Saturday, July 29, 2006
Meanwhile, I fill in the gaps in the rest of the team. Mark Doubleday will do the lighting (hurray), and Alison de Burgh direct the fights (ditto). I meet Seema to talk through ideas on costume and doubling, and put in my halfpennyworth on the publicity designs. FedEx the Work Permits to Shanghai and Macau. Start to put together programme notes. Contract the team we have. And wait.
Meanwhile, next year still hovers. James and Martin Banham are interested in the Accra bit of this blog forming the basis of an article for African Theatre 7. This should come out around the time of the production, so it's really helpful. I have a long phone call with Prof. Lola Young, who is co-ordinating the Freedom and Culture programme for the 2007 bi-centenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. She's very excited about the Ghana project, and we agree to link up. The list of supporting organisations is getting quite impressive - it's time to put together a full project proposal. Not ideal timing - but at least there are still 2 weeks till rehearsals begin.
Monday, July 24, 2006
The day's timetable is meant to be simple, but of course Ghana isn't like that. At 11, I see Amanda at the British Council again. She's highly excited to hear about the plan for a co-production across both countries, the involvement of the National Theatre Company, and the list of performers I'm proposing. Thank you Dzifa, thank you James, thank you Awo! The key, of course, is to make all this happen, and this is where I hope the British Council might come on board. Amanda asks me to come back at 4, to meet the Director, John Payne.
In between, I need to scout out the National Theatre building, as an alternative venue to the Legon amphitheatre, and one which I know Ghanaian collaborators are likely to prefer, if only because of its central location. It's a huge, very modern structure, very well equipped, and totally at odds with its far more modest surroundings. This is because it's one example of the enormous Chinese investment in West Africa: as I walk backstage, I can see Chinese characters on the windows. China has spent a huge amount in this region: all of which is clearly intended to promote trade and political links. These are two emerging powers we should not ignore....
The National Theatre is currently closed for refurbishment, and I'm led round by a young man called Francis from George Hagan's office. The leading is quite literal, because there are no lights, and several times he takes me by the hand to get me around. There's no qualms about men holding hands here - even people who've just met! The only way I can get any idea of what this theatre might look like is by flash photography. It seems to be a barn of a place. 1500 seats. But well-equipped, and central. If we end up here, we'll have to work hard to make things feel rough enough.
I just get time to buy some amazing paintings at amazingly low prices before seeing John. Odd how, after so many productive discussions, you always end up with the middle-aged white man in the suit talking about money. Not that John is a typical suit: like most British Council people, he's anxious to make real exciting collaborations happen, and can see beyond the stale rhetoric of his political masters. I think we will need to make some quite specific cases in quite specific ways, but he gives me enough hints for me to feel we have a friend here. I phone Dzifa to let her know, and thank her for all she's done. I have to leave her with a warning - I won't be touching this project for a while, given the imminence of Dis-Orientations. But, come the autumn, we'll make this happen. Roll on 2007. I won't say good-bye to Ghana, just "au revoir".
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
I meet one more of these fabulous female actors today: Mary Yirenkyi. For 17 years she taught at Legon, and she's also studied in Leeds and Exeter. As she reads from the text, and dances for me, I'm back in the real world of the play and of the Akan culture. It's like two different worlds, one full and one empty. All the more reason to do this project.
Awo drives me up to the top of the hill to see the Amphitheatre, where the play was first performed in 1964. It's a lovely space, somewhere between the Greek theatres and the African village clearing. There are always big problems with the open air, of course, but for this project it may be right.
I spend the afternoon with Ama Ata. This conversation was video-ed, and I hope you'll be reading it in a book before too long, so it won't be recorded here. But it was incredibly helpful. She has a very generous spirit.
William emails to say that the contract has finally gone to Shanghai. Things move on.... I'm coming to the end of my time in Accra, and must get ready for the new adventure!
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
In The Dilemma of a Ghost, the ghost's dilemma is whether to go to Cape Coast or Elmina. It's a pretty grim choice, even for a spectre, since these are the two huge slave castles that tower over Ghana's coastline. Not one for dilemmas, I visited both of them over the weekend. Video camera in hand, I was able to shoot some amazing images, which may or may not appear in the final production: especially on Sunday morning, when getting an early taxi out of Cape Coast got me to Elmina before 9am, and I was the only person in the castle for a full hour. Being in the total darkness of the slave dungeons, and walking to the "Door of No Return" is an intense experience. I twice got genuinely frightened - once because I really couldn't see where I was, and once because I was suddenly surrounded by bats. In the dungeons of both castles, there are wreaths which have been laid by African-Americans, who return here to see something of their history. The messages are very sad, but also strangely beautiful. The guide at Elmina (who arrives a bit after 10) says that the Castle must be preserved so that people can take from it a renewed humanity. I like that.
