains Cree man from Edmonton, Ryan Cunningham.  I first met him in Brisbane back in March, and we've had a lot to talk about....  Ryan has curated a festival that deliberately ranges very wide - not only in the forms showcased but also in the content.  For one thing, he's managed to bring over some Indigenous Australian artists from Mooghalin: Billy McPherson's play Cuz was read by First Nations actors from Canada, suggesting all sorts of parallels - and differences.  But more striking for me was the number of pieces - often the most striking pieces in dramatic or theatrical terms - that were made by First Nations artists but which resisted easy categorisation as 'First Nations work'.

The work of First Nations artists is often reduced to mere representation - as if they existed merely to report on the state of their peoples to an otherwise unknowing world.  Of course, that is never their own agenda: although there is inevitably a certain preoccupation with important questions about the meaning of indigenous cultures and identities in a world that largely shuns their traditional values and continues to marginalise their communities.  At its most sophisticated, for example in Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife (the Native Earth piece at Origins 2009), theatre becomes a space to deconstruct the process whereby identities have been written onto native peoples, and a process to articulate an historically informed response through the live body in the current moment.

In this year's Weesageechak, there was certainly an element of this - but I found myself most drawn to pieces in which the First Nations identity of the artists was (at least apparently) coincidental.  The young choreographer Aria Evans presented two pieces - a solo called link and a two-person piece called RElaps.  The latter was particularly strong - looking at emotional violence in intimate relationships.  Even more surprisingly, perhaps, the last night of the festival was a reading of a new script by a very well-known Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser - whose Métis identity has not hitherto been exactly proclaimed.  Brad's play, called Ménage à Trois, deals with the unraveling lives of three friends over a period of several decades - there's a particular emphasis on shifting gender and sexual identities from the 70s to the present, and on parent-child relationships.  The dramaturgy is deliberately fragmented, so that a scene from 2016 can be juxtaposed with one from the 70s.  The three main characters are each played at various points by three actors of different ages - a scheme made all the more complex by the fact that one character changes gender..... 

It's not remotely confusing, though.  In fact, it feels very like the mental and emotional processes through which human beings tend to think about their personal stories.  A moment from the distant past suddenly acquires new meaning in relation to the current moment.  It's like Eliot's Four Quartets in its sense of all time being eternally present.  Or even J.B. Priestley - when I talked to Brad after the reading, he acknowledged the influence of An Inspector Calls and  Time and the Conways.  If it's possible to imagine J.B Priestley crossed with Angels in America - that's sort of what this play is...   Except that I think it's an indigenous play as well.

At no point is any character mentioned to be First Nations.  Very possibly none of them are - although in last night's reading, every actor was a First Nations person, and that was very resonant.  For one thing, the gender change is something that would not surprise more traditional Cree people - as Tomson Highway has pointed out, the Cree language has no genders, and fluid gender identities characterise Cree Trickster figures like Nanabush.  At one point in the play a female character, Kit, is given the latest thing as a gift in the 70s - a digital watch.  She comments that this is a new way to look at time - that it doesn't go in circles any more, but in a number line.  The play seems deliberately to resist this, following the circular, indigenous, natural sense of time as a circular movement - time as something repeated and re-visited constantly, rather than time as a constant journey forward towards some "goal" or other.  At the end of the play, a child conceived in the 70s is reflected in one born in the present - and there is a sense that one is the spiritual sister of the other.  That attitude to time, history and spiritual connection - nestling within a play that seems on the surface to be very urban, postmodern and ironic - is surely about bringing indigenous ideas and spirituality into the contemporary space where First Nations people live today. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

A letter from ASHTAR Theatre

Iman Aoun of ASHTAR Theatre in When Nobody Returns
The text below is an open letter from our friends and collaborators at ASHTAR Theatre in Palestine.  Iman Aoun (Artistic Director) and Bayan Shbib have been working with us for the last two months on PLAYS OF LOVE AND WAR: and the company as a whole has been engaged with this project since 2014, most importantly hosting the rehearsals and opening performances of THIS FLESH IS MINE at their Ramallah base.  This is an incredibly important theatre company - one of the most important in the world - and now they really need our support.  

Colleagues and Friends of ASHTAR Theatre
Friends and Supporters of Palestine throughout the World

Ever since its establishment as the first drama teaching institution in 1991, ASHTAR Theatre with both branches in the West Bank and Gaza, gave scores of artistic theatrical presentations that earned a number of local, regional and global prizes. It helped bring Palestine’s message to the whole world in a civilized, humane and refined artistic means. Starting in 2010 ASHTAR Theatre launched an artistic global program designed to bring the voice of Gaza’s children to world forums with a view to lift the siege laid to it entitled the “Gaza Monologues”. We were honored by the participation of a number of theatre companies around the world to this program that ASHTAR Theatre launched in the city of Ramallah and Gaza to tour the world, passing through the United Nations.

