Art (perhaps theatre more than any other) and politics are so closely linked that sometimes they seem to be the same thing. We?ve been juggling the Ghana project around the needs of the Ghana @ 50 Secretariat, which has set its own programme of plays, and now needs us to come in December 2007, rather than September, which means we?ll be rehearsing in London after all. That?s probably OK. I meet Nigel Tallantire, who is co-ordinating the Africa ?07 initiative for the British Council, and it seems to work well for him. I read between the lines of our discussion, and shift one or two of the priorities to bring the project closer to their programme.
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.