Fears of being stranded on the coast (I arrived there on Saturday to discover the last bus back to Accra on Sundays is at 3, and is already full) are allayed by the appearance of a school bus from takoradi, containing none other than Rebecca and Kate from the Theatre Royal in Plymouth: here to work on their three-year link-up project. Over dinner back in Accra, we meet up with one of their students from last year; a young man called Williams. Shooing them away with a "some things are for men only", he takes me in to his confidence, and tells me how mcuh he admires these two women and their work. Last year's production was clearly the best experience of his life, and has changed him profoundly and positively. It's incredibly heartening to be reminded of theatre's power to do this.
There was another reminder this morning, when I (horribly late - thank you email, thank you Accra traffic) was able to see something of Theatre for a Change in action with the fishing community in James Town. In a delapidated shack (the James Town Community Theatre), a group of about thirty people of various ages were improvising stories about domestic violence, and looking at ways to deal with them. Between these scenes, they play silly games and sing songs which involve a lot of bottom-wriggling. It's all strangely playful, and yet they are clearly talking about things which matter very deeply to them. Theatre at its most paradoxically beautiful again. Amongst the group, there was a young girl who could really perform. She is absolutely tiny, and has crooked bones in her back and limbs. She also moves extraordinarily, and radiates joy from her face. I kept thinking of Abey Xakwe from Third World Bunfight. I began to wonder ifI shouldn't do something really extreme in the casting of Dilemma.....
The ideas are slowly working themselves out. I had a rash of meetings breaking out all over yesterday and today, spending a Ghanaian fortune in taxi fares and a lot of time stewing in the perpetual traffic jams. But some key contacts have now been established. Osei Korankye, who plays me his seprewa (a sort of harp) and sings in his strong, high tenor: this is music of contemplation, which was traditionally played to chiefs by a sort of bard or troubadour as an aid to meditation - ideal for transporting an audience to a plane of ritual and spirituality. Mohammed ben-Abdullah, who wrote a play called The Slaves, and is full of fascinating insights into the Ghanaian theatre, and is deeply generous with his advice on performers and companies. Evans Oma Hunter, a Falstaffian figure whose finger is in many pies, and significantly works with UNESCO here, touring work to rural communities. George Hagan, director of the National Commission on Culture, who listens to my ideas with a constantly repeated "Wnderful", and promises that crucial thing, official endorsement, as well as making some helpful suggestions about outreach and even funding! And, perhaps most helpfully of all, the amazing Dzifa Glikpoe: former director of the National Theatre Company and a truly inspiring performer. With this woman there is an instant rapport, and she understands exactly what I want to do. She also reads the text superbly. We talk about how, with George's endorsement, this could be a co-production between Border Crossings and the National Theatre, in which case it would make sense to rehearse here in Ghana, perform and tour (?!) before transplanting to the UK. Done like this, with Western-trained actors in the Westernised roles, the culture-clash will be so real.
This afternoon Dzifa came to meet me again at Legon, bringing two performers she recommends. The three of them together are a riot: we talk in depth, but we also laugh a lot, and they perform songs and dances for me. Or maybe it isn't for me - maybe it's for one another and for themselves. Song seems to emerge from the conversation of these women totally naturally. One of them is called Agnes: she's very intelligent and very aware of the play and its political meaning. The other, who speaks far less English, is an older lady called Aunty Ama. I'm not too bothered about the language issue - and neither, it seems, is she. What matters is her rootedness in the culture, her demeanour, her grace, and her incredible energy. As we talk, I realise exactly who she is. She came from a village background, and started performing as a teenager, where she was spotted by the late, great Efua Sutherland. Since her parents were not around, Efua contacted the grandparents, and told them that she would like to adopt her as her own daughter, undertaking to educate her at the same time as nurturing her performing talent. Even today, she lives in the same house as Efua's daughter Esi Sutherland.
I thought before I came that the key aim in this trip would be to find somebody who was talented enough and sufficiently rooted in the culture to play Nana. I think that's been accomplished. Now all we have to do is make it happen.
