Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And a Happy New Year....

Just before Christmas, Penny, Seema and I drove up to Manchester for lunch with Chris Honer and his General Manager Adrian at the Library Theatre. It's a lovely, very comforting space, in the basement of the magnificent City Library. Chris has been very excited by the DVDs of the Trilogy so far, and wants to co-produce the whole thing in early 2010. This means that the trajectory of 2009 is mapped out in terms of preparing it: we workshop in Shanghai in February, followed by a period of dramaturgy with Brian; then we do the first version of Re-Orientations as a work-in-progress presentation at Goldsmiths in the summer, prior to getting the whole thing ready for 2010. I think that's a good way to time it - we can think a lot and not panic too much.

Christmas took me all over the place, including to Aberystwyth, where I managed to squeeze in a swift and fascinating meeting with Jeremy Turner, who runs Arad Goch there. With all my work on First Nations theatre and languages, it's as well to remember there are people doing indigenous theatre right here in Britain, and fighting the corner for minority languages. Jeremy will be in rehearsals when Origins happens in May - but is keen to come down for the middle weekend, and to talk on a panel about theatre and the survival of minority / indigenous languages and cultures.

The Guardian was nice enough to print my books of the year on Saturday, so I won't repeat them here! But it's been an exciting year for watching theatre and film too, especially at the wonderful Barbican, where I saw the amazingly contemporary German Hedda, the justly famous Black Watch, and Yael Farber's brilliant South African re-working of the Oresteia in the light of the truth and Reconciliation Commission, Molora. Elsewhere, I loved Yours Abundantly from Zimbabwe at the Oval House for its directness and its honesty, and That Night Follows Day at the Gothenborg Festival, for the same reasons. In film, I've had a great year watching First Nations films which we'll be screening in Origins in a few months: especially Tkaronto, The Waimate Conspiracy and Kanehsatake – 270 years of Resistance. Elsewhere, I loved Garin Nugruho's Under the Tree - which was also very valuable for the Trilogy!

See you in 2009.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hamlet without the Prince

Some time ago, Nisha booked for us to see the RSC Hamlet in the West End, knowing it starred David Tennant, who manages to be a very fine actor as well as being a star. In case anybody doesn't know, he's put his back out, and Edward Bennet, who was playing Laertes, has moved up to the title role. It does seem a bit odd to see a comparative unknown playing the title role in what is clearly a star vehicle - Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies..... but it's also rather nice to see an actor playing the part who is not at all showy and doesn't have a known persona to fill or undermine. In fact, he's very good.

During the first half, we were sitting miles away. The production seemed to be about the mirrored set, the sound system and Penny Downie's enormous dress. In the second half, because lots of Dr. Who fans hadn't bothered to turn up, we moved down to the stalls, from where it was a different play. The tourist theatre element vanished - and it became almost entirely about psychology, and was very beautifully acted. I'm not sure I like Gregory Doran's direction much: he's concentrated on the family play, and lost any sense of a radical edge in the process, so it feels very safe. Fortinbras is reduced to a token entrance - all his lines in the final scene are cut. And the "court" simply stand around and watch as the protagonists interact. But that's true of much RSC work these days - it's lost any social dimension.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speaking in the House

Thanks to the help of the Quebec government and a friendly MP called Philip Davies, we were able to give a lunch in the House of Commons on Thursday, to bring together the various cultural diplomats and others involved with Origins. It was pretty exciting to be able to talk about this in the corridors of power! I made a speech... I tend to talk without many notes, so what's below is a rough approximation rather than the real thing - but I wanted some idea of what was said to be available on the blog, so other people involved in Origins, and especially the artists, can have a look at what we talked about.

"At the end of Shane Belcourt’s extraordinary film Tkaronto, which will be receiving its UK première at the Origins Festival in May, the central character, a First Nations Canadian, refers to a prophecy made in 1885 by the Métis leader Louis Riel: “Riel said our people would be asleep for a hundred years. Well, guess what? Time’s up. I’m done being asleep.”

With the wit characteristic of First Nations people across the globe, these lines are symptomatic of a phenomenon I’ve encountered constantly during my research and programming of the Origins Festival over the last couple of years - an assertion of the present moment as a time when the voices of these profound, rich and ancient cultures need to be heard loudly and clearly in the global space. In part, of course, this is to do with a need to overcome the colonial past and to negotiate ways of jointly inhabiting the lands to which these nations are indigenous, and, more broadly, jointly inhabiting the global space. The 21st century has already seen some incredibly important steps along this path of Truth and Reconciliation - not least Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ground-breaking apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the crime of the Stolen Generation. These steps have been greeted with an extraordinary generosity of spirit: when Prime Minister Rudd made that historic apology earlier this year, the crowd of indigenous people who were watching on huge screens outside the Parliament building in Canberra broke into spontaneous cheering. On one level, the Origins Festival of First Nations Theatre and Culture is about that same desire to heal wounds from the past - and that’s why it’s important that it should happen in this city, which was the centre of colonization, and why it’s so inspiring that today’s event should be held in the Houses of Parliament, demonstrating support for this crucial work right at the heart of the British democracy - so many thanks to you Philip for hosting us today. As you would expect, when I told them we were doing this, the First Nations artists we are working with, and who will be coming to London in May, responded with the online equivalent of that spontaneous cheering.

As you will all be aware, there remains much healing work to be done around the legacy of the past. There remain problems of poverty and deprivation in social, economic and educational terms. There remain issues around drug dependency and alcohol abuse. But by showing respect for these cultures, by validating them as equals in our own space, we can join with them to work together towards their empowerment.

For the sense that the time is ripe to listen to the voices of First Nations people is not only to do with the past; it is also very much about the present and the future. Because First Nations cultures are not museum cultures or anthropological curiosities. They are living, vibrant cultures of the present moment: indeed, in some ways they are more aware of the present, its meaning, its potential, than Western cultures; because they have a deep awareness of standing in an historical continuum, of having occupied a particular space in a particular way with an unbroken heritage spanning some two thousand generations - fifty thousand years. How many of us can claim so powerful a sense of presence, of relationship to space, of identity? And from such a knowledge - which reaches far back, mythologically, spiritually and culturally - comes an ability to look far forward with a sense of the longer term, to imagine and envision the future, to offer new possibilities for this chaotic, globalised world.

If we are honest, which we so rarely are – then surely we must acknowledge that we have not got everything sorted out. The crisis in the world economy hardly suggests a global system that is functioning perfectly. The increasingly frequent environmental disasters, the unrest and crime in our cities, the disaffection of our youth, the disintegration of our families – all of this suggests that perhaps we should be listening to people who think differently about these things. The Hopi nation have a word for our way of living – “Koyanisquatsi” – it means “life out of balance”. They have a word for it, and we don’t. That’s because they have thought about it, and we haven’t.

