Saturday, March 31, 2007
I wrote an immediate letter to our MP - Joan Ryan (who is also a Minister of State at the Home Office). Here's the text of it:
Many thanks for the letter you sent recently congratulating Border Crossings on our A4E funding. This funding has allowed us to move the Laboratory programme forward in very positive ways.
However, the Laboratory is of value in so far as it feeds the main work of the company, which is in the field of intercultural theatre production. Over the last few years, we have created major pieces of work in collaboration with artists from key regions across the world; notably China, India, Aboriginal Australia and Eastern Europe. We are now regarded as a leading force in intercultural theatre on a global basis. Only last week, I was in Hong Kong at the invitation of the British Council, developing new partnerships with Asian arts organisations.
The work we have done over the last twelve years has been funded from a number of sources, but a key funder has constantly been Arts Council England, through the Grants for the Arts Programme. I was therefore devastated to hear the announcement that this programme is to be cut by a massive 35% with immediate effect. This is a direct result of the DCMS re-allocating Lottery funds to the 2012 Olympics. It is somewhat ironic that one of the reasons London was awarded the Olympics was the significant cultural element in the bid.
This cut will have a catastrophic effect on the cultural industries, and will be particularly drastic for small to medium scale organisations like Border Crossings, which do not have core funding, but are dependent on project grants. Given that these are also the organisations which are generating the most dynamic and inspiring creative work, there is an urgent need to review this cut.
I would ask you to make an immediate overture to Tessa Jowell and to David Lammy, and to table a motion in the House censuring this decision.
I hope to hear from your shortly.
Artistic DirectorBorder Crossings
If you're reading this, please write something similar to your own MP. You can go to www.writetothem.com and follow the links.
There's also a dedicated blog at http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/theatre/2007/03/this_arts_council_cut_will_dev.html
though I doubt the power of the blogosphere to do much about this. The only real way forward is to make noise at the centre of political power. Let them know there are votes in this.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
This is a peculiar place to be talking about culture, and the food of the spirit – but maybe this is our common dilemma in the 21st century and Hong Kong simply writes it large. The Festival Symposium, which I attend as a member of the British Council’s Connections through Culture delegation, is all about Festivals, and especially Festivals in Asia. With one significant exception (of which more anon) there’s a competitive subtext between Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul: all vying to be the biggest, the most impressive, the most prestigious. Values of this kind have very little to do with cultural needs, and everything to do with metropolitan marketing.
Not, of course, that this precludes these Festivals from programming significant and challenging work. I’m honest about the reason for coming: I want to get the Trilogy seen in Asia. So I’m selling as furiously as the next person. In this environment, I find it easier than in my own polite culture of circuits and networks. Here, it’s expected; and a certain pushiness is actually a contribution to a friendly discussion.
The UK’s circuits and networks turn out in force. One of the fringe benefits of this meeting, which I’d not really expected, was the large number of British people I got to talk to, many of whom I’d been phoning and emailing for years but never actually met. Laura Collier is here from the Traverse in Edinburgh, and seems excited to discuss Dilemma and Origins. I chat to people from Northern Broadsides, Natural Theatre, and a new Northern Irish cultural exchange company. Deborah Shaw is here from the RSC, and I’m thrilled that she starts our conversation by saying how interested she is in all that Border Crossings is doing. Nice to know we’re so present on the radar of significant figures. The very first person I see as I walk into the Novotel for our Friday night rendezvous is William Wong, who assisted me on Dis-Orientations, and is now networking his way around Asia (as a Hong Kong person, William is a very smooth networker). His presence gives the whole event the feel of a mini-reunion; especially since Meijing is here (my translator on that first trip to Shanghai, and now the Council’s CtC Manager in Beiing); as is Ophelia Huang (who is brokering discussions in Shanghai, and introduces me to the Director of the Shanghai Festival – he asks if the show is available this year…..); and Queenie Lau, the Council’s Arts Manager in Hong Kong, bears a marked resemblance to Zhang Ruihong (same hairstyle, same smile). When Ieng Un pops over from Macao to have lunch with me on Monday and discuss the next stages of the project, there’s a real sense that something is building up.
