Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Back at the Lab

Our second Laboratory workshop took place on Friday and Saturday. This time it was my turn to lead an exploration of the methods we're developing as a company to devise intercultural theatre. I called it New Mythologies, which sounds a bit pompous, but seemed more and more justified as a title during the two days.

After Farid's brilliant voice work the week before, I'd been concerned that I wasn't "teaching" a technique or something "useful" for acting in quite the same way. But it soon became clear that it was actually an advantage to do something really different, and that the more exploratory approach simply confirms Josip's longstanding belief that Farid and I are very complementary in our directorial approaches - each of us offers something which the other does not, but we share common goals. It would be wonderful to find a way of furthering the collaboration.

During the workshop, I mix up some tried and tested devising approaches with a few completely new ones, and inter-breed them a bit. The most exciting exercise for me is to use the game called The Playwright as a way of re-telling a mythological story - it really distills things down to the essentials, and allows for the creation of very beautiful imagery. We apply the exercise to The Butterfly Lovers, and find some wonderful physical approaches which I'll hang on to for the project. Kamini Gupta (designer) is there, and tells me that similar methods are applied to mythic material in psychotherapy workshops, which figures I suppose. It's certainly very powerful to see how these myths resonate with such a diverse group of people as this.

I find myself wondering at one point whether this really is a workshop in devising inter-cultural theatre, or whether it's just looking at devising, and drawing off sources from many cultures. Perhaps if the group had been more genuinely diverse (and not just composed of essentially British people from a range of ethnic backgrounds) then there might have been more need for different methods - our interculturalism is a response to the needs of the moment, and not something we impose on the world! It's in the object exercises that the complexity of our culture really kicks in - Roisin creates a story with a postcard from an Indian temple, a wig block and a loo roll, and sends us into the realms of magical realism. This is exciting.

These two workshops have really paid off: the Laboratory is starting to feed the company's work, as well as exciting and rewarding the people who attend. We will do more.......

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Venue packs and a packed venue

Much of yesterday was spent creating the venue pack for our next production. It's one of the most crucial jobs in any cycle (because it's crucial to selling the show to the venues, and so making the whole thing happen), and also one of the most difficult (because I have to talk about the piece more than a year ahead of its happening, which is virtually impossible, especially for devised shows like this one, for which I don't even know the story!). I resort to suggesting possible approaches, styles and forms - making a big thing of the Chinese link, which is, I'm sure, going to be the key for marketing the show. Nisha (quite rightly) feels the pack looks too wordy, and needs some careful re-working in terms of layout. But the Yue opera images are wonderful and should excite people.

To the King's Head to see Tim Hudson (who was Hugh Burton in Bullie's House and Toby Belch in Twelfth Night) playing Boris Johnson in Who's the Daddy? This show got the most enthusiastic response I've ever seen on the Newsnight Review: a sort of Serious Money effect for journalists, I think - it's successful because it creates a press story about the press, which always makes them happy. The tiny space is packed out, which at £22.50 a ticket (!) represents an awful lot of cash. But the plans for a West End transfer have apparently been scuppered by the writers themselves - it seems the internal politics of The Spectator can take this lampooning in the back room of an Islington pub, but not in a big commercial space. It's no great loss: in spite of some very funny scenes (Blunkett getting a blow job from a gay chef in the belief that it's Kimberley Quinn), this is basically an ill-plotted farce with no political bite, and only Tim's terrific performance in the bedrock role holds it all together (in a very basic way at one point tonight, when he has to dash offstage to remind another actor to make his crucial entrance...). There's no real political satire either - anybody who portrays the incredibly right-wing Blunkett as an old-fashioned Socialist class warrior is missing a trick. At one point, Boris advises him to do something better with his time, like repealing Magna Carta, which feels much closer to the mark!

Monday, August 22, 2005

La Voix Comme La Geste du Corps

At last - the first of the Laboratory workshops has happened, led by Farid Paya from the Théâtre du Lierre in Paris. He arrives on the Eurostar on Thursday night - working with us for two really wonderful days.