And so we should have the modesty and the courtesy to listen to the alternatives. There is so much that we can learn from these cultures, if we will only listen to what is being offered. They can teach us about our Elders - because in First Nations societies, the Elders are respected and cherished as the guardians of knowledge, not dismissed as "past it" or removed from the community. In First Nations cultures, people look forward to growing old - in marked contrast to our rather feeble attempts to deny the one thing about our lives which is inevitable. In Ngapartji Ngapartji, elders from the Northern Territory, many of whom have rarely travelled even within Australia, will bring their authority, their wisdom and their dignity to the London stage.

First Nations can teach us about our youth - because in First Nations cultures the energy and strength of the young is channelled into the community through sport, art and cultural ritual, rather than being allowed to turn into disaffection and anger. Several of the films we will be screening, for example Alanis Obomsawin's beautifully photographed Sigwan, and the Oneida nation's animated folktale Raccoon and Crawfish, bring an audience of children into this circle, and so will Robert Greygrass, the Lakota performer appearing in Salvage, who will also be storytelling.

They can teach us about the environment - because these nations feel a deep affinity for land, and have a real understanding of its needs and rhythms. At a time when the mismanagement of the world's resources is leading us into an ecological catastrophe which we are only just beginning to understand, we have an urgent need to listen to people who can offer other approaches to living, which respect, rather than destroy, our fragile planet. Many of the performances, films and talks we are presenting in Origins deal with the environmental agenda: the Inuit viewpoint on the melting of the icecap, the indigenous Australian view of nuclear testing in the deserts, the Native American response to industrial pollution of land and water.

They can teach us about democracy. Because the longest-lasting democratic tradition in the world is not housed in this building, or even in Athens, but in the tribal councils of North America. And unlike our democracies, which can sometimes seem so subject to financial and lobbying interests that they are in danger of themselves being commodified, these councils allow everybody to speak, and rest upon the finding of a true consensus - a consensus in which animals and plants also symbolically participate, with people being called to speak for them.

It is this egalitarian democratic dream which, more than anything, makes this Origins Festival so exciting, so inspiring, so necessary. Because this Festival is a coming together of many people who are working creatively around these issues, assembling from the countries which are represented here today (and others too), allowing them the sense that they are part of something very big and very important, which is a global movement for change. Many of the artists we are working with operate in conditions of quite extreme isolation - Yirra Yaakin is based in Perth, which is one of most isolated cities in the world. But when they come together, and realise that they have so much in common with other people who dare to dream, then we see the strength of the project, then we see the breadth and depth of the vision, as we learn from each other's presence - not online, but physically, vocally and emotionally in the same room - and they can go back to the Perth, back to the Central desert, back to the Great Plains, back to the Manitoulin Island Reserve, back to New Zealand’s South Island, nurtured and strengthened to move forward.

And that is why at the heart of the Festival there is the Quebec theatre company Ondinnok's workshop on the Theatre of Healing: a space which will allow artists to interact on the most intimate level, re-contacting their mythic and cultural roots, and discovering what those may offer, what they may mean in relation to one another, in a global context, in the context of a changing world, in the context of our own generation's responsibility to the planet, to the future, to our children.

It is only in an artistic and a cultural context that we can do this - and that's why it's so empowering to see so many cultural diplomats here today. Because it is only in the cultural space that we can truly meet as equals and have a fair and true exchange. Politically, economically, socially - there is no equality. But in the sacred and democratic space of theatre where everybody has a voice, there it is possible for us to come together with no distinctions, with no inequalities, and to begin.

What Louis Riel actually said in 1885 was: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back”. And for me, that has to be the motto of the Origins Festival.

After two years of work, we are now very close to making this Festival a reality - and this lunch is, in the tradition of First Nations hospitality, an extension of thanks to you all for the energy, goodwill and resources you and the agencies you represent have invested in this project. As you know, we are waiting on a number of funding decisions, both here and overseas, and I should like to thank those bodies in anticipation!

Last but by no means least, I want to thank the only First Nations person who is in the room today - Rosanna Raymond. Rosanna is an artist of Polynesian origin from Aotearoa / New Zealand, and she is working with us and with the small but vociferous Maori community in London to offer a traditional First Nations welcome to the artists when they arrive here in the spring. Those of you who attended the launch of Origins at Australia House last year will remember that we were given a traditional Aboriginal Welcome to Country by David Milroy and Trevor Jamieson. Today, we are very definitely on British land, and it is Philip Davies who has given us the British form of traditional welcome. But I would like to ask Rosanna if she could respond to that welcome in the manner of her culture, and so bring the more formal part of this lunch to a close."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Practice as research

I've spent the last three weeks at Central, working with second year students on the PA course. These are not acting students (although some of them are rather good actors), but people who want to be writers, producers, directors, theatre-makers in new forms. Central, rather sensibly, doesn't offer courses in these specific disciplines, because it thinks students are too young to undertake these roles so specifically. Instead, this course is about opening them up to possibilities.

So, undertaking a residency with them is a great opportunity for Border Crossings and for me. They are flexibly creative, and excited about new ways of doing things. They also don't have anything to prove as performers, and as a result are less likely to be scared of looking stupid. I decided to work on some verbatim material, with a political edge to it. When I mentioned this to Nick Williams, our Arts Council officer, he said "That's a bit of a departure for you, isn't it?". In some ways, I suppose it is. But our work is always related to political realities, and is often fuelled by political energy. And very often the devised material starts from something documentary. If it feels like it's a million miles from what we've usually done, it's because I'd not previously found ways of theatricalising the documentary - I dislike the verbatim cliches of people pretending to be - say - Jack Straw. It makes it all seem too petty.

So I was delighted with this period of experiment, which allowed us to find ways of presenting documentary material without making it feel like a personal dig at anybody, and while endowing it with a vital and telling theatricality. We were able to work with movement and music, combining dance with documentary, as well as with video and agit-prop, with recorded and live voices, even with humour. I'm sure this will re-surface in future devised work. Great to be able to research like this and call it teaching. But the best teaching is learning really, I think.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quartet: A Journey North

I saw this Iranian production at the Barbican last night. It's the second of their Iranian season I've caught, and much more exciting than last week's rather under-powered Daedalus and Icarus. Quartet: A Journey North is the work of Amir Reza Koohestani and his company Mehr: I really liked his piece Amid the Clouds at the Royal Court a while back. This time, his love of narration and the need to avoid any physical contact between actors for cultural reasons is taken to a new extreme. In the Pit space, the audience is seated on four sides, with one actor at a desk facing each side, narrating very intimately. You can't even see the actor who faces the opposite side, and you get limited views of the two on adjacent sides. However, each actor is facing directly into a video camera, and they have screens above their heads, so you can see the face of the speaker, as well as footage which locates the play in the Iranian landscape. It sounds odd, but in fact it serves to draw you in to an incredibly intense level of performance. Even in Persian. The screens, of course, are the ideal solution to the surtitle problem.