On Friday night we were bussed across Hong Kong to the Kwai Tsing Theatre (900 seats and a vast stage), to see My Life as a Dancer – the Evolution. This is a Festival Commission, involving 16 contemporary dancer-choreographers from Hong Kong collaborating to make a sort of variety programme. As usual with mixed bills it was …. well, mixed. I liked a crazy sequence with the whole cast in bright orange dresses, going very anarchic as light turned the skin blue but left the dresses orange and zingy. There was also a strange and fascinating sequence with a small platform used as a kind of imprisoning hovercraft, with a woman caught on it being moved by men who yelled into radios as they danced: something with a bit of edge here.
It’s very hard to tell just how edgy one’s allowed to be in contemporary Chinese theatre. Ophelia and I catch up on the discussions with Director You at the Yue Company. He’s very keen to continue the collaboration, she says, but is still concerned to read the full script in Chinese before moving towards any performances in China. Fair enough, I suppose. As Benny Chia, the Director of the Fringe Club, remarks at the Symposium – collaboration doesn’t just mean “working together”; it can also imply “assisting the enemy”. Certainly the Symposium doesn’t give much sense of any radical new theatre emerging in China. Lu Kaiwang, the Director of the recently-created International Festival of Theatre in Beijing, talks about a Festival dedicated to Ibsen, another to Chekhov, and one coming up around good old Shakespeare. The invited companies to date are the stalwarts of naturalism, and the Chinese companies appear to be trying to imitate them: Lu shows some images of Chinese actors with spirit-gummed European beards. When he’s pushed a bit, he happily admits that these productions were chosen precisely because of their irrelevance: the less something has to say, the more chance there is of getting to say it.
Hong Kong, of course, is not like mainland China, and retains a significantly higher level of free expression. I see Falun Gong supporters protesting by the Star Ferry, as they do outside the Chinese Embassy in London, with images of alleged torture on the mainland. Grace Lang, the Programming Director of the Hong Kong Festival, is very open to the idea of the Trilogy coming here in 2009, and is genuinely excited about work which says something immediate. At the same time, she too has to be cautious. She had looked at Nixon in China once; but Chairman Mao having a blow-job from his Secretary is too much even for the SAR. I decide to tell her from the outset about the political and sexual elements in our work – she doesn’t seem fazed.
Censorship and democracy, free expression and clamp-down: the balance feels very delicate, even in this space which is not quite China. The South China Morning Post is full of the re-election of Donald Tsang to be Chief Executive of the SAR, and the spin being put on it is that this is a blow for democracy – though how that is possible when the electorate is 800 and the population is 7 million I do not know. Not that an Englishman has any right to criticise: it wasn’t until the tenure of the very last Governor, Chris Patten, that the British took any steps at all towards democratising this place – it’s only when it looks like somebody else’s despotism will take over from our own that we suddenly get worked up about political freedom.
In the midst of all this, two remarkable women shine out as beacons of hope. One of them is Ary Sutedja, who isn’t actually from China at all, but Indonesia, where she runs the JakArt Festival. Indonesia has very different problems from China (and from the West), though the globalisation demon is significantly present there too. At the end of a morning which has been filled with discussions of multiple funding sources, and glib comments from British producers about never turning money down, Ary tells us about the making of art with no resources at all except for passion and goodwill. She tells us how, when she finally got government backing, a civil servant turned up with the grant having removed 40% as the customary corruption figure, and she had felt obliged to reject the rest so as to avoid being implicated in this institutionalised bribery. It’s a very salutary moment. A lot of tired and cynical bureaucrats suddenly start to count their blessings.
The other remarkable woman in Jin Xing. I had wanted to meet her since reading her story in Laurence Senelick’s book The Changing Room, and since Xu Zheng told me I had to talk to her. Jin Xing was born a man, and even became a Colonel in the Chinese army, before having a sex change. The fact that this was possible, and that it was done so openly that she could make dance pieces about it, suggests either that she has the most forceful personality, or that China is in some ways more liberal than we suspect, or a bit of both. Probably both. Jin Xing is now China’s leading contemporary dance practitioner, based in Shanghai, and runs a new Festival called Shanghai Dance. She is also one of the few Chinese artists who can say whatever they like and get away with it. Her contributions to the Symposium are outspoken, outrageous and right: she lays into the star system, and the West’s ongoing exoticisation of Chinese culture. Over a glass of wine, I tell her about the Trilogy in far more detail than I’ve dared discuss it with anybody else here so far. Her response is the one I’d hoped for: fascination. “You must bring it to my Festival”, she says. I decide I’d better point out it’s theatre with dance in it, not the other way round. She welcomes that. I hope this works out: this would be a natural home for this work.
