Monday, November 26, 2007

The Standing Ovation

The last performance was on Saturday. We went out with a serious bang. As often in the past, it's taken until the last week of running in London for the word to get out about the quality of what we're doing: this time largely down to the Metro review and word of mouth (that mysterious marketing tool which gets ticked more than any other on our feedback forms). As a result, the Africa Centre was packed for the last show. We worked hard to get everybody in: there were moments when we thought we wouldn't manage. A nice problem to have. It was a very diverse audience too. Probably about 50% black, with Asian a nd white people too, and quite a few children. A little microcosm of London's Afrophile community!

At the end, I saw something I've not seen for a very long time. The entire audience rose to their feet as one and cheered. Wow. What a way to go out. A real sense of achievement for everybody involved.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

More feedback

The audiences have been getting bigger and bigger, and more and more enthusiastic. Standing ovations again at the Africa Centre last night, I'm told. Lovely. And Saturday's show is virtually sold out already.

Just before the pick-up, a very interesting director from Scotland, Maggie Kinloch, came in to see the play. Talking to her afterwards, I found myself bemoaning the difficulty of getting broadsheet press to respond to the company's work, even with a National Drama Company as co-producer, and the resulting uphill struggle we always seem to have with marketing. Here's what she emailed to me the next day:

"It was great to meet you too; I enjoyed the show very much and have thought a lot today about the show and about your work in general. You are doing really vital and dynamic work and I know that it can be hard when you don't get the press interest and subsequently the audiences are not what they should be. But your work really matters you know. It really does."

There have been lots of "Wonderful" and "Brilliant" comments on our audience feedback sheets (plus, at last, one negative comment - "too long - our attention span is only 45 minutes"!!) - but I think of all the feedback we've had, Maggie's words are the most valuable to me. She'll help me move forward to the next piece and, as Beckett used to say, "fail better".

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Listening to the Audience

These few days at the Bernie Grant Centre have been terrific for us. For a start, the audiences have been big and welcoming. And they've been very diverse, with a high proportion of Ghanaian and other African people. It's rare and inspiring to find a venue where the audience development work has really reached into a community and found a new theatre audience. Of course, for this show, it's easier than it would be for many: Tottenham boasts the largest Ghanaian community outside Ghana. As you walk along the road outside the Centre, every other shop seems to be advertising money transfer to Ghana.

Having this audience moves the production on in some very interesting ways. There are magical moments when they join in with the songs, especially the funeral song near the end. It's an incredible experience to hear the auditorium humming with the same music as the stage. The laughter here is in different places; the Twi is clearly understood; and the cultural references are specific.

After Friday's show, some Fanti people had a long talk with some of the cast and Steve. Steve and Seun reported back to me yesterday. They were concerned that Ato was seen to kick Eulalie in the moment when his anger and frustration finally erupt. I'd deliberately pushed the violence beyond a slap, since I'd been concerned not to get the reaction I saw on the video Awo showed me of a production in Ghana - the audience applauding the slap. The audience members weren't concerned that the violence was strong, however - it was the specific action. Apparently Fanti people have a cultural resistance to kicking, even in a wild fury, because there's a taboo against the foot as dirty, in contact with the ground. I decide to change the fight in response to this, and tonight Ato slaps Eulalie, then punches her twice. It's actually more theatrically effective too, since there's no change to the physical impetus behind his fury.

Interestingly, Seun says that it also makes him feel more comfortable as a young black actor. He's very wary of the cliched image of young black men in this country, and doesn't want to pander to it. This role is anything but that cliche, especially the way he's playing it - but I'm pleased that the audience have moved us forward, not only in relation to Fanti culture, but also in relation to our own.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reviews, reviews

The show's now at the new Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham: an amazing building, by (appropriately enough) a Ghanaian architect. It's very well run: the staff, who are the most enthusiastic I've met in a long time, were brought into the auditorium yesterday afternoon while we were plotting the lights, to meet us and explain their roles in the place. Very friendly. Many's the venue we've played in the past where the management hasn't even been to see the performance.

We're here for three nights, then back at the Africa Centre for the last week. The spaces are very different from one another, as are the audiences. The Bernie Grant is quite big - more than 200 seats - and has a very large stage and a high grid. The Africa Centre is small, with the audience on three sides and our improvised lighting rig. Somewhat ironically, the Africa Centre is the one where we are getting the more mainstream audience, while the Bernie Grant has done its audience development work very well, and is bringing in an African crowd. It's always great to watch the play with Twi speakers in the audience, picking up on subtleties and making them resonate even for people who've never set foot in Africa.

We've had three reviews so far. They're all on the website. The Time Out one is the most important for us in terms of audience building, so it's slightly disappointing that they only gave us three stars, while the others gave us four, especially since the other three-star reviews in this week's edition had far more negative things to say about their subjects than this one did. The quibble is with aspects of the writing - it seems a bit of a shame when there's so much positive stuff to be said. But I guess critics make their name by being negative - and they all come from the literary background that encourages them to look at text before performance. Still, with such good online reviews, and the promise of Metro on Monday, I guess we've not got much to complain about. Watch out for Monday....

Monday, November 12, 2007

Post-show discussions

Yesterday the Observer published a letter from me - an edited version of a comment I posted on their Arts blog in response to an article by Bidisha about a dearth of plays by black women. It's a bit ironic that what is essentially a whinge by me about not getting mainstream media attention is the best bit of mainstream media attention we've received. The lack of interest astonishes me - the audience reaction to this show is SO overwhelmingly positive, and the writer and Ghanaian actors are not exactly lacking in prestige; and BC itself has a full 12 years of track record. I do wonder what else I have to do. Of course, if we were in the Young Vic or the Soho (as we nearly were) then every critic would be there. As it is, everything depends on the man who writes for Time Out, whose review is published tomorrow.

