Saturday, December 31, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
Thanks to a grant from the EU's Grundtvig fund, I spent a great couple of days in Paris at a conference on Indigenous Festivals and their role in processes of Reconciliation, organised by the Indigeneity project at Royal Holloway. This is an amazing research project, run by Helen Gilbert, who we've been consulting with for years, and who has also helped us with many aspects of Origins, including some funding towards Marie's workshop this year. For the next Festival, Helen and I are discussing a plan to work together very closely, as it will coincide with the final exhibition at the end of her project. That's too good a chance to miss.
The conference was a great chance to meet some people I'd heard about but never actually encountered before, and to renew some old acquaintances. There were people there who had been at Origins, but who I'd never actually spoken to. Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal was there too - a very exciting Māori scholar and musician, who is working to recreate the performance forms that existed before contact with Europeans. He spoke very eloquently about the need to move indigeneity beyond the passive experience of suffering, and to see it as "a gift to the world". That prompted me to some thoughts in my own speech. There were also some really fascinating French contacts, whose involvement could broaden the remit of the whole festival. And they introduced me to New Caledonia.
I knew very little about this land, and its indigenous Kanak people, although we did have a poem by Kanak writer Paul Wamo in the last Origins programme book. There was a struggle for decolonisation as recently as the 1980s, led by Jean-Marie Tjibaou. After he had achieved an agreement with the French government, Tjibaou was assassinated by the more radical figure Djubelly Wéa, who felt he had compromised on the aim of absolute independence. Fifteen years on, through a ceremony of reconciliation which exists in Kanak culture, it became possible for the widows of these two men to embrace. The process through which the reconciliation was achieved, and the extraordinarily moving ceremony which it involved, was the subject of the film Tjibaou, le pardon, which was screened at the conference. And Marie-Claude Tjibaou herself was there to talk about it with us. It's a very special film indeed - and you can watch it here.
Monday, October 31, 2011
This is the programme note I wrote for the production of Xerxes at San Francisco Opera.
Xerxes was one of the last operas Handel wrote for the London opera scene, of which he had been a central figure for some twenty-seven years. Not surprisingly, the music reflects the city at the time – poised and elegant; at times astonishing in its emotional depth and purity; often urbane, ironic, even jazzy; occasionally exotic and a little strange. Our production frames the machinations and passions of the characters within a world that seems most clearly to capture that characteristic complexity of tone: the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
In 1738, under the management of Jonathan Tyers “Undertaker of the Entertainment there”, the Gardens were the centre of fashionable London. They also expressed the city’s reaching out to a wider world. This was the age of early imperialism, of the Grand Tour, and of the first museum collections. Tyers gathered exotic artifacts from warmer climes, showing a particular obsession with the Middle East – a region considered at once fascinating and dangerous, from whence came such innovative fashions as coffee drinking and umbrellas. He also commissioned the French sculptor Louis François Roubiliac to create a statue of Handel himself, which was unveiled in the Pleasure Gardens just as Xerxes was performing at the Haymarket Theatre.
An anonymous Irish gentlemen visiting Vauxhall wrote: “The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of the music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well dressed and walking about, would almost make one believe he was in the Elysian fields. In the middle of the garden are two semicircles which appear like an amphitheatre, in which are placed a great number of small booths which may contain about six or eight people apiece, where they commonly refresh themselves with sweetmeats, wine, tea, coffee, or suchlike. The backs of these boxes or booths are adorned with curious paintings, all which are enlightened to the front with globes. They are all numbered, and very just attendance is given by a vast number of warders kept for that purpose. Near to this is a grand orchestra, where the music plays in fine weather; but this night the concert was held in a magnificent hall neatly furnished. At one side of the orchestra is a noble statue of Handel. The music no sooner began than we entered the hall, where fifty-four musicians performed. Mr. Lowe soon sang, whose character I need not here mention, and after him the inimitable Miss Burchell.”
With Handel’s music running through my head this morning, I went for a walk in Golden Gate Park. And here, in the city where we are recreating the opera, was another Vauxhall. Here were the neo-classical pavilions and follies; here were the shrines of art, with busts of writers and composers appearing through the trees; here were the museums and galleries, the coffee houses and the concerts. Here were botanical specimens from overseas put on display for education and delight; here was the fascination with an exoticized and economically colonized Asia. Perhaps contemporary San Francisco is closer to Handel’s London than it may at first appear.
Handel, I am sure, would have recognized the city’s famous queer culture. Although there is no conclusive evidence that he was gay, it was very unusual for an 18th century man to remain unmarried, and even more unusual for all his close friends to be other unmarried men. Certainly he took great delight in the gender-bending possibilities presented by the form of baroque opera. The role of Xerxes was originally sung by the famous castrato Caffarelli, and Arsamenes by a female soprano, “The Luchesina”. I suspect our reversal of the genders of the singers playing these royal brothers would not have perturbed him. Some of the most expressive music is reserved for the cross-dressed Amastris, whose tessitura is so low that in the final ensemble it is she who takes the tenor line. The conventions of gender are blurred. Identity, certainty, becomes brittle and impermanent. Like performance – it delights and then disappears.