More surprises on Saturday night, when we go to the Studio Theatre at the vast Hong Kong Arts Centre to see Lost Village. This is a brave commission from the Festival, bringing together mainland Chinese and Japanese theatre-makers to look at history and how we deal with it. There’s even a reference to the recent row over Japanese school history text-books. Again, I find myself wrong-footed and surprised about what can be done, and is being done, in contemporary Asian theatre. The play isn’t entirely successful for me – the various storylines never quite gel, and don’t seem to relate dramaturgically to the grand themes which keep getting trumpeted. This may be partly an issue of accessibility: to my ear, Chinese and Japanese sound horribly similar, and if I look up to see the supertitle, I often miss which character is speaking. Lots of lessons on the language question. But I just love the fact that the play is being done at all.
Sunday is my tourist day, and I cram in all I can. There’s a fun exhibition at the Museum of Art about Chinglish – the emerging Hong Kong hybrid language which, the curator argues with some force, may turn out to be the world language of the 21st century. The heavy polluted mist which has hung over the City since I arrived, lifts for an hour or two, and I take the Star Ferry across the harbour, and the tram up to the Peak. I do a spot of shopping in Temple Street night market, and sink a sun-downing beer in Lan Kwai Fong, where I get talking to some German businessmen en route to Shenzhen. “Hong Kong still feels very British”, they say. “They queue up. Not like China, where you just get hit by a wave of people.”
I have dinner at the Yung Kee Restaurant: one of the fifteen best in the world, according to some American magazine. The roast goose is famous: Yung Kee has it own farm to ensure the quality. This, plus vegetables in oyster sauce, fried rice with prawns and two glasses of very good red set me back HK$300, which is about £20. This may be the capitalist city run mad, but it is also remarkably cheap. Yet another little mystery in the globalised world.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
These last couple of weeks have been characterised by our difference, in ways which Zhou Enlai (whose Shanghai Communiqué is full of the sense that it’s fine to be different) might well have approved. Fred is the blocking man: he knows this staging backwards, having worked on the opera in virtually every incarnation since 1987. Which is a long time in politics and opera alike. He’s both patient and precise. My job is to help flesh the staging out, to talk about history and poetry, character and emotion. There’s a very clear division of labour, and it works. The trips have come at the right time in this sense too. By the time I’m back, Fred will have staged everything, leaving me to energise it next week.
Sometimes, I feel as if I’m reading Fred’s recreation of Peter’s staging as (if I were directing something new) I might read a text or a score. Thinking about what it might mean – what resonance this work might acquire through the personality of this particular performer in this particular time and place. It’s good discipline, and oddly similar to some other things I’ve been doing, especially in the Trilogy. The elements of Yakshagana in Orientations, and of Yueju in Dis-Orientations, were in a way “authentic” (dread word), because they were quotations from traditional performances (very precisely so in the case of Ruihong and Haili’s work from The Butterfly Lovers in Dis-Orientations). My job became to give it resonance through context. It’s a really interesting approach to how we might go about making new theatre for the globalised age.
It’s also very Asian. Like the tight discipline of the inherited routines in traditional Asian theatre, the rigour of this inherited staging, so alien to my Western spirit of individual free creativity, can in fact be a very liberating and empowering thing. I’m forced to be more creative because the restraints are so extreme. In the same way that Ruihong and Radhakrishna make something new and beautiful out of an inherited structure.
I wonder whether what I’m doing on Nixon should be classed as direction, or as dramaturgy. Then I decide it doesn’t really matter.