In addition, ASHTAR Theatre graduated hundreds of students who gained social and artistic stature. They established new theater companies in the country. ASHTAR Theatre was also active in the introduction of drama in governmental and private as well as UNRWA schools starting in 2002. At the onset of 2012 ASHTAR Theatre administers a long term national programme in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education and other bodies with a view to provide training to “drama teachers” in Palestinian elementary schools.

For the last four years, ASHTAR Theatre has been facing dire financial difficulties that bar it from carrying on with its artistic and national journey, unless it obtains material support to offset this financial predicament.

We, at ASHTAR Theatre, administrators, artists, students and graduates contact you, the friends of ASHTAR and of Palestine, beseeching your support to enable keeping our Theatre doors open for the service of our children, our youth and our audiences spread throughout the entire Palestinian Territories. Any financial support geared towards us helps that purpose. Our campaign, today, aims at securing US$ 150,000, the amount of an accumulated deficit represented by the rental of the Theatre premises for the last three years and the operational costs of the institution in both branches, in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Should this amount be secured, it will greatly assist ASHTAR to continue in its existence and proceed with its operations in embarking on new programmes and doubling its presence as an important drama forum in Palestine.

We sincerely appreciate any efforts and contributions made to save this institution from eclipsing and help it maintain alive its message for Palestine.

For those who wish to assist ASHTAR Theatre, please contact us at the following e-mail address to provide you with the means of contribution.

Best regards to you.
ASHTAR Team and Students

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Theatre under the Motorway

When Nobody Returns - Iman Aoun and David Broughton-Davies

When we first presented This Flesh is Mine, back in 2014, we used all three spaces in ASHTAR Theatre's lovely Ramallah space, and a fabulous London venue called Testbed 1.   We always knew that Testbed would be a one-off: the bulldozers moved in back in January, and it's doubtless well on the way to becoming a set of desirable dwellings.  So we've been resourceful again - and found a space under the Westway, just along from the bar where Elliot Tupac painted his extraordinary mural during Origins 2015.

The bay under the motorway is large.  You can see the concrete slabs that are the foundation of the road above your head.  Our set, which uses two raked stages facing one another, looks as if the road has fallen in and smashed in the space.  Cladding is ripped and incomplete.  Everywhere there is a sense of wreckage and of provisionality.  The perfect space, in other words, for a pair of productions about war and occupation.  Palestine too is a space with far too much wreckage, and a space where everything is provisional and nothing stable or secure.

The great bonus of a found space like this is that it allows us to play to the epic qualities of Brian Woolland's Plays of Love and War at the same time as being very intimate with the audience.  There are some scenes that take place at height and distance - there are others which happen within touching distance of an audience that is never more than four rows deep.  This is fantastic for the thematic concerns of the plays, which move constantly between the personal and the political, as they explore the impact of war and violence on the lives of fragile individuals caught up in the power of global forces.

When Nobody Returns - Bayan Shbib and Andrew French
As well as being large, the space is also unforgiving in terms of sound.  The Westway itself doesn't make much noise - amazingly - but the area around sometimes does, and the concrete space doesn't resonate at all for voices.  So we have had to develop a sound design solution, and actually this too has become a contributor to meaning.  The actors have been brilliantly miked by Hannu Kuosmanen, and Dave Carey has created an almost continuous soundscape into which their treated voices are injected.  Often you don't even realise there is artificial sound - but there is enough to counteract the motorway and to generate an ambience that supports the voices.  Hannu's mixing of the quadrophonic speakers allows the vocal sound to seem to be coming directly from the actors' mouths, even when they are very close to you.

The space is full of challenges of course - but challenges are often what lead to brilliant creativity and to exciting solutions. The audience and the reviewers have certainly loved this space.  In fact - I find it very hard to imagine how the plays could be done in a conventional theatre....

More info and booking links here!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Palestinian approaches to plays

When Nobody Returns - Iman Aoun as Penelope
In a talk we did on Saturday, between the two Plays of Love and War, Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud suggested that Palestinian theatre-makers have a very distinct approach to dramaturgy and playwriting.  The reason there are no famous Palestinian playwrights, he said, was not that there are no good writers, but that they work collaboratively with actors and directors.  Perhaps, we speculated, this has something to do with the huge importance of building community in Palestine.  And perhaps it also relates to the resistance to authority that comes with that community's oppression.