The replica of Roubiliac’s statue on the stage tonight does not say “Handel” on its base, but “Timotheus”. Timotheus was the court musician to Alexander the Great; and in 1735 Handel had set John Dryden’s poem Alexander’s Feast, which describes Timotheus playing through the night in Xerxes’ palace at Persepolis, to celebrate Alexander’s victory over the Persian Empire. Alexander then razed the palace of Xerxes to the ground.
Any Pleasure Garden holds within it the seeds of its own destruction.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Opera rehearsals thin out towards the opening (which is tomorrow), so I've had a bit of time over the last few days to check out some of the cultural offerings in the Bay Area. It's a very rich place culturally - tons going on - though it helps to have a few dollars to spare if you want to catch a lot of it! Nice to get a few invitations.....
I was at the Closing Night of the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, which was Andres Veiel's If Not Us, Who - about the Red Army Faction, and in particular Gudrun Ensslin. I remember being very struck by her centrality when I watched The Baader-Meinhoff Complex a while ago. That film was very strong as a chronological account - it simply stated what happened, and left you to deal with it. Veiel, by way of contrast, begins to undertake the difficult task of exploring why it happened. To begin with, I was a bit concerned that we might be in for the pat Freudian explanation: Veiel's degree is in psychology, and the film begins with Bernward Vesper's father shooting his son's pet cat. It looks like another "if only the parents had loved them" film. But then, Veiel brilliantly shifts the ground, as the father tells Bernward that cats are "the Jews of the animal world". The issue is not pat psychology: it's living with the legacy of Nazism. In a stunning moment later in the film, the adult Bernward is told by his mother that his pro-Nazi father only agreed to have children because Hitler was urging Germans to breed. His very existence is the result of the Nazi era. Gudrun's father, perhaps even more strikingly, was a pastor who knew that the regime was evil, but still served in its army. Much of the film is about the disappointment younger people feel with older generations who they feel to be compromised. Powerful stuff in the time of the "Occupy" movement.
David Mamet's latest play, Race, is at the ACT in San Francisco. I had hoped to see the sophisticated and gritty kind of work expected from Mamet - and I confidently predict that when Race gets its UK premiere it will be hailed as doing for race what Oleanna did for gender politics (whatever that was). In fact, Mark Lawson has already done as much when he reviewed the New York production. Well - to my mind, it was a truly repulsive play - and I do not use such terms lightly of an art-form I love. Yes - it was certainly topical - more so since the Strauss-Kahn case, which it echoes, or even foretells, in a number of striking ways. But the underlying point Mamet seems to be making is that questions around historical and current inequalities are being allowed to get in the way of "business success" - and that, apparently, would never do. Mamet, the programme note proudly explains, has announced his "conversion" (note the religious wording) to the Republican right, and published "The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, his 200-page pledge of allegiance to conservatism." The law firm where the play is set is "sold out" by a clerk, who is young, female, and black. And a cipher of a character. She manipulates the firm into defending a white man accused of raping a black woman, and then engineers the case so that he is sure to be convicted, against the best efforts of the tough-talking Mamet-style lawyers. Frankly, it smacks of White Supremacism to me.
The contrast with the piece I saw last night in Berkeley could not be greater. Desdemona is directed by our Patron, Peter Sellars, so I will confess to a certain bias born of long friendship - but it is a very deep and necessary antidote to the poison which Race embodies. Scripted by Toni Morrison, with music by the Malian Rokia Traoré, the piece is a response to Othello, following the central female character into an after-life, and allowing her to probe her actions, and Othello's too, and to search for solutions beyond literal or emotional violence between races, or between sexes. Rokia's music is incredibly beautiful - you can get an idea of it here - and Peter's production provides a contemplative space in which you can listen to every nuance of that sound, and to every weighted word of the slim, poetic text. Rokia embodies the figure of Barbary - Desdemona's mother's maid, who died singing the Willow Song. In Renaissance England, "Barbary" meant "Africa" - so the conceit of this piece is that Desdemona was brought up by a black woman, who died - and that this makes sense of her attraction to Othello. In the play, Desdemona and Barbary meet in the world of the dead, and begin a process of negotiation, of working through histories and difficulties, of searching for common language. The end hints at some kind of reconciliation, without stating it in naive or evangelical terms.
There's a sentence in the text that really struck me very powerfully. I'm writing it down from memory, so it may not be totally accurate - but it's close enough for you to see how clearly this tells us where we are:
"If we have not achieved
the passionate peace
that we desire,
it is because we have not
Sunday, October 23, 2011
This is not an easy piece of theatre to write about: but the best theatre rarely is. When theatre is most powerful, effective and meaningful, it's because it is doing something that could not be done in any other way. It is communicating something very pure through the presence of the live performance.
