Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Happy New Year......
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
The effect of all this is probably going to be quite good for the project. We?ll be able to tour outside Accra, bringing the work to a broad range of Ghanaian communities. This is very much in line with the way my vision of the play is developing: I want it to feel as if it could happen in an open space in an African village - and that?s a lot easier if it actually will! Quite how a production like that works on the UK stage is another matter. The London venue is the key: we need to work the space so that the roughness is there, but in way which is honest to both the play?s African origins and the fact that it is being done in dialogue with the West (and is actually about that dialogue). I meet David Lan at the Young Vic, and look at the refurbished building with him. The Studio space is totally flexible, and could work very well for us. David, who used to live in Zimbabwe and wrote Desire in response to his time there, is programming quite a bit of African work. He?s unsure whether that?s something he should embrace as a theme, or whether he should draw a line. I know what I think, but I?m biased. So?.. he?s reading the script.
Meanwhile, Deborah and I meet the local MP. Since the registered office is now in Enfield, this is Joan Ryan. I had thought, as a Labour newcomer in 1997, she would be quite Blairite, but the office, in the heart of Ponder?s End, feels quite "Old Labour". Joan is brutally honest that she doesn?t know much about the arts - prompting Deborah to remark that any Conservative MP would have said "Oh I love the arts" at the start of the meeting. I guess the honesty is refreshing, and it means that I have to talk about the company in directly political (though not party political) terms, which it?s good for me to do occasionally! Joan warms up when we talk about Africa (she?s a trustee of a charity which makes motorbikes for nurses, midwives and other essential workers), work permits (she sits on immigration committees) and Europe (ditto). By the end of the meeting she?s talking about linking us with some quite useful names in her address book, though I strongly suspect timing will be the key, and they?re probably the sort of people who will be able to do one thing, so we need to make sure it?s the right thing?..
With all this, my head is filled with politics as Subodh Pattanik and Sujata Proyambaia from the Natya Chetana Company in Orissa, India, arrive for this weekend?s Laboratory workshop. Natya Chetana is a company which lives and breathes its politics on a daily basis. They live in a "theatre village" (memories of Ninasam), which on closer investigation turns out to be a communist community (small "c" on "communist"). The money comes in to the community, and people receive money from the central fund according to their needs, rather than according to their level of responsibility or their perceived skills. Because the village is set apart from the urban centres, even of this poorest of Indian states, and because the accommodation is owned by the community, they have very few daily financial needs: only food, really. They don?t use beds, chairs or tables, in response to the de-forestation by the furniture companies. They don?t drink tea or coffee, because of the policies of the multinationals whose tea and coffee plantations have dispossessed so many Orissan farmers. They really do practice an alternative way of living, of which theatre-making is at the centre. And this way of living, unlike ours, is sustainable.
Subodh takes his company to villages for three-week residencies (which they offer to the village community in return for food and shelter). In that time, they research the lives of the people, their concerns, their stories, their cultural forms, and the issues with which they are faced. The company then returns to its base to devise a play which deals with these materials, and (crucially) uses the local performance forms as the medium for storytelling. They then tour the play across the rural areas by bicycle; in a form they call "Cyco Theatre". Subodh tells us about times when performances have led to direct action and to change, and the sense of an ongoing building of awareness and consciousness among the rural communities. He also tells me that companies have on occasion hired gangsters to attack them, forcing them to cycle through elephant-populated areas at night.
"Natya Chetana" means "Theatre for Awareness": but, unlike so many Theatre for Development groups, this one has not lost the theatre in the political agenda. The workshop is based around theatre games, many of which are quite familiar, and folk dances of Orissa. The real revelation comes when Sujata performs solo versions of two of their plays. The blending of folk art, Brechtian epic and the immediacy of personal experience is thrilling. It?s an astonishing performance. Politics made flesh.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
We presented the students' work at Rose Bruford last week. They did amazingly well - very intense and committed performances. So had I taught them anything? Or - had they learnt anything? I guess what I meant last time was that I don't feel you can teach talent, the performing instinct, the Zen leap into the other world of the stage. But you CAN teach technique, and you can teach genre. Watching them in action, I could see what they had taken on board was the different discipline of political performance; that Brecht-meets-China idea that we mustn't confuse the character and the actor. Teaching this, I've become more consciously aware of it: but I think it's present somewhere in most of what we do. Our productions tend to use naturalism as only one of a number of theatre styles, and it's the only one where the dividing lines are not totally clear.
Monday, December 04, 2006
But I'm not sure how much I've been able to teach them. When I direct, I tend to assume that the actor's performance is their own responsibility - that I'm there to deal with the strategy, rather than the tactics of a production. I suppose that's one reason why I like to work with people who bring with them a specific cultural tradition, who are able to draw off a vocabulary of performance that already exists - so that I can work with it, rather than feeling I have to become some sort of innovative guru. So when a student asks me "What should I do when I'm not in rehearsal?" and all I can answer is "Learn the text, work on its meaning, research the background", it feels rather inadequate. I suspect the tutors who led them through Naturalism gave them lots of Stanislavski-style atextual work to do on "character": stuff that would have made them feel scientific and busy. In the end, I tend to believe that only one thing matters in the theatre, and that is belief: the performer's belief in the validity of the work, which communicates itself as the audience's belief in the performance. Three sessions a week hasn't really been enough to arrive at this point, although I do feel there's a real commitment in the room. But these time constraints have meant I'm directing less well than usual - saying "Do this" far too often because if I open it up for democratic discussion (as I surely should in this situation even more than in others), then we just won't have a showing by Friday. The one consolation is that they do understand when I tell them this, which is a learning process in its own way.
I went to see Caroline or Change at the National on Saturday. It's odd to see a piece with such "mainstream", Broadway-style production values - it's been a long time. Nice, of course, that Tony Kushner can make use of mainstream forms to deal with issues of racism and economic divisions, even the legacy of slavery (I'm seeing it everywhere these days!). It's very well acted, and even better sung - but in the end it feels a bit slight, a bit too easy for the scale of the underlying subject. Angels in America it ain't.
Saturday's Independent has an article on the 50 leading figures in contemporary African culture. Ama Ata is in there, as she should be. I email the link to all our prospective venues, in the hope it will make a few people sit up and take interest. It seems to be working.....
Monday, November 27, 2006
What the Prime Minister will (at some point) say is this: "Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and" (wait for it) "to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today."
Isn't this just apology culture at its worst? At its most glib, its most smug, its most self-satisfied? When Blair actually has done something stupid or wrong (like invading Iraq), he tends to say "I accept full responsibility", and then do nothing at all, when resignation would seem the obvious next step. In this case, he can't really be blamed for something that happened in history - and that makes the apology even more pointless. It simply has the effect of letting the present off the hook at the expense of the past. And the reality is that the present is well and truly on this particular hook. According to Anti-Slavery International there are more slaves in the world today than there have ever been before. About 27 million. And those are just the old-fashioned kind: the ones who are paid for. Never mind the children forced into being child soldiers; the victims of sex trafficking; the bonded labourers whose work keeps our food prices artificially low; the workers in sweat-shops who earn less than a dollar a day. "Different and better times"? I don't think so. Just times in which it's less easy for the West to see the appalling inequalities which it permits, encourages and perpetuates.
If the bi-centenary (of which our next project is very much a part) is to have any meaning at all, then it has to be about re-visiting the reality of modern slavery, and the legacy of the triangular trade period, in the contemporary world. It is true that the legal battle was won 200 years ago - so it is all the more terrifying that a practice on which a global moral consensus has been reached should remain so prevalent and should underpin so much of our global economy.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Juwon invites me to a show at the Lyric Studio, called Moj of the Antarctic. It's a solo piece, performed by a black woman called Mojisola Adebayo. Incredibly relevant to everything we're doing at the moment: the main story is about slavery, and also looks at gender! In a very playful way, Moj looks at the story of a slave in the Southern US, called Ellen Craft, who escaped in 1848 by disguising herself as a white man..... Talk to her afterwards, and plan a longer chat!
