Wednesday, February 28, 2018

De-colonising the colony, de-colonising the market

The Stiff Gins
Last week saw me back in Brisbane, for the third (and last) edition of APAM to be held there.  It was, as in 2014 and 2016, an incredibly rich source of inspiration for the next ORIGINS.  For one thing, it was a wonderful chance to re-connect with many of the artists and companies who have been to the festival in the past, and friends whose advice has been useful along the way: Rachael Maza of Ilbijerri, Rachael Swain from Marrugeku, Merindah Donnelly from Blak Dance, Wesley Enoch, Rhoda Roberts, Amber Curreen, Ali Murphy-Oates, Jack Gray from Atamira, Andrea James, Jacob Boehme, Louise Potiki Bryant, Tanemahuta Gray from Taki Rua....   and no doubt many more in the blur of the week!  It's also very valuable to hear them say how important ORIGINS has been for them, and to learn from new people I've not met before how the festival's reputation has grown across the indigenous world.  It matters that we do this.

APAM's indigenous representation has grown dramatically during its time in Brisbane, and not only in terms of indigenous Australians.  This year, there was an entire First Nations Exchange, with people from New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, Mexico and Norway.  There is a clear sense of a global movement to de-colonise the arts, and to assert the value of indigenous culture.  It feels very important to be part of that.

At the same time, the week raised questions about just where we sit within the global indigenous movement.  In the wake of the Australia Day protests last month, there was a palpable sense of anger from some of the indigenous artists present - an anger that is entirely justified while their people remain so totally dispossessed of their lands and the wealth they contain.  It's one thing for the world to value indigenous arts - it is quite another for it to set right historic injustices.  Until there is a real move towards genuine equality - including economic and political equality - the anger will, quite rightly, remain.

And this has implications for the arts.  In his keynote talk, Jacob was very frank about the way in which enduring power structures continue to marginalise indigenous artists.  It was a speech that felt uncomfortable for any white person involved in presenting indigenous culture.  Including me.  We have to ask whether we are simply perpetuating an exoticisation of the "Other" - whether just by following the structures whereby we pay money to indigenous artists to perform, we may perhaps be complicit in neo-colonialism.  At APAM's closing event, Rachael Maza read out a declaration from the First Nations Exchange, stating that APAM should not continue to be a market, but should be re-configured to follow the preferred mode of operation in indigenous cultures - a model based on developing long-term collaborative relationships, rather than on cultural production being turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold.  At the same event, the young Canadian First Nations artist Moe Clark made an impassioned case to de-colonise the marketplace, stating that the songs and stories of indigenous people are the lifeblood of the culture, and cannot be bought and sold, reproduced and mass-produced.

They are, of course, quite right.

So ORIGINS also needs to ensure that its programming is not conducted on a colonial, commercial model.  We need to maintain the deep relationships we have developed with indigenous artists, companies and elders, and to cultivate new ones.  We need to ensure that the indigenous people themselves are full engaged with the question of why something should be programmed in London - what it will mean in that space, and how it will speak to that audience.  If we are sharing their cultural productions because we want to affect change in our own society, then we need them to share that desire.  If we bring them to London as an act of healing - then we need to know that they want that act to happen.

Perhaps we have always known this in some way.  But it matters to write it down.  To be clear about the equality at the base of what we are doing.  To recognise how programming puts our values into action, and cannot be watered down.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Promised Land - Adana. Guest Blog by Eleanor Brown (CARAS)

Lucy Dunkerley meets Syrian women in Adana 
After a week spent in Adana, Turkey, it’s time to distil some thoughts. It was the beginning of a two year Erasmus + project led by the remarkable theatre company, Border Crossings. CARAS has had a long-term partnership with them, sharing skills, experience and enthusiasm for working with people from all over the world. During January, I went with them as a volunteer, exploring the situation for Syrian refugees who have crossed the Turkish border, and considering ways to place that within a wider context.