Red, Black and GREEN: a Blues, which I saw last night at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Arts Centre, is a performance which fuses narrative and poetry, character, dance, video, music, hip-hop, blues, and a sculptural set in many ways more akin to museum than theatre. For the first half hour, the audience walks around the set, which starts off looking like a contained house (or shack), and slowly splits into four separate spaces. There are also four performers (the creative artist himself, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the set designer who also sings the blues, a musician and a wonderful actress-dancer-singer called Traci Tolmaire), four seasons around which the piece is structured, and four locations, of which more anon. The performers are very active during this first section, including a speech by the sculptor-singer Theaster Gates (some of which is in the video here), which amounts to an artistic manifesto for the whole project. The next hour has the audience seated, and uses the range of art-forms to tell a series of related stories which have arisen from the lengthy process of the piece's development - in Oakland, Houston, Chicago and New York.
In each case, the company has gone into the community, and especially the black community. Marc has engaged with these communities through his eco-arts festivals (remind you of anything?), and has asked questions around what sustainability actually means in these poorer neighbourhoods. The relationship between the green movement and black politics is explored and problematised - especially in relation to the construction of Africa as an unspoilt green space. Marc talks about meeting a Sudanese woman who lost her son in the war there. He also talks about his own visit to the Sudan. In the week of Gaddafi's death and the accompanying awareness of a new colonialism on the African continent, this was salutary stuff.
I could go on and on about this piece, and about its significance beyond the moment of performance itself. It reminds me of Ngapartji Ngapartji in the way it brings the community engagement very directly into performance, and allows the performance to operate in a very direct dialogue with community. It practices what it preaches (the set is made of re-cycled materials, and much of the power is from solar batteries). It is art which envisions a better future. Which is what art is for.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
One of the great things about being in San Francisco is the wealth of good food - and last night David Fielding and I sampled the best of the lot - the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Alice Waters (pictured) set this place up back in the 70s, and now it's so famous that you have to reserve your table a month ahead. I first heard about Alice and the restaurant from Peter Sellars, who brought her over to Vienna as part of his New Crowned Hope Festival there. Our waiter last night turned out to know Peter very well - he eats at Chez Panisse whenever he's in the Bay Area (which I guess will include next week). Some of the ideas which Alice brought to that Festival have been very influential on the way we've integrated food and ideas about food into the Origins Festival, particularly with Joy Fenikowski's fantastic Māori food at our opening event.
One of the most crucial aspects of Chez Panisse is the politics of its food. Everything is locally sourced, everything is sustainably grown, everything is organic, everything is fresh. In fact, I could not believe just how fresh my zucchini salad starter tasted. Or how tender the roast lamb was: the menu pointed out the nearby ranch where it was farmed. This approach to food has always been the way with indigenous peoples, and so has the time taken to eat the meal and its central role in social exchange. You feel that in the restaurant too. Chez Panisse is right at the centre of the worldwide Slow Food Movement, and I would like Border Crossings to be there too.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I've been in the US for the last ten days, directing Xerxes for San Francisco Opera. It's very striking how, ten years after the event, the country is still so dominated by the events of 9/11. At the recent talk I did for Central with Geoff Colman and Maya Zbib, we talked about how the arts take time to absorb and respond to major historical events - Geoff said it was about a decade before the German theatre engaged with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Maybe it's the same here - 2011 is the moment when America takes stock of its moment of trauma.
The responses are very varied, though. I've encountered two since I've been here. The first was the opera company's production Heart of a Soldier (pictured). This is a huge new opera, which is clearly attempting to construct itself as the great piece of the moment, and is also trying to engage directly with politics. It's the life story of Rick Rescorla, a soldier in the US army (though originally English), who became a security manager at the World Trade Centre, and died in the attacks. The piece is very much about the "ordinary hero" and his sacrifice - the problem with it is that there's no sense of the context in which his heroics take place. He serves in Zimbabwe and Vietnam, but there are no African or Asian characters on the stage, and the wars all seem to blend into one. There is a Muslim character (Rick's best friend Dan Hill became a Muslim, and there is a strong moment when Islamic music portrays the religion as a real calling for him) - but even so Islam features only as an ideology of the Other (and seems to have very little effect on Dan, who you would think might have been very disturbed by his best friend being killed by his co-religionists). There is no sense of why anybody, Muslim or otherwise, might wish to attack America; and so the audience is invited to unite in mourning, rather than look for solutions. Perhaps the very public and emotive form of American opera is incapable of a more nuanced response, at least at this distance - we're still waiting for an American company to be brave enough to stage The Death of Klinghoffer in the 21st century. As the performance began, the audience stood to sing the Stars and Stripes, as a vast projected flag fluttered on the front-cloth.
By way of contrast, I've just finished reading Amy Waldman's remarkable novel The Submission. Unlike the opera, the novel does not focus on a victim, and so avoids sentimentality. Rather, it looks at the complex question of how the survivors should best deal with the events, and with the process of mourning. It asks how America can best re-define itself in the light of the attacks and their aftermath. It also manages to do this without launching any diatribes against Bush's foreign policy. The basic premise, that the architect of the winning entry in a competition to design a memorial for the victims turns out to be a Muslim, is of course counter-factual (the real architect is a London born Israeli-American, which leads to intriguing speculation in itself - why did this not lead to any controversy of the kind unleashed in the novel?). Waldman's premise allows her to take in a wide cross-section of American society, including the crucial figure of a Muslim widow, an illegal immigrant, whose husband was a cleaner in the Towers. It's a subtle, sophisticated piece of work, which challenges America to make sense of its own multiculturalism, and to redefine its global role in the light of the need for intercultural dialogue.