As the project grows, I'm looking at the different activities we can initiate around the theme of Theatre and Slavery. Talk to some of my favourite dramaturgical contacts around the globe. Rustom Bharucha emails from (interestingly enough) Brazil, with his usual incisiveness: "One has to be careful about essentializing slavery as the dominant reality of African peoples living in different parts of the world. Also, slavery coexists with different forms of servitude, particularly in the Indian context, which doesn't mean that slavery doesn't exist. Indeed, it does, in increasingly virulent, if invisible ways." Spot on.
I've been reading Robert J.C. Young's brilliant book: Postcolonialism - A Very Short Introduction. This book manages to deal with all the issues around the marginalisation of most of the world (of which modern slavery / global capitalism is, of course, a key part), without plunging into the dreaded "theory" with its willfully obscure language and apparent lack of relevance to anything but itself. Indeed, this book is startling in how directly relevant it makes its theme to the specifics of particular situations in the present moment. For one thing, it has the best discussion of the veil I've read anywhere, written long before Jack Straw started the current fever.
But the section that struck me most, I suppose in relation to the slavery issue, was to do with the term "Third World". I had always thought this a rather derogatory term, putting "the rest of the world" after Europe and America in terms of when it was "discovered", or third-class in economic (and by implication, other) terms. But it seems not. Young explains that the term is in fact derived from the "Third Estate" of the French Revolution, and was coined at the 1955 Bandung Conference, as a label for newly independent countries in Africa and Asia who wished not to be aligned with the capitalist or communist worlds then emerging as the super-powers, but instead to give a "third world" perspective on political, economic and cultural priorities for the globe. A very different idea, and a very positive one. I much prefer this concept to "the developing world"!
Saturday, November 11, 2006
I'm not sure pain was what I got, though. Yes, the play was bleak and violent, with only the tiniest hints of hope for humanity - but it was also so cold in its extremity (and this may have been the production rather than the writing) that I found myself being impressed rather than moved, provoked rather than nauseous. Even when Ian eats the baby's corpse, the production's efficiency made it like reportage rather than viscerally revolting. There was a truly extraordinary coup de theatre when the hotel room set was completely zerbombt - and I guess this does serve as a symbol of our 21st century terror that our world may be blown apart at any moment. But the destruction was so blazingly well handled by director and designer, with the stage revolving backwards and forwards and a wall of white light using contemporary technology to look at the fragility of the contemporary, that we secretly felt that everything was actually under control. The violence remained safe - as, in the theatre, it probably should. The performance worked through this classical director controlling the romantic tendencies of the writer.
I found myself provoked by a programme quotation from Kane, where she says that "the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peacetime civilization". In other words, the play's private first half, dealing with the violence inherent in an erotic relationship, is the seed for the tree of the second half, when the soldier arrives and total horror breaks out in the room and outside it. I can't agree. Surely it's the other way round? Surely it's because the social structures within which we exist are so un-natural that our private relationships can become so abusive, so like warfare? Isn't the irrational violence that our species, alone amongst animals, shows to its own kind, the result of the disjunction between the bio-sphere for which we evolved and the techno-sphere within which we now live?
Saturday, November 04, 2006
Alak wants to do Heiner Muller's play Quartet. We've been toying with this for a while, but this time it gets very serious. I think she's really committed to the idea of our working together now she's seen Dis-Orientations. We talk around the piece, and what we could do with it. I don't honestly feel I can commit the company's time to it for a while - we have to get through the next two major projects. On the other hand, this is a two-hander.... Alak is rightly clear that there's no point doing it on the cheap, though - it's a show which needs an amazing design. Also, we need to make it an event - a two-hander by a German playwright perceived as "difficult" won't make any waves here unless we can do something remarkable. Perhaps site-specific. But I do want to do this - it feels so much of the present moment. The aristocrats carrying on with the game, even though they know the apocalypse is just around the corner. Muller said that the play was about terrorism... and that was long before 9/11. "Well, we'll do it 2009" says Alak. Maybe, yes.
The evening at Canning House for Stone Crabs' Origens/ Origins project: Kwong Loke has directed a rehearsed reading of Plinio Marcos' Razor in the Flesh. Very interesting, given my recent thoughts about Brazil. This play was part of the Theatre of Resistance movement in the late 60s: and feels like a precursor to Quentin Tarantino or Calixto, with a bit of Sartre thrown in to remind you it's a 60s piece. Sex, drugs, violence and aging - all between three characters trapped in a room. Sadly, it hits the cliches in its characterisations, and indeed in its portrayal of Brazil - but it's inspiring to know that there's a real tradition of hard-edged theatre there.
We've just set up a new workshop for December 16th. Check the Laboratory blog: http://bordercrossingslaboratory.lastminuteliving.com/
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
The same was true of my meeting with Nick Williams at the Arts Council yesterday. Nick is now emerging as our ongoing contact point in the organisation, which is a relief, after we've been moved from officer to officer in the last few years. He's well placed to work with us, since he knows our sector of theatre very well, and is happy to contribute ideas in the light of having seen Dis-Orientations. Unusually for an Arts Council meeting, I find myself talking in artistic terms more than management-speak. He asks about how Re-Orientations might develop, and what the creative ideas are. I'm surprised what comes out - I tell him that I'm thinking in terms of new paradigms emerging in the re-structuring of relationships between the Western, Indian and Chinese characters from the first two plays (and some new ones), so that we avoid giving the sense that every relationship has to be dysfunctional. So far it's all been about what's breaking down - but alongside this there are always new things building up. Not least the intercultural dialogue itself.
I made another trip to the Hampstead mansion to talk to Ke Yasha about future developments for Dis-Orientations. I'm wondering about a tour next year, or going into 2008 and making it part of the Trilogy. The latter probably makes more sense. As on the press night, Mr. Ke's very positive about the possibility of this work touring to China with "minor adjustments" (like not showing the gay sex, just implying it; and not saying that Jiang Ching became Mme. Mao - although the Chinese audience will of course know that anyway). He feels there's more chance to get the work seen in Shanghai, partly because of Ruihong and SYT; and partly because in Shanghai "the sky is high and the Emperor is far away", while in Beijing people are more wary of the nearby central government censors. Guangzhou and Hong Kong are also strong possibilities. He thinks we should send an "explanation" that the piece is about the changes in China, the increase in freedom and so on - so that people see we have good intentions even if we've not made quite the piece they might like.... Apparently Chinese audiences and bureaucrats like to be told what the artist meant: not always easy with work of this kind.
We talk about the play - as with Nick, it's nice to move beyond the bureaucratic in an admin-focused meeting. "My impression about the whole show is very positive", he says. He especially liked the value we placed on traditional Chinese culture. At the beginning of the Open Door, he tells me, everybody wanted Western values and a fast-paced existence. But now, slowly, that is beginning to be balanced by a return to the traditional culture, to the meditational, the contemplative, the peaceful. I remember on my trip to Shanghai seeing people standing in front of trees in the city parks, communing quietly with nature, or performing Tai Chi while the traffic whirled around them.
