Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Year Ending

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT:
Tony Guilfoyle, David Furlong, Tobi King Bakare

2020 was Border Crossings' 25th anniversary year. It would be fair to say that this didn't really make as big a splash as we might have wished - although there was a nod to it in Centre Stage and there will be a very full article looking back over the company's work in New Theatre Quarterly next year, so our landmark won't be passing entirely unnoticed through the fog of Covid. As the year ends, it's also worth remembering that our devised play THE GREAT EXPERIMENT was actually produced in 2020: we rehearsed in January and performed throughout February, our tour ending just before theatre came to such a drastic stop. It was a landmark production for us, representing several years of development, and we were very lucky that we were able to present it just in time. It had been a difficult piece to place in venues - many of whom had thought it too "niche" or obscure - who would want to see a play about the indentured labour migrations to Mauritius? We were therefore doubly delighted to see our theatres and museum venues packed out night after night, particularly with people from the Mauritian and Guyanese communities, and to see those same communities engaging in post-show discussions and in our Collection Day at the National Maritime Museum. This wasn't just a skin-deep engagement, either. The play was complex, many-layered and politically provocative, plunging into the controversies over post-colonial legacies and contemporary inequalities and injustices without offering any simplistic solutions. My greatest pride in the production was that the audiences, many of whom were not regular theatre-goers, went along with this on every level. 2020 was not only about coronavirus: it was also, crucially, the year when the Black Lives Matter movement came to a head. Just a few months before Edward Colston's statue was torn down in Bristol, THE GREAT EXPERIMENT was confronting the way in which slavery and its legacy continue to shape the social and economic structures of the contemporary world. 
 
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT:
Nisha Dassyne, Hannah Douglas, David Furlong

The lockdown came in March, of course, just as Robert Lepage's SEVEN STREAMS OF THE RIVER OTA was playing at the National - the only piece of live theatre I got to see all year. For Border Crossings, as for many theatre companies, the first response to the closure of the theatres was a decision to share online recordings of past productions, so as to maintain links with our audiences, and maybe even find new ones. This season of streamed productions, which ran from April to June, didn't only represent a welcome retrospective: it also allowed us to reflect as an organisation on our work to date, and to think about how we might develop in the aftermath of the Covid crisis. Each streamed production, which was available for a week, was followed by an online discussion, and the recordings of these LOCKDOWN DIALOGUES are still available on our website. They are all valuable - but perhaps the most important of all was the last one, featuring our Patron Peter Sellars and many of the other interlocutors from earlier in the series. Peter's wisdom and optimism offered us a real sense of ways forward in such challenging times.  We also started a podcast, with Alaknanda Samarth recording Artaud's THEATRE AND THE PLAGUE with music by Dave Carey: it's obvious why we chose this piece, and the ripples from its splash are still being felt as far away as India.    

MORE THAN WORDS:
Raffaele Messina

I don't believe that online theatre is going to prove a substitute for live performance. Theatre remains the vital space where we can gather as a community to experience our togetherness, our sense of connection, and also our differences and conflicts, working towards mutual understanding and democratic exchange. Theatre is the epitome of all that has been lost to us through Covid - so when we are able to gather again, it will be at the core of humanity's renewed effort to tell and to understand the stories of our times. That said, the experience of sharing our work online, debating it online and, as the year went on, making it specifically so it could go online has opened up new lines of thinking which can only broaden our reach and enrich our practice. Even within the Lockdown Season, we released a new film online. MORE THAN WORDS had always been planned as a film - it was part of an Erasmus + project to explore different approaches to communication beyond language, including the digital. However, its release at the height of the pandemic in Europe made it seem at once very immediate and forward-looking in its form. In the opening sequence, Raffaele Messina's Clown wanders the empty streets of an ancient town. We had thought of him as a survivor of war, migrating into an alienating urban Europe - but in the context of 2020, he also seemed to emerge from our own immediate crisis, and to challenge by his silent present the ways of living that facilitated the spread of the virus. 