Adana is a beautiful place - a golden yellow train station standing in a square surrounded by fluttering flags strung between lampposts and date palms, orange trees heavy with fruit lining every street, poinsettias grown to glorious shrubs showing off their deep red foliage and putting Christmas window-sill versions to shame; streets that fill with the smell of grilled aubergine and kebap as night falls, hookah cafes with apple scented tobacco smoke on the air; and mosques dating back to the 1500s, calls to prayer rolling and echoing between Turkish delight shops, market stalls, and clouds of swooping pigeons. There are shops with stacks of functional, everyday pottery; baskets of herbs; furniture makers; and street cats galore. There’s a great, turquoise river that curves through it all, and a back drop of snow-capped mountains towering in the near distance. It feels like the sort of place that gets on with things without much fuss.

We were a group of academics, business people, theatre practitioners, educators, writers, students and NGO workers, all sharing our understanding and experience of the current refugee crisis. During our time together we began to understand the specific legal context of Turkey, the migration routes of refugees to Turkey and beyond, and to think deeply about how we each respond to the opportunities and challenges this brings.

Finding shared ground with refugees wasn’t hard: swapping plant names with Kurdish park gardeners (poinsettia is ‘Attaturk çiçeği’, orange is ‘portakal’, and crocus is ‘çiğdem’); talking to Bushra, a young Syrian woman striving to learn Turkish to pass the entrance exam to university, who declared a love of Shakespeare; and meeting Fatima, a shy three-year-old who liked counting and loved her dad. These are the ordinary, exceptional people who become refugees, bounced between systems that are confusingly complex and disempowering, navigating an unplanned new path, and hoping for home.

In the NGOs ‘Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants’ and ‘Support to Life’ we heard stories about the current situation: informal tent settlements dotted throughout the city, the challenges of supporting a transient population making a meagre living through migrant agricultural labour, tension between local and new populations and concern about rising costs of living for all, and the challenges of supporting children traumatised by spending their early years in a war. Amongst workers, there were familiar narratives of resilience and hope finding their way through a context of limited resources and restricted options, and a drive to raise awareness and bring about change with compassion, hard work, and front-line action.

Coming back to London and life at CARAS helps to create a wider context. In Turkey, we were with people at the start of one of the world’s huge forced migration routes. Many Syrians will remain in Turkey under temporary protection, and some might seek citizenship eventually, but for others their migration will continue. Some will be granted third-country resettlement in EU nations, some will ultimately consider it safe enough to return home, and others will make their own way via informal networks through Europe to reach a place that feels safe to them; others still will achieve their ambitions, gaining well paid employment and opening up opportunities again: Abdullah wants to continue his medical studies and be a heart surgeon, Burhan is an engineer, and Roshan is aiming to continue her career as a researcher in biochemistry.

Crossing the vast distance that is Turkey by air, seeing snowing mountains and plains, patchworked fields, a blue expanse of coast dotted with islands, rivers and power-stations, hilltop wind-farms, tiny villages and the great metropolis that is Istanbul brought home just how far people flee in order to feel safe. It’s not just Syrians crossing into neighbouring countries, but Afghans embarking on enormous overland journeys, sub-Saharan Africans crossing the harsh expanses of desert and the treacherous Mediterranean sea, everyone driven by fear and nurturing an aspiration to reach a place that allows them to live freely and safely.

People we meet in London are sometimes at the end of their journey, although some will have applications refused and will continue to be moved. The context in the UK is very different too- we are not experiencing a mass humanitarian crisis on the scale that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and Greece are. But we are working with the same human needs for connection, advice, access to support, and recognition of trauma and the ongoing impacts of forced migration. We face similar myths and stigma about asylum seekers being given better support than others (have a look at these for some myth-busting: asylum accomdation and asylum support payment report), and an ‘othering’ of refugees that prevents people meeting connecting on a human level.

As this project continues, there will be time to consider alternative responses, how we work together across sectors and throughout the EU, and to deepen our understanding of a whole host of human experiences. Stay with us. Follow the story. Next stop: Bologna.