The focus of Farid's workshop is almost entirely on the practicalities of performance - how the voice is produced by the body - how we can use the body to create huge resonance and amazing sounds. He draws off Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern techniques - although always with the caveat that "This isn't the real technique: it is only the way we use it". It's very remarkable how rapidly the voices of the participants grow and blossom under his care. What really excites me about this work, however, is what is left unsaid about it - the way in which this expansion of human capability is in itself an exploration of what it means to be human; the way in which the expanded, resonant body becomes a far more significant vehicle than the everyday body; the way the trained and chanelled voice can act as an echo chamber in which spiritual sounds are heard. There's nothing new about this, of course - Tibetan Buddhism and Gregorian chant alike know all about it - but to hear such sounds in the secular space of theatre practice is what makes the work so exciting for the current moment, when we're so starved of spiritual truth, so much in need of a new mythology.

These two days have been so valuable in so many ways. There's the work itself, and the fact that it represents a first step for our Laboratory (the real potential of which is just beginning to dawn on me!) and for our relationship with Lierre, which Josip has so painstakingly brokered over the last few months. And there's the sense of the company as a company. The workshop has given us the chance to bring together some of the key actors we've been involved with over the last few years - and it's really warming to feel their presence here, advancing their own practice and the practice of the company as a group. So often this job can feel very lonely - yet, in the end, you can't make theatre without that reality of "company". The word doesn't just mean a legal entity - it's about human companionship and a shared endeavour.

Farid and I talk about all this. Even a company as established as his is very far from the ideal of the permanent ensemble (and perhaps that ideal just isn't possible any more). Like us, Lierre returns to certain key performers as part of a fluid group, which keeps changing according to the production. For us, the issues of cultural background are often so central to the project that the ensemble ideal just won't work. But the presence of really fine actors who know what we're trying to do and share those aims is very heartening to me; and their dialogue with performers from other cultural traditions is what will keep this company growing and further the work, as this workshop proves. Lovely to see Alistair, Anjali, Arnie, Indy and Lydia in action, alongside some very exciting people we'd not met before, who've got a sense of this work and want to experience it more fully.

I emerge on Saturday evening feeling refreshed in body, mind and spirit!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Australian adventures?

Meet up with Emma Calverley at the National Theatre. She's a colleague of Andrew Spencer, who was our Press Officer on Bullie's House, and now works as a producer in Australia. We've been talking about trying to remount the production out there for a while, and meeting Emma today helps put some of the ideas into a clearer light. She's very positive about the play's potential in Oz - not least because of the "star" pull of Thomas Keneally and Natasha Wanganeen. I'm keen that any tour should include Aboriginal communities as well as the big cities: where, as Emma says, Aboriginal people are rarely even seen.

On the way to meet her I pop into the Africa Centre, and spot a book comparing the theatre of Yeats and Soyinka.... Nearly buy it, then decide to wait till I've a bit of time to read it properly.

We keep getting orders for large quantities of the Orientations script. My guess is that somebody is setting it to study on a course. I'd love to know who....

Monday, August 15, 2005

Falstaff and Frida

I saw Henry IV Part 2 at the National Theatre on Saturday night. After Nick Hytner's brilliant Henry V at the time the Iraq war broke out, I'd hoped to see a similarly bold approach to its prequel in the National epic - but this is actually a very conventional, even conservative production, and as a result much of the politics in the first half seems so remote as to be incomprehensible. The production takes off after the interval, when the play becomes much more personal: David Bradley and Michael Gambon are very moving as the old King and Falstaff, and there's the luxury casting of John Wood as Justice Shallow. But I was still left feeling that the whole thing seemed worthy rather than immediate.

It's with these thoughts that I go to the Tate's Frida Kahlo exhibition on Sunday afternoon. Frida was a character in our Mappa Mundi in 2000-1: confronting one of our protagonists, Enrique, with the realities of the Mexican mestizaje identity (which was especially potent when we toured Mexico, of course!). In many ways, she's the ultimate symbol for the contemporary artistic icon: female, post-colonial, disabled, mixed race, AND bi-sexual. Looking at her paintings is like a lesson in this amazing biography - in fact, many of the paintings only really make sense in terms of the specifics of her life and times. Watching people going round the exhibition, I'm struck that they seem to be spending more time reading the captions than looking at the pictures. This art - political or autobiographical - draws its meaning from its context, and can't really survive without a context. It's hardly Kahlo's fault that we're now looking at her paintings in a very different context from the one in which she made them. But the experience makes me think again about Henry IV. In the theatre, because of the ephemeral nature of the form, we can and must be aware of the context - the particular audience addressed - if we're to have any chance of conveying real radical meaning. This is what Nick achieved so brilliantly with his Henry V - but the current production is generalised rather than specific in terms of the context, and so fails to ignite. Tourist Shakespeare.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Sheffield, Shanghai and San Francisco

Wednesday was entirely devoted to driving up to Sheffield and back for lunch with Stella McCabe, who co-ordinates the programming for the theatres there. It's really important to have meetings like this - once there's a face in the memory, it's always much easier to talk to people on the phone. The Sheffield theatres are moving through periods of change at the moment - Sam West taking over as AD, and a programme of rennovation being set up. As a result, she doesn't even know when there will be a Studio to programme - but she's very positive about our plans, so it's time well spent.

