Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Lakes

I'm in Nevada, USA - on caucus day. On my way to a meeting yesterday, I passed through the University in Reno, and who should be there but Barack Obama. From the conversations I've had here, I suspect he will win in this state. It's rather inspiring that people here are talking a lot about the need for real vision in politics, and seem to be sick to death of pragmatism.

The reason I'm here is that my old friend Jan Powell, who I worked with at Tygres Heart Shakespeare in Oregon during the early 90s, is now Artistic Director of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, and has invited me to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream here in the summer. I could hardly say no.... Tahoe is an amazing beauty spot - an Alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada. At this time of year, it's surrounded by thick snow. I'm staying at the Cal-Neva hotel (on the border between Nevada and California), which was the haunt of Frank Sinatra, the Kennedys and Marilyn Munroe. And, like everything else in Nevada, it's a casino. There are slot machines everywhere - even in the airport and the supermarkets.

Partly because of the amazing landscape, and partly because of what we've been doing with Origins, I've been drawn to the idea of using the Native American spirituality which is so powerful here, and relates so well to the landscape, as a route in to the magic of the Dream. I'm also, of course, very aware of indigenous protocols, as a result of our work on Bullie's House and since. So Jan, Catherine Atack (the Festival's Executive Director) and I bundled ourselves into a car and set out to meet the Paiute nation.

This involved a trip into the desert. Nevada is astonishing: the distance from the Alpine Tahoe to the lunar landscape of Pyramid Lake is really very short. Yet the contrast couldn't be greater - look at these pictures! Pyramid Lake is fed from Tahoe via a river, and the Paiute people have been fighting against its damming and to protect their environment for a full century now. At their beautiful museum near the town of Nixon, two Paiute men, Ben and Ralph, talk to us for a long time, with that incredible generosity of spirit shown by so many First Nations people, when the listener shows a bit of open-nes and interest. Ralph, the elder of the two, tells us stories in his own language, and then translates them into English. He talks about the 10,000 year history of his people in this place, about their brief relationship with white America (the first contact was 1844), and about the prophecies of global warming and climate change (see Titania's great speech at the start of the Dream). It's them, not us, who suggest that there might be ways to collaborate on the production, to involve them in our process, and to bring the children of the tribe to see it.

It's one of those rare, privileged days, when you remember just why theatre matters, and how cultural dialogue rally does have so much to give.

My visit here is very brief, so Jan and Catherine will have to contact the Wahoe people, whose traditional land is Tahoe itself, after I've gone. If the response is similar, we'll really be on to something.

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