Starting to move ahead with The Dilemma of a Ghost too. I met Ivor Agyeman-Duah at the Ghana High Commission yesterday. There's a clear contrast with China: here there is very little bureaucracy, and very little money - though there is a real enthusiasm to promote Ghanaian artists. He promises to broker some meetings...... More meetings. I really need to get some administrative help with this company........ I spoke to Nick about it, and he was quite helpful on ideas for core funding, though there won't be any sign of even a tendering opportunity from ACE for at least a year, and then it's all likely to be reduced funds (as I predicted in this blog, the Olympics are already making a big dent). One positive development on the admin side is that the Consortium (The Theatre Consortium, as it is now known) has constituted itself, got a bank account, and is making funding applications for rent, admin and training. Hardial Rai of Zero Culture really seems to know the funding system very well.... a great guy to have as an ally!
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Much of the morning is spent looking at work created through Artist Links China. The programme has shown a strong inclination towards visual arts: I remember that when I first approached them about Dis-Orientations, I was told that they didn't feel theatre was really suitable for Sino-British work because of language barriers - how wrong we've proved them! If anything, the language barriers and cultural barriers seem to me to be more problematic in this work than they were in ours: there's not much that seems directly to engage in real dialogue - some of the visual responses to the travel strike Shobana, Sarah and myself as variations on "what I did on my holidays". It's exciting to watch Rose English's collaboration with Chinese acrobats - but the book reveals that the acrobats are doing exactly what they do in traditional circus - all Rose has added are the costumes, set and music. Is that collaboration? Or is it more like Merce Cunningham's approach: things are co-inciding in the same space, but without any necessary connection? So I'm heartened to hear Simon Kirby, the Artist Links China Project Manager, point out to his successors in Brazil that the programme should develop to take on board more collaboration and more work from forms other than visual art. To my mind, the two issues are related, and are probably the result of the programme looking at individual artists rather than organisations (even for our oblique involvement, the book cites my name, not that of the company). Theatre, music, dance, film - all of these are collaborative forms, which need some sort of organisation (and hence the use of language!) to get them going. But, of course, it's cheaper to fund an individual, and I do wonder whether this isn't one reason for these programmes. There's far less British Council touring than there was even a few years ago. They say it's to do with "shifts of policy", but it may also be to do with less money. Working with individual visual artists lets them be seen to be doing a lot of projects. It's "good value".
It's political considerations that have led to the choice of Brazil as their next target country, of course. China is the big booming economy, but the Foreign Office also pays very careful attention to India and Brazil when it comes to Trade, Industry and commercial decisions. These three are now the work-horses of the world. I must confess, I'd not really been attracted to the idea of working with Brazil. Unlike with China and India, there doesn't seem to be any readily identifiable tradition of theatre into which we could tap, unless you count carnival, which is already very present in the UK. But, as I listen to Adriana Rouanet from the Brazilian Embassy talking about Brazilian culture, my mind begins to change. She gives a brilliant and inspiring overview of the nation and its art, with lots of emphasis on the diversity of the place, and no governmental gloss on the problems. It's very refreshing, and I find the imagination beginning to tick. One idea from her talk especially sticks in the mind: the useful anonymity of the Brazilian passport. Since the country is so ethnically diverse ("anybody could be Brazilian", she says), and the passport comparatively easy to forge, it is one of the most popular passports for people on the run. Like Ronnie Biggs, I suppose. Another idea I like is the way in which Brazilian artists in the 20th century defined themselves in terms of "anthropophagism" - the country's indigenous inhabitants had been labelled cannibals, and so its artists came to celebrate their own cannibalistic tendencies, devouring what they found tasty in the culture of other nations, and spitting out the bones.....
After Adriana's talk, I chat with Paul Heritage, who teaches at QMC and has done lots of theatre work in Brazil over the years, including in favelas and prisons, running People's Palace Projects. He's very inspiring. Brazilian theatre, he tells me, is at its most vibrant in the poorest communities, among companies who would never get funded in the UK, because they wouldn't be able to fill in the forms, and they don't have established artists. "Here, it's all top down, " he says; "there, it's bottom up". There's a real hunger for culture in the favelas: a need for theatre which gives voice, worth and definition to people on the margins. And the work which they create is world class. Back home, I re-read Paul's essay on the favela-based company Nós do morro in Theatre Matters (great book). You don't want to be funder-led, but........ at least I can start thinking. Valerie asked me if we were interested in Brazil, and then suggested we have lunch again.....
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
This is from Xinran: "I have learned a lot from Zhang Ruihong...she is the real soul of Chinese Opera... Thank you for letting me learn from you all..."
These are from our audience research questionnaires:
"First play I have seen. It was a fantastic experience" (from an 18-year old)
"Great. Engaging and moving. Beautiful and poetic."
"Fantastic! Can't understand why it's not sold out!"
"Thank you. It was beautiful, considered, touching, imaginative, refreshing and brave. I see a lot of theatre and that's the first cross-artform / cultural piece that has worked I have seen for a long time."
There was also one which said the piece was "selfish"..... I guess because this person found it hard to follow. You cannot please all of the people all of the time.
There were lots of good things dotted around the web - I'll just put in two. This is what Yein Chin wrote on Whatsonstage.com:
"Of all the plays I've seen so far this year, this was by far the best. The story was thought provoking. In the light of sexual awakening, individuals rediscovered love and lost love in the fusion of West met East, Ballet and Chinese Yue Opera. Some visual experiences were so hauntingly beautiful that they left me a sense of nostalgia and melancholia. Superb performance from all actors. I was deeply moved."
But my personal favourite, on the same site and on thisislondon.co.uk, is from somebody called "jonocambs", and says:
"Of all the multicultural art events I have seen over the last few years, this theatre production is probably the one that has had the most profound effect on me. It is the kind of theatre that bombards you with a hundred and one ideas and possibilities, leaving you so shell-shocked that its full effect won't sink in until a couple of days later. The relationship between the traditional Chinese yue opera and the stunning naturalistic performances of all the cast was sublime. The yue opera itself was totally unlike anything I've seen before... a real eye-opener and a gust of pleasant, fresh air. The story was a bit confusing in places, but I didn't mind when I was so submerged in the sheer beauty and musicality of the production as a whole. Moments of silence, awkward mis-understandings between cultures and people, are combined with vibrant yue singing, graceful movement sequences and thumping techno. The design is fabulous - it doesn't impede on the action at all, and yet forms a superior foundation for the questions asked in this piece that asks so many. I really loved the video segments, which is strange because I never usually like video in theatre. It added a new dimension to the piece. The acting was really superb, especially the guy playing the gay Chinese man and Madame Mao - he had so much energy. I've not seen two very different cultures and a world as diverse as Shanghai presented on stage in such a convincing and deceivingly powerful way as this production did for me. It is the best show I've seen all year. There is something for everybody. And it was really good to see such a mixed audience as well, about half the audience were Chinese or Asian. Is this the future for theatre? I really recommend it!"
Now, we may not have done that well financially - but I reckon this makes it all worthwhile!
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Very interesting conversation with David Zoob at Rose Bruford: he thinks that if we'd done a similar show with a similarly high-profile visiting performer from the Middle East, we'd have been everywhere. He's probably right: it's all a matter of which war the press have decided we're fighting at any given moment. A bit ironic given that all the news programmes last night were suddenly being broadcast from Tiananmen Square: thanks to the antics of North Korea with their nuclear tests.
Dis-Orientations isn't over. This morning, as I sat on the train to Hammersmith, I found myself re-writing a scene. I'd felt for a while that the rhythm of the play was wrong in the section around the lovers' quarrel, that it all happened too fast and didn't really explain what happens to Alex. Today I realised it had been staring me in the face since Nancy did her response to the interview with the Chinese "lesbian" (I put the word in inverted commas because the woman herself rejected the label) back in the first week of rehearsals. The scene has to be about Song's identity - the fact that sexuality alone is not sufficient to constitute an identity in China. It's under the surface anyway (this is surely why she moves the focus to her mother), but it needs to be put into words. So - there we are - we have to do the play again!