Friday, July 14, 2006
It's a great campus, though - with the open air theatre in which Dilemma was first done, a bookshop which sends any Afrophile into a frenzy, and tutors' offices in little whitewashed quadrangles. Plus a Barclays that (guess what?) doesn't cash travellers' cheques - precipitating another mad dash to the head office before it closes for the weekend, exiting with a wad of cedis the size of a big dictionary.
At Legon, I meet John Collins - the legendary Professor of Music, whose conversation is an entrancing journey into incredible facts about African culture. In less than forty minutes I discover:
- that West Indian musical influences made their return to West Africa as early as October 1800 (I love his precision on the month), and that this form - called Gumbe - became pan-African and pan-Caribbean.
- that folk-rumour in Ghana decided that the Europeans must be taking the enslaved people to eat them, because they never came back. Ironic given that the Europeans were also erroneously accusing the Africans of cannibalism.
- that Kwame Nkrumah kept a court jester, whose name was Ajax Bukana. Ajax was encouraged to leap in to Cabinet meetings and express the comic view on any issue. He always wore black-face, which amongst African and black American performers was never considered racist - it's simply the make-up of the Ghanaian clown, just as white-face is worn by the European.
John puts me in touch with a few more artists and musicians, and as I take the taxi across town I phone them all, arranging yet more meetings.
Meetings, meetings.... Awo's head of department, John K. Djisenu, who lets us use their premises to audition former students from the 2,500 a year who might be useful talent. I keep mentioning that the cast shouldn't really be lots of young people - and gradually I start to get some contacts for older actors.
Akofa Adjeani-Asiedu, who has several times received Best Actress awards for her film work, sends a car to bring me to her (side-line) restaurant, where she sits in what feels like a fortune-teller's tent, covered in jewellry, draped in a red kaftan and sporting a spiky vertical hair-do. Her whole appearance is an amazing re-invention of what it means to be African in the 21st century. The conversation is full of laughter, as happens with extrovert personalities, but there's also a sense of a very serious artist here, and somebody very conscious of her nation's image in the wider world. When I ask her what sort of projects she prefers, she says that she like to do work which shows what is positive in Africa. That she's fed up with images of violence in Rwanda and famine in Sudan governing the world's perception of a deep and living culture. Now THAT I can work with.
She drives me back into town herself. Very fast. I'd phoned the Arts Consultant I was due to meet next to say I'd be late.... and arrived early. His name is Akunu Dake - and he's co-ordinating the British Council's creative response to the big anniversaries next year. Again, the conversation seems fruitful - when he shakes my hand at the end he calls me a "fellow conspirator", which often feels right. And he names a male actor who John also suggested, and an older woman who'd also been mentioned by Akofa. I tend to believe in the double recommendation. Back to the phone, I go. What would I have done without Kofi's phone?
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Today began with a taxi ride through distinctly more salubrious bits of Accra than I saw yesterday, down to the coast and the Labadi General Hospital, next to which Theatre for a Change has its office. I've been keen on this organisation ever since I met its British mentor Patrick Young a few months ago: and today the general manager, Daniel Attrans, and the full staff of six are sitting round a table, notepads poised, waiting to meet me. Their work is very community-based (without being Theatre for Development, or in any way indoctrinating). They tell me about the Boal-style techniques through which they deal with issues like HIV and domestic violence: if a man performs the role of a woman being beaten, he starts to get an idea of what it might feel like. So this is a theatre about opening up imagination,and empowering people to take decisions in the social space. They're planning a workshop in James Town in a few days, working with the fishing community there. Apparently, research suggests that this community thinks of HIV less in terms of condoms and more in terms of witchcraft. I'd be excited to see this.
I only wish there was something more I could do towards this group from my end - but they're not finally doing the sort of work which we do, although I feel really supportive of them. I give them a few new ideas about funders, and promise to make a bit of a noise for them (here I am doing some of it). As our chat ends, their latest volunteer walks through the door: a young man called Ryan from UCLA, where his Professors include none other than Peter Sellars. Ryan was inspired to come here by (amongst other things) Peter's classes on human trafficking - which has been his subject in Zaide and will be ours in our Ghanaian project. A small world, or a Jungian moment?
Kofi has got me a Ghanaian mobile, and I phone round as many of the contacts I've got from James and Amanda as I can. As I sit in the shade outside the Hospital, playing ball with a little boy around Hari's age, one of them hails into view. His name is Nii, and he runs a group called the Tima' tuma Theatre Project. In translation, this means "well done", because, he explains, theatre in Ghana tends not to be a full-time job, and people deserve a proper reward as they get for work. I ask if he's managed to make it a full-time job for himself. No, he's also an advertising executive. I tell him he's in good company: lots of the best theatre-makers in India are also advertising people.