On one level, this collaborative approach to dramaturgy is very close to what we have been evolving at Border Crossings for some time - we balance devised work with authored plays, and we deliberately work with writers like Brian Woolland who have a collaborative approach to authorship and are open to changes, sometimes very radical changes, as a result of the rehearsal process.  Brian has already written about the evolution of the plays on the dedicated blog.

Working on these plays has been even more complex than we're used to rehearsals being - and I found Ahmed's comments very helpful in understanding what we've been engaged with.  For a Palestinian company like Ashtar, there is a huge political meaning in every action that we present on stage.  It is not enough that something is dramatically potent or psychologically truthful - there is always the sense that the audience will read something in relation to their position under occupation and the way they respond to that.  So, when a character emerges from warfare covered in blood, that could be read as suggesting he is a maniac - a smaller amount of blood suggests he is engaged in violence at a level where he can retain some rationality.  It's very complicated and nuanced.

Time and again in rehearsals we have found ourselves asking "What are we actually trying to say?"  In many situations, I would regard the question as invalid - if we could say what we wanted to say, we wouldn't need the play, with its ambiguities and contradictions, through which to say it.  But, in this case, it was very often exactly the right question, because it allowed us to weigh our actions and decisions in relation to the wider political context.  What will the audience - this UK audience in London - feel about the Middle East and our own role there at the end of these performances?

Tomorrow is press night.  After that, we may know the answer.

You can book by clicking here!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Rehearsing Plays of Love and War

This Flesh is Mine - Gerrard McArthur and Iman Aoun
After more than two years, we are back in the extraordinary mythic world of Brian Woolland's Homeric plays.  This Flesh is Mine, which we co-produced with Palestine's ASHTAR Theatre in 2014, was one of the finest pieces we have ever done - acclaimed by the press and by its audiences in both Ramallah and London.  Now we're bringing it back, together with a fantastic new companion piece called When Nobody Returns.   It's an Odyssey to go with the Iliad of This Flesh is Mine.

If anything, the new play is even more complex, unstable, politically engaged and emotionally charged than This Flesh is Mine.  It's benefitted from the company - including Brian - being able to spend time in the West Bank when we rehearsed the first piece there, and from the opportunity to develop the script in dialogue with other theatre-makers from the Middle East, as well as the military families we encountered at Salisbury Playhouse last year.  Brian's written very eloquently about the writing process on the dedicated blog.  

I never used to like The Odyssey.  It seemed to me a fairytale, rather silly after the great themes of The Iliad.  It was nice to be proved wrong.  As Brian worked on the script, it became more and more clear that the famous bits of the epic are actually the bits about spin - stories at one remove from the real story.  At the heart of Homer's poem is a hero's long-delayed return to free a land that is under occupation.  It is this aspect of the Odyssey - so resonant with the Palestinian situation - that has inspired When Nobody Returns.

We've been incredibly lucky to get almost all the original cast back - and they will be performing in both plays, on the same set.  Andrew French, who was so compelling and passionate as Achilles, will also play Odysseus in the new play.  Iman Aoun, the Artistic Director of ASHTAR, returns as Hecuba, and plays Odysseus' wife Penelope - weaving her tapestry as she awaits his return, in what Iman has called an act of cultural resistance.  Gerrard McArthur is Priam and Antinous, the leader of the suitors for Penelope's hand;while David Broughton-Davies plays two brothers - Agamemnon in the first play and Menelaus in the second.  Tariq Jordan, who was so exciting as Hector and Patroclus in This Flesh is Mine, has the key role of Telemakhos - the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who has never known his father, and is now the age Odysseus was when he set sail for Troy.  

The one new cast member is another actress from ASHTAR.  Bayan Shbib has been seen in London before - she played the Queen when ASHTAR brought Richard II  to the Globe to Globe Festival.  She also has an extraordinary personal history: born in Syria, she now lives in Austria, where she has been working in theatre for refugees.  And, of course, this is another theme that resonates powerfully through the new play: after the war, there are displaced people on the seas.  

It's going to be an exciting few weeks.  We open October 21st. And here's a booking link!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Brussels speech

A speech given by Michael Walling to the EU's OMC group on the role of Culture in the Refugee Crisis: 14th September 2016.  

Good morning everybody – my name is Michael Walling and my friend and colleague here is Rosanna Lewis. We are very grateful to you for this opportunity to present the report on behalf of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue Group on the Role of Culture in Promoting Inclusion in the Context of Migration.