It's infuriating that I probably would have got to this after a couple of performances, and been able to rehearse it in, except that the moment press night was over, all my attention and energy went to selling the show. Hum...........
Thursday, October 05, 2006
On Monday morning, I took Ruihong to the airport. For the first time since a brief "chat" in rehearsals, there is nobody there to interpret. Lots of smiling, nodding and sign language, then a big hug and she's off back to Shanghai - with nothing but a suitcase of costumes we need to return and a hefty make-up bill to show for her having been here. And yet what an impact she made on everybody who saw her perform. Xinran, William and I took her for lunch in China-town last Friday, and I tried to explain to her how very deeply the audience responded to the spiritual truth in her work. But I'm not sure she really got it, through these layers of linguistic fog.
Xinran tells us that she once met Mme. Mao: and that, unlike in Ieng Un's performance, she was actually very "feminine". I remember reading how she had wanted to wear a dress on the night she took the Nixons to see The Red Detachment of Women, but realised that it was impossible in the atmosphere of her own Cultural Revolution. Maybe, Xinran says, our character should revert to femininity in the build-up to her suicide. An interesting idea for next time......
And so many people are keen on a next time. Xinran and William Ong are sure they can find a huge Chinese audience and a huge media buzz for a revival, and Ke Yasha is talking about a tour of China. Those who have seen this work respond so incredibly to it.
BUT - and it's a very big BUT - not that many people have seen it. I've been leaving this out of the blog, because I wanted to generate a bit of marketing spin, and what I'm about to say isn't positive and upbeat. The fact is that our audiences have been small, sometimes embarassingly so. It got better as the run went on and word of mouth got out: the last few shows were far fuller. But that isn't enough - and as a company we are now looking at quite serious financial problems. I don't yet know exactly how serious - but the board are worried. They've been brilliant through the run - Owen and Deborah have thrown themselves into emergency marketing and press work, with a very real effect, but we've just not generated the sort of buzz we had with Bullie's House, although the ingredients (Riverside Studios, visiting star, fascinating culture) are very similar. Why?
- The weather. The hottest September since Oliver Cromwell was alive. Not great for anybody making theatre, which is an indoor, spring and autumn industry. The moment Ruihong got on the plane, autumn descended, a month too late. We had hoped for an October run, but in the venue market you take what you can get.
- Not enough press. We had no pre-press at all, and very few reviews. Some of the ones we did get (especially in the Chinese and gay press) came too late to have the real impact. And the one key one for the mainstream, Time Out, while it was good was not quite good enough. I don't think that's a reflection on our work - it's just the taste of the individual writer, as all the web comments disagreeing with her prove.
- Maybe the marketing wasn't in quite the right places. This is hard to tell: I usually think marketing only works as a support to the press coverage - it creates awareness and then the press / word of mouth says that something you know about is something you should see.
- Blinkers. This is an ongoing issue with our work, but this show has made me feel it particularly acutely. So much so that, when Xinran and I were giving our post-show talk, I said that I felt ashamed of my culture. I do. Zhang Ruihong is one of the world's great actors - she is a Class A national performer in China, and China is one fifth of humanity. But our society is so inward-looking, so incapable of seeing beyond its own nose, that our work gets dismissed as "some Chinese thing at Riverside". Less significant than another revival of Ben Jonson or David Hare. I think this is particularly the case since our reviewers are brought up in a literary tradition of criticism and like to write about writing - which there wasn't much of in this piece. This is why Bullie was safer ground for us: they'd all heard of Tom and could write as if it was "his play". They want to write about the achievement of an individual, not a collective - totally the opposite approach to Chinese culture.
I don't want any of this to sound like sour grapes - it isn't. This production was a great success: the most beautiful, moving and profound thing the company has produced in its eleven year history. A necessary and a real engagement with another culture, setting up and using real dialogues between people, languages, ideas, histories and forms. And that ground-breaking quality, that newness, is exactly why it didn't sell. What sells is the easily categorised. The familiar. What people think they want (until, of course, they see what they really want - which is the unexpected).
I talk to Peter on the phone from Vienna. He reminds me that London's response to his Peony Pavilion was just the same. A flash-back to 1st August, and my first meeting with Nancy Crane. We talked about that production, and how we both felt that it was one of the most important theatrical experiences of our lives. What we'd both forgotten, until Peter reminds me, is that the Barbican theatre was virtually empty.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
After the show, Xinran and I faced the audience for another post-show discussion. No ordinary audience either: there were people from Yellow Earth, including the wonderful Veronica Needa who worked with us in Mappa Mundi; there were professors of Chinese from Imperial College; there were former cast members from CSSD - and Nick Williams, our Arts Council officer! So the warmth of Xinran's response was incredibly touching and important for us. She has just got back from a two-month research trip to China, where she has been interviewing older people for her next book, and our themes about the power and weight of Chinese history, about tensions between the generations (especially among women) and the essential role of "truth and reconciliation" in the development of new social orders for the 21st century, all seem incredibly immediate and potent to her. She tells us about shocking poverty she has seen in rural areas, about a family of seven sharing one pair of trousers, about people living on 2p a day; and she says that the "comic" moment when Ruihong in the wheelchair tells Tony's archetypal Westerner "I'm thirsty and hungry" made her weep with its simple truth.
This morning she sends an email, which I'll quote: "Last night I was invited to see and discuss Dis-Orientations, a production about culture crossing in modern Shanghai. It soaked my mind, which was struggling with how to come back to my family and MBL work in West, into an emotional Chinese daughter's, thirsty and hungry I have brought back from CW trip, again,again until NOW.
Go, to see it, with your family, if you are interested in Chinese culture, you have been China, you have Chinese friends in your life, or you are going to touch my historical country.
Dis-Orientations is a green field for your Brain Storm on Young China, it won't push you on a high way to a certain direction which normally other shows do - to guide you, understand what they want you to get: you will feel it and get the different story by your own background and your knowledge of China."
See also the Motherbridge website.
Monday, September 25, 2006
On Saturday afternoon, Ruihong gave a workshop on Yue opera. There was a small select band of enthusiasts in Riverside Studio 3, and beforehand she wasn't at all sure what she was going to do. We sorted out a DVD player so she could show some extracts, and hung the costumes on a rail so they could be examined. None of which proved necessary.
For an astonishing two hours, Ruihong simply talked through William and Haili's translation, revealing and sharing her deep love for the form which she has made her life. She would stand and move through the space, demonstrating different movement styles which might be appropriate to different character types. She sang for us in a whole range of yue styles (there are 13, apparently), even giving us old-fashioned and more modern versions of the same melody - the newer ones have acquired more vibrato, as a result of the influence of western opera. She sang as female and male characters - the female voice is in the nose, the male in the throat. And so on. We sat spellbound. How often in your life do you get such a privilege?
Phyllida Lloyd came to see the play yesterday, and was full of praise afterwards (like most people, actually!). Tonight, Ruihong and Haili are going to see Mamma Mia! Fair exchange....
There's more press, including a nice article in Sing Tao daily (Chinese community paper), with a nice quote from Ke Yasha: "Through his facilitation in the last two years, this China-UK collaboration has resulted in this innovative production. Michael Walling's unique perspective on the Chinese psyche, changes in attitudes and morality, and the ongoing changes in cosmopolitan Shanghai highlights how Westerners perceive China. This China-UK co-production has further developed cross art form and intercultural collaboration. It enables mutual learning and understanding; and promotes dialogue between China and the West."