Sunday, October 02, 2011
This is the team in the office, including Aike and Zeynep, our two interns. Zeynep, from Turkey, finished her internship this week, and here's what she had to say about it:
"I arrived in London for my internship in the middle of the Origins Festival. So I took my part in it. I have seen how things work in such a big event. I had a chance to meet a lot of indigenous artists and see their work, and they were amazing. But the most important thing I learned during the festival is that it is actually possible to help indigenous cultures to present themselves to other cultures without being 'authentic' or 'nostalgic'. I have seen how indigenous cultures live and how they are affected by other cultures; which made me realise that cultures which are not 'modernised' or 'globalised' are the ones closest to human spirit. It was so intimate that I felt like I will be able to see the ropes connecting us with the nature if it kept going. Fortunately, Border Crossings is not doing this like a hobby; there will be Origins Festivals every two years.
Although Michael Walling is the heart of the company, he is aware of the vital importance of collaborative work and will make you realise it. So I found my internship period quite productive because I was in an environment where my opinions and thoughts were valued and respected.
During my time in the office, I have learned about publicity, fundraising and mechanics of a non-profit theatre company. I get the chance to have many conversations with a wise and committed artistic director, Michael Walling, about his work and theatre making. I learned many things about playwright dramaturgy, play development and dramaturgical researching from an inspiring associate director Carissa Hope Lynch.
I had many opportunities to see different artistic venues and communities in London. I attended many talks, openings and workshops with Michael Walling’s guidance. I watched more than thirty plays in three months, thanks to recommendations and help for finding affordable tickets.
One of my primary aims was to see devising process of a play. But my internship period ended before Border Crossings started devising. Nevertheless, I have been given the chance to work with other companies like MeWe and I observed several rehearsals.
All in all, I spent three months in London full of art and inspiration thanks to Border Crossings. I am going back to my country with my hands full of knowledge and new ideas."
Monday, September 26, 2011
debbie tucker green's new play at the Royal Court is a brilliant piece of work. I've always liked her writing - stoning mary was another beautiful play - but this time she combines her characteristic poetic language and provocative stance with an amazing manipulation of space which makes the play speak with great immediacy. When you first enter the room, the audience chairs are distributed around the playing area (theatre-in-the-round, basically). You have to choose where to sit with care. A lot of the chairs have reserved notices on them - often saying things like "Victim's Family" or "Witnesses" - which lead you to believe they will be used in the performance, although in fact many are not. Every chair has the name of a victim from a recent conflict carved onto the seat. The chair I sat on had the name and dates of a little girl from Bosnia, killed in her first decade. It was, to say the least, discomforting. On Friday night, there were also surtitles for the hard of hearing, so another factor around justice and its relationship to where you sit came into play.
What was so exciting about all of this was how it blended into the performance itself. The first line referred to the hardness of the chairs for the families coming to a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The mother of a victim felt unable to sit in the room while she waited for the perpetrators. How people sat in relation to one another, how this reflects power structures and power struggles, became integral to the performance. There's been much talk of the theatricality of such events - and now the links were made explicit, implicating us as an audience in the reality of the political and moral crises under exploration.
Only two characters ever got to sit in the centre of the stage - and they were both ghosts. A Rwandan man and the South African child whose mother refused to take a chair. They were evoked to speak to those who had killed them, those whom they haunted, those who knew exactly how they died. But, even at the centre of the stage, they could not speak directly to those they had left behind and who were desperate for knowledge of them.
Friday, September 23, 2011
I thought this film was wonderful. I came out of it feeling that the world had changed. People walking at night looked suddenly sinister, seething with subtext. Getting into the car to drive home seemed full of meaning and menace. The film had generated an atmosphere and I was still living in it - a real object lesson in dramatic art.
The Alec Guinness TV series was hugely influential on me in my teens, and I really didn't expect a two-hour adaptation to be comparable. Actually - in some ways it's better. Gary Oldman's performance as Smiley is astonishing - he is as mild-mannered and unassuming as Guinness, but he is also bitter, edgy and deeply disturbed. In one fantastic (and very theatrical) scene he is quite drunk (Guinness's Smiley would never have been drunk), and re-lives his one meeting with his great adversary Karla, using an empty chair to stand in as the other man. When the camera then takes Karla's viewpoint, the effect is totally chilling.
As with any film version of a complex book, there are losses. The mole is unmasked very near the end of the film, and Smiley's interrogation of him, which is the core of the novel and was brilliant in the TV version, is very brief here. Some of the great lines about the mole's loathing of America and Britain's role as "America's whipping boy" are sadly missed - I remember Ian Richardson delivering these with great elegance. But TV is more novelistic than film - and this film does what it needs to do with great elegance and power.