MAGNETIC NORTH:
Hivshu

These ideas acquired a still sharper focus in a collaboration with the British Museum, responding to their extraordinary exhibition about the Indigenous cultures of the Arctic. The original plan had been for us to produce an evening of performances at the Museum, on the lines of our ORIGINS event for the Indigenous Australia exhibition in 2015. That was to have been in the summer. The exhibition finally opened in October - and then closed again. At the same time, we were constantly re-working the event to take into account the restrictions on travel for the artists, and the limited numbers of people who could attend any live presentation. For a time, we aimed to centre the performance on live music, with the S├ími band VASSVIK providing a constant accompaniment to performers streamed in from around the Arctic Circle, as well as live mask dance in the exhibition, and the whole streamed out to the audience. When even that basic element of liveness was ruled out by further travel restrictions and the Museum's second closure, we re-worked the show again, so that the music, mask dance and ceremony were all pre-recorded in the performers' own localities. What I found particularly exciting about this process was that, while it was at times very challenging and quite scary, it offered a route towards a streamed event that would not have been so incredibly intense and moving had it been planned as a film from the beginning. MAGNETIC NORTH (which you can watch on our site) has been acclaimed as "a profound filmic introspection addressing climate change", "an eloquent cry for what we should value in our lives", and "a must watch for any environmental activist, scientist or dare I say it, ordinary person of the people, who needs to be reminded of who and what we’re fighting for." Much of this is down to the interplay between the direct address to the audience of Taqralik Partridge, Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, Ishmael Angaluuk Hope and Hivshu, and the location of their cultures in the Arctic landscape by cinematographers Kiliii Yuyan and Hans-Olof Utsi. It's also to do with the way the filmed materials and VASSVIK's music allowed the debate between climate activists Caitlyn Baikie and Mya-Rose Craig to acquire a grandeur, a spiritual resonance, a theatricality that took it way beyond "panel discussion". For a company that locates its theatre in the immediacy of the political moment, there is an important lesson here.

I AM EUROPE:
Rebecca Unsworth-Webb

MAGNETIC NORTH premiered on December 3rd, but it wasn't quite our last event in a year that had also included our first debates around our new Irish sister company, participation in a panel on Indigenous programming for the Edinburgh Fringe, and a fitful but fruitful series of workshops (at first in person, but then largely online) for our young refugee group, the Border Crossers. During the latter part of the year, Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi and I also worked with a hugely talented and committed group of final year students of European Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford College, exploring a theme I've been drawn to for some time - the founding myth of Europe, our continent named after a Middle Eastern woman who was carried off by Zeus in the form of a bull. The same thing happened: the government announced that all students had to leave for home by December 9th, and so our planned performances in a socially distanced auditorium had to be hastily re-imagined for an online presentation. We filmed a lot of it in the theatre space. We filmed some of it elsewhere on or around the campus. We did some scenes on Zoom after the students had gone home. Some of them made their own video sequences around their own localities. We shot the closing scenes on location, on a beach in Essex, observing Covid regulations and getting very cold. If you've read this far, you may be interested to see the resulting piece: it's called I AM EUROPE

I've already said that I don't envisage a wholesale shift online, either for our work in particular or for theatre in general. But it would be reckless to imagine a simple return to the form we had before, and foolish not to learn from the significant gains these experiments have proffered.  As we enter 2020, Border Crossings seems well placed to capitalise on the learning we've acquired in this extraordinary, and in many ways tragic year. We were lucky enough to receive a Culture Recovery grant from the Arts Council, a significant portion of which will allow us to purchase technical equipment and build capacity for online streaming. This may mean that we do more international collaborations in a virtual way, like MAGNETIC NORTH.  I'm sure it will mean that we host a lot of our debates and exchanges online. More excitingly still, it may enable us to push the bounds of live performance as an intercultural and international form, bringing together physically present and streamed performers and audiences across the world. Watch this space. And, until then, a Healthy and Happy New Year to you all.

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