This may depend a bit on where you're sitting. I was facing a performer called Mahin Sadri, who is also the co-author of the piece. It's based on a documentary film she made about an Iranian murderer - so oddly resonant for me at the moment, as I work with Central students on a verbatim piece about a killer. Mahin is an astonishing performer, and the intimacy of the presentation makes her feel very real, very immediate. It's a huge shock when, towards the end, she simply stands up and walks away, while her screen avatar remains talking. You realise that they've switched to pre-recorded footage - but the shift away from the live is so subtle that it reminds you how deeply we care about liveness, and how close our current society is to losing it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Ngati Ranana

I was invited to a Christmas concert in a Salvation Army hall on Saturday lunchtime. A bit different from my usual fare, you probably think... But this was a concert by an extraordinary community organisation called Ngati Ranana, which is a club for Maori people in London. Amazingly, there were well over 5o of them on stage, singing, dancing, chanting and war-dancing with total commitment and energy. It's very moving to see people from such a markedly minority group working so hard to celebrate their cultural identity from "back home". What's more, this group has been going for a full 50 years. One of their founders was there - an Elder of real dignity. And at the end she got up and danced with the grace of a sixteen year old.

I've often been struck by the way in which performing isn't an issue to people from First Nations cultures - it's so ingrained in the culture that people just do it. This Maori group had absolutely no hint of self-consciousness: even the men in their grass skirts. Fantastic.

Rosanna Raymond and I are plotting to involve this group in the opening ceremonial of Origins. They could welcome the artists to London in a way which makes sense to them as First Nations people, and show a clear link between the city and their homeland. Having seen and heard them, I'm pretty sure this will work like a dream.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Producer's Travels

Penny was in China for much of last week - liaising with SDAC and SYT, as well as the Shanghai Festival, the British Council and the Mayor of London's representatives in Shanghai. It all sounds to have gone pretty well - although as ever with China, final commitments are difficult to come by. But Ruihong is on board for February, which is really important, and SDAC has made a pretty sizable commitment with hosting the workshop, so I feel pretty optimistic that this will move forward into performances in time.

On Friday, she was in Brussels - meeting our lovely EU liaison Katerina, and trying to work out just how the financial reporting works. I'm so glad that I've got Penny on this project - managing the unfathomable!

Meanwhile, I've been busy around the Origins Festival (again). The British Museum are now interested, and Visiting Arts are intending to host a Producers' Breakfast (very useful for the "added value" element for overseas funders). It's all building - and I feel incredibly nervous about it.... not least because the next three weeks I'm running a project at Central and can't give much time to this. And, of course, I'll be away through February.

The DVDs of the Tahoe Dream turn up - and I enjoy reliving bits of the summer. Oddly, a little extract from the show has turned up on You Tube. If you watch it, bear in mind the camera is following Art George, and not necessarily the centre of the action! But it's nice to see the Washoe contribution out there online.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cultural Diversity and Internationalism

I was at the Commonwealth HQ last week, for a long and very involved discussion of the 2005 UNESCO convention on Cultural Diversity. It's a very interesting and useful document - partly because it enshrines cultural rights alongside those other rights which are normally considered more basic, and partly because it serves as a manifesto against cultural imperialism and in favour of intercultural dialogue. The meeting was all about trying to give it some force nationally and internationally. Far more Francophone countries have ratified it than Anglophone ones: the usual story, of course. Oddly enough, the UK has ratified it, which means it is the law of the land.... but Valerie Synmoie, who is Head of Diversity for the Arts Council in London was there, and hadn't heard anything about it! The ratification process actually consists of the document sitting in Parliament for a while, and - if no MP objects to it - it just goes through. What, I wonder, is the use of law if nobody actually realises it's there?

Over the weekend, I saw a film called This is Our Country Too at the British Museum. It's part of the BFM Festival - the work of a fantastic young director called Ishmahil Blagrove Jnr., and his group RiceNPeas. Follow the link, and you'll see how close I find this work to our own in its concerns. This is Our Country Too is a documentary about Australian Aboriginals, and is the fullest account of the contemporary position that I've seen. It manages to be both passionate and balanced - you get Kevin Rudd's apology, and you get images of the poverty-stricken communities.

Penny is in China at the moment, setting up the structures for February. Good news today is that Ruihong will be in the workshop then. And, to add to my happy morning, we've also heard that we have US Embassy funding towards Origins.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Obama Presidency

At last. America seems to have elected a leader of vision, intelligence, honesty and morality; a leader whose personal history can serve to unite, rather than divide, communities within America and across the world; a leader whose very name is a symbol of what the 21st century has to be about, a symbol of Truth and Reconciliation – Barack Hussein Obama.

Of course, the election of this man is only a beginning. An astonishing pioneering first is not the same thing as a paradigm shift, and the election of a black President will not overturn American racism overnight. He may (perish the thought) be assassinated – there have already been two foiled conspiracies to do this, and it was striking that, on election night itself, the world saw the poignant image of this lean man standing alone between two panes of bullet-proof glass. I know all about the deadly intents of the radical right in the USA, having myself been the subject of death threats for casting a black performer as Juliet. I imagine that the racists would rate that capital crime as less serious than that of being the first black President.

Obama’s campaign against Hillary Clinton was largely focussed on foreign policy, and on his opposition to the Iraq war. I’m sure that this, together with his great charisma and oratorical abilities, was what won him the nomination within a Democratic party, and also won him so much worldwide support. But it’s worth noting that in the campaign against John McCain, Obama shifted his battle-ground significantly, and made comparatively few references to the war or the Middle East. Some of what he did say, particularly about Afghanistan and Pakistan, sounded distinctly hawkish. It may be that the shift in constituency from the Democratic Party to a wider American public led him to alter the emphasis of this policy – so we’ll have to see what actually happens once he takes office.

America, after all, is complex in terms of the role of government. In many ways, it distrusts government, or “state interference”. Bill Clinton, who also had the potential to be a great reforming President, was stymied by the power of the corporations, particularly the vested interests of the drug companies with regard to health policy. On the other hand, Obama arrives at the moment in history when global capitalism is at its weakest point, when the banks have gone cap in hand to the Federal Reserve, and in now in thrall to the state, in what amounts to a socialist model. So perhaps he really can push through a reforming agenda against the might of these amoral giants.