Whenever I see something really good, I try to learn from it. The next show is going to be about intensity and claustrophobia: I knew that anyway. Now I've maybe got a bit more idea how to go about it.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Ramin asked us to join him for a drink - which turned out to be ATC's fundraising gala. He's laying lots of stress on international work with the company, as his speech / fundraising pitch made very clear. But it's not in competition with us in any way - Ramin's approach is collaborative, but it's also very clearly writer-led, and it's not cross-cultural in the way our processes are. I think we probably need to work quite carefully to define ourselves more precisely, so that people know what we do and why we are different.
Chat to Nick Williams, who used to be our ACE officer, and is now Executive Director at ATC. He fills me in on the current situation with booking tours. And I also get to chat with Maria Delgado, who is Chair of the company, and whose interests overlap with mine all over the place! I'd been reading her notes in the London Film Festival programme, and feeling annoyed that I'm going to be away for the whole of October. Maria says it's a particularly strong programme this year.
Monday, September 12, 2011
In spite of being nearly 20 years old, the production feels incredibly contemporary and immediate. I loved the combination of puppet performance (often with the puppeteers thrillingly visible, their intense concentration a model to us all), with scratchy charcoal animation and equally scratchy music. You could see exactly how everything was done, and that made it all the more magical. Magic in the theatre happens when the audience does know how something is achieved. You don't need high-tech: you just need concentration and integrity.
Friday, September 09, 2011
I was at Riverside Studios last night for the opening of Slave - A Question of Freedom: the play that won the first Pete Postlethwaite Award in Manchester earlier this year. It was an extraordinary night - and not just because of what was happening on stage....
The play re-tells the life story of Mende Nazar, who was born in Nuba, and was taken into slavery at the age of 12, during the Sudanese Civil War. This was 1994. She was trafficked to the UK, and finally escaped slavery in 2000. It took several more years before she was granted refugee status: apparently "slavery is not persecution" in the eyes of the Home Office.
The play is engaging enough, especially after Mende's arrival in London, although the captors are constantly portrayed as melodramatic villains (there's even some wild laughter about rape), and Mende's childhood is portrayed as a rural idyll, which seems odd given that she is now trying to raise funds for a school and supplies of clean water. The morality seemed too simple: we all know that slavery is appalling, so how on earth can it still be happening, right here, right now? The central question was left unanswered.
But none of this mattered, given that Mende herself was in the audience, and sitting quite near to me. I could hear her crying at the accounts of rape and brutality. At the end, she was brought onto the stage, to a standing ovation, and made an emotional speech of thanks to the company. And then she said: "If I can make a difference, so can all of you". Which is true. She had absolutely nothing, and now is a celebrated campaigner. So people who have something have the responsibility that goes with it.
Oh yes - the director's father collapsed just before the interval and had to be taken to hospital. Apparently he was OK - but it was another moment of emotion and spectacle...
Thursday, September 01, 2011
I was at Central this afternoon, doing a panel discussion on "Narratives without Borders". Geoff Colman had asked me to speak alongside himself and Maya Zbib from Zoukak Theatre Company in Beirut, as part of the Haymarket's Masterclass series. It turned out that Maya is in London as part of her involvement with the Rolex mentor scheme, and her mentor is none other than Peter Sellars. So - much in common from the start. The discussion was fascinating, as much as anything because our positions on so many things seemed to be so similar, even though we were starting from such different places - both geographically and culturally. Zoukak is a collective in the fullest sense - there is no single director, and every project is evolved collectively. Border Crossings does have a director (me) and doesn't have a permanent ensemble - but the company's core methodology, bringing together artists from wildly differing cultural backgrounds and theatrical styles, necessitates a collective approach.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Bank Holiday Monday saw me making a trip down to Cheltenham - to the racecourse, in fact - for the Greenbelt Festival, where I'd been asked to give a talk after a screening of Our Generation. It was one of the most important films we screened in Origins - a documentary about the Howard Intervention in the Northern Territory, which was Critics' Choice in Time Out, and which fires up audiences, turning them into instant activists!
I was a bit dubious about Greenbelt, given that it is vast, open air, summery and Christian - a combination which suggested I was in for a lot of happy-clappy evangelical bigotry. In fact, my prejudice could not have been further from the truth. The festival combines an intelligent and broad-minded approach to faith with a real concern for social, economic and political justice (Palestine featuring particularly strongly around the various tents), and a very positive ecological agenda. The talk after the film lasted for more than an hour, with an audience who were deeply concerned and committed to the ideas we were dealing with. It was only after the formal end of the debate that I was asked, very politely, whether I was a Christian myself. I suspect the questioner actually wanted to know if I had ideas about involving churches etc. - he certainly wasn't out to save my soul!
The political film programme at Greenbelt is organised by Tipping Point, run by a fascinating and energetic woman called Deborah Burton. I suspect there is going to be an ongoing partnership here: Tipping Point do monthly screenings of politically conscious films with talks at the Lexi. That's something we would definitely support....
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
The response from Westminster has, perhaps inevitably, been short-termist and short-sighted. Art takes the long view. I had an email this morning from Jonathan Chadwick, who is a very thoughtful director, also very interested in interculturalism, asking if a space might be created in which theatre-makers and the like could consider ways of responding. That sort of space is very needed right now - there has to be consideration and a long-term strategy for an enormous project: there is a whole culture to be achieved.
