Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Election Eve

Caught on camera: Noor Alhuda Hajali and Keir Starmer

For anyone who happens to have missed it, tomorrow is Election Day in the UK. It's the culmination of what has been a very predictable and frankly dull campaign, sparked by the Prime Minister's "surprise" announcement six weeks ago: an announcement that seems to have been motivated as much as anything by fatigue. Sunak and the Tories knew that the game was up, and didn't have the energy to carry on. On the radio this morning a Cabinet Minister acknowledged that Labour was about to win a landslide, and in the Telegraph a former Home Secretary fired a starting pistol for the Conservative leadership race that will inevitably follow their defeat. 

"Change" has been Starmer's buzz word throughout the campaign, but it isn't very easy to ascertain precisely what this much-heralded change will actually be. He says he has changed his party, and that much is certainly true. Labour is now a small-c conservative party. Its main priority, he tells us, is the creation of wealth. He has dropped the Green Investment Plan that had seemed to offer some ecological slant to policy. He has back-pedalled on the abolition of University tuition fees. He has also abandoned the entire (Corbynist) manifesto on which he stood to be Labour leader. He has purged the party of dissenting voices, following the example of Boris Johnson's withdrawal of the whip from all Remainer Conservative MPs before the 2019 election. He has supported Israel's genocidal attacks on the Palestinian Territories. He makes "tough" noises about immigration. When asked if he was a socialist, he replied that he was one because he "always puts the country first and party second." I had always thought socialism had something to do with the common ownership of the means of production. So in truth there is remarkably little policy difference between the two main parties in tomorrow's election. Both say they want to "grow the economy" with no acknowledgement of the environmental devastation and global injustice that involves. Both say they will not increase taxes, although at the same time they want to cut NHS waiting lists, recruit more police and more teachers etc.. Both want to "stop the boats". Labour's opposition has not been based on differences in policy but criticism of execution and management. Our "democratic choice" is reduced to whether we prefer corrupt people who line their mates' pockets and turn Downing Street into an illegal driving den, or a dull and conventional team of management consultants. What they are actually attempting to achieve, however, is identical. And it shows no vision whatsoever.

Of course, in some ways this is reassuring at a moment when politicians who undoubtedly have a vision of sorts, the populist parties of the radical right, are making such headway elsewhere. The European elections were shocking, and the consequences of Emmanuel Macron's petulant response are likely to be even worse. Ireland may also see a snap election, called opportunistically because Sinn Féin has lost popularity over (you've guessed it) immigration. Indian friends have been relieved that Modi and the BJP no longer have an overall majority, but the murderous and deluded messiah of Hindutva remains in power. Never mind what looks almost certain to happen in America in November. 2024 is the year when nearly half the world goes to the polls, but that does not make it a year in which we can celebrate democracy.  It makes it the moment when we have to question if we even have democracy at all.

Anyone visiting us from 5th century Athens would have no doubt on that score. We do not have democracy, we have elections; and elections, the Athenians believed, are the antithesis of democracy. They are oligarchic, or aristocratic. A wealthy "political class" parades itself before the public to be elected, but that public has no real power or participation. In Aeschylus's Suppliants, which offers the frame for our current project SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, the Chorus of refugees makes the first recorded reference to democracy. As the citizens decide whether to admit them, they ask "What is this thing they call democracy?" Within the play, and within Athenian society, it is a process of debate between the citizenry that leads to a jointly agreed policy decision. An humane decision, as it happens. This approach to democracy was genuinely participatory, as well as being intimately linked to theatre, the space where the different arguments could be rehearsed prior to decision-making processes.

It isn't possible simply to reproduce Athenian democracy today, but it is certainly possible to learn from it, and to modify our own tired and broken system accordingly. The Athenian citizenry numbered about 30 to 40,000 - a body that excluded women, children, slaves and foreigners, so they weren't actually "the people" in any egalitarian way. We can be more inclusive, and still work with similar, manageable numbers, which means that on a local level it is possible to reach sound and informed decisions on the basis of full participation. That in turn can allow for more nuanced forms of representation, whereby power is delegated to representatives at national and international assemblies. 

In the coming years, we want to explore this model of civic engagement in our theatrical spaces, recognising the urgent need for democratic regeneration. SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA represents the beginning of this investigation, and will involve a process of exchange between very different people present at the performance, in the context of listening to the voices of others. Given the context of the current elections, it is only right that our first experiment with this approach to theatre engages with the question of migration. Allowing the voices of the refugees themselves into the theatrical space at once overturns the inanities about "smashing the smugglers' business model". If the politicians really wanted to "stop the boats", then they could just allow the refugees to get on planes. We need to change the culture so that it stops being about short-term personal gain and becomes about what is actually just and equitable. This the antithesis of the soundbite, the refutation of easy sloganeering and reductive advertisement. Who knows - it may even help us start to develop a vision for the world we might want to leave to our children.