Here’s hoping.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Theatre Assessment

The Arts Council has been running a consultation process called Theatre Assessment. I thought I should submit something! It's all done anonymously, but as in the past, I don't mind people knowing what I said, so here are my thoughts on the blog....

Looking at the last five years :

 what have been the major developments and changes in theatre? Have they improved or worsened the situation?

This is an incredibly broad question (they all are, actually), and I imagine it works better as a stimulus for debate than as a prompt for one direct response. I can only speak from a personal perspective.

Five years ago, the theatre was responding to a changing political environment. 2003 was the year in which the Iraq war began, and in which British political dissent was at its most vociferous for some time. Since theatre is a public art form, it reflected this, and became particularly visible, potent and (crucially) popular in a way we had not seen for some time. This revitalisation of theatre, which encompassed the entire range of scales from the National to the fringe, has not been sustained as many artists would have hoped. Theatre with a social or political awareness has been fragmented, with a growth in verbatim theatre, and in theatre looking at very particular issues. Work which tackles larger questions imaginatively and creatively is in short supply once again. This is partly the result of a loss of political momentum, but it is also to do with a sense that the vitality of 2003-4 was not endorsed by public bodies. We could contrast this with countries like Canada or France, where theatre that is critical of society is positively encouraged as a sign of a flourishing democracy.

 in what ways have relationships between theatre organisations and locally based companies/artists, and theatre organisations and their local communities, changed?

The Arts Council’s encouragement of audience development initiatives has definitely been fruitful, and there has been a stronger engagement with local communities. My only concern is how far this is cosmetic, and how deep it goes. Many larger organisations undertake specific initiatives which appear to engage communities, but which are in fact tangential to their main programme, which continues to focus on more conventional approaches. This is directly related to the artistic issues discussed above - the audience was at its most diverse and most articulate during the period 2003-4.

 has there been more engagement with diversity and if so, what effect has this had on theatre and on audiences?

Yes, there has. With the proviso I made in my previous answer, I would say that theatre is now very engaged with diversity - indeed, it could be said to be fulfilling its role as a social pioneer in this regard. The increased engagement with diversity has broadened audiences, and has as a result suggested a more integrated social model.

Until very recently, the stress which the Arts Council laid on culturally diverse work as being produced by BME artists and aimed at BME audiences was perhaps less helpful, since it could be seen as ghettoising the work and the audience. This issue is of particular interest to me as Artistic Director of Border Crossings, since our work (and our audience and governance) is incredibly diverse in the fullest sense of the term, even though we are not representative of, or led by, any particular ethnic minority group. Our audience figures over the last five years demonstrate clearly the potential for inter-cultural work to address a broad range of people, and to create a genuinely and fully diverse audience. It is perhaps surprising that we have not yet been considered for RFO status: and it is tempting to wonder whether this is because we do not tick boxes which have been imposed from outside.

It is very encouraging to see that the Arts Council is now looking at diversity in terms of a much broader paradigm.

 in what ways have audiences and their expectations changed?

As well as being more diverse, my sense is that audiences have become more actively engaged, and more vociferous. This is to do with the way in which theatre is seeking to de-mystify its processes, and to engage more directly with communities, and particularly with young people through education. With our own productions, the accompanying workshops tend to be very well attended, as do post-show discussions.
This is also part of a larger cultural shift, to do with the growth of more active media (e.g. the web, computer games). Audiences now regard art less passively, and theatre, as a live form, is ideally placed to capitalise on this. We at Border Crossings are interested in developing our work further in this direction.

 what effect have economic and political changes or any other external interventions had on theatre?

I am answering this question in the week of the worst economic crisis for sixty years, so it may be a bit early to tell the future! However, I would say that even before the crisis, it was getting more difficult to enter into partnerships with the private sector, which tends to regard culture, and perhaps theatre in particular, as a minority interest of little public concern (even though the figures show the exact opposite). There is a clear need to continue public investment in the form, if it is to survive - and theatre’s contribution to our economy is such that, even in blatantly capitalist terms, it really does need to survive!

As an internationally oriented company, Border Crossings is engaged with changes on a global scale. The rise of China as a major power has had a significant impact on our work, both in terms of artistic engagement, and in terms of our being able to access the opportunities offered by diplomatic initiatives. My sense is that our work is likely to develop further in these terms; engaging in dialogue with cultures which have something to offer our own, and exploring new ways of jointly inhabiting the global space. In this way, theatre can complement and develop political, commercial and diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, it can go further, since in the theatre people are able to meet as equals, whereas in other spheres there is no true equality.

It is unfortunate in this regard that the British Council should be scaling down its support for theatre, at a time when the form can deliver so much. The old model of touring "British" work overseas is outmoded, but the development of international collaboration as the future of theatre is surely something which should be supported at a political level, particularly in the run-up to 2012.

 what has been the impact of the Arts Council's Grants for the arts scheme, since it was introduced in 2003?

The scheme has certainly made it easier to apply to the Arts Council for project funding, and my experience has been that it is very well administered, and that the Arts Council has taken more care over its relations with clients and applicants since the scheme was introduced. The three-month turnaround for applications is longer than is ideal for companies.

The scheme has perhaps tended to localise the Arts Council’s concerns, since the regional offices now deal with everything, and there is little sense of overview, particularly with regard to touring and to international initiatives.

It seems to have become more difficult for companies that have received a number of project grants to develop to RFO status. There does not seem to be a structure in place which encourages the development of organisations beyond the model of working on a project by project basis, and so it becomes very difficult to sustain and nurture valuable organisations over time.

Friday, October 31, 2008

In Praise of Roe Lane

For the last few months, Roe Lane has been working in the office on a voluntary basis, with the idea that she'll learn a bit about theatre while helping us through our chaos. As a result, we've now got our MySpace pages, our Facebook group, an inventory of all our props and costumes, a tidy office, posters on the walls from all our shows, and a list of venues who've been mailed and phoned about the Trilogy for Penny to follow up. Oh - and the image on the Trilogy page of the website is her work too.

This afternoon I finally finished the Arts Council application for Origins. An unbelievably complicated job! Roe read through the whole thing, finding all the little errors of grammar, the typing slips and the bits that weren't easy to follow. What will I do without her? She's going to Manchester next week to work on some rehearsed readings.....

Oddly she leaves us the same day that Angharad Wyn-Jones departs as director of LIFT. A great shame for us - she really loved our work and wanted the Trilogy to be part of the Festival. And a great shame for LIFT and London - she really was an amazing director. Visionary. I guess we'll have to start all over again with a new relationship now! Good luck to both....

Friday, October 24, 2008

Elsewhere on the web

The new website around diversity in the theatre, Sustained Theatre, has asked me to do an article about the Trilogy. Click here!