Read more on the dedicated PROMISED LAND blog.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Power and Abuse

Vicky Featherstone
The year begins with the news that Vicky Featherstone - Artistic Director of the Royal Court - is the "most powerful person in British Theatre".  At least according to The Stage, which publishes an annual list of the "top 100".  In all fairness, I should say that it uses the term "influential", rather than "powerful': but the fundamental point would still seem to be that these are the people who can make and break careers.  Which makes it feel rather paradoxical when you look at the reasons behind the choice of Vicky for the "top spot".  Almost all the coverage, and the judges' own citations, are about the stand she took on sexual harassment in the theatre, in the wake of the scandals around Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Max Stafford-Clark etc.  Surely the whole point of these scandals was that they centred on men in positions of "power" (or "influence", if you prefer - theatre careers often develop through "influence"), who made use of those positions for their own sexual gratification?  Surely, if this calls anything into question, it is the very existence of the power structures that make this behaviour not only possible but endemic?

What Vicky did in response to the scandal seemed to me the opposite of "powerful".  She made the space of the Royal Court available for people to speak with impunity about their experiences.  She then made an ill-judged decision to pull Rita, Sue and Bob Too out of the Royal Court's programme on the grounds of its vague association with Max Stafford-Clark - a decision that she then reversed in response to public criticism.  I think she was right to reverse the decision; and that it takes a lot of bravery to admit, so very publicly, to having made an error of judgement.  Is that "powerful"?  Not in any conventional sense.  You wouldn't catch Harvey Weinstein backing down in public, would you?

And this seems to me to go to the heart of it.  Theatre should not be about "power" and "influence" at all.  It should be about talent, creativity, collaboration, and a sensitive, nuanced response to the complexities of the current moment. Such responses are achieved through open discussion and considered debate, not through "executive decisions". My friend Donatella Barbieri gave me a copy of Mary Beard's Women and Power for Christmas - and it's worth quoting at length:

"[We are] still treating power as something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called 'leadership', and often... to a degree of celebrity.  [We are] also treating power very narrowly, as an object of possession that only the few - mostly men - can own or wield...  On those terms, women as a gender - not as some individuals - are by definition excluded from it.  You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.  That means thinking about power differently.  It means decoupling it from public prestige.  It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers and not just of leaders."

This is how theatre works when it is truly meaningful, and not just a career ladder to pointless stardom.  But the journey towards that new and better way of the art form operating in society will not be helped by the perpetuation of The Stage's "power list".  Let's just scrap it, shall we?

And brava Vicky Featherstone, for suggesting better ways.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Jungle

The Jungle at the Young Vic
Just occasionally, you see a piece of theatre that completely affirms the necessity of the art form, that speaks to its context with intense moral urgency, that refuses to simplify or to sentimentalise.  Such a piece is The Jungle at the Young Vic.  Seeing this performance was a superb way to end what has been a year of political doubt and moral turpitude.  Everyone who sees this astonishing production will be better placed to move into 2018 with a clearer, more defined sense of how we can "act" in this most challenging of times.

The play was perhaps of particular importance for me, as Border Crossings is working on the new Season of Migrations, and in a couple of weeks I will be in Turkey, joining our partners at Adana University to learn from their work in the refugee camps there.  I had been feeling a deep concern about the ethical dimension of this - how is it possible for artists from the very Western countries that have responded so shockingly to the displacement of so many migrants to engage with them in a way that does not become mere voyeurism?  How can we participate in a manner that is both creatively valid and politically potent?  In the Voices of Culture report, we looked predominantly at work that engaged refugees in an instrumental way, at the same time as lamenting the failure of the cultural sector and of governments to open real dialogues and to engage in genuine intercultural exchange.  My recent talk at the European Culture Forum in Milan made the same point - we can't just employ culture as a way of moulding refugees into some pre-determined new identity, or (worse) as a means to distance them as they "tell their own stories" and make the liberal audience feel positively reassured about their own compassion.  What we have to find is a form that recognises our presence in the unfolding political drama, at the same time as understanding that we are not its protagonists.  The Jungle, written by two young men who engaged deeply with the Calais refugees at their time of greatest need, offers that dramatic validity, fuelled by compassion, humanity and anger.
What puts this work head and shoulders above other theatrical responses to the ongoing crisis are a series of courageous theatrical decisions:

