Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Awards for All

Good news to end the year. Awards for All agree to fund the Laboratory for 2007. This is a really exciting step forward for us in terms of research, development and training. To date, all the workshops (like the recent Natya Chetana one) have had to be self-financing, so they've depended on popularity, sales and a bit of goodwill. Now, with funding behind us, we can open them up to more people, and bring in the practitioners we really want to learn from.

Happy New Year......

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Art and Politics

Art (perhaps theatre more than any other) and politics are so closely linked that sometimes they seem to be the same thing. We?ve been juggling the Ghana project around the needs of the Ghana @ 50 Secretariat, which has set its own programme of plays, and now needs us to come in December 2007, rather than September, which means we?ll be rehearsing in London after all. That?s probably OK. I meet Nigel Tallantire, who is co-ordinating the Africa ?07 initiative for the British Council, and it seems to work well for him. I read between the lines of our discussion, and shift one or two of the priorities to bring the project closer to their programme.

The effect of all this is probably going to be quite good for the project. We?ll be able to tour outside Accra, bringing the work to a broad range of Ghanaian communities. This is very much in line with the way my vision of the play is developing: I want it to feel as if it could happen in an open space in an African village - and that?s a lot easier if it actually will! Quite how a production like that works on the UK stage is another matter. The London venue is the key: we need to work the space so that the roughness is there, but in way which is honest to both the play?s African origins and the fact that it is being done in dialogue with the West (and is actually about that dialogue). I meet David Lan at the Young Vic, and look at the refurbished building with him. The Studio space is totally flexible, and could work very well for us. David, who used to live in Zimbabwe and wrote Desire in response to his time there, is programming quite a bit of African work. He?s unsure whether that?s something he should embrace as a theme, or whether he should draw a line. I know what I think, but I?m biased. So?.. he?s reading the script.

Meanwhile, Deborah and I meet the local MP. Since the registered office is now in Enfield, this is Joan Ryan. I had thought, as a Labour newcomer in 1997, she would be quite Blairite, but the office, in the heart of Ponder?s End, feels quite "Old Labour". Joan is brutally honest that she doesn?t know much about the arts - prompting Deborah to remark that any Conservative MP would have said "Oh I love the arts" at the start of the meeting. I guess the honesty is refreshing, and it means that I have to talk about the company in directly political (though not party political) terms, which it?s good for me to do occasionally! Joan warms up when we talk about Africa (she?s a trustee of a charity which makes motorbikes for nurses, midwives and other essential workers), work permits (she sits on immigration committees) and Europe (ditto). By the end of the meeting she?s talking about linking us with some quite useful names in her address book, though I strongly suspect timing will be the key, and they?re probably the sort of people who will be able to do one thing, so we need to make sure it?s the right thing?..

With all this, my head is filled with politics as Subodh Pattanik and Sujata Proyambaia from the Natya Chetana Company in Orissa, India, arrive for this weekend?s Laboratory workshop. Natya Chetana is a company which lives and breathes its politics on a daily basis. They live in a "theatre village" (memories of Ninasam), which on closer investigation turns out to be a communist community (small "c" on "communist"). The money comes in to the community, and people receive money from the central fund according to their needs, rather than according to their level of responsibility or their perceived skills. Because the village is set apart from the urban centres, even of this poorest of Indian states, and because the accommodation is owned by the community, they have very few daily financial needs: only food, really. They don?t use beds, chairs or tables, in response to the de-forestation by the furniture companies. They don?t drink tea or coffee, because of the policies of the multinationals whose tea and coffee plantations have dispossessed so many Orissan farmers. They really do practice an alternative way of living, of which theatre-making is at the centre. And this way of living, unlike ours, is sustainable.

Subodh takes his company to villages for three-week residencies (which they offer to the village community in return for food and shelter). In that time, they research the lives of the people, their concerns, their stories, their cultural forms, and the issues with which they are faced. The company then returns to its base to devise a play which deals with these materials, and (crucially) uses the local performance forms as the medium for storytelling. They then tour the play across the rural areas by bicycle; in a form they call "Cyco Theatre". Subodh tells us about times when performances have led to direct action and to change, and the sense of an ongoing building of awareness and consciousness among the rural communities. He also tells me that companies have on occasion hired gangsters to attack them, forcing them to cycle through elephant-populated areas at night.