To the plane.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
So, today it was finally finished and ready for dispatch, and I trundled down to the Post Office in Sindagma Square, which also happens to be where the Parliament building is. I manage to time my arrival to coincide with that of Vladimir Putin. The Russian President is here for a Nixon-Mao style summit with Costas Karamanlis, signing the deal on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline project; and the home of democracy has decided to greet him with a serious display of what it does best. There was a huge demonstration - presumably about the human rights record of the Russian Federation, though I couldn't read the placards or understand the chanting. There were also armed police EVERYWHERE - full riot gear, shields, helmets, gas masks, machine guns, tear gas canisters. Outside the Parliament they stood ranged across the street, their vans behind them like a road-block, while the front rank of protesters yelled in their faces. Then, with total surrealism, three National guards with fezs on their heads and pom-poms on their shoes, performed what can only be described as a poncey goose-step along the adjoining pavement.
I keep saying this place invented democracy and theatre at the same time. It also followed its tragedies with satyr plays.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
I've sent back a consultation form and posted some responses on the website - but I thought I might as well put them on the blog too, since there is an element of the position statement here. The questions are theirs - the answers are mine (with the benefit of discussion with other artists involved in the company).
1. What do you value about the arts?
I’ve been asked to respond to this consultation as Artistic Director of Border Crossings, which is an intercultural arts organisation, and my answers will of course be coloured by that perspective. But I feel that what we offer, as a company working in intercultural theatre, is in many ways representative and characteristic of art more generally, and is able to highlight the incredible value of art and culture in any society.
I happen to be writing this in Athens, because I’m working with the National Opera of Greece at the moment. It’s an appropriate place in which to try to answer these questions, especially for a theatre practitioner like myself, because it was here that western theatre was invented. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was also here that western democracy was invented. Democracy, contrary to the implication of much US-UK foreign policy, is not something which can be imposed upon a society, or latched onto the coat-tails of capital. It is something which arises out of a culture, an atmosphere. As artists and cultural workers, our role is to create such an atmosphere. The arts make moods amongst their audiences. They empower those audiences through the atmospheres they generate. They make certain things thinkable, and other things unthinkable.
At the present moment, much of what, throughout the history of western civilization, we have regarded as unthinkable within democratic structures and traditions, is becoming thinkable. I mean the erosion of civil liberties, the institutionalisation of racism, the criminalisation of the victims of human trafficking, the labelling of people fleeing persecution as illegal migrants, the deliberate impoverishment of people in other countries by multinational corporations… I could go on. These things happen because we have become capable of thinking the unthinkable. They can only be stopped by a concerted campaign in the hearts and minds of the public.
In Periclean Athens, theatre was a civic duty – both for the performers and the audience. The entire citizenry went to hear and see a complex performance in which there were many voices; refined and made special through poetry, song, dance and image. The voices they heard were often those of the excluded – so many Greek plays have the names of women as a title, and the Chorus is so often a group of older people, or young people, or foreigners. Because in the arts, in the cultural space, people can meet as equals. There is no equality in the market-place or on the battlefield. We have no political, social or economic equality. But in the empty space of the theatre – there we stand as our naked selves. And that is where we must begin. In 5th century Athens, going to the theatre was a compulsory preparation for the legislative process and for jury service. If we are searching for ways out of our current moral bankruptcy – and I believe many of us are – then we could do a lot worse than look to this Greek cultural model.
So, if we desire a better society, a more democratic society, a more secure society, a more just society, we must invest in art and culture. Because when people explore what it is to be human, it enables them to become more humane.
2. What principles should guide public funding of the arts today?
I am very wary of the idea posted elsewhere in the consultation that the Arts Council should divide its funding programmes into three pots: community, national and individual. I am wary of this because it implies that these are the sole priorities for public funding, and this is surely nonsense. Yes, there is a clear need for national institutions which in some way reflect the nation to itself; yes, there is a need for community organisations which allow participation and self-expression. But the largest need by far is found in the middle ground between these two spaces; where the bulk of artists practice their work, making art which sometimes involves communities (but should not be compelled to, because sometimes a community benefits more from being described than from describing itself), and which sometimes deals with national concerns, but which can also focus on the local, the international, or the personal and internal.
The problem with these categories is that they are political and social categories, not artistic ones. I am acutely aware of the arts operating within political and social structures, and in dialogue with those structures – but to confine them within those structures is to deny their role as a critique and a source of alternative paradigms. The structures of funding should facilitate the creativity of artists, not confine them within rigid categories. In this sense, the current Grants for the Arts structure is better than the proposed alternative.