Meanwhile, as we await the verdict, we've been touring round the country again. Two nights at the Drum in Birmingham, one at the West Wing in Slough. Houses rather smaller than on the first leg of the tour, but very "into" the play, especially on the second night in Birmingham, where I had the strange experience of being the only white person in the audience.

We've had a few post-show discussions along the way. Alastair Niven came and did one at the Africa Centre, and tomorrow we've got Aidan McQuade coming from Anti-Slavery International. On we go....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Press Night

Last night we finally got to the official opening at the Africa Centre. A packed house - lots of guests from the Afrophile community, including a Ghanaian family complete with baby, who gurgled through the show. That's African theatre for you... oddly, it seemed to add something to the show - there are so many references to children, and it felt rather like the background sound of the village!

Word on the street is good. There was a very buzzy atmosphere in Aunty Ama's Spot afterwards, and lots of people were there who had contributed in some way to this project - James and Patience Gibbs, Tessa Watt, Nick from the Arts Council.... I made a bit of a speech to thank everybody (especially Dzifa for the Ghanaian collaboration and Kate for making it all happen), and then got Aunty Ama to launch the Theatre and Slavery book.
We're rather proud of this, the first of our more discursive publications. There are essays about the play (a very good one by Awo Asiedu), plus others about other work on the theme: Julia Swindells has written about theatre in the run-up to the 1807 Act, and John Thieme has written about Caribbean work on the subject. There's the script of Mohammed ben Abdallah's The Slaves, pictures and extracts from Moj of the Antarctic, and poetry by Ama and by Dev Virahsawmy. And, especially importantly, there's material about contemporary slavery too. A very touching piece by Shikha Ghildyal about TfD work with child labourers, a Foreword by Aidan McQuade of Anti-Slavery International, and a characteristically brilliant essay by Rustom Bharucha, who as usual shows it's all more complex than it seems.

It's all going on at the moment.....

Monday, November 05, 2007

Back in London

Back at the Africa Centre, for our London opening. It's been a very long week! We lit the show on Friday after driving back from Leicester, then did a tech run and two shows on Saturday, plus a Sunday matinee, as well as squeezing in a few radio interviews! The good news is that there have been decent-sized audiences, with a predominance of African people, and that their response has been little short of ecstatic. We've had loads of great feedback on the research questionnaires, but I thought for this blog I should just quote an email which arrived this morning.

"I could have paid a lot of money to sit silently and watch any performance from the stalls at any other theatre but I chose to watch Dilemma of a Ghost at The Africa Centre and was welcomed into a world. Within moments of the lights dimming the stars of an African night materialised above us and I was immediately transported back to a landscape that was familiar to me. A chorus of women huddled in one corner wearing blankets seemingly in a trance and the gentle, rhythmic beauty of a Seprewa being played by a traditional Ghanian musician Osei Korankye in another. I was transfixed and transported from the beginning!

This however, was a very gentle introduction into the most thought-provoking, potent, vibrant, mesmerising, cathartic and communal performance I've ever seen outside of Africa.

It was directed using the Ghanaian style of Theatre, total and interactive. The style is called Abibgromma and it is storytelling using the language of colour, folklore, music, dance, mime, movement and spirituality. It was very powerful but not in any sense overwhelming, in fact it drew you in to the core.

The venue lent itself to the proximity required to tell such a tale. The Africa Centre in Covent Garden was once a place that sold slaves and this in part was the story, the Ghost. It is a tiny room with slim iron pillars that surround the hall decorated in Victorian Broekie lace (think Long Street in Cape Town) and provide support for a gallery. At one point I found myself metaphorically standing in the gallery, leaning over the ornate railing, in some African town. I could feel the heat of the sun on my back as I observed a street scene below (the performance) and felt myself step back against the protection of the wall into the shadow and cool, still watching as a scene below became more heated.

Although the audience were sat in chairs below I felt as the story unfolded I wanted to be sitting on the wooden floorboards getting more and more drawn in to the Ghanaian chants, music and action of the performers. Funny that, as the story ended the dancing began and members of the audience were encouraged to join in.....they're probably still dancing now!

The Dilemmas that run through the play are complex and stem from not knowing which path to choose, the past the present. How to deal with the past from a Ghanaian National's point of view, from an African exile's point of view and from a Western point of view. How to relate to each other with regard to the past, slavery and cultural differences.

Also, it was a Dilemma I imagine for the author writing about slavery from a Ghanaian perspective in English in 1964, the same Dilemma today approaching this sensitive subject.

I don't pretend to understand everything about the production partly because I'm not Ghanaian and partly because I'm just your average theatre goer, but I do feel enriched and mighty glad I went to see it. Its taken 42 years to sail across from Ghana and I thoroughly recommend you are there to take her lines and welcome her ashore!

This (in my opinion) was theatre at its best, this was how the legacy of a generation, the identity of a Nation, its culture, history, growth and change should be presented and understood and perhaps learnt from. "

That's from a lady called Lorel McConnell - to whom many thanks!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Heading down the country

I'm typing this in Leicester, during a break in our get-in for tonight's show at the Phoenix. Last night we performed in Hull. The best show yet, I would say - with yet another full house. The pitch invasion happened again - we seem to be converting the north of England to African versions of actor-audience relationships.

One of the nice things about touring like this in the early stages is that it allows us to play the show in, before a wide range of audiences and in a wide range of spaces, before the London press night next week. The space in Hull was vast and epic: tonight's is smaller in playing area, but has a bigger auditorium. After all this the Africa Centre may feel a bit cramped: but we'll certainly be able to fill it in terms of vocal and emotional power!