  • The audience is in the thick of the action, seated at makeshift tables, representing the camp's Afghan café, on which the actors perform.  The set makes it impossible to distance yourself from the raw emotion of the refugees' experience.
  • The refugee characters are complemented by portrayals of British volunteers, all of whom are commendable, and all of whom are flawed.  They are in some way our representatives on stage - particularly the gap-year Beth, who listens to several testimonies that deepen her sense of the people she meets.  These characters make sense of our presence, which is far from participatory, but which they prevent from being voyeuristic or exploitative.
  • The refugees are the characters at the heart of the narrative.  It's interesting that the printed text ends with a scene for Beth - and this has clearly been cut in rehearsals so that the play ends with a direct address to the audience by Safi, a Syrian migrant, played with grace and dignity by Ammar Haj Ahmad.  I don't know whether Ammar is himself a refugee - he is certainly a Syrian.  The programme biographies rightly present all the actors in a purely professional way - but there is also a sense that some people are working with material they know intimately, and that they have brought a deep sense of their cultural selves to the production.  This is vital - both for the artistic truth and the moral purpose of the project.  Safi gets the last word, and it comes from a place of truth.
  • There are a few moments when video screens serve to remind us of the political context as we have perceived it - through news reports.  We see the little body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach.  We see flashes of the Paris terror attacks.  Towards the end, there is a report from a charity worker in Calais - a reminder, as our recent guest blog by John Comino-James pointed out, that the camp is still there.  It's just that today, the refugees aren't allowed to build anything that could be regarded as permanent.  They are imprisoned in a perpetual indeterminacy.  These flashes of our usual "objective" perception of events serves to problematise still further the relationship between the performers and the audience, between the material and its spectators, between the refugees and British society.  

It's been a rather wonderful year for us at Border Crossings, and I had thought that I would use this last blog post to review achievements and look forward.  Well, we know about the achievements, and now I am looking forward - feeling empowered by this stunning piece of theatre further to develop our own ventures in the jungle of culture, policy, and human need.

May 2018 be a year of renewed clarity, commitment and creativity for us all.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

European Culture Forum

Michael speaking at the Forum in Milan
I was delighted - and amazed - to be invited to the European Culture Forum in Milan as one of the platform speakers.  It's not just that Britain is a bit semi-detached from the EU at the moment - it's also that speaking at this event is normally the preserve of EU Presidents and Nobel Prize-winners...  Still - the invitation came and it would have been churlish to turn it down.  What a fantastic opportunity and privilege!

The first day of the forum was very upbeat.  Much of it was around the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which was kicked off at the event, and this clearly gave a lot of people much cause for celebration.  It is, of course, wonderful that Europe is going to be putting so much energy into cultural heritage in 2018 - though I would love to know what this is going to mean in practice, and how far "heritage" embraces the complex morality of our continent's past.  If it does, then perhaps there's space to take in the migrant crisis, the role of Islam, the inheritance of colonialism. There's a danger it could all turn into a festival of "aren't we marvellous?"  Towards the end of the first day, Ferdinand Richard from the Roberto Cimetta Fund sounded an appropriate warning note when he said that culture was in danger of being hi-jacked by nationalism.  This is the Europe we are actually living in, and Britain's current tragedy reflects that.  It seemed important to address this on day 2.

So - the plenary of which I was a part is available to watch here - it actually begins at 8hrs 18mins in, and lasts a healthy two hours, so if you can't stand the thought of that, here's a basic summary.  The Moderator, Hannah Conway, very kindly gave me the first word - so I was able to set a bit of a tone for the debate.  I was asked about the role of culture in promoting social cohesion - and my response was that the two things are essentially the same.  We shouldn't be taking an instrumental view of culture, calling it a "tool" or something to be "exploited" or "used".  Culture, I ventured to suggest, is the public generation of meaning - and so it's the base from which a healthy society can grow.  You don't know why you are doing anything else if you don't have meaning - so of course in order to have any form of social cohesion, you have to have culture.  What's more, for that cohesion to be sustainable, the culture has to be dynamic and fluid - this is where it begins to overlap with democracy.