I had better include a disclaimer on this post, though the fact that I have to do this is in itself is evidence of the very problem we are trying to address. When the election was called, for the first time ever, the Charity Commission emailed registered charities (including Border Crossings) to remind them of their "responsibilities when campaigning or engaging in political activity."  They were clear that "Charities have the legal right to campaign so long as doing so furthers the charity’s purposes and is in the best interests of the charity. Charities must also remain independent and must not give their support to a political party." I believe this blog post fits these legal criteria. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

Writing for Theatre - Guest Blog by Brian Woolland

The Black Madonna from Brian Woolland's
DOUBLE TONGUE. Painted by Nisha Walling.

Anyone who writes – in whatever medium – knows all too well that feeling of being stuck. Writers’ Block, Blank Page Syndrome, call it what you will. Sometimes it’s not knowing where to start. Sometimes you’ve got a great idea, but then, after the initial enthusiasm, you’re not sure how to develop it. Sometimes the cop in the head whispering, that because the words on the page (or computer screen) don’t read brilliantly, the idea isn’t worth pursuing. Often it’s a case of not knowing what’s at the heart of what you’re writing. It came as something of a relief to find, when I talked about this with other writers, that even the most successful writers experience the same struggles. 

DOUBLE TONGUE was the first play of mine that Border Crossings commissioned. The discussions we had while I was working on the first draft were immensely helpful because director Michael Walling instinctively knew to ask questions about the play as it developed, rather than to make suggestions. He then organised and gently directed a rehearsed reading of an early and rather clunky draft. I knew it didn’t quite work, but couldn’t put my finger on why. The discussion with Michael and the actors during the preparations and rehearsal for the reading, and with the small, invited audience afterwards, raised further questions which I could address in the rewrites, but crucially they also enabled me to understand something in the play I’d not seen before. Writing is usually a solitary business. The great joy of workshopping a script is that it gives other perspectives in a supportive environment, it enables you to identify the key questions that need addressing, and to bounce ideas around. It’s precisely what I find so invigorating about writing for theatre. When it moves from the page to the studio it’s a collaborative creative process. 

And that is what my colleague, Rib Davis, and I wanted to create when we established Write Theatre: an environment which gives writers support and encouragement, and enables them to experience and actively participate in the development of material, to learn from others and to see their own work brought to life by excellent and very experienced professional actors. We set up Write Theatre in 2013. Our first course ran in November of that year. Our aim was to provide a stimulating, supportive and nurturing environment for people who were interested in writing for theatre. Until the pandemic and lockdowns we ran at least two courses a year. Almost everyone who’s attended has talked about how the Write Theatre experience has left them feeling invigorated and able to find their own way through and past their own writing blocks – as evidenced in the numerous unsolicited testimonials people have sent in.  

What we do on the course

The first weekend of a Write Theatre course takes the form of a series of workshops in which Rib and I lead alternate sessions. People work individually and in pairs, undertaking a wide range of writing exercises to explore elements such as: 

  • Generating material and ideas
  • Writing effective dialogue
  • Finding a voice
  • Characterisation and character development
  • Narrative, structure and plot
  • Visualisation, imagery and setting
  • Stagecraft
  • Editing and rewriting

There’s then a two week gap in which each participant writes a short scene. In the second weekend Rib and I work with three experienced professional actors to explore these scenes, encouraging and enabling further development. The course ends with short script-in-hand presentations of the re-worked scripts and discussions about how each of them might be developed further.

Many courses about writing for theatre borrow an approach which might work for Hollywood films, but is often inappropriate and unhelpfully constraining for theatre writing. One of the great joys of theatre is that good plays can take many forms. From the start of the first weekend we state clearly that we DON’T offer a rigid, prescriptive formula for how to write plays. We aim to enable participants to USE what we offer to find a process (or processes) that works for them, and will stand them in good stead when working alone.

If you’d like to enrol on our next course at The Cockpit Theatre on the weekends 12th - 13th and 26th - 27th October, please contact us at Please send us two short paragraphs about yourself.  In the first, please give a brief account of your writing experience to date. In the second, please state what specifically you hope to gain from the course. This information will help us fine tune our planning. We will then respond within two days telling you whether you have been accepted onto the course.

We are offering a 15% discount to anyone signed up in response to this blog or the Border Crossings newsletter. Quote BC24.