Friday, September 22, 2006
Alaknanda phones this morning to talk about the production, which she thinks is very beautiful, and a huge step forward in terms of our approach to making intercultural work. Her endorsement means so much to me - one of the world's great theatre professionals. And, of course, she's talking about another - Zhang Ruihong. Several of the messages on those websites are actually from Shanghai, where her fans are crying out to see what's she's achieved in this new way of working. I find that very humbling.
The Stage review appears tonight. At last somebody gives her credit for her amazing work. "The most glorious musical sounds ever heard at Riverside." That says it all.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
One of the people at the discussion was a journalist from Pink News, who has published his article today. It's written from a very clear, very specific perspective - and that's just fine. The one point he stretches is Shanbo's death: he doesn't die of grief because Yingtai turns out to be a woman - it's because she has to marry somebody else. I think the gender anarchy of Butterfly Lovers is actually MORE interesting if you look at the lovers' constant swapping of gender, both within the story and as performers. Like a Chinese As You Like It.
I get a lovely email from Angharad Wynn-Jones, the new director of LIFT. Here's what she says: "Dis-orientations is a revealing insight into the complexities of intercultural and same gender relationships in contemporary China. It is a richly complex production, with great performances from two singers from the Shanghai Yue Opera. I feel privileged to have seen it."
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
The Press (sorry about the awful pun) is the key now. We know the show is good - everybody says so. The key thing is to tell people! It's one thing to market the work, which we've been doing for ages - but that only creates awareness. What gets the audience there is the knowledge that they'll see something really inspiring.
The press and marketing teams, the board, the venue, William and I have all been flat out doing PR these last few days. Already there are some reviews. There's one in Time Out today -
"brilliantly executed........ the cast is splendid too....... a culture shock worth experiencing"
There's also an online review in Rogues and Vagabonds.
You can read audience responses (and add your own!) at http://www.dimsum.co.uk/culture/dis-orientations.html and http://www.whatsonstage.com/dl/page.php?page=user_serv&pg=view&id=L1007931524
All very positive - fingers are crossed that this moves the tickets! Meantime we've also set up a second blog, dedicated to the production: it's different from this one, so check it out: http://disorientations.lastminuteliving.com/disorientations/
There's even a video clip! Enjoy!
Monday, September 18, 2006
This bit is agony. We've done all we can - now we just have to wait. I can't imagine that anybody would write a bad review of this production: we've had such glowing responses from the audience and from our colleagues. But you never know. And, even if the reviews are good, will there be enough of them and will they be prominent enough? It was getting into Time Out's Critics Choice that really made Bullie's House: we're crossing fingers for the same thing again.
Angharad Wynn-Jones was in from LIFT on Saturday. Very excited by the work, by its intensity and its beauty. I feel so privileged to have made this piece with performers who have such incredible delicacy and truth to them. I just hope the ticket sales live up to their astonishing work.
First signs are promising, anyway. There are online reviews which glow very warm.....
That nice photo shows Haili and Tori, and was taken by Kathy Leung. There are more on the Dis-Orientations dedicated blog: http://disorientations.lastminuteliving.com/disorientations/
Friday, September 15, 2006
Stuff that happened:
- we tried to re-lay the floor, but found ourselves using a thin silver material, which didn't glue properly, and ended up ripping and sliding around through Tuesday night. Inverted the floor and re-patched the original. Now it looks fine.
- we discovered that Yueju is amplified. I hadn't realised (they must have brilliant sound technicians in Shanghai). Did the dress rehearsal and preview with Ruihong and Haili singing acoustically, which was pretty but not present enough. After phoning everybody I could think of, I was finally able to track down two radio mikes in time for the opening.......
- we did the preview on Wednesday night as the third session of a day spent with press photo-calls, finishing the tech and doing a dress rehearsal. Very little time between dress and preview, so my notes had to be given by William running round the dressing rooms. Yesterday afternoon we had some real time, at last. We got to work the mikes, and to experiment with the vocal qualities of the space. I love sessions where I can work with the actors in the auditorium - giving them the sense of owning the whole theatre, rather than simply the stage.
First night was very exciting. A big house, with lots of guests in. Not enough critics, though the key one (Time Out) was there. Hopefully others will come on the back of it. Ruihong and I hosted a party afterwards, on behalf of the two companies. Ke Yasha was there from the Chinese Embassy, and was incredibly positive about the work. It looks as if going to China with this piece may be back on the cards.....
And now we must watch the reviews space!
Sunday, September 10, 2006
and a full-page interview with a Chinese film director who's made a love story around Tiananmen Square http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,,1868415,00.html. All of which suggests that this work is very, very current indeed. I just hope the papers notice that we are also working with one of China's greatest artists, and that we are dealing with all those huge changes that have come over the country since the death of Mao, exactly thirty years ago. We're not courting controversy (as Lou Ye does): if anything our work will surprise people in its positive view of China - but we are very emphatically engaged with these issues, and (unlike any other company in the UK which has taken this on) we are working directly with people who are living through it on a daily basis. Which I think is worth a few more column inches than we've achieved so far. Press Night is this Thursday - Chloe's been working hard to get us a good crowd of critics. And I'm nervous again.
There's a huge amount of work to be done before that. We get in to the theatre tomorrow, and start the tech on Tuesday: it all has to be ready by the preview on Wednesday night. I decided to make use of Friday afternoon to deal with some of the technical issues around costume and make-up which we could sort out before we go to Riverside. Time well spent......
In the Asian theatre traditions, costume, wigs and make-up are far more important than they are in the West. They do much of the work that we expect of sets and lighting - and they are also a crucial part of the performer's journey towards the holy status s/he acquires on stage. The physical, visual transformation of the self into something beautiful and transcendent allows these performers the sense of embodying the mythic. Using Yueju within the play, we are also asking Ruihong and Haili to acquire this status within our piece - but we don't allow them the usual time and space to do it. The changes have to happen quickly to faciliate the doubling of the characters and the energy of the whole. We work together to try and make it possible - and it is not at all easy. But, with patience, we do get there. In a way, this tension between forms and expectations is itself part of the play's meaning: Chinese culture is traditionally, gloriously, about the long view. Today, it is plunged into the madly short-termist, ever changing world of global capitalism. I want this play to make a case for the contemplative, the holy, the spiritual in the midst of the mayhem - so it's incumbent on me to make space for it in our own process as well.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
So - it's a delight when things start to go rather well. Hiccups from time to time, of course - like suddenly realising we've only rehearsed the language tape scene once, and that without our new sountrack - so there are bits where the whole thing looks like grinding to a halt. But the afternoon is spent sorting all that out. And, at last, we see the shape of what we've got.
It's emerging from its chrysalis - our butterfly. Beautiful and fragile. Maybe too beautiful and fragile - we're a bit scared that if we do anything rough we might break it. But that's the next stage, I think - to give it a recognisable contemporary edginess: an undercurrent of sexiness and violence that constantly threatens the delicacy. That's what this shifting relationship between the West and China has always been: an amalgam of erotic fascination and intense confrontation. In our little rehearsal room, which is a microcosm of these clashing worlds, we're finding a space which allows us to find ways of expressing that together.
In with a chance, I think.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Still, the play is now emerging in something like a performable shape. The styles seem to be melding, and the character lines are making sense. Several huge shifts from the first version, all of them positive. There are still swathes of it which make no sense to the cast - and won't until the technical things are in place. Ieng Un asks me how the audience will know that he is playing Mme. Mao in the Peace Hotel scene. He's quite right to ask, of course - how's he to know that there's a projected text? These are the areas where I have to rely on my imagination to envision it as a whole.