Also - our fabulous office intern Roe Lane has been working hard to give us an extra web presence on My Space.

Check out:
and www.myspace.com/bordercrossingsmusic

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

London Film Festival

The London Film Festival has somehow escaped my radar most years, but this year I've got very excited about it, and spent much of yesterday staring at screens and absorbing "influences" for the workshop in February. I saw an Indonesian film called Under The Tree, which was fascinating in the way it treated lots of themes from the Trilogy - in ways we won't! I've been interested in its director, Garin Nugroho, since Peter commissioned him to make Opera Java for New Crowned Hope. In this new film, he examines motherhood from lots of different angles, against the setting of Bali, with lots of reference to the traditional dance forms and their re-tellings of Hindu myths. Fascinating for me, as I think about the third play, where motherhood is again a central concern. I realise it's actually been central to the first two plays, but I hadn't even noticed it as a "theme".

I'm still mulling over my failure to spot what's in my own work as I watch Atom Egoyan's new film Adoration, and listen to him taking questions. He clearly feels a bit as if this is something he shouldn't be doing: "My view of the film is only one view - it's no more valid than yours - and in any case this is only my view today - I'll have another idea next week..." Too right - if I've only just noticed how central motherhood is to the whole Trilogy!

Adoration is a fascinating film, with Atom returning to his process of scripting his own work as an original story - I much prefer the films he makes in this way to the adaptations of novels. In this film, he deals again with grief and mourning, with cultural dislocation, with adolescence, and with performance and technology. The scenes around internet chat-rooms are amazing. Great to see him for a chat afterwards - we've been friends since we worked together in 1998 (!), but we've not actually met up for four years. He's really excited about the way things have been taking off for Border Crossings recently.

While I think about these films and the Trilogy, I spot a Guardian obituary for Xie Jin, the director of the film version of The Red Detachment of Women. Amazing and wonderful that he should still have been around, making movies, well into the era of Deng Xiaoping and beyond. For all the dismissal, the fact is that the Cultural Revolution was really not that long ago, and its shadow remains very real. I'd like to find a way of emphasising this in the next version of Dis-Orientations, and in Re-Orientations. It's kind of there - but not enough.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Now or Later

I went to the Royal Court last night, to see Now or Later by Christopher Shinn. It's a bit Shavian... characters who serve primarily as mouthpieces for political viewpoints - but the acting (especially from a wonderful young actor called Eddie Redmayne) is so engaging and so vulnerable that you get drawn into them as emotional human beings anyway. It's set on the night of the US Presidential election - and it seems to be now, except that the successful Democratic candidate is very different from Obama, whatever the poster image may suggest. Eddie plays his gay son, who has been photographed dressed as Mohammad at a party... with the obvious embarrassment factor when photos and video crop up on blogs.

Nancy Crane, who was in Dis-Orientations and will be coming to Shanghai to work on the Trilogy in February, plays the new President's wife. She's costumed as a cross between Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, complete with a product on her hair which she tells me is called "helmet head". Apparently politico women really do use this stuff. Nancy says that the Prime Minister and Sarah Brown came to see the play on Friday. Sarah, unlike the American political wives, has "no mask", she says. Nancy asked her whether she'd enjoyed the play: she said it was just nice to get out of Downing Street at the moment.... which you can understand!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Nobel Prize, and Mauritius

It's great news that the Nobel Prize for Literature should have gone to a Mauritian - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. At the moment, all the coverage is reading him as a French writer - but in his interviews he is always very clear that he is every bit as Mauritian as he is French, and that he is very sympathetic to the disappearing lifestyles of the island culture. This is very heartening for me - I have strong family links to Mauritius, and our productions of Toufann, Mappa Mundi and Twelfth Night were all in some way related to that extraordinary, vital and diverse culture. It's also great that Le Clézio is talking so clearly about ecological agendas in writing, about the value of other ways of living and seeing, about what we can learn from First Nations (as well as Mauritius and France, he also lives in New Mexico!). Whether this will mean a sudden surge of interest in Mauritian literature (or even theatre) I somehow doubt - but at least it's a sign of a growing sense that the apparently marginal in terms of the global economy may be central in terms of cultural regeneration.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Origins moves on

The Festival looks distinctly more promising these days - not least because of a $75,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation in the US. So we can say we're definitely doing something now! Had a very useful couple of hours with Colin Hicks at the Quebec government office, much of which was to do with working out how to get other agencies involved.

I've been doing funding applications till they're coming out of my ears.... and am now working on the Arts Council one, which is of course crucial. Now it has another confirmed funder in it, it will look a lot better!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Watching is Work

Just recently, I've been spending a lot of time watching plays (I often do) and films (which is less common, at least for work - but fun!). It does count as work, because the plays I have to see to keep up with the art-form and the actors, and the films are possible inclusions in Origins. On Thursday, I was at the Centre for New Zealand Studies at Birkbeck, where I watched no fewer than nine films in a day - admittedly only two of them features. One of these was the wonderful The Waimate Conspiracy - which manages to turn Maori land claims into a comedy, without being remotely patronising (the opposite, in fact). What makes the film really satisfying is its exploration of different forms of truth and proof. The court refuses to accept that the oral traditions through which Maori tell and preserve their history count as "proof" or "evidence", so they are forced into "forgery", which bizarrely and wonderfully turns out to be more "acceptable" than their own reality... This is ideal dramatic material, of course, and the conceit of shooting it all as if it were documentary adds to the sense of a film exploring different levels of fiction, reality and performance, with clear political implications.

The same evening (you see, it really is hard work...) I'm at the Oval House, to see a new play called Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe. It's by Gillian Plowman, and seems in many ways to be autobiographical: like the leading character, Gillian has exchanged letters with young people and teachers from Zimbabwe. I find many of the moral dilemmas around disparities in wealth and our perceptions of one another very familiar, and very frankly portrayed. It's wonderfully designed by my friend Iona McLeish, who manages to use the entire space with a single rake - back-lit and smokey it gives a space of imagination for the Zimbabwean characters, avoiding the representational, which allows the play to be much more clearly about the written words and the imaginative engagement with Africa that comes from it. It's a very beautiful, economical, lyrical production.

And now I'm off to the Australian High Commission for a reception for Bangarra Dance. It actually is work, you know.....

Monday, September 29, 2008

Funding panics

I arrived in the office this morning, thinking it would be an easy enough day, starting to work on some funding applications for Origins. Then I start checking out the websites, and discover that the Commonwealth Foundation deadline is, er.... tomorrow.....

You can imagine what the day's been like.....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Funders and Communities

Penny, Roe and I went to the Arts Council last week. A very positive meeting about the Trilogy, with Nick Williams offering his knowledge and advice helpfully. As for Origins, he's passed me on to the Combined Arts department, which is a new venture for me. I'm preparing an "outline" for them, prior to a "surgery". I get the sense of the formality of a new contact, after having been used to friendly informality at the Theatre Department, where we are known.