We are particularly grateful to the Structured Dialogue group for taking the shocking decision to choose as their representatives today two citizens of the United Kingdom. Not only is ours the only member state that is not taking part in this OMC group – it is also the only member state whose population has voted to withdraw from the entire European project – albeit by a very small margin in a non-binding advisory referendum that has yet to be debated, never mind endorsed, by our sovereign Parliament, the bulk of whose members in both houses are much opposed to its result. Just saying….

If the UK’s political class was largely in favour of remaining in the EU, the cultural sector was overwhelming so – and across the country, people working in the arts were devastated, disoriented, bereaved by the referendum result. In the cultural sector, the European project is deeply admired and loved – loved because of its idealism. Because it is fundamentally about an openness to the Other. Because it generates new channels of communication and intercultural dialogues, building empathy, understanding, a sense of common humanity – and peace.

These are also the great virtues of the arts and culture themselves. These are the reasons why the European project is at its heart a cultural project, and why culture has to be at the centre of all the EU does. And they are also the reasons why culture is so fundamental to the great challenge currently faced by the continent around migration and refugees.

This year, renegade Britain has been commemorating the fourth centenary of the death of William Shakespeare – whose theatre, even now in the 21st century, remains the model for truly inclusive, transformative and politically impactful cultural practice. Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe – it was not called The Island – and it was emphatically about creating an open space in which people from a huge range of backgrounds could come together and encounter people who were different from themselves. He puts into public space the elderly, the mentally ill, gay people, transgender people, the homeless, the displaced, Africans, Muslims, Jews. And in every case, he invites us to see beyond the simplistic label and into the common humanity that we share:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

If Britain really wants to celebrate Shakespeare, then it needs to celebrate the European, the humanitarian, the dangerous border crosser. If we reject Europe, we reject culture. If we reject culture, we reject humanity. And if we reject humanity, then we will reject the refugees.

Both Rosanna and myself have been working on projects that run counter to this deeply disturbing trend. Rosanna works with the British Council, and has been one of the driving forces behind “Queens of Syria” – a theatre project that brought a group of Syrian refugee women to the UK, where they were able to tell their own, very personal stories of displacement and loss. And on Monday, I will be starting rehearsals for a pair of new plays jointly produced by my company Border Crossings and Palestine’s ASHTAR Theatre – plays that feature alongside professional performers from the UK and the Occupied Territories a Community Chorus of refugees. The plays, called “Ilium and Ithaka: Plays of Love and War”, are based on the founding myths of European culture – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. So the first play is about what it feels like to be caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence – and the second play is about what happens in the wake of war: post-traumatic stress, families rent apart, displaced people on the sea. At the very source of European culture, Homer speaks to the refugee experience of the current moment:

“If any god has marked me out again
for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured
at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.”

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Structured Dialogue group does not consist entirely of Europhile Fifth Columnists fleeing Brexit Britain, but is in fact very diverse, covering a range of sectors and member states. It’s particularly important that the group includes two people who are themselves from refugee backgrounds. One of these is a musician from the Southern Sudan: the other is a museum worker who now lives in Slovenia, where she fled with her family during the wars in former Yugoslavia. The testimonies of refugees from European conflicts – quite recent ones – are a very important resource in dealing with the current crisis. We need to listen to them when they tell us “The moment it all went wrong was when people started saying ‘Let’s segregate all the Muslims’.” If we allow the new citizens of our continent to be “Othered” in this way again – and it is already starting to happen, more than starting – then we could be looking at another Bosnia. The great symbol of the Balkans conflict is the destruction of the beautiful 400 year-old bridge at Mostar: a bridge of no real strategic importance but of great symbolic, cultural value – because it was built by Muslims, and because it was a bridge – a means of connection across a chasm. Fear and hatred destroy bridges: our role as artists and as cultural policy-makers is to build and re-build them.

When the Structured Dialogue group – 33 people from across the continent, very few of whom had even met before - came to Brussels in June, we had only two days to address these incredibly complex and important issues, through what was in many ways an Open Space approach. Those of us who led particular discussion groups within that process have, slightly by default, ended up as the final authors of this report – but we have endeavoured to make it genuinely reflective of the many distinct voices in the room. Before the meeting, we had already been sent, and had given our individual written answers to, three framing questions from the Commission:

• Which recent initiatives best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What were the key success factors and have these been
• What are the best ways to organise cultural activities to do this on arrival and after six months?
• What are the strongest arguments that can be made for the use of culture in this way?

While the three Parts of our report do not exactly follow this structure, you can see it underlying the main themes that have emerged. The first Part, dealing with the reasons why culture is such a crucial element in the creation of inclusive societies that embrace migration, is very rooted in specific evidence of projects known to the group from across Europe and indeed beyond. The third Part is about the crucial question of evaluation and how we can measure or assess the impact that cultural initiatives have in developing open and inclusive social and political spaces.