Friday, June 07, 2024

The Land Acknowledgement


Back in 2017, we brought Cliff Cardinal's HUFF to ORIGINS. That's a year before this five-star review, which the show received for its Edinburgh run, on the day it closed. With Cliff's work it seems you have to be in the know.... His latest piece, THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, which opened LIFT at the Southbank on Wednesday, started off in Canada during 2021, under the title William Shakespeare's As You Like It. As Cliff explains in this version of the show, especially (and necessarily) re-worked for London, that was a ruse to get "rich Canadians" into the theatre. The performance begins with a traditional red curtain in place, and Cliff comes through it to begin a "land acknowledgement". This is one of the things he has to explain in a bit more detail for his London audience: in Canada it's common practice for events to begin with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous people on whose land the event is happening. So the original 2021 audience would have thought his speech was just another tokenistic prelude to the main event, which would of course be the Shakespeare production. They got a bit twitchy as it went on rather longer than usual. Eventually it became clear that there wasn't going to be a Shakespeare production. The land acknowledgement is the entire show. 

I wish I'd seen that original version, and been able to observe the ruse in action, and the extraordinary actor-audience dynamic that must have evolved through the evening. In London, the ruse couldn't work in the same way, and so the title has changed and Cliff is honest from the start about what he's doing, telling the story of those original audiences as part of his performance. But here too, the relationship with the audience is deliberately and deeply uncomfortable. There's laughter a-plenty - the format is essentially a stand-up comedy set - but there are also winces, gasps and moments of profound and disturbed silence. At the Brighton Festival, there were walk-outs. After all, as Cliff points out, a Land Acknowledgement is basically an acknowledgement that the land has been stolen. Usually, when someone acknowledges that they have stolen something, they give it back. But here, the acknowledgement alone seems to be considered sufficient. That must have been very telling in Canada, and it hits home in Britain too, albeit in a slightly different way. The oil companies, the banks, the mining companies...  all those head offices that sit in the City and profit from Indigenous land while poverty wreaks havoc on the res.....  

In Australia, the conventions that have evolved are a bit different. The land acknowledgement there is known as a "welcome to country". Elders are asked (and usually paid) to welcome people onto their lands. But, as an Indigenous Australian activist explained to me, this protocol misses out one crucial aspect in the Indigenous tradition of hospitality, which is that the visitors used to request permission to come onto someone else's lands, and that permission had to be granted before any form of welcome was offered. Nowadays, permission is taken for granted and hospitality has been commodified. It's only by performing a land acknowledgement that you can raise the vital questions about their validity. 

Friday, May 17, 2024

Au revoir to Emma

Emma Townsend
Today, we're sorry to be saying "au revoir" to our fabulous Marketing Manager, Emma Townsend. She's been a huge asset to Border Crossings over the last five years, and has really boosted our public profile and our online presence. Who'd have thought we would have punchy videos going viral on Tik-Tok?

Here's a guest post from Emma herself:

After an incredible five-year journey, I'm bidding farewell to my longstanding freelance roles at Border Crossings to embark on my next big adventure—motherhood!

Reflecting on my time with the organisatios fills me with immense gratitude. I've been blessed with opportunities to explore, experiment, and nurture my creativity. Along the way, I've tested ideas, some of which didn't quite hit the mark, but others that truly made a meaningful impact. And it was the supportive, collaborative, and receptive work environment that I came to value immensely and which contributed to my professional growth.

At Border Crossings, I've had the opportunity to amplify voices and stories that truly matter. When I joined in 2019, Michael believed in me enough to throw me into marketing a multi-venue, multidisciplinary Indigenous arts festival across some of London's most significant cultural venues. I obviously did something right because he invited me back again and again, and I was thrilled to work on more wonderful projects... like championing a 5m totem's epic journey from Mexico to a tour across the UK, bearing a vital message from the Indigenous Totonac people during COP26. We got featured on BBC News and caused a stir in towns and villages across the country. And that’s just to name a few of the countless projects that I feel so blessed to have been a part of.

As I step into this new phase, I have a great sense of fulfilment and excitement for what the future holds.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

An Enemy of the People

Matt Smith and Jessica Brown Findlay
in "An Enemy of the People"

I was anxious to see Thomas Ostermeier's production of An Enemy of the People for several reasons. For one thing, I've found previous work of his, particularly the Ibsen adaptations, absolutely thrilling. His Hedda Gabler was superb - and I was astonished to discover when I searched this blog for my response that I saw it as long ago as 2008! I still remember very vividly the impassive central performance of Katharina Schüttler (who was also brilliant in Ostermeier's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted), cold as ice and utterly bored - so disillusioned that she seemed never to have known illusion. An Enemy of the People also came to the Barbican, where I'd seen both of those previous shows, in 2014.  I was very sorry to miss it, not least because of the buzz around it from people like Simon McBurney. So when it popped up in the West End a decade later, this time in English with Matt Smith in the lead, I had to book. It was a midweek matinée, and it was ridiculously expensive.