Some positive developments in admin too. William Wong, my assistant director, has managed to bring the International Herald Tribune on board as a media partner: which is an in-kind equivalent of about £20K worth of advertising. On the other hand, I feel we need it: there's not been much in the press yet. Guy points out that all the arts journalists and critics are still in Edinburgh, which is true..... I just hope they don't all decide to take a holiday before they come back. We've got so far - now we need this to be seen.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
It's emerging now, this play. Very different from the way it was in February. More allusive and elusive, more dreamlike and intangible. This feels appropriate to the material. As people often say about China: the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. So if we try to give clear answers, we'll only end up selling the story short. It's far better to hint at possibilities, and to empower the audience into thinking for themselves. So the scene which used to be a sort of history lesson on the Cultural Revolution is transmogrifying into a dream-like mixture of the death of Shanbo and a child's view of those years. Much more truthful to our sources (which are our performers), and so to the reality of how we experience the world.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Ruihong is smaller than I remember her from Shanghai, and looks even younger than she did then. I know from doing the work permit application that we were born in the same year, but she looks about 25. We communicate through translation - William and Ieng Un both speak Mandarin, and Haili can translate simultaneously, which is incredible though sometimes a bit daunting. Once or twice I've had to stop her, so that I can think as I speak, or so that I can watch Ruihong's face and gestures as she speaks, and only get the rationality of language after the emotion in her response.
Emotional response is the key to her work. From the very first day she brings a new theatrical language onto the stage. It's not just Yueju, though of course this is her rich tradition, and she's very proficient in it. It's also an ability to work through the vocabulary of the form in a dialogue with other artists. We are able to create through the coincidence of Yue music or movement with English words, or projected images, or other music, or even naturalism - and each of these forms becomes richer and newer through the dialogue. Because Ruihong is such a sensitive artist, and her tradition is so mythic and so "unreal" (or real in a Platonic sense), it gives a holiness to the work - even to scenes which would otherwise seem squalid. Like Yeats: "Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement".
The other enriching thing is the experience of Chinese history which Ruihong and the others bring to us. Today we were working on the Cultural Revolution (and making the play far less of a history lesson, far more of an emotional journey). Ruihong told us her childhood memory of hiding under a table while the beatings were going on. She remembers the people with placards round their necks, and visiting her father (himself a theatre director) in a labour camp. It suddenly makes us all feel more responsible to this work, to these stories. Because these things happened. To someone in the room.
Friday, August 18, 2006
Wednesday was really amazing: a day spent pooling background research and knowledge. Amanda's parents turn out to have met in Shanghai in the 30s, where her mother was a famous writer and glorious decadent. As before, Haili is full of insights into Chinese culture which constantly dis-orient the rest of us (in a productive way). We were talking about the Beijing spring, and she told us that her mother had told her she should not join the students, because it felt like the start of the Cultural Revolution again - and that meant the government had no choice but to stop it, so that the tragedy was not replayed. I'd never heard that idea before - but it has the ring of terrible truth to it. Nothing is ever so simple as it seems - and this process is about the search for true complexity.
Doing admin each evening - annoying things like signing cheques and sorting out bank letters, dealing with the Revenue's Foreign Entertainers' Unit, checking the venue contract. Drafting the programme. It feels like there's more than ever this time - maybe the show is just bigger. In a way it's lucky the family have been away this week - hopefully I'll be more able to do the balancing act once they're back with me tomorrow.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
I've gathered together loads of my books, videos, CDs and so on in research material, sorted out cheques to pay everybody, and realised that somehow a crucial CD from Shanghai has got lost and will have to be replaced. The leaflets and posters have arrived, looking stunning. It all feels ready to go.
Most crucially of all, Haili and Ieng Un are now in England. Haili got back on Thursday (no mean feat in itself, given the airport closures - lucky she lives in Manchester), after what sound to have been incredible picaresque adventures in the land of her birth. She was arrested by the Chinese police as a suspected spy...... somehow the British Embassy helped her get out of custody, but she still had a night journey on foot and slept in a stable..... I can't wait to hear more. At the moment she's driving down from Manchester to join Ieng Un in the Sidcup flat. He arrived on Friday. I'd spent the day driving a transit van, taking the set and props from the office to the rehearsal room. I then drove out to Heathrow, and took part in the disruption. It took two hours from his flight landing to the moment when I saw his face coming through. Finally got home at 11.30 - starving.
As Peter Sellars says on the phone from New York - it all goes to prove that this is the time when we should be doing intercultural theatre. So - here we go.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Amanda Boxer will be Marie. I worked with her in a reading years ago, and have kept my eyes on her ever since - a really brilliant actor. PK (if we end up calling her that - William says it means something rude in Cantonese) will be Nancy Crane, who was the Angel in Angels in America at the NT. At our meeting, I broke the ice by saying she'd done the most spectacular entrance in the history of the theatre.... and she returned the compliment for the arrival of ther plane in Nixon. So - we like the same sorts of shows. Both Nancy and Tony have been emailing me about research - it feels like we're rearing to go.
Thursday was the week's mad day. The morning began at Riverside for a production meeting with Babs, their Technical Manager. Standing in the space, the dimensions feel quite wonderful for the work. It's such an honest space - just a big room divided in two. Like the Cartoucherie. Bad news is that the venue's video projector won't be available to us - I start asking around and manage to borrow one form Wise Thoughts, who have the office next to us in Chocolate Factory 2. Straight from the Production Meeting into marketing and contract discussions with Alex, Louise's assistant. Somehow the proof of the venue brochure has the wrong copy on it- dash over to Simon's office and come up with new versions. Then to the National for a design meeting with Seema and Mark. He's on good form - also working on Love's Labours Lost in an American "summer of love" production, which looks totally mad and is going in to the RSC's Complete Works Festival.
Tickets are now on sale, and Simon has put up the beginnings of our micro-site: www.bordercrossings.org.uk/disorientations/index.html
The Index bit of that address might go once it's fully ready. I hope so - it isn't on the print.
Bad news on audience development - we didn't get an A4E award (again). This time because the accounts we sent in didn't have an original signature.... Valerie Chang is still doing the exhibition alongside the run, so something has come of it - but it means there will be fewer Chinese faces in the audience, which is a shame. The other interesting issue is the bank. I've been trying to get a meeting to discuss the fact that we're likely to go overdrawn during this project (since we don't get the Box Office or the last bit of the ACE grant till it's over). Several phone calls, but still no meeting. But we do have one ominous warning that Charity's accounts tend not to be granted overdrafts because they "don't know who we can hold responsible". Not sure what to do if we can't borrow anything..... Cross that bridge when we come to it.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Meanwhile, I fill in the gaps in the rest of the team. Mark Doubleday will do the lighting (hurray), and Alison de Burgh direct the fights (ditto). I meet Seema to talk through ideas on costume and doubling, and put in my halfpennyworth on the publicity designs. FedEx the Work Permits to Shanghai and Macau. Start to put together programme notes. Contract the team we have. And wait.
Meanwhile, next year still hovers. James and Martin Banham are interested in the Accra bit of this blog forming the basis of an article for African Theatre 7. This should come out around the time of the production, so it's really helpful. I have a long phone call with Prof. Lola Young, who is co-ordinating the Freedom and Culture programme for the 2007 bi-centenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. She's very excited about the Ghana project, and we agree to link up. The list of supporting organisations is getting quite impressive - it's time to put together a full project proposal. Not ideal timing - but at least there are still 2 weeks till rehearsals begin.
Monday, July 24, 2006
The day's timetable is meant to be simple, but of course Ghana isn't like that. At 11, I see Amanda at the British Council again. She's highly excited to hear about the plan for a co-production across both countries, the involvement of the National Theatre Company, and the list of performers I'm proposing. Thank you Dzifa, thank you James, thank you Awo! The key, of course, is to make all this happen, and this is where I hope the British Council might come on board. Amanda asks me to come back at 4, to meet the Director, John Payne.