Penny asks the crucial ongoing question about RFO status. For years, we've been trying to make some headway here - 13 years is a long time to keep going on a wing, a prayer and the odd project grant! ACE has just re-worked its RFO file, with the new clients being largely in the areas of street theatre and community art. I suspect this may be to do with the Olympic 2012 agenda. Nick says that I should make sure I respond to their "Theatre Assessment" - much of which is again community focused.

In many ways, this community agenda sits very well with what we do - cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue being at the heart of our work. What troubles me is how we can make an overt integration of the community-based practice which current policy seems to demand and the professionalism of our work. Sometimes it's really worked - the workshops which led to Orientations, for example - and I suppose we have to continue to build in these sorts of initiatives on a project basis, without making them mere add-ons for the sake of funder PR. Community involvement only works if it's fully integrated into the project.

I'm thinking about this when I meet up with Rosanna Raymond. Rosanna is a Samoan artist, who was on the Origins advisory board last year, and has been very helpful in my contacts with New Zealand. We talk about the Festival as a chance for the diasporic communities of Maori, Polynesians and Native Americans in London (yes, there really are Native Americans in this crucible of a city) to re-connect with their country of origin, welcoming the artists, hosting them, and entering into dialogue with them in the workshops and so on. This is a really integrated approach - and one which also yields tangible benefits to the organisation. We need to take it further!

I also talk to Jatinder Verma from Tara Arts about the Trilogy. They did a trilogy - Journey to the West - a few years back, and I'm curious as to how they managed to sell it to the venues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jatinder says that their community work was key: they sent their own education people ahead of the tour to do education and outreach workshops, and even created short plays which were performed before the main show, like a short film before the main feature. This was called "Stage Share". All worth thinking about!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Films of the Inuit

More time at the National Film Board: the perfect research tool for anybody curating a festival with a film element. I watch more of Alanis’s amazing oeuvre, including her 2006 feature "Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises". It’s an altogether quieter, more gently film than "Kanehstake", with Alanis going back to her own people, to the reservation where she was born, and tracing the ongoing presence of traditional ways in contemporary life. She also raises the very thorny issue of identity politics – the strange ways in which the Indian Act deprives (for example) women of the right to land on the reservation if they marry white men (but not indigenous men if they marry white women….)

There are also a number of very powerful and inspiring films from the Inuit people of Nunavut and Nunavik. One called "Qallunaat" is hilarious. Sub-titled "Why White People are Funny", it subverts the colonial and anthropological stereotypes, with the Inuit setting up an institute to study the strange ways of the white people, or Qallunaat. There’s one particularly disruptive scene in which the white people are issued with numbered tags by which to identify them, because Qallunaat names are very difficult to pronounce or remember. It is, of course, an exact inversion of the categorisation of Inuit people by the white authorities – and all the funnier for that.

There is also a wonderful shorter film called "If the Weather Permits", by a young film-maker called Elisapie Isaac. This is more of a documentary, looking at the rapid decline in the traditional ways, and the split in identity felt by younger Inuit, including Elisapie herself. She talks to one of the Elders, in a sequence which reminds me of "Sunset to Sunrise" (maybe they would screen well together….), and he talks about the Inuit’s dogs being shot by the authorities, so that they could no longer operate as nomadic hunters, and would have to live in settlements. It’s very simple, and incredibly touching. Elisapie is also a singer, and was part of the band Taima (which means “Enough!” in Inuktitut). I meet her for lunch, and she talks animatedly about Inuit culture, about other indigenous artists, about what can be done globally if we can bring the idealists together. And then we get on to the US election, and the extraordinary way in which Sarah Palin has managed to snatch the limelight from Obama. “She’s got no experience of anything – she’s just from Alaska!” says the Inuit artist without a hint of irony!

I got to the theatre on Saturday night. There’s not much on in Montréal in September: if it’s warm enough to walk the streets without a jumper, the Québécois are not going to spend the evening indoors. But the piece I did manage to see, called "Carnet de Voyages", was rather beautiful. It’s produced by a company called Théâtre des Deux Mondes, which has certain similarities to Border Crossings. For one thing, they work in multi-media – there are some wonderful games with video and computer graphics, which remind me of another Québécois director I know – and they also work internationally. I wouldn’t call this piece intercultural – in spite of its citations of Africa, China and Latin America, its viewpoint is entirely Francophone and white – but it is very aware of its position in the global village. Would all Qallunaat shared that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ondinnok and the Theatre of Healing

Lunch with Alanis Obamsawin. She’s a slight woman, with very piercing eyes, and a reputation formidable enough to have won her a retrospective at MOMA in New York last year. She’s been making films for 40 years, and has 35 to her credit. Most of these are documentaries about First Nations people – although she’s almost coyly pleased when I tell her how much I like Sigwan, which on the surface is a children’s film, though its mythic quality carries profound resonance for adults. She’s intending it to be the first in a series. Great to see somebody who has been working so long at the top of her profession trying a completely new direction, and doing it with such freshness.

She tells me that Kanehsatake had its first screenings in London (courtesy of Channel 4, back when it had a reason for existing), and was met with standing ovations, before anybody dared to screen it in Canada. It was finally shown on CBC on the condition that it was followed by a discussion, to overcome accusations of bias. Shades of Lord Hutton. Alanis refused to participate in the discussion – saying the film itself made her point. She’s also adamant that there is no place for “objectivity” and “balance” in documentary film-making: it’s about making a point with passion. Other people can disagree afterwards. What is amazing is that she works out of the National Film Board, which is a government body and yet acts as Producer for all her films, most of which are deeply critical of the government. I tell her that I find that a ringing endorsement of Canadian democracy. She agrees – but tells me such freedoms are very much under threat. We compare notes on censorship and the war on terror.

Alanis is thrilled that we want to show her work in Origins, and would like to come to London for the Festival. So – the programme grows. All we have to do is find the money to back it up….

The rest of the day is spent with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the directors of Ondinnok. This company, the only First Nations theatre group in Québec, is the crux of this trip to Montréal, and I’m not disappointed in them. Ondinnok’s work is mythological and shamanic in its inspiration. They deal with “issues” and the contemporary reality of Native life – but they do it through a return to the spiritual power of the culture. For Yves, he tells me in his halting but eloquent Francophone English, the theatre is “a big work of re-opening the soul of the people and all the wounds they have”.