Much of the discourse around the Barbican performances, and other outings for this much-travelled show, centred on the audience debate that happens in the middle of the performance. I was at once keen to experience this and a bit nervous: we are planning an interactive moment of live democracy in our forthcoming Suppliants of Syria. I wanted to see whether Ostermeier's debate worked, and if so how. And I wanted to make sure it wasn't too close to what we're planning: it's never a good idea to lay yourself open to accusations of plagiarism.

I needn't have worried. Disappointingly, the "debate" at the heart of Ostermeier's production isn't really a debate at all. Matt Smith as Dr Stockmann, a star doing a star turn, stands at a lectern after the interval and delivers a very rousing and insightful monologue about the horrors of contemporary capitalism. It's clearly updated as the production ages and grows: for the 2024 West End outing there's a lot about social media, algorithms and online manipulation. Climate change, of course. There's also a lot about grotesque wealth and obscene inequality. It would be pretty difficult to disagree with him. But that is how the production works - Stockmann is quite obviously right, but the bosses and the politicians shut him down anyway. You could, I suppose, say that's also how our world works - but I don't think it's how Ibsen works, and I also don't think it's how theatre works more generally. In Ibsen's original text, there's a lot more nuance: Stockmann's brother Peter does actually have some cogent arguments about social cohesion and the threat to the local economy, all of which become melodramatically transformed into incoherent malice and selfishness in Ostermeier's version. There is a hero and there is a villain.

If we all know who's right and who's wrong, then of course it becomes a bit of a challenge to hold a debate. But the production doesn't really hold a debate at all. Instead Priyanga Burford, the actor "in the chair", asks who agrees with Dr. Stockmann and why. So we get a series of interventions expressing personal experiences or ideas which support the general (by now well-established) point that capitalism sucks. I don't disagree, of course - but it isn't a debate and it isn't dramatic. In fact, it feels closer to an evangelical testimonial session or a right-wing rally than to a democratic forum. And, I'm afraid, it's also blindingly hypocritical. 

So I put my hand up. I get the mic. I agree with what Dr Stockmann had said: of course I do. I agree that theatre should open up and expose our social and political structures. And then I ask, if this production is so deeply opposed to capitalism, why is it so expensive just to be in the room?  

Thunderous applause. Cheers. Laughter. An explosion of joy and anger combined. People all around patting me on the back.

Priyanga Burford tries to deflect it by returning to the fiction. "Oh!" she says, "did you have to pay to come in? We'll have to look into that."  Too right we will.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Sidi Bouzid

Street scene: Regueb, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

I've been in Tunisia this week, thanks to an invitation from ATAC (Association Tunisienne de L’Action Culturelle), who initiate cultural actions for human rights in the face of some great challenges! Riadh Abidi and Nouha Hajji, who run the organisation, are incredibly committed to social justice and the role of culture in securing it: so this seemed an ideal place to offer a first preview screening of our SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA film. So far, it's only fully accessible to Arabic-speaking audiences, as that's how far the subtitling process has got - but an Arabic-speaking audience is exactly what we have here, even though we are a long way from Syria and from Adana, at least physically. The cultural links between Syrian refugees and Tunisians are of course very strong, and are being made stronger by the response to the Gaza crisis across the Islamic world. What's more, the question of Fortress Europe is very real here, as in Turkey. On the day we screened the film, Giorgia Meloni was in Tunis for the fourth time this year, having "further discussions" around migration with President Saied. There's already a basic deal in place between Tunisia and the EU, akin to the (much larger) EU-Turkey deal, whereby Tunisia is paid to intercept migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The Tunisian government says it has prevented 21,000 crossings this year alone. Many of these migrants had already crossed the Sahara to get this far: they come from conflict or post-conflict zones like the DRC, Sierra Leone, Northern Nigeria and Senegal. 

But it was not just the section of the film about European exclusion of desperate people that struck a chord here. Sidi Bouzid, the city where we showed the film, was also the place where the Arab Spring began. It's not a very big city - it has fewer than 50,000 inhabitants - and that makes the reach of what happened here all the more extraordinary. On 17th December 2010, a 26 year old street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the public street, burning to death. His self-immolation was an act of desperate protest against endemic corruption: his goods had been confiscated and he had been publicly humiliated by civic officials after he refused to bribe them. Bouazizi's actions led to a wave of further protests in the city and the surrounding areas, which the people of Sidi Bouzid, with great foresight, recorded on their phones and uploaded to social media. In particular, they recorded the authorities' use of violence against them: there were at least 20 further deaths. The protests spread across the country, and by January 14th 2011, President Ben Ali had been forced to flee the country. Not long after, further revolutionary actions began across the Arab World; including, of course, the outbreak of the ongoing conflicts in Syria.