In between, I need to scout out the National Theatre building, as an alternative venue to the Legon amphitheatre, and one which I know Ghanaian collaborators are likely to prefer, if only because of its central location. It's a huge, very modern structure, very well equipped, and totally at odds with its far more modest surroundings. This is because it's one example of the enormous Chinese investment in West Africa: as I walk backstage, I can see Chinese characters on the windows. China has spent a huge amount in this region: all of which is clearly intended to promote trade and political links. These are two emerging powers we should not ignore....
The National Theatre is currently closed for refurbishment, and I'm led round by a young man called Francis from George Hagan's office. The leading is quite literal, because there are no lights, and several times he takes me by the hand to get me around. There's no qualms about men holding hands here - even people who've just met! The only way I can get any idea of what this theatre might look like is by flash photography. It seems to be a barn of a place. 1500 seats. But well-equipped, and central. If we end up here, we'll have to work hard to make things feel rough enough.
I just get time to buy some amazing paintings at amazingly low prices before seeing John. Odd how, after so many productive discussions, you always end up with the middle-aged white man in the suit talking about money. Not that John is a typical suit: like most British Council people, he's anxious to make real exciting collaborations happen, and can see beyond the stale rhetoric of his political masters. I think we will need to make some quite specific cases in quite specific ways, but he gives me enough hints for me to feel we have a friend here. I phone Dzifa to let her know, and thank her for all she's done. I have to leave her with a warning - I won't be touching this project for a while, given the imminence of Dis-Orientations. But, come the autumn, we'll make this happen. Roll on 2007. I won't say good-bye to Ghana, just "au revoir".
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
I meet one more of these fabulous female actors today: Mary Yirenkyi. For 17 years she taught at Legon, and she's also studied in Leeds and Exeter. As she reads from the text, and dances for me, I'm back in the real world of the play and of the Akan culture. It's like two different worlds, one full and one empty. All the more reason to do this project.
Awo drives me up to the top of the hill to see the Amphitheatre, where the play was first performed in 1964. It's a lovely space, somewhere between the Greek theatres and the African village clearing. There are always big problems with the open air, of course, but for this project it may be right.
I spend the afternoon with Ama Ata. This conversation was video-ed, and I hope you'll be reading it in a book before too long, so it won't be recorded here. But it was incredibly helpful. She has a very generous spirit.
William emails to say that the contract has finally gone to Shanghai. Things move on.... I'm coming to the end of my time in Accra, and must get ready for the new adventure!
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
In The Dilemma of a Ghost, the ghost's dilemma is whether to go to Cape Coast or Elmina. It's a pretty grim choice, even for a spectre, since these are the two huge slave castles that tower over Ghana's coastline. Not one for dilemmas, I visited both of them over the weekend. Video camera in hand, I was able to shoot some amazing images, which may or may not appear in the final production: especially on Sunday morning, when getting an early taxi out of Cape Coast got me to Elmina before 9am, and I was the only person in the castle for a full hour. Being in the total darkness of the slave dungeons, and walking to the "Door of No Return" is an intense experience. I twice got genuinely frightened - once because I really couldn't see where I was, and once because I was suddenly surrounded by bats. In the dungeons of both castles, there are wreaths which have been laid by African-Americans, who return here to see something of their history. The messages are very sad, but also strangely beautiful. The guide at Elmina (who arrives a bit after 10) says that the Castle must be preserved so that people can take from it a renewed humanity. I like that.
Fears of being stranded on the coast (I arrived there on Saturday to discover the last bus back to Accra on Sundays is at 3, and is already full) are allayed by the appearance of a school bus from takoradi, containing none other than Rebecca and Kate from the Theatre Royal in Plymouth: here to work on their three-year link-up project. Over dinner back in Accra, we meet up with one of their students from last year; a young man called Williams. Shooing them away with a "some things are for men only", he takes me in to his confidence, and tells me how mcuh he admires these two women and their work. Last year's production was clearly the best experience of his life, and has changed him profoundly and positively. It's incredibly heartening to be reminded of theatre's power to do this.
There was another reminder this morning, when I (horribly late - thank you email, thank you Accra traffic) was able to see something of Theatre for a Change in action with the fishing community in James Town. In a delapidated shack (the James Town Community Theatre), a group of about thirty people of various ages were improvising stories about domestic violence, and looking at ways to deal with them. Between these scenes, they play silly games and sing songs which involve a lot of bottom-wriggling. It's all strangely playful, and yet they are clearly talking about things which matter very deeply to them. Theatre at its most paradoxically beautiful again. Amongst the group, there was a young girl who could really perform. She is absolutely tiny, and has crooked bones in her back and limbs. She also moves extraordinarily, and radiates joy from her face. I kept thinking of Abey Xakwe from Third World Bunfight. I began to wonder ifI shouldn't do something really extreme in the casting of Dilemma.....
The ideas are slowly working themselves out. I had a rash of meetings breaking out all over yesterday and today, spending a Ghanaian fortune in taxi fares and a lot of time stewing in the perpetual traffic jams. But some key contacts have now been established. Osei Korankye, who plays me his seprewa (a sort of harp) and sings in his strong, high tenor: this is music of contemplation, which was traditionally played to chiefs by a sort of bard or troubadour as an aid to meditation - ideal for transporting an audience to a plane of ritual and spirituality. Mohammed ben-Abdullah, who wrote a play called The Slaves, and is full of fascinating insights into the Ghanaian theatre, and is deeply generous with his advice on performers and companies. Evans Oma Hunter, a Falstaffian figure whose finger is in many pies, and significantly works with UNESCO here, touring work to rural communities. George Hagan, director of the National Commission on Culture, who listens to my ideas with a constantly repeated "Wnderful", and promises that crucial thing, official endorsement, as well as making some helpful suggestions about outreach and even funding! And, perhaps most helpfully of all, the amazing Dzifa Glikpoe: former director of the National Theatre Company and a truly inspiring performer. With this woman there is an instant rapport, and she understands exactly what I want to do. She also reads the text superbly. We talk about how, with George's endorsement, this could be a co-production between Border Crossings and the National Theatre, in which case it would make sense to rehearse here in Ghana, perform and tour (?!) before transplanting to the UK. Done like this, with Western-trained actors in the Westernised roles, the culture-clash will be so real.
This afternoon Dzifa came to meet me again at Legon, bringing two performers she recommends. The three of them together are a riot: we talk in depth, but we also laugh a lot, and they perform songs and dances for me. Or maybe it isn't for me - maybe it's for one another and for themselves. Song seems to emerge from the conversation of these women totally naturally. One of them is called Agnes: she's very intelligent and very aware of the play and its political meaning. The other, who speaks far less English, is an older lady called Aunty Ama. I'm not too bothered about the language issue - and neither, it seems, is she. What matters is her rootedness in the culture, her demeanour, her grace, and her incredible energy. As we talk, I realise exactly who she is. She came from a village background, and started performing as a teenager, where she was spotted by the late, great Efua Sutherland. Since her parents were not around, Efua contacted the grandparents, and told them that she would like to adopt her as her own daughter, undertaking to educate her at the same time as nurturing her performing talent. Even today, she lives in the same house as Efua's daughter Esi Sutherland.
I thought before I came that the key aim in this trip would be to find somebody who was talented enough and sufficiently rooted in the culture to play Nana. I think that's been accomplished. Now all we have to do is make it happen.
Friday, July 14, 2006
It's a great campus, though - with the open air theatre in which Dilemma was first done, a bookshop which sends any Afrophile into a frenzy, and tutors' offices in little whitewashed quadrangles. Plus a Barclays that (guess what?) doesn't cash travellers' cheques - precipitating another mad dash to the head office before it closes for the weekend, exiting with a wad of cedis the size of a big dictionary.