The company has been going for more than 20 years, and they show me a DVD which commemorates the 20th anniversary. In the centre of this time-frame sits the moment in 1995 when Yves and Catherine were approached by a community in rural Québec, the Atikamekw of Manawan. This approach was the result of the community’s severe social and spiritual malaise: the high levels of alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse which sadly characterise so many contemporary First Nations groups, not only in Canada but across the world. Why the community felt that theatre could be the way out of this downward spiral I do not know – but Yves and Catherine felt they had to do something in response, and they ended up staying for three years. During this crucial period they evolved their Theatre of Healing techniques, which they now apply to their own creative processes. For Ondinnok (which means “a theatrical ritual healing that reveals the secret longings of the soul”), theatre and ritual are linked to divination. They ask who we are, and what is going on. They enable us to re-contact our forebears through cultural practice, and so to link with memory, roots and ancestors. And the results are real – the Atikamekw underwent real change.

During the evening, I get the chance to watch some of this in practice. Ondinnok is just beginning a new piece, which will pre-Columbian in its inspiration. The workshop begins with limbering up, which crosses very naturally into a smudging ritual, as the actors wash themselves in smoke. The lights are dim, and there is shamanic music playing. Yves projects a video of Mayan images, and the participants watch it, as the music throbs, and they dance, adopting some of the physical imagery from the projections. Then, in darkness, Yves places masks at the west end of the room, the sunset space where the ancestors lie. The actors take the masks and respond to them, summoning forces and presences older than themselves. In many ways, the mask work is like my own – what is different is its framing within the specific cultural ritual, which has brought the actors to a place of trance, in which they contact their own, and perhaps also their culture’s subconscious.

Yves and Catherine are hugely excited by the idea of a Theatre of Healing workshop at the centre of Origins. If I can, I would like them to run a five-day workshop in the middle of the Festival, which will be free to the other First Nations performers involved. The encounters could be truly extraordinary.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I popped down to Toronto on the train last night (a mere five hours), and now I’m popping back to Montréal, after really rather a great day in a city I got to know well four years ago, when I was doing The Handmaid’s Tale for Canadian Opera. It was even the same time of year, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by Toronto’s Indian summer. Yvette Nolan, AD of Native Earth, bought me a coffee, and we sat outside at a pavement café in the Distillery district, and talked about Origins.

I’m very keen on Daniel David Moses’ play Almighty Voice and His Wife, which Native Earth are reviving in the spring, and we plot to bring the production to London. Yvette seems confident about money from her end, and we print out and sign an official invitation letter there and then. She tells me the biggest challenge of running even this most established of First Nations companies is casting. As soon as a First Nations actor gets any notice, they are instantly devoured by the TV and film industries. You can hardly blame them – the money’s so much better, and so is the kudos. But you can’t help feeling that it’s only in spaces like Native Earth that these actors can be sure they are representing their nations accurately and with an appropriate political energy – at least in the current cultural climate.

I squeeze in a lunchtime visit to a theatre bookshop to get some more of Moses’ scripts to read, before a relaxing and stimulating afternoon with Wayne Strongman and Tom Diamond from Tapestry Opera. Wayne and I got on well when I was here before – I gave a talk to their conductors and directors lab – and we’ve been in fleeting contact ever since. Today we talk very speculatively about possible projects we could collaborate on. Great to range around like this, and to talk with no specific agenda. It allows us to explore the real reasons why we’re doing the sort of work we are.

And now I’m back on the train. It has wireless – of a sort… It keeps coming and going.

Orchestra meets Inuit

Wednesday dawns beautifully sunny in Montréal, and I make my way to the Chapelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur, where I’ve been invited to what is described as an open rehearsal, and is really the only chance in the comparative mainstream to hear a very important, pioneering piece of work. It’s an initiative by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, seven of whose members are on stage this morning, conducted by none other than their music director Kent Nagano. (He also conducted Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand last night, and will do it again tonight – the stamina of leading conductors never ceases to amaze me!)

What makes today’s pieces so significant is that the composers have combined orchestral sounds with the language of the Inuit people, Inuktitut, and (most strikingly) with two Inuit throat singers, Evie Mark and Taqralik Partridge. It’s Taqralik, with whom I’ve been emailing, who invited me today. Check out her My Space page, and you’ll see she combines her Inuit identity with a very contemporary urban aesthetic – very exciting and inspiring. I’d not heard throat singing live before – it’s extraordinarily visceral, physical and elemental. The singers hold one another by the elbows, staring into each other’s eyes, and alternate their tones, which are sucked rhythmically from very deep in the body. It’s intensely powerful, highly charged, and with the music evoking tundra, it gives an incredible sense of a way of living anchored in a particular and extraordinary relationship to nature.

Tomorrow, this project flies to Nunavik: the area in the north of Québec which, although it’s about the size of France, has a population of only about 10,000. Taqralik explains to me, over smoked salmon and grilled prawns, that they will have to fly between the different communities where they are performing, because there are no roads. The Inuit of Nunavik remain very isolated, and perhaps that is no bad thing. You have to make a very special effort to contact them, as the MSO has done here. Nor is this just a case of “Let’s play music to the Inuit” – Taqralik and Evie make this a full collaboration, and the MSO has worked with the Inuit Cultural Institute Avataq, which is run by Inuit Elders. It’s a very inspiring piece of inter-cultural dialogue; and I feel very privileged to be there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


As a suitable follow-up to the Lepage piece, I'm now in Montreal, researching First Nations work for the Origins Festival - thanks to a grant from the Québec government office in London, and its amazing Cultural Director Colin Hicks.

Montréal is lovely - at least now that it's not raining. Its ambiance combines the café culture and intellectual buzz of Paris with the energy of America. Hard to imagine, I know - but that's what it feels like. I'm painfully aware of how long it is since I've really had to speak French - whenever I ask for something the bi-lingual Québécois reply in perfect (if strangely accented) English, which is simultaneously helpful and embarrassing.