However, we did not entirely follow the structure that had been suggested, in that we felt it concentrated almost entirely on cultural work directly with refugees and migrants, rather than work about relating them to their new host societies. Our report does not in any way deny the value of direct cultural interventions – indeed, it is full of examples of projects that have enabled refugees and migrants to acquire language skills and cultural understanding, to recover from trauma or to develop their employability. But we were also mindful that such an instrumental cultural offer, presented on its own, could be understood by refugees and migrants as a simplistic programme of cultural education, even of indoctrination, positing an inflexible and monolithic European culture to which they, as new arrivals, are obliged to conform. It could be thought to place all the responsibility for learning and adaptation on the migrants themselves.

Cultural rights are human rights, and if people feel that their culture is somehow being rejected - that they are being asked to adopt a completely different way of being – they are likely to resent that. Research has shown that it is a sense of cultural rejection that fuels radicalisation: conversely, people who feel that they are accepted in a community for who they are - are not going to blow it up. And so we also emphasise the importance of cultural and artistic initiatives to introduce the migrants and refugees, their cultures, their stories and their sheer humanity, to the existing European public.

Building bridges. Narrating voyages. Embracing Globes.

Work of this kind is not just about generating the conditions in which new citizens can be accepted and included in European societies. It is also about enriching those societies. Throughout our history, cultural Renaissances have happened when existing cultural traditions come together, and people see all the exciting things that other people do – their imagery, their music, their dances, their poetry, their food. And so Part 2 of our report looks at the potential for art and culture to catalyse positive social change in the context of migration; to affect real transformations in peoples’ minds, hearts and lives; and even to create new policy.

In fact, I would say that only culture can do this – because culture is the only space where we can meet our new neighbours on an equal footing. Because politically – there is no equality. And economically – there is no equality. And socially, perhaps educationally, certainly in terms of health and wellbeing – there is no equality. But in the sacred space of art and culture – there everyone has a voice. So it is in the cultural space that we must begin.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Flute Theatre's Tempest
A couple of weeks ago, I'd arranged to go and hear my friend Jay Griffiths talk about Shakespeare and Manic Depression.  The day before, we had no fewer than three large funding applications turned down.  Had we got them all, the company would have been in very good shape for the next three years.  As it is - we are, as ever, looking for the next penny.  Usually I'm fairly sanguine about such things - we all know that the arts aren't at the top of many agendas these days, and that the few enlightened places with money to give are under siege from hopeful applicants.  But three in one day felt a bit personal.

I hadn't seen Jay for some time - certainly not since her new book came out.  Tristimania is subtitled A Diary of Manic Depression.  It's a tough read, though ultimately a very empowering one - especially tough if you know the author.  She is blindingly honest about a deeply traumatic year.  I knew that when I next saw her, I would have some sharing to do.  And, that night, I just didn't feel up to it.  I bottled out of an event about depression - because I was depressed.  Oh the irony.

Of course, what depressed me wasn't really to do with me.  It was to do with a wider social and political climate.  To begin with, I had wondered if Jay's book was going to subscribe to the view that depression is located in the depressed person - it is certainly very personal, and she does speak about a genetic predisposition (which I would not dispute as a factor).  But, as she's shown in her earlier books, Jay is a very perceptive critic of contemporary global cultures - and Tristimania is ultimately an indictment of a society that wastes its creative people in this way. "Illness" she writes "is the only category which our culture allows us in this age of literalism, of numbering and of unwonder."

Think about that when you next see somebody who is "mentally ill".  Think about it when somebody is depressed.  Think about it when you next meet an autistic person.

I went to a performance of The Tempest for autistic children, presented by Flute Theatre, under the direction of the extraordinary Kelly Hunter.  If the world is a disabling space for the creative spirit, then this was an enabling space for people perceived to be without creativity.  By generating an atmosphere of inclusive openness, based on the common heartbeat that runs through the text, this production opened the complex territories of language and expression to the excluded.  It invited them to share in moments that were ripe with meaning precisely because of who was sharing them.  Near the beginning, there was an assertion of their right to be present in social space - "This island's mine!"  The learning of language became a beautiful dialogue of balletic hand movement.   Social adjustment and personal space were questioned through the way Caliban's interaction with Miranda was perceived.  And so on. It was not only a joy to behold the children being freed into movement, language and liveliness - it also revealed new depths in the Shakespearean text - depths both of meaning and of music.

At the end, as aspects of Ariel, each child in turn held the hands of Prospero and was spun then released in the performing circle.  "Be free", he said.  "Be free".