"Natya Chetana" means "Theatre for Awareness": but, unlike so many Theatre for Development groups, this one has not lost the theatre in the political agenda. The workshop is based around theatre games, many of which are quite familiar, and folk dances of Orissa. The real revelation comes when Sujata performs solo versions of two of their plays. The blending of folk art, Brechtian epic and the immediacy of personal experience is thrilling. It?s an astonishing performance. Politics made flesh.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Teaching Acting

I've been thinking more about this since the last post - partly because of Neil's fascinating comment, and partly because, with one thing and another, I'm doing more of it. The Laboratory moves forward: the next workshop is on Saturday, and we've put in a funding bid to make it a major feature of next year's work.

We presented the students' work at Rose Bruford last week. They did amazingly well - very intense and committed performances. So had I taught them anything? Or - had they learnt anything? I guess what I meant last time was that I don't feel you can teach talent, the performing instinct, the Zen leap into the other world of the stage. But you CAN teach technique, and you can teach genre. Watching them in action, I could see what they had taken on board was the different discipline of political performance; that Brecht-meets-China idea that we mustn't confuse the character and the actor. Teaching this, I've become more consciously aware of it: but I think it's present somewhere in most of what we do. Our productions tend to use naturalism as only one of a number of theatre styles, and it's the only one where the dividing lines are not totally clear.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Can you teach acting?

For the last couple of months (since the last week of Dis-Orientations, actually), I've been trying to answer this question. In spite of lots of teaching in drama schools, including directing several shows, I've never actually been hired as an acting teacher before. I've been working with second year actor-musicians at Rose Bruford on something called "Beyond Naturalism", which I guess I should be fairly well-placed to talk about. In practice, it's meant doing classes around Brecht and other political writers, as well as people like Pinter. We're now heading towards a short presentation of work around themes to do with the War on Terror, some of which is taken from existing text, and some of which they've created themselves.

But I'm not sure how much I've been able to teach them. When I direct, I tend to assume that the actor's performance is their own responsibility - that I'm there to deal with the strategy, rather than the tactics of a production. I suppose that's one reason why I like to work with people who bring with them a specific cultural tradition, who are able to draw off a vocabulary of performance that already exists - so that I can work with it, rather than feeling I have to become some sort of innovative guru. So when a student asks me "What should I do when I'm not in rehearsal?" and all I can answer is "Learn the text, work on its meaning, research the background", it feels rather inadequate. I suspect the tutors who led them through Naturalism gave them lots of Stanislavski-style atextual work to do on "character": stuff that would have made them feel scientific and busy. In the end, I tend to believe that only one thing matters in the theatre, and that is belief: the performer's belief in the validity of the work, which communicates itself as the audience's belief in the performance. Three sessions a week hasn't really been enough to arrive at this point, although I do feel there's a real commitment in the room. But these time constraints have meant I'm directing less well than usual - saying "Do this" far too often because if I open it up for democratic discussion (as I surely should in this situation even more than in others), then we just won't have a showing by Friday. The one consolation is that they do understand when I tell them this, which is a learning process in its own way.

I went to see Caroline or Change at the National on Saturday. It's odd to see a piece with such "mainstream", Broadway-style production values - it's been a long time. Nice, of course, that Tony Kushner can make use of mainstream forms to deal with issues of racism and economic divisions, even the legacy of slavery (I'm seeing it everywhere these days!). It's very well acted, and even better sung - but in the end it feels a bit slight, a bit too easy for the scale of the underlying subject. Angels in America it ain't.

Saturday's Independent has an article on the 50 leading figures in contemporary African culture. Ama Ata is in there, as she should be. I email the link to all our prospective venues, in the hope it will make a few people sit up and take interest. It seems to be working.....