The question of inclusivity had to be addressed - I think a lot of people were very pleased that I called out the Forum for the all-white panels.  The question of culture within policy matters - I used the example of our refugee work in Plymouth, but also called for something bigger, for a real engagement of art and culture in the political process, on the lines of Periclean Athens.  Of course that was described as hopelessly Utopian - but the truth is that "realism" hasn't done too well recently. The current situation - Trump, Brexit, Putin - is a list of things many people said "could never happen".  And then they did. I think that might be true of the Utopian alliance between culture and policy as well.

Monday, December 04, 2017

"I Was Asked to Help Sort Bread" - Guest Blog on The Calais Jungle by John Comino-James

A November weekend and another trip to Calais with Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity to deliver aid and support.   A van, two minibuses, a stack of aid, 32 volunteers and only one certainty: that every visit is different.  On the Saturday half of the group will go to help at the Refugees Community Kitchen, half will go to Care4Calais.  None of us knows exactly what will be needed or asked of us.  
I’ve never been to the Kitchen before and don’t know what to expect.  Can you imagine a workspace in an industrial building producing something like 2000 hot meals a day? A workspace with stainless steel preparation tables, sinks for washing vegetables,  deep sinks for washing up,  and a row of cauldrons bubbling over gas rings,  extraction equipment, loud music pumping away, volunteers all dressed in similar outfits?

When you enter you ask, ‘What do I do?’ and someone gives you a job.

I was asked to help sort bread.  Sort bread?  Sort bread.  Sort bread that supermarkets donate, bread that is past or on its ‘Display till’ date.   

Someone explains the task.  The drier bread is to be cut and set aside to be prepared as garlic bread; the packages of pre-wrapped rolls or bread are to be opened.  If the contents are still soft, only just out of date, they will be distributed alongside the hot meals.  Whole loaves are to be cut into manageable chunks.  Some will have to be discarded altogether.

Put bluntly the task was to sort through various kinds of bread because it was deemed no longer fresh enough for sale, no longer good enough for us, that is to say for regular shoppers like me who take a certain quality of freshness for granted or expect it as our right, and sort out what was still useable for them.  

Emotion sneaks in through a back door.  I feel myself near tears.  The word BREAD, on every level, carries associations far beyond the texture and flavour of risen and baked dough.  It suggests a universal notion of sustenance, of basic nourishment.  How unbearably invidious to be sorting such a basic food in this not good enough for us but good enough for them kind of way.  Of course, what my brimming feelings really meant was that I’d hit upon an unacknowledged fault-line in my complacency.

But something else, something positive happened as I worked, at first sorting bread, then scrubbing potatoes, then chopping salad.  Working alongside volunteers from France, Belgium, Germany and Canada was incredibly energising.  How wonderful that we were all there with out diversity -- and even our differences -- working alongside each other in an enterprise made necessary by the insistence on borders and destruction and division.  There was no glamour in most of the tasks we were doing:  what was paramount was the idea of service, of getting on with the job – and the need to support the preparation of the day’s meals for the refugees.   Refugees, migrants, people, most of whom we would never meet face to face.
Can you imagine a lake surrounded by grassy areas and thickets of bushes and trees, the sort of place you might go with your family on a summer’s evening or at the weekend?   A narrow concrete road that leads you to a car park?  You can’t see that one boundary is a motorway embankment, or that beyond another stretch of woodland are the backs of houses. Here the world falls away, it’s a place to relax.  My grandchildren could skateboard here or dash about on scooters. There’s a colourful sign of Do’s and Don’ts: no motorbikes in the woods, but horse-riding permitted, no swimming in the lake, no picking flowers, but windsurfing is allowed. Do not light fires. 

This is where we park the van, roll up the shutter, unfold tables. 

Perhaps I only imagine I smell smoke drifting out of the woods.

There are five of us, two experienced long-term volunteers from Refugee Community Kitchen who will co-ordinate and organise the distribution, and three of us to serve the food: rice, a spicy curry, and salad.  I’m to serve the salad.  There are chopped onions, seasonings, bread.

There’s a sail visible on the lake, the waters dark and ruffled by the breeze.