So the question at the centre of Aeschylus's Suppliants, and of our SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, seemed incredibly immediate and intense at Wednesday's screening: "What is this thing they call democracy?" As David Wiles points out in the film, democracy is not necessarily compatible with human rights - indeed he suggests there may be a fundamental incompatibility between the two. If, as European and American governments like to suggest, the "representative" systems that they have in place serve to enact the rule of "the people", then what of the rights of other people who are by definition not part of the "rule" in that state? When "the people" rise up to claim their rights, which would seem to be a "democratic" endeavour, why does it so often lead to greater repression or to anarchy? More than a decade on, can any positive meaning be found in the tragic death of Mohamed Bouazizi?

I saw these images on a wall in Regueb, a smaller town in the Govenornate of Sid Bouzid, this morning. I may be wrong, but I think the man portrayed is Mohamed Bouazizi. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Developing SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA - Guest post by Liam Rees

In the workshop room for SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA

For four weeks, director Michael Walling and three actors (Richard Adetunji, Vlad Gurdis and John Rogers) have been exploring response to The Suppliants by Aeschylus, in which the suppliant women flee forced marriage and seek asylum in Greece, but are met by a seemingly endless debate about the correct course of action. I'd been interested in Border Crossings' approach to devising for some time, and was delighted to join them for a week, acting as a dramaturgical outside eye. Here are some observations from the process.

“Democracy is a conversation.” We can agree on that, can’t we?

The oldest written record of the word “democracy” is in The Suppliants by Aeschylus, and this rehearsal room is obsessed with the idea of democracy. As one actor explains, it comes from the Greek ‘demos’ meaning people, and ‘kratos’ meaning power. So the power of the people. But how is that power expressed? In theatre, it’s through our voice, and there’s a constant back and forth of disagreements, compared experiences, and conflicting perspectives in the room. There’s a cacophony of voices in the rehearsal room: the actors, the director, Aeschylus, and the real life suppliants, a group of Syrian women seeking asylum in Turkey. Like Aeschylus, their words and voices have been recorded and interpreted but they can’t be in the room with us. There will always be some gap in our understanding…

“The worst thing that’s ever happened to you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”

Each day in rehearsals is different but always centres around trying to understand the plight of the suppliant women. One day is spent exploring the classical text via mask work. It unlocks a more mythic aspect to the text, less reliant on a personal or psychological connection. In a way the mask protects the actor from any traumatic material. The next day we watch interviews with the Syrian women and everything is all too real. We dig into our own experiences and our own points of connection with the suppliants of Syria. There’s no mask to hide behind. These aren’t characters we’re playing. We’re five men trying to make sense of men at war and male violence against women. At one point we ask if we should have more women in the room; but is that then forcing them to take on more emotional labour? Surely men need to take responsibility for sorting the issues they cause? It’s “not all men” but it is almost always a man. There’s no simple answer and at the end of every day we take care to check in with each other and not take the heavy, personal, messy questions home with us. But the questions never go away throughout the process. Michael shares anecdotes about visiting Turkey and the ethical issues inherent in documenting and interviewing asylum seekers. Is this exploitation or genuine dialogue? Does paying them for their time turn suffering into a commodity to be consumed? Is there any “good” way to tell their story?

“It’s great that we’re having this conversation.”

Every day brings new questions and every new question leads to rewrites and reinterpretations of the source material. There’s Aeschylus’ original text, the interviews, and a meta-commentary performed by the actors as fictionalised versions of themselves.  At times it can feel overwhelming. Are there too many questions that we can’t answer? In the heat of one discussion we’re forced to ask what the point of this project is? Are we simply going in circles? If it’s impossible to understand someone else’s experience then what is the point in trying? Is this conversation actually intended to result in action? Or is it a distraction? A means for us to absolve ourselves of feelings of guilt?

There’s a repeated phrase in one section: It’s great that we’re having this conversation. 

Because silence doesn’t feel like an option.

Everything about this show invites disagreement.

For now, there’s still time for the cast and crew to decide what this show should be.

But that conversation can't go on forever, can it?

Liam Rees is a director who specialises in developing new work and new writing. He has a particular interest in international collaboration and enjoys making theatre that uses digital tech to put the internet onstage and facilitate more international conversations.