In Saturday's Guardian there was a letter from a Venezualan man, pointing out the way in which El Sistema has been instrumental in diffusing the culture of violence there. It sounds crazy - teach kids to appreciate beauty, to love music, to perform, and there will be peace on the streets - but it is actually true. Our work is urgent and central at the current moment.
Saturday, August 06, 2011
There are three exhibitions here at the moment which won't be around come October, and I've managed to take them all in. The Asian Art Museum, which is a complete treasure-house on all sorts of levels, has an exhibition about Bali, much of which is about performance as something integral to the way of life. There are the famous shadow and rod puppets, of course - but there's also material about the dances of the Barong masks, and the performative rituals associated with cremations.
At the Modern Art Museum, there's a fantastic exhibition of the paintings collected by the Stein family (Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah) in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. I'd read a lot about this in the John Richardson biography of Picasso - wonderful to see so many of the original paintings gathered together. In particular, there are Picasso's first forays into mask-like portraiture, including a surprisingly tiny self-portrait, and the incredible portrait of Gertrude Stein herself. The exhibition also has loads of Matisse, purchased mainly by Michael and Sarah, as well as the revolutionary Woman with a Hat, which still feels radical and wildly colourful when you encounter it in the raw. One of the curators has written a piece suggesting that these radical movements in painting took place in "tranquil times" in comparison to the turbulent 21st century..... what about Guernica? Still - it's interesting that he suggests the abandonment of the representational allowed artists to think of the painting as an object in its own right, operating in the world by virtue of its presence.
The third exhibition is the smallest, but for me the most relevant and specific. It's a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Angels in America, called More Life! It has costumes, props, videos and photos, Tony Kushner's desk.... and, fascinatingly, his original notebooks. The layout is very instructive. He writes down ideas as if they are lines of dialogue, without allocating them to characters or situations. And yet they form a sort of conversation. This is how his work is so brilliantly dramatic, so totally dialectical - he's constantly having a dialogue with himself.
And there was an image of Nancy Crane, playing the Angel. Our old friend, here on the walls of San Francisco.
Thursday, August 04, 2011
We got through our cue-to-cue by lunchtime today, so I was able to spend some time exploring. I went up to the San Francisco Art Institute, which is an art school but also happens to contain an original Diego Rivera mural - the first one I've ever seen in situ. It is totally incredible. As expected. The bonus was an exhibition of contemporary work, called East Meets West. Most of this is rather ordinary, but there is one stunning piece of work by an artist called Amie Siegel - called Black Moon. It's partly an hommage to Louis Malle, but it's also a fascinating use of film in the gallery setting, projected in such a way that you feel very much involved in the post-apocalyptic narrative, alone in a dark room with a screen that covers an entire wall.
On to the legendary City Lights bookstore - where I am able to buy a signed copy of Winona LaDuke's book All Our Relations, plus some other indigenous materials from the vast stock on display - and (of course) a copy of Howl. Well, you can't leave San Francisco without a copy of Howl, can you?
Monday, August 01, 2011
I flew out to San Francisco yesterday. Nothing to do with Border Crossings - though as so often with freelance work there are lots of possibilities in the trip - but to re-work Xerxes again. It's essentially the same show I did in Houston last year, with very few cast changes, so in theory it should be quite an easy job. In theory. I spent the morning watching the video of the Houston production and having a rush of "Oh - is that what we did? How are we going to get something that complex back in a very short time?" The system here is very odd: we don't actually rehearse till October, but we're doing much of the technical work now, a long way ahead of rehearsal proper. I just hope it doesn't mean we can't change any staging because of where the lights are.... luckily this is quite a bright show, so we ought to be OK!
The city is very different from other parts of America. I had a lousy introduction to it last night when I stumbled jet-lagged into the Tenderloin district, and found myself surrounded by homeless people pushing shopping trolleys containing all their worldly goods, and drug addicts in incoherent rages. It was deeply depressing. Today I discovered that this is not typical, and that San Francisco is rather an attractive place! I picked a museum at random, and went to the Museum of the African Diaspora. I'm not sure it's a museum in the conventional sense - there are no artifacts to speak of - it's more of an historical centre, with displays exploring slavery, the Haitian revolt, Mandela, African music and food, plus an archive where people can type in their own family histories. There's also a wonderful temporary exhibition of Siddi quilt-making. The Siddi are people of African ancestry living in India as a result of the Indian Ocean slave trade and similar - I knew a bit about them already because Rustom talks about his work with the Siddi of Karnathaka in our Theatre and Slavery book. I'd not seen pictures before, though, and I'd certainly not seen the lovely vibrant quilts which the women make. The exhibition is linked to an initiative to help them make some money for the community out of this craft. Here's the link:
Monday, July 25, 2011
Much of the controversy concerns the film's Christian content. And it is Christian, no doubt about it. Christianity has had a bit of a bad press recently, thanks to the lunatics on the American Evangelical right and the bigots who've been elected at the last two Papal elections - but there is actually still a profound and important theologically capable and intellectually credible element in Christianity, of which the current Archbishop of Canterbury is a part. It's the faith in which I grew up, and to which I remain attracted, even loyal. So to see it explored in a film which doesn't reduce morality to simple binaries is a great pleasure.