At Legon, I meet John Collins - the legendary Professor of Music, whose conversation is an entrancing journey into incredible facts about African culture. In less than forty minutes I discover:
- that West Indian musical influences made their return to West Africa as early as October 1800 (I love his precision on the month), and that this form - called Gumbe - became pan-African and pan-Caribbean.
- that folk-rumour in Ghana decided that the Europeans must be taking the enslaved people to eat them, because they never came back. Ironic given that the Europeans were also erroneously accusing the Africans of cannibalism.
- that Kwame Nkrumah kept a court jester, whose name was Ajax Bukana. Ajax was encouraged to leap in to Cabinet meetings and express the comic view on any issue. He always wore black-face, which amongst African and black American performers was never considered racist - it's simply the make-up of the Ghanaian clown, just as white-face is worn by the European.
John puts me in touch with a few more artists and musicians, and as I take the taxi across town I phone them all, arranging yet more meetings.
Meetings, meetings.... Awo's head of department, John K. Djisenu, who lets us use their premises to audition former students from the 2,500 a year who might be useful talent. I keep mentioning that the cast shouldn't really be lots of young people - and gradually I start to get some contacts for older actors.
Akofa Adjeani-Asiedu, who has several times received Best Actress awards for her film work, sends a car to bring me to her (side-line) restaurant, where she sits in what feels like a fortune-teller's tent, covered in jewellry, draped in a red kaftan and sporting a spiky vertical hair-do. Her whole appearance is an amazing re-invention of what it means to be African in the 21st century. The conversation is full of laughter, as happens with extrovert personalities, but there's also a sense of a very serious artist here, and somebody very conscious of her nation's image in the wider world. When I ask her what sort of projects she prefers, she says that she like to do work which shows what is positive in Africa. That she's fed up with images of violence in Rwanda and famine in Sudan governing the world's perception of a deep and living culture. Now THAT I can work with.
She drives me back into town herself. Very fast. I'd phoned the Arts Consultant I was due to meet next to say I'd be late.... and arrived early. His name is Akunu Dake - and he's co-ordinating the British Council's creative response to the big anniversaries next year. Again, the conversation seems fruitful - when he shakes my hand at the end he calls me a "fellow conspirator", which often feels right. And he names a male actor who John also suggested, and an older woman who'd also been mentioned by Akofa. I tend to believe in the double recommendation. Back to the phone, I go. What would I have done without Kofi's phone?
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Today began with a taxi ride through distinctly more salubrious bits of Accra than I saw yesterday, down to the coast and the Labadi General Hospital, next to which Theatre for a Change has its office. I've been keen on this organisation ever since I met its British mentor Patrick Young a few months ago: and today the general manager, Daniel Attrans, and the full staff of six are sitting round a table, notepads poised, waiting to meet me. Their work is very community-based (without being Theatre for Development, or in any way indoctrinating). They tell me about the Boal-style techniques through which they deal with issues like HIV and domestic violence: if a man performs the role of a woman being beaten, he starts to get an idea of what it might feel like. So this is a theatre about opening up imagination,and empowering people to take decisions in the social space. They're planning a workshop in James Town in a few days, working with the fishing community there. Apparently, research suggests that this community thinks of HIV less in terms of condoms and more in terms of witchcraft. I'd be excited to see this.
I only wish there was something more I could do towards this group from my end - but they're not finally doing the sort of work which we do, although I feel really supportive of them. I give them a few new ideas about funders, and promise to make a bit of a noise for them (here I am doing some of it). As our chat ends, their latest volunteer walks through the door: a young man called Ryan from UCLA, where his Professors include none other than Peter Sellars. Ryan was inspired to come here by (amongst other things) Peter's classes on human trafficking - which has been his subject in Zaide and will be ours in our Ghanaian project. A small world, or a Jungian moment?
Kofi has got me a Ghanaian mobile, and I phone round as many of the contacts I've got from James and Amanda as I can. As I sit in the shade outside the Hospital, playing ball with a little boy around Hari's age, one of them hails into view. His name is Nii, and he runs a group called the Tima' tuma Theatre Project. In translation, this means "well done", because, he explains, theatre in Ghana tends not to be a full-time job, and people deserve a proper reward as they get for work. I ask if he's managed to make it a full-time job for himself. No, he's also an advertising executive. I tell him he's in good company: lots of the best theatre-makers in India are also advertising people.
Nii's work is largely in plays about African history: they've just made one called Nkurmah-Mandela, which is about parrallels in the lives of the two leaders. This is intriguing for me, with my on-ice Mandela piece stirring into occasional life. Sadly, they're not in production at present. However, he is the first person to come up with a name of an actress who might be suitable for what I'm doing. I should be able to follow this up tomorrow, since she has links to the University Performing Arts Department.
We're still chatting when a driver arrives in a blue pick-up, which Ama Ata Aidoo has arranged to bring me to her office. We take another dis-orienting trip through various bits of Accra, and eventually I meet her. Smaller than I'd imagined, leaning on her stick and feeling a bit the worse for a recent bout of asthma - but bright with energy and excitement, and very funny. She takes her agent (a young man called Eli) and myself for lunch - my first taste of Fufu. I give her a copy of The Handmaid's Tale as a present. She knows it backwards, of course - having taught it as part of a course in post-colonial literatures: but this fact in itself gets us onto interesting ground. The idea of Canada as post-colonial was apparently considered very radical by students and colleagues. Only the "Third World" was post-colonial.... We are happy to agree on the absurdity - if the post-colonial is to mean anything at all, then it has to be about a history which is global: it has to be about understanding where we are right now as the aftermath of a colonial past which isn't only the affair of the poorer nations (to say that it is simply to marginalise them again). The inheritance of the colonial period, of slavery, of economic exploitation, is still with us, and the post-colonial discourse has to be about how the globalized world which is the direct result of that inheritance can be inhabited. Which, of course, is exactly what The Dilemma of a Ghost is about. Certainly what it will be about in 2007 London.
I talk about some of my ideas for the production, none of which seem to phase her at all. She's actually quite humble about the whole thing, as writers often are when you want to do their work. She talks about when Anowa was done at the Gate in 1992, and about how brilliant the actors and director were. But she was also very disappointed that the production didn't "go anywhere". Sounds familiar. The other production she remembers very fondly is the first production of Dilemma, which was staged in the open air at the University in Legon, when (astonishingly) she was still a student. I find it incredible that this should be the work of a 22 year old: the play really should have been in the BITE Young Genius season last year! The open-air thing is interesting: this relates to my sense that we may be looking for unconventional, non-theatre spaces (don't hold me to this!), and to my sense that the play is (amongst other things) very like a Greek tragedy, with its Chorus of women surrounding and commenting on the central action, and its language which moves so subtly from naturalism into poetry.
Most importantly, for me, Ama Ata doesn't seem to think it odd that a white British male director should want to do this piece. Good - she also talks in terms of a shared history, an awareness that the political problems we face require dialogue, require a cultural solution. So the idea of collaborating with Ghanaian actors who can bring the sense of the spiritual and of the cultural depth the play needs makes sense to her. But she doesn't know who either. "I'm only a writer", she says.
She's keen to come over when the play is on, which will be a good publicity boost (as well as moving and powerful in itself). We leave it that I will phone her again early next week - by which time I hope she'll be feeling fit enough to talk in more depth about some of the details in the piece. But the key contact has been made. We connected.
We come out of the restaurant after a two and a half hour lunch. Eli hails me a taxi and does the haggling over price. As he does so, Ama Ata reaches up an arm, and we embrace under the burning sun.