In two’s and three’s figures appear.  Dark anoraks. Scuffed trainers.  Men in worn clothes, huddled against the cold.  We hand out rectangular polystyrene dishes.  Cheerful greetings.  Rice first.  Some ask for more, some ask for the curry to be on top of the rice, some want it separate.  Some don’t want the curry.   Some decline the offer of salad.  Respect the dignity of choice.  I do my best to serve the salad tidily while trying at the same time to make eye contact.  How are you?  Good, thank you.  No no, no  salad thank you.  Plastic spoons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  The sun settles, dusk comes.  Would you like more?  For many this is the first food since this time yesterday.  In little groups a stream of people.  A mix of nationalities: Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans.   I am humbled by their thanks, by the generosity of their response.  What does it do to them, this hiding in the woods, avoiding the police, this reliance on donations of food, of clothing? What does it do to them, seeing their tents or other makeshift shelters destroyed by police or having sleeping bags or clothes contaminated with pepper spray?  What does it do to them?

The wind bites deeper.  

As we drove in I saw a rig on which there were four taps and a long trough at waist level.  There was a man there stripped to the waist, his hair frothy with shampoo, soaping his upper body for the cold water.  They have come to this, somehow, and through what unimaginable dangers.  They have come, following a dream of a better life, a life that they believed must surely be better than existing in a familiar homeland shattered by war.  They have come to this.  We met a man who had twice made the journey from Afghanistan.  He crossed illegally into the UK, was deported and set out again.  Politicians speak about not creating a pull factor, but what kind of ‘pull factor’ was that?  Those same politicians rarely acknowledge courage, initiative or persistence, qualities that should surely be valued.  To see these qualities, to see this potential would be to risk seeing these people as we are trying to do, as human beings in need, as individual human beings, each with hopes and pain, with dreams and loss.  Politicians urge us to look at the bigger picture, but perhaps that way lies not reassurance but madness or despair: the temporary tented camps gradually taking on the social mechanisms of permanence, the fences and razor wire, the infrastructures shattered by war, the disrupted governance, the rival militias, the estimated 65 million displaced persons across the world…

There’s not an exact count but we’ve served somewhere between 150 and 200 meals.  What distresses me almost more than anything is not that the distribution process is so practised, so well-drilled, so efficient, so generous, but that it seems so terrifyingly normal.  

It’s getting dark, the wind is really cutting through our clothes as we stand waiting for the last few men to come.  I feel myself impatient to get out of the cold.  It’s about 5 or 6 degrees, and the wind-chill drops that right down towards freezing.  What a relief it will be to slam the door of the van against this cold.  We pack up.  What’s left of the food is loaded back into the van.  We fold the tables and just as we are about to pull down the shutter two or three latecomers arrive.  They too will be served. 
Bright lights in Calais, a convivial restaurant and illuminations for the Christian Festival. God rest you merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.   Joyeux Noel.  The winter solstice is barely a month away, the turning of the year, the shortest day … and for the men in the woods, trying to get a little warmth from forbidden fires, the longest night.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Great Experiment - Guest Blog on the Devising Process by Rosanna Lowe

How can theatre bring history to life? Who writes the history? Who is written about?  Who is it written for? In re-telling stories from history, can we truthfully embody figures of the past or can we really only narrate them? Who are we entitled to represent? How much liberty can we take? How much can we invent? How authentic can we be?

These were the questions that arose, as we began the month-long research period for Border Crossings’ current theatre piece, an exploration of the indenture system in Mauritius. Previously I knew nothing about ‘The Great Experiment’, the attempt to see whether the British Empire’s economic interests could be preserved by replacing newly abolished slavery with a system of ‘free’ labour, bound by a contract called an indenture. This experiment was first trialled in the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, primarily to prop up sugar plantations, and saw one of the largest migrations in history - almost half a million indentured labourers, mainly from India, crossed the Kala Pani, the Black Water, to Mauritius. As a company, we set out on our own journey across unfamiliar waters –  devising a piece with no pre-established characters or storyline.

What we did have, however, were delicate fragments of historical narrative, a bewildering jigsaw puzzle of facts, figures, faces and stories.  Quickly the rehearsal room transformed into a kind of exhibition space, with mounds of related reading and articles on everything from Gandhi’s campaign against indenture in the early 20th century to contemporary Mauritian poet Khal Torabully’s concept of ‘the coral imaginary’ and of ‘coolitude’, reclaiming the identity and dignity of the ‘coolie’, a formerly derogatory word for the indentured labourer.