What's more, Malick's film brings a spiritual awareness to contemporary living in surprising, unsettling ways. The central character, looking back from a middle-aged perspective on his childhood, does not overcome the past through time and contemplation, but rather becomes all the more acutely aware of its immediacy, the weight it places upon him, as he contrasts his own insignificance with the scale of the cosmos and the workings of history. Context on the grandest scale meets psychological realism. It's very easy for us to avoid the spiritual in our contemporary lives, but if we do so in art then we are actually denying what validates it. That's why I like to work with non-western traditions, where the spiritual is still explicit in performance, and with music, which simply wouldn't exist without the spiritual dimension. And bravo to Terrence Malick for attempting such a challenge in the most westernised and realism-bound medium of them all.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
It was quite an intense time - talking for nearly three hours on Friday afternoon, then screening a video interview I did with Dev Virahsawmy in the evening (with Q&A), and a long seminar on the Saturday. Still - it was a lot of fun and great to be surrounded by people who really want to know all about this work. There was an unexpected bonus in that I turned out to be a double-act with Farrukh Dhondy - a very interesting writer. Farrukh had been working with the MA students on possible creative, post-colonial responses to The Tempest - and he also talked very entertainingly about CLR James (who lived in his house for four years) and VS Naipaul. What they said about one another is not printable....
I get home to discover Farrukh has emailed me a play. Oddly, it's about the myth of Karna - a subject we had wondered about before. It's already been very well received in India....
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Very interesting to stumble across some work by Francoise Lionnet, the Mauritian scholar now working at UCLA, to whom Toufann is dedicated (along with Shakespeare). In her book Minor Transnationalism, she looks at the play, and indeed at our production. I find it a bit odd that she analyses the effects of that production, and the meaning generated by presenting the play in a London context, seeing as she wasn't actually there..... I also think it's a bit disingenuous of her to say that I'm wrong to regard the use of the Hindi word "toufann" to convey "storm" as harking back to an Indian past, on the grounds that Dev is from the Tamil community, not the Hindu, and that he's interested in present and future, not past. It wasn't Dev I was talking about - it was his central character Prospero, who quite clearly names his tempest "toufann", even though it's not a common Creole word (or wasn't in 1991 when the play was written), and who obviously IS interested in the past. The play critiques Prospero and his standpoint, and that's where Dev's radicalism comes out.
Where she does say something very interesting, however, is in relation to the Creole phrase "tou fann", which I had not heard being linked to the title before, but clearly is. "Tou" means "all", and "fann" means "wilts" or "decays". So the title might mean not only "tempest" but also "Things Fall Apart" - evoking Yeats and Achebe to engage in a post-colonial battle alongside Shakespeare. And (though this is not in Lionnet) the Labour Party of Iran, which is also known as "toufan".
Things fall apart. There is a storm.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Then there was the talking circle. It's an incredibly simple idea, which is followed in the tribal councils of North America, and which has a lot to teach us about real democracy. You all sit in a circle, and pass around the talking stick - or eagle feather. Whoever is holding the stick speaks. You can say as much or as little as you want - or just pass it on - and whoever is speaking is not interrupted but is listened to with respect. It's definitely the best approach to "Evaluation" I've ever experienced. It's totally equal, it's very open, and it lets the emotional into the public space.
I won't tell you what was said. Just that it was very moving, and that this Festival has clearly touched people far more deeply than I ever dared to imagine.
Friday, July 08, 2011
I thought I should post some of the audience responses to Walking on Turtle Island, because they have been so positive, and it really is a very important piece of work. So - here we go:
Thursday, July 07, 2011
This is theatre which gives an alternative history - the native view of what has happened on Turtle Island (North America) from the European invasion to the present day. There are scenes which deal with the first contact, scenes around transplantation, scenes about the reservations, scenes set around contemporary alcohol abuse and custody. So yes, it's a human rights show. But it's so far from being "worthy" - because the whole performance is suffused with Robert's characteristic native wit and humour. In spite of the subject matter, his energy and sheer talent makes it feel light and buoyant - the audience is constantly surprised, excited and thrilled by the virtuosity and human generosity of the whole thing.
Two more performances tonight and tomorrow. Don't miss it.
Wednesday, July 06, 2011
An amazing thing happened at Music in the Yard on Monday. The Lani Singers, our West Papuan performers, were playing on the open air stage at the Guildhall Yard in the City of London. On the other side of the Yard, separated from us by crash barriers, a man was putting out a red carpet. Then the limos swept in, and out got hoards of black-tied bankers and women in cocktail dresses. It was clearly a very posh banquet indeed. Meanwhile, Benny Wenda was speaking and singing about the illegal occupation of his country, and the way in which the Indonesian colonisation is upheld by US foreign policy, as a result of their commercial interests. And then the guest of honour showed up - Condoleeza Rice herself, fresh from unveiling a statue of Reagan.
Monday, July 04, 2011
I'd meant to blog daily through the Origins Festival. Fat chance. It's been the craziest, most exciting week for a very long time. Perhaps the craziest week in the company's entire history. No - that was Mexico in 2001... but we're close.