On Thursday, Haili comes down from Manchester to meet me, armed with VCDs and programmes of the Yue Opera. Like many mainland Chinese I've met here, she's very polite and smartly dressed in a summer frock and white jacket, looking rather incongruous in the Bohemian ambience of the Border Crossings office (which she calls "very colourful"). I'm amazed when she says that she was a Xiaosheng (performer of male roles) in Yue Opera. Apparently, for a Chinese woman, she is quite tall - and a glance at the Yue images suggests that women with rounder faces tend to play the men, while the female roles go to shorter women with longer faces. It all looks incredibly beautiful, and some of the images are quite astonishing: realistic beards on female faces. One book she lends me has images from the height of the Mao era: in one, an actress sports a thick moustache and smokes in a passable impersonation of Stalin; while in another it looks for all the world as if Premier Zhou Enlai is on the stage - only the stylised "male" positioning of the feet gives away the fact that this is also a Yue performer.

We talk for about four hours. Haili tells me how, when she was performing in the Yue company, there was a real feeling of love generated between her and her "female" partners. Feelings of jealousy would arise if a performer worked with a different partner. But Haili is quite insistent that these feelings are not the same as lesbian love in the way Western people understand it. In fact, she thinks that all "love" ( a concept I find myself having to question as we talk) is different in the West. "It's all about posession, about having the other person", while in Chinese culture love is more "sentimental" (a term she uses freely and without any hint of the derogatory). Maybe this is Communism showing its opposition to the idea of ownership in any form - or, more likely, it's Confucianism privileging the collective and the ideal over the individual and the physical. It's a fundamental cultural difference, and one which could really yield fruit in the project. There's a dramatic conflict here which can grow into a play.

Henry Holmes phones from the Columbia Foundation in San Francisco. Our application is being looked at very seriously - we're down to the shortlist now. Henry asks me some very probing, very detailed questions about the application. I'm very happy that his emphasis is all on the artistic ideas behind the work, and their political and cultural significance; not just on the size of the planned audience and its ethnic composition (which seems to be the sole criterion for many funders nowadays). If nothing else, this will be the most thorough assessment of a funding bid we've ever experienced. The phone call lasts forty minutes; at the end of which Henry says we should know the result by mid-September. Fingers crossed.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Thinking about Yeats

The blog's been quiet for a week or so, because I've been on a family holiday in Wales. Holiday reading was Roy Foster's biography of Yeats. I've been interested in him ever since I went to Ireland and did a course on Irish Theatre at TCD in 1986. I suppose that was actually the experience which started my fascination with post-colonial theatre, and the ways in which drama can come to redefine identity in the thick of political change. That's why it's so interesting for me to read about Yeats from the point of view of an historian rather than a literary critic: unlike Jeffares, or even the wonderful Ellmann, Foster is able to present Yeats in terms of an ever-changing cultural and political landscape in the turbulent moment of de-colonisation.

What's fascinating about this in terms of Border Crossings is the way in which Yeats created a theatre form which was both mythic and multicultural (even intercultural), but (as Foster makes clear) also addressed very immediate political realities. People tend to be very dismissive of Yeats' plays as intellectual and esoteric games - but I remember how very alive (and very clear) it was possible to make The Dreaming of the Bones when I did a workshop on it some years ago. He's a writer with a lot to teach us.

Back from holiday to find a letter from Collage Arts, from whom we let our office space. Not surprisingly, they've decided the period of charity has gone on long enough, and we should pay a commercial rent. That's fine for us provided the other companies in the consortium can do it too: but if they can't, then I fear we may end up being faced with a huge rent bill we can't possibly manage. The last thing I want is to go back to running the company from home: we outgrew that years ago! Fire off an email to the other consortium members and cross my fingers.