Nii's work is largely in plays about African history: they've just made one called Nkurmah-Mandela, which is about parrallels in the lives of the two leaders. This is intriguing for me, with my on-ice Mandela piece stirring into occasional life. Sadly, they're not in production at present. However, he is the first person to come up with a name of an actress who might be suitable for what I'm doing. I should be able to follow this up tomorrow, since she has links to the University Performing Arts Department.
We're still chatting when a driver arrives in a blue pick-up, which Ama Ata Aidoo has arranged to bring me to her office. We take another dis-orienting trip through various bits of Accra, and eventually I meet her. Smaller than I'd imagined, leaning on her stick and feeling a bit the worse for a recent bout of asthma - but bright with energy and excitement, and very funny. She takes her agent (a young man called Eli) and myself for lunch - my first taste of Fufu. I give her a copy of The Handmaid's Tale as a present. She knows it backwards, of course - having taught it as part of a course in post-colonial literatures: but this fact in itself gets us onto interesting ground. The idea of Canada as post-colonial was apparently considered very radical by students and colleagues. Only the "Third World" was post-colonial.... We are happy to agree on the absurdity - if the post-colonial is to mean anything at all, then it has to be about a history which is global: it has to be about understanding where we are right now as the aftermath of a colonial past which isn't only the affair of the poorer nations (to say that it is simply to marginalise them again). The inheritance of the colonial period, of slavery, of economic exploitation, is still with us, and the post-colonial discourse has to be about how the globalized world which is the direct result of that inheritance can be inhabited. Which, of course, is exactly what The Dilemma of a Ghost is about. Certainly what it will be about in 2007 London.
I talk about some of my ideas for the production, none of which seem to phase her at all. She's actually quite humble about the whole thing, as writers often are when you want to do their work. She talks about when Anowa was done at the Gate in 1992, and about how brilliant the actors and director were. But she was also very disappointed that the production didn't "go anywhere". Sounds familiar. The other production she remembers very fondly is the first production of Dilemma, which was staged in the open air at the University in Legon, when (astonishingly) she was still a student. I find it incredible that this should be the work of a 22 year old: the play really should have been in the BITE Young Genius season last year! The open-air thing is interesting: this relates to my sense that we may be looking for unconventional, non-theatre spaces (don't hold me to this!), and to my sense that the play is (amongst other things) very like a Greek tragedy, with its Chorus of women surrounding and commenting on the central action, and its language which moves so subtly from naturalism into poetry.
Most importantly, for me, Ama Ata doesn't seem to think it odd that a white British male director should want to do this piece. Good - she also talks in terms of a shared history, an awareness that the political problems we face require dialogue, require a cultural solution. So the idea of collaborating with Ghanaian actors who can bring the sense of the spiritual and of the cultural depth the play needs makes sense to her. But she doesn't know who either. "I'm only a writer", she says.
She's keen to come over when the play is on, which will be a good publicity boost (as well as moving and powerful in itself). We leave it that I will phone her again early next week - by which time I hope she'll be feeling fit enough to talk in more depth about some of the details in the piece. But the key contact has been made. We connected.
We come out of the restaurant after a two and a half hour lunch. Eli hails me a taxi and does the haggling over price. As he does so, Ama Ata reaches up an arm, and we embrace under the burning sun.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Here I sit in a sweltering internet cafe in Accra. Got in late last night after a lengthy (but not too expensive) flight via Milan and Lagos. In Lagos we just sat on the plane for 90 minutes. I was reading critical essays about Ama Ata Aidoo. Equipping myself to phone her this morning.
The purpose of this trip is to research the production we're planning for next year - her play The Dilemma of a Ghost. It's fifty years since this country's pioneering independence, and two hundred since the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire - so 2007 is the time to talk about these key issues of slavery, the global economy and the African diaspora, which this play does so brilliantly. As with so many of our projects, this won't work if we just use UK-based performers. We need to find people who are alive in the traditions portrayed, in order to explore how those traditions are interacting with the predominant West. And, of course - these are the people from whom we can learn the most. Like Radhakrishna and Zhang Ruihong.