Noel Tovey's Little Black Bastard was the first week's theatre show, and it's got great reviews and responses across the web. Noel flies back to Australia this evening - hopefully with a sense of the job being really well done! He's shared his extraordinary life story with people hanging on every word.
The film festival kicked off on Saturday with a great screening of Our Generation, followed by discussions with Julian Burger and John Packer from the Human Rights Centre at Essex University. Tonight we move on to Inuit films, having taken in the Sahara along the way!
The main theme of the weekend has been music, with the Origins Concert on Saturday night and the Family Day on Hampstead Heath yesterday. The Heath event began with a Maori powhiri, or welcoming ceremony, led by Ngati Ranana, to welcome the First Nations people to London in an appropriate way. It was wonderful to do this in the very week that Sydney acknowledged the colonisation of Australia to have been an invasion. Somehow it felt as if we were a part of a real spirit of truth and reconciliation - and the amazing atmosphere at both events seemed to confirm that.
We've also been able to bring young people into the festival spirit in other ways - our education project had a really big moment on Friday when we had hundreds of schoolchildren parading through the City with model wakas, and dancing the haka on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral. Wild.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
The Festival opened on Tuesday with an incredible night at Rich Mix. Traditional blessings from Gloria Alcozer and Toi Maori (even though the latter had only just got off their 22 hour flight!), amazing Polynesian food from Joylene Fenikowski, a great series of talks and films - all punctuated with the haunting music of Kelvin Mockingbird.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Noel Tovey arrived a week ago: when you're in your 70s it takes a bit longer to get through the jet-lag. Otherwise people have been pouring in over the last couple of days, from the States, Canada, New Zealand, the Pacific. I'm especially excited to see Kelvin Mockingbird (pictured) again - after the incredible experience of working with him at Tahoe in 2008, and finally to meet one of the heroines of the indigenous stage, Marie Clements (pictured).
The publicity is really building too - New Internationalist have posted a piece I wrote, and the Twittersphere is buzzing.... there was a plug in the Guardian Guide, and Chuquai and I did Inspirit on Radio London on Sunday! (If you want to listen, we're 2 hours 40 into the programme)!
See you at Rich Mix during the next couple of weeks.....
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Lance, Shelagh and I were at a reception at New Zealand House last night. It brought home the fact that Origins is coming along rather soon!
Rosanna Raymond, who will be our commissioned visual artist for Rich Mix, was there, as was Jo Walsh from October Gallery, where the Current exhibition opens tomorrow. There were people from our partners at City of London Festival, and a performance by the London Maori, Ngati Ranana.
The Maori performance sat strangely in the penthouse of the High Commission. I was chatting to some of the artists afterwards, and they said that the energy of kapa-haka depends very much on a connection with the earth. And there we were on the 17th floor, staring out over serious London greyness. Hopefully by July 3rd the weather will be glorious and we can all enjoy Maori ceremony and performance in the open air on Hampstead Heath!
I met Noel Tovey at the airport on Sunday morning. What a remarkable man. He lived in London for 30 years, not really acknowledging his Aboriginality, but slowly came to a realisation of the importance of his identity, which took him back to Australia, back to his own people, and into a new life of arts for social good, including scholarships for young Aboriginal performers and work with Aboriginal young offenders. His production of Midsummer Night's Dream for the Dreaming Festival is legendary. It's a great privilege to collaborate with him as he returns to London to tell his life-story. He tells me that it was something he had to do. Part of a homecoming process that works in both directions.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Vladimir had some very heartening things to say. In particular, he talked about some theatre he had seen in his native Slovakia, which engaged with the Roma community, and with the huge local prejudice against them. "Twenty minutes of theatre", he said, "has a life-long impact. This is the way to change perceptions profoundly and to involve people actively in intercultural dialogue." I wrote it down so that I can quote it everywhere!
I was also very impressed by a man called Ahmed Ahkim, who runs an organisation for Roma and traveller people in Belgium. Ahmed talked about the importance of imagination in overcoming prejudice: when people look at a traveller, they imagine them to be something. We need engineers of the imagination to suggest other possibilities. "In order to establish cultural dialogue you have to dream - and artists are the professional dreamers." I wrote this one down because it's true.
I sang for my supper in the morning, reporting back to the Platform on the Practice Exchange we hosted late last year. The report on the website is so exhaustive that I didn't have to go through everything that happened, but was able instead to talk about some of the key issues which emerged. The crucial one, which led to lots of discussion yesterday, was whether we could find a common language between people working in cross-cultural dialogue (be that in the arts, education or advocacy) and the politicians who increasingly conceived of "value" not in moral or cultural terms, but solely as something quantifiable and monetary.
The afternoon session was brilliantly done, with a series of discussions at tables around projects which members were developing in their own countries. I talked to an Italian trade unionist about his work to help Somali refugees into the labour market, a Jewish woman from Belgium about work with religious groups on gender and sexual orientation, and a woman from Cyprus who was doing cross-cultural theatre work in primary schools. There's clearly huge potential for future collaborations in this network.