Often the absence or distortion of information was poignant and powerful – reading out the ship records of the names and ages of the migrants felt like a moving litany to ghosts of the past whose stories we could only imagine. Probably the most challenging and gaping absences were the stories of people of African origin in Mauritius – we had none, apart from the compelling story of the mixed race journalist Remy Ollier, who founded a newspaper, campaigned for the rights and political involvement of people of colour in the early nineteenth century and who was poisoned at a relatively young age.

The most powerful aspect of our rehearsal-room-come-exhibition space was the sea of faces that began to people the wall. These photographic portraits, required by indentured labourers for their identity documents, were amazingly diverse - whiskered or shaven headed, wizened or youthful, bejewelled or naked, sometimes with a story or information attached and sometimes not. We were of course examining these people and their stories, but with the watchful eyes of these extraordinarily striking portraits overlooking us, it felt there was a kind of additional duty to honour these people’s stories and their presence.

It was fascinating to see how our own lens on the world, on our own identity and on history shaped the way we saw the material. Even the seemingly static faces on the wall could change, as we looked at them with different eyes. One morning Nisha, our Mauritian actress, looked at our wall of faces and exclaimed with typical exuberant warmth ‘Look! They’re smiling!’ For me, something of a miserabilist, the faces had always seemed grave – perhaps because of the lives they’d lived or because of the enforced formality and stillness of photography at the time. But as soon as Nisha had said this, the faces changed in front of my eyes – suddenly smiles, life, liveliness seemed to be hovering at the corners of their mouths.

Our other incredible resource and one of the most unique parts of the process was the involvement of three eminent historians, creators of the academic research project ‘Becoming Coolies’, which aimed to break down some of the stereotypes of Indian indentured labourers, examining their diversity and their personal agency in migration. Initially I think we were curious and a little concerned about how an interaction between performers and historians might work, as was Professor Crispin Bates, when he declared to us over Skype: ‘My fear is that this could end up as a Mauritian Les Miserables…’ But once in the room together, there was a great generosity in the sharing process, with the performers benefitting from the historians’ extraordinary expertise and the historians delighting in the performers’ ability to bring history to life in unexpected ways.

Very quickly in the rehearsal process the issues of theatrical representation arose – as a group of 5 performers, two Mauritian, one Rwandan, one Irish and one British, what would or could we play? We began by playing roughly to ‘type’, in terms of gender or race. But it quickly became apparent that this was not only limiting, but also potentially problematic. Does a black actor playing a slave perpetuate a disempowering narrative? Does playing someone from a different race or culture represent a type of appropriation? Eventually, we decided that anyone could play anything and experimented with a range of modes of representation. Sometimes the jarring of the performer and the character threw up something interesting and sometimes the dividing line disappeared – whenever Ery played any character, something truthful and authentic shone through. For me, an amazing moment of alchemical transformation was when Tony took a photograph of an indentured labourer who had died of malaria and spoke from behind, using the face as a mask – suddenly the face became voiced, embodied, dignified.

Another wonderful resource for us was the presence of the three Mauritians in the room - David and Nisha as performers and Shiraz as visual artist. We heard the sound of the ravane, the goatskin drum and various variants of sega, traditional Mauritian music, from Bhojpuri sega to seggae (sega and reggae’s lovechild). We heard personal stories of the continuing difficulties of cross-cultural relationships, competing narratives of pride and shame in ones origins, of both togethernesses and tensions between the many Mauritian cultures. Shiraz’s video images showed the beauty of the island – an exquisite moonrise over lush green mountains – but they also whispered with ghosts of the past, as faces of those who had actually worked the land hovered superimposed over the sweeping miles of sugar plantation.

