Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2016

When Nobody Returns - Andrew French as Odysseus with Bayan Shbib as Calypso
Well - that was quite a year.  And I don't mean because lots of celebrities died.  Actually, I suspect that from now on, lots of celebrities will die every year - popular culture in its current form dates from the 60s and 70s, so, as the Americans say, do the math.  But perhaps that does make this a suitable moment to question the huge amounts of emotional energy that are now devoted to such people - famous for looks, quirky soundbites and private lives led all too publicly.  As George Monbiot argued recently, the Trump election is the logical outcome of this.  And it's making 2017 look daunting to say the least.

2016 was also, of course, the year of the referendum.  It was NOT the year of Brexit - the actual leaving of the EU - which may still be some way off...  Here's hoping.  Even so, it's already proving impossible to attract European partners to work with UK-based organisations on intercultural projects, either in the arts or in education.  This is going to make the future challenging for us at Border Crossings, where international collaboration is central to our mission, and where the structures of the EU have been hugely beneficial.  For the time being, we are continuing to run our intercultural theatre courses, which have to date had a European emphasis - but in future we'll be looking to engage more participants from the UK and the wider world.  This summer's course actually started on June 24th - the very day the referendum result was announced.  It felt difficult, to say the least, to welcome our European guests to London.

One of the key strands of our work during the year has been to address the European question of the refugee crisis.  Lucy has been working very directly with a number of refugee groups throughout the year, particularly unaccompanied minors and women - while I've been speaking about the role of culture in addressing the crisis at events in Karlsrühe, Stockholm and Brussels, including a significant contribution to the EU's Voices of Culture report on the question.  People often accuse the EU of being undemocratic - but I've never encountered genuine consultation and dialogue like this at a national level.  So we also have to re-think how Border Crossings can continue to have an active political voice in the aftermath of Brexit - it's really crucial that we maintain this in some way, as the interplay between theatre and policy is surely key to what we are about.  Sabine Frank, the former Secretary-General of the Platform for Intercultural Europe, says as much in our 21st birthday publication, 21 FACES OF BORDER CROSSINGS.

While we were working with refugees and talking about the relationship between culture and refugees, we were also making theatre that explored the contemporary Middle East and the aftermath of war.  Brian Woolland's new play WHEN NOBODY RETURNS was a sequel to THIS FLESH IS MINE, and we presented them together as a season with our Palestinian co-producer ASHTAR and our old friends at CSSD.  The plays were accompanied by Palestinian food, a series of talks on related themes, a Middle Eastern poetry event, and a reading of a new play by Tariq Jordan.  The whole programme has a coherence, and, as the lady from the Arts Council said to me on the phone just before Christmas - "This is exactly the sort of work we need after the year we've just had".

2016 was also the year we made our first documentary film:  HIDDEN HISTORIES: DISCOVERING INDIGENOUS LONDON had several acclaimed screenings, particularly one at the Houses of Parliament.  We were, of course, thrilled when the narrator, Mark Rylance, was knighted in the New Year's Honours List!  And if all that wasn't enough - we also rebranded the organisation to mark its 21st birthday, with a lovely new design by Kind Studio and a beautiful new website from Future Design.  We also launched the 21 Club for our major donors - please do consider becoming a part of this: with the cuts to arts funding and the loss of European sources, we are going to be ever more reliant on our donors to support this crucial work.

At the end of the year, I usually write a bit about other cultural productions and events that have particularly excited me.  It's very striking that almost all the great theatre I've seen has been in some sense intercultural or from overseas: we SO need to keep our links with the world if we are going to be a dynamic and energised society...   2016 was the year of Peter Brook's Battlefield and Robert Lepage's renewed Needles and Opium, of Lola Arias' Minefield and Lies Pauwels' extraordinary The Hamilton Complex- all of them international productions in London.  It was also the year of the Young Vic's Yerma - adapted and directed by Australian Simon Stone - and the remarkable Thebes Land from our friends CASA at the Arcola - a play from Uruguay.  Even the finest homegrown work - Simon McBurney's The Encounter and Katie Mitchell's stunning version of Sarah Kane's Cleansed - were international in outlook and European in style and sensibility: these are two British directors who work across the continent.  And it shows.

I'm writing this on the day our Ambassador to the EU tendered his resignation.  There's a rocky ride ahead - but Happy New Year, everybody.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Speaking in Stockholm


Stockholm is a very beautiful city: even in December, when it's dark almost all the time.  I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference there by Chris Torch of Intercult.  Once again, Rosanna Lewis and I were presenting the Voices of Culture report on the role of the arts in the refugee crisis.  It's starting to feel a bit like a Farewell Tour of European Capitals in the run-up to Brexit...

Anyway - here's a brief extract from what I had to say - which I suppose is also a bit of a Christmas 2016 message.

"It’s December.  I am so happy that this appalling, terrifying year is coming to an end - let’s just have a new one, shall we?  Not that 2017 is exactly looking full of promise……   January will see the unthinkable happen, when a President endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan enters the White House.  In March, Article 50 will, it seems, be triggered - with the agenda of what Teresa May has called “a red, white and blue Brexit”  - whatever that’s supposed to mean….     And everyone who might physically have some tiny chance of getting out of Aleppo will carry on trying to get out of the bloodbath that is Aleppo.  The flow of refugees is not going to be stemmed.

And what is the West doing?  It’s putting up walls.  Some of these walls are absolutely literal - the UK government built a huge wall in Calais as yet another barrier to the movement of refugees.  Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall right along the US-Mexico border and get the Mexicans to pay for it…  (hello..)…  And some of them are more metaphorical - like the deal the EU did with the Turkish autocrat to prevent Syrian refugees crossing into Europe.  Or the Swedish government’s sudden decision last January to impose border controls on the bridge from Denmark. This continent defined itself, declared itself in a moment of hope in Berlin in 1989, when a wall came down.  And today - we see the exact opposite.  It’s a very strange time to be running a theatre company called Border Crossings - just as it’s probably a very strange time to be running an organisation in Sweden called Intercult - and it’s a very strange time to be working with communities of refugees.

And yet it is in these refugees themselves that our most precious resource is to be found - and that is something called Hope.  Hope, which in turn leads to creativity and transformation.   Hope is that treasured vision in the deepest part of the human soul that people locate and draw off in the darkest of times, in the most pitiful of conditions.  Hope is what enables a human being to commit their body to a massively overcrowded, makeshift craft adrift on an open sea - that will take them to an alien land where they know they will not be made welcome.  And hope - for us - for artists and cultural workers - hope is the choice we make deliberately to follow the most difficult path in our own lives because of something that we believe in.  Justice."

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.

info@ashtar-theatre.org

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!