3.What are the responsibilities of a publicly funded arts organisation?
To bite the hand that feeds it.
To be the jester at the court.
To embrace the complex and to assert that to be accessible is not to be simplistic.
To reflect upon and to create new worlds.
To be our prophets, our secular priests, our dreamers and our clowns.
4. When should an artist receive public money?
When they have proved themselves capable of dreaming on behalf of the public.
5. Should members of the public be involved in arts funding decisions?
As with any aspect of policy, governments and quangos should talk to people capable of holding the conversation. Members of the public are sometimes involved in decisions about (say) science policy, if (and only if) they have an expertise in that area. The arts and culture should be no different.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Language has been much in my mind this week, since I'm back in Athens, and once again rehearsing Nixon in China with Fred co-directing. There are British and American soloists, plus two Greek ones, Greek musicians and stage staff, a Greek chorus (!) and some Chinese actors, two of whom speak neither English nor Greek. In the actors' rehearsals, English direction is translated into Greek and Chinese. For a piece so intensely pre-occupied with language and communication, it seems highly appropriate. It's also a bit perturbing that so much of the opera is about non-communication.
There's quite a bit of the latter around this first week. Teething troubles, I'm sure. Our first Chorus rehearsal doesn't happen because our decision to cancel the principals gets interpreted as "cancel everybody". Our second chorus call gets mired in a union dispute: apparently the rehearsal room has bad air. We end up crossing town to the company's little resident space (not the one we'll be performing in) and give an hour's introductory talk in the foyer. We can't do any staging, though. And there isn't another Chorus rehearsal for a week, because they're doing Tosca. Meanwhile, the dispute remains unresolved. I try to rise above it all, and spend Friday evening talking to Jeremy Huw Williams about the extraordinary figure of Zhou Enlai. In this opera at least, and perhaps in history, he is a profound and spiritual figure, continuing to work and to do as much as he could for hope and a future, while all around him there was unbelievable chaos.......
This blog is meant to be about Border Crossings, but this particular piece of freelance work is so much part of that intercultural project in terms of my involvement and thinking about it that I suspect I'll be mentioning it rather often. For some reason, the company rehearses 10-1 and 7-10, which means that the afternoons are good for admin and blogging, so long as I can avoid the natural temptation towards the siesta.
Monday, March 05, 2007
Here I am, back at Heathrow, waiting to go back to
Much of the last few days in
I went to a meeting with the Cultural Attachés at the US Embassy. It was scheduled for , and that’s when I (somewhat naively) arrived. Half an hour later, I was still battling my way through the security measures. Tank-proof barriers, endless queues for paperwork checking, photo i/ds, shoe removal, airport-style body scans, confiscation of mobile phones, car keys (car keys?!) and USB sticks, police with machine guns everywhere….. by the time I got in, I was more than ready to discuss Native American culture, its spirituality, its green-ness and what it could teach the mad Western world about living in harmony! Of course, there’s a serious element of the warrior brave to this culture, but the war on terror more than dwarfs the efforts of Crazy Horse. The Embassy is very supportive – but also a bit cagey about committing money (as so often). The reasons are instructive. “In a normal year”, they say, “we’d do this at once. And I’m sure we’ll be able to manage something….. It’s just that our discretionary budgets have been really squeezed.” If the richest nation on earth is feeling the squeeze on cultural exchange, what hope for the rest of us? It’s the war, of course: Bush’s Middle Eastern lunacy is stopping any money going anywhere useful. And, of course,
The Australian High Commission is an altogether easier affair. For one thing, it only takes a moment or two to get through the door. Kirsten Moore, the Cultural Advisor, knows all about Border Crossings, having studied the website in some depth, and we talk at length about Bullie’s House, about indigenous protocol, about Wesley, and about the real value of First Nations cultures for the contemporary world. By the time I leave, she’s offered us the use of Australia House for our launch event in September, and the presence of the High Commissioner or his Deputy. Plus lots of email addresses and contact for likely funding sources in Oz. I’m sure the charming Americans would have loved to offer their building too – but it’s a bit of problem doing a public event in what feels like a high security prison.