Rehearsals consisted of a series of games and exercises, but also an incredible amount of discussion of the material. Our director Michael often sat scribbling in a corner – and a mosaic of post-its emerged on which we heard (sometimes to our own surprise) the comments we had made, which were then rewoven into improvisation. One fantastic exercise had us creating an enormous map of nineteenth century global capitalism, drawn on the floor in chalk, tea leaves, sugar and loose change, showing the movement of goods and capital under empire. While the English craved sugar, the British Empire fostered the Chinese craving for opium, which contributed to the devastating famines that factored in many migrations from India. Rehearsal breaks subsequently took on a peculiar significance, as we all scuttled off to indulge our own personal cravings for caffeine, nicotine or sugar.

Unbeknown to us, our director Michael had envisioned from the start that the piece itself would slide between the contemporary rehearsal room and the historical scenes. A beautiful theatrical moment we created was the literal sliding between worlds – as we sat round the rehearsal table discussing the space allocated per person on the indenture ships, our own space became destabilised, our minds and stomachs began to lurch, our tabletop books began to slide and we slipped into the destabilising world of the ship itself, making its epic and hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean.

We had started rehearsing not long after events at Charlottesville – a powerful reminder of what can happen as a result of an attempt to redress racist historical narrative by removing a controversial statue. As the devising process continued, the echoes of the history we were examining seemed to ripple everywhere in the world around us. Halfway through the rehearsal process, the Evening Standard launched its campaign against ‘modern slavery’ in present day London. We were rehearsing in London Bridge, at the edge of the Thames, not so far from the docklands area that had sailed so many of the ill-gotten gains of Empire in and out. At one point in the process David realised that the building where we were rehearsing, in Exchange Theatre’s performance space, had a very old industrial chimney and a hook for hoisting goods – what was processed there? Could it have been sugar? A quick google revealed that a South African sugar company are currently housed in part of the building.

A stone’s throw from the rehearsal space was Becket House, one of the UK Border Agency’s immigration main reporting centres, also housing two ‘secure cells’ for those arrested while signing on or brought in by snatch squads operating from the centre. As I walked past to rehearsals in the morning, there was always a huge queue of people snaking round the block, holding paperwork and ID, waiting to sign on. It was a modern day reminder of the huge wave of arrivals at the Aapravasi Ghat, the immigration depot in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, where the identity papers of new arrivals were processed by the supposed ‘Protector of Immigrants’.

One morning on the way to rehearsals, I saw a gardener moving in and around the immigration queue. He was wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Putting Down Roots’, which reminded me of Shiraz’s extraordinary photography of the gnarled roots of the banyan, a resourceful tree which begins life as an epiphyte, seeding itself in a crevice of a host tree or building. We kept returning to this theme of roots, to the physical and emotional relationship to the new land and the old, to the rootedness and uprootedness that comes with the experience of migration and which continues through subsequent generations, as the family tree grows and branches out.

Our ongoing rehearsal room discussions of race, privilege, identity, economic injustice and migration in the contemporary world became a kind of framing device for the historical scenes, which were often stark and simple, sometimes wordless, sometimes abstract, leaving space for the audience and for the complexity of interpretation. In the contemporary scenes we ended up playing slightly heightened versions of ourselves, exaggerating the tensions between us to create the conflicts and revelations of the piece. As a middle class white person, who has never reflected much about identity, origin, ancestry or white privilege, working on The Great Experiment was a powerful wake up call. I’ve always been very interested in history – my father was a history teacher who told us historical tales as bedtime stories and I’ve worked as a writer on history projects, including the TV series Horrible Histories. But it shocked me to discover how little I knew about British imperial history and how little consideration I had given to the links between Britain’s current wealth and Britain’s colonial exploitation. For all of us, finding our personal relationship to the material by examining our own identities was sometimes humbling or challenging, but ultimately eye-opening.

Border Crossings always creates work that crosses cultural, geographical and linguistic borders, as does Exchange Theatre, co-producer of The Great Experiment. The piece that we created felt like it also crossed the borders of the historical and the contemporary, the academic and the performative, as well as crossing some personal boundaries. It was about the possibilities and challenges of communicating across centuries, cultures, continents and worlds. In some modest way we went on a journey together as ‘jihaji-bai’, as ship-mates, in what felt like a fantastic theatrical experiment.

- Rosanna Lowe
Rosanna Lowe is an actor and writer.