So this trip is really in search of serendipity. Of course, talking to Ama Ata will be vital and is very exciting (we're having lunch tomorrow), but I'm also keen to see just who may be there in terms of performers, and how performance relates to the cultural traditions she's working with in the play. So much of African life is performative - just walking the streets tells you that: but how is this an expression of the spirit? Is the spirit actually still alive at all? I suspect it is.
Spend the morning at the British Council with Deputy Director Amanda Griffiths. She's very helpful with a list of contact names. I begin the task of phoning round and making dates. This should get easier when Kofi (who minds James Gibbs' house in Madina, which I'm renting) brings me a mobile tonight. He's incredibly shy and incredibly helpful - like many Ghanaians, I think. All the cliches about danger to the white man and being treated like a walking ATM just don't seem to apply here - although the poverty is every bit as visible as in other parts of Africa I've been to. Amanda and I talk about the way in which we should be celebrating the slavery bi-centenary, and we agree that it has to be through work that re-opens the questions. There is more slavery in the world today than there has ever been. Some of it is overt - in northern Ghana, into Burkina Faso and Niger, the trade in humanity, and especially children, is booming. And some of it is covert. Populations live on tiny amounts of money to feed the luxurious lifestyle of the West; a lifestyle which cannot exist without this vast imbalance. This is slavery by another, more insidious name. The market.
If anybody ever reads this blog for travel tips, then here's one. Most banks in Ghana don't cash travellers cheques, unless you show the purchase receipt (which I left at home, as you're supposed to!). The one which eventually worked for me was Barclays Head Office in Bank Square. I walk out with what feels like a sack of swag, but is in fact the Ghanaian equivalent of fifty quid. It will keep me fed, watered and transported for days.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
The last few days have been manic: sorting as much as I can on Dis-Orientations before the research trip to Ghana. Good news is the new Julian will be Tony Guilfoyle. Had a great hour and a half with him. He is probably best known as the accident-prone priest in Father Ted; but what drew me was his stint with Lepage in The Dragons Trilogy. The right sort of pedigree. There is another rather starry bit of casting I hope to get confirmed by email in the next day or two. Hope there are good internet cafes in Accra. I also have to keep talking to Meijing about the contract with SYT. It all seems to be OK, but they still need the work permit from us before they cn even get Zhang Ruihong a passport! I had wanted to get the Riverside contract before applying for WPs, but this is too urgent to wait.
We have a marketing session with Simon, Owen, Chloe and William Wong (who has come n board as my bi-lingual assistant). They need to do the photo-shoot this week without me. Bit scarey.
Next time from Accra.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
The one thing we did lose was Denise's workshop. Sadly, we just didn't get enough takers, and had to cancel. This is very odd, given that all previous workshops have sold out. I guess it might be the combination of words in the title: "Dance" puts the theatre people off, and "sub-text" puts off the dancers. Anyway, it's a lost opportunity. Denise was very stoical about it, and hopes we'll be able to arrange it again for the future. I'm sure we can make it work as part of a series (maybe that was the mistake?).
For a few days there seemed to be a question mark over our venue for Dis-Orientations. We all had mini-coronaries. But it's all confirmed now - and we open on September 13th. Activity will now be manic!
I was at the Chinese Embassy last night. Ke Yasha had invited me to a reception, marking the visit to London of a group of folk musicians from Xinjiang. This is right by Khazakstan, and the people look and sound more like Turks than Chinese - but they are Chinese. They sing their love songs and their comedies with the most incredible, rooted passion. It feels strange to see them in the austere surroundings of the Embassy, with the suits looking on. Strange, but rather wonderful. Music like this reminds us where we start from.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Pop out for an hour and a bit to see the matinee of Fool for Love. This is a West End show, which has gone down the starry route with Juliette Lewis and Martin Henderson. It's strange and wonderful for me to hear this text again - because this (with Faith Healer) was one of the two shows which launched Border Crossings over ten years ago. I kept hearing the voices of Maria Gough and Miles Harvey. Fascinating to see how different a play can be, even though both our production and this one stuck pretty close to original stage directions. Juliette Lewis played May with a deliberate intense flatness, which was disconcerting and oddly powerful. Way different from Maria's incredible elemental force in that role. Galling then that Michael Coveney's programme essay lists only the National and Donmar productions as having preceded the current one in London: particularly since Time Out reviewed the Donmar show by saying the Border Crossings version had been "definitive"! People forget...... and probably should - theatre is an ephemeral art.
I leave at the end of the performance, and go straight back to casting.