I spent much of rainy Tuesday in the HQ of the National Film Board, which has a wonderful facility for viewing just about every Canadian film ever made at the click of a mouse. For somebody researching the film element of a Festival (like me, say), this is a god-send. I watch a film about an Algonquin elder, which reminds me of Allan Collins' Sunset to Sunrise (screened at the launch last year); Drew Hayden Taylor's film on Native humour; and a whole string of shorter pieces. One of these is Sigwan, a beautifully photographed 13 minute fable by the legendary Abenaki film-maker Alanis Obomsawin. Watching this amazing little parable, which in so short a time manages to brig together theatricality, the environment and ideas of reconciliation, I feel all the sadder that I wasn't able to find a contact for the director before I came: she is somebody I'd really wanted to meet, but none of my "feelers" had paid off. Walk back to the hotel (everything seems to be in walking distance, even though it's a big city), and there, with Jungian synchronicity, is an email from Alanis Obomsawin. She's heard I was here and wanting to meet her, and has emailed her mobile number. I ring it, and we arrange to meet on Friday morning. Given the timetable I'm on before then, I decide to dash back to the NFB, and, to the amazement of the girl at reception, spend a few more hours watching her films. In particular, I take in her famous documentary Kanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance: which deals with the 1990 Mohawk resistance over land rights. It's stunningly done - full of wider resonance beyond the basic issue of the golf course, which started the war-like events it covers. How we relate to land, to colonialism, to history, to nature.... all the big questions, staring at us and demanding to be answered.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Massively Long Production

I’m a bit of a fan of massively long productions. This may be partly because I’ve directed Wagner’s Ring (and they don’t come much longer than that). I remember the sense, with the mantra-like music at the start of The Rhinegold, of an audience moving collectively into a slightly different state of consciousness – a trance-like suspension of everyday life - having abandoned the hectic schedule of contemporary living to invest a substantial amount of time in something other.

It’s not just Wagner. Lots of my most memorable theatrical experiences have been with massively long productions. I remember the marathons of Angels in America (both parts in one day), Le Dernier Caravasérail at Le Théâtre du Soleil, Cloudstreet from Australia, and Robert Lepage’s The Dragon’s Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota. In each case, as a member of a privileged audience, you had a sense of moving beyond the comparatively commonplace experience of watching a play. You felt that this was an event of particular significance: that it was, in some sense, historic.

If I’m honest, then I must confess that this is what I am attempting to achieve with The Orientations Trilogy. It is, of course, an incredibly tall order – and a very “tough sell”. With a Wagner opera or a Lepage epic, the audience comes already expecting greatness, and that expectation does much of the work for you. With a lesser-known company, the marathon element is more likely to put people off than to tempt them. Penny and I are spending much of our time at the moment working on strategies to make the Trilogy work in the UK theatre market. Maybe it should play as three individual productions on Wednesday to Friday, with the marathons restricted to weekends (and the day off on Monday). Maybe this means we can’t actually go into most of the venues we’ve used in the past. On the other hand, with the kudos of the Asian partners and the EU behind us, why shouldn’t we be able to re-position ourselves, and give our audience the sense that they are coming not to “a play” but to “an event”?

All these thoughts were focused for me yesterday, as I arrived at the Barbican at lunchtime, ready to spend nine hours watching Lepage’s latest epic, Lipsynch. There had certainly been no problem getting an audience for this: the theatre was packed, and packed with theatrical luminaries at that. I chatted to Tony Guilfoyle (who was Julian in Dis-Orientations, and has worked with Robert several times), with Nick Williams, our Arts Council officer, with Angie and Louise from the Barbican management…. This felt less like an audience, and more like a congregation. So perhaps it is heresy to say this – but I didn’t think this production had the qualities which made Robert’s earlier epics so powerful and luminous, and which have inspired me to search for something analogous in our own work. There were moments of emotional power, and a great deal of humour – but the bulk of the production remained on the level of the mundane, almost deliberately avoiding the transformations between different layers of reality which characterised the earlier shows. And with that, there came a clumsiness in the actual handling of theatrical space, which is the last thing I would expect from this most technically adroit of directors. There were numerous long set changes, in silence, when the performance seemed deliberately to lose its own momentum, and with it any sense of the magical, the hypnotic, the spiritual.

I remember that the first version of Ota was also very disappointing, and yet emerged as a wonderful production two years later. Perhaps the same will happen with Lipsynch. But the first version of Ota was only three hours long, and the later one was eight…..

Monday, September 01, 2008

The tyranny of schedules

Why does everything depend on dates?

We've been thinking for some time that the development workshop for the third part of the Trilogy would be in late September / early October. Slowly, that slipped away from us. We suggested that it should move to January, when everybody is available. That was fine, except that China shuts down for the last couple of weeks of January because of the spring holiday. It's like trying to work in England at Christmas. So now we're looking at February.... Luckily we can change the start date for EU eligibility - although it means that things like my trip to Sweden are not eligible, and the money has to come from our general pot.

The other side-effect is that this opens up the autumn in a rather distressing way.....

When the workshop was for the autumn, I'd planned to combine it with Roshni's conference at Ningbo. She was keen for me to do a workshop on intercultural Shakespeare. When the workshop fell through, I let her know, then plugged that particular gap with the trip to Canada for Origins which the Quebec government office offered to fund. Only when the flights were booked did I get an email from Roshni saying the British Council would fund me for Ningbo, and provide a fee.

I spend most of my time juggling dates. If only it was all simple.....

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I´m in Göteborg, and have been since Sunday night. This (at last) is the first hint of the Trilogy project coming together artistically, as I lead a workshop with our Swedish partner company, Teater Eksem. They are a young group, formed from drama school by several actors and a very dynamic producer, Filip Aiello. I found them through colleagues of colleagues when I was putting together the European proposal, and have got to know Filip quite well since (he and his partner Malin even came to Sidcup to see Attempts on her Life in the early part of the year) - but this is the first time I´ve encountered Malin and her colleagues as performers.

It was a calculated risk, I suppose. We needed European partners to secure the grant, and I was intrigued by the idea of introducing a Scandinavian element into this dialogue between Europe and Asia. Luckily, they turn out to be very talented, very open, and full of creative ideas. I feel a bit bad that only two of them will be chosen to work on the show.

The workshop has been far more than an audition process, though of course it fulfils that function. It´s also been the first chance to look at the material through Swedish eyes, and see what they may be able to add to the cocktail. We work on Strindberg (if ever there was a dramatist who had things to say about gender, it´s Strindberg), and on contemporary Swedish attitudes to Asia, to gender, to sexuality. We touch on the notorious porn industry. And, most fruitfully of all, we look at Swedish folklore. Until this week, I had never heard of the Näck. This mythic figure, much painted during the Romantic period, is an androgynous young man who plays the violin while sitting naked in water, and lures women to their doom. Given the Trilogy´s use of music, androgyny, Romanticism and drowning, this is a pretty resonant image for me! We work around the idea of Näck, and it begins to suggest many interactions with other areas of the work. Näck is pronounced "neck", and means "naked". He is a Water Sprite, a Trickster, and the ideal androgyne.

At the flat they've found for me, I spot on the bookshelves a study by Robert Lyons of a production of the Dream by the Götenborg director Eva Bergman. Having recently done the play (it finally closes tonight!), I´m curious to read what she did with it, and discover that she made use of a musician, whose image appears on the cover, based on Näck. Lyons discusses the folklore at some length, and the paintings of Näck by Ernst Josephson in the 1880s. He hints that there´s a further story here, when he says that Josephson "imbued the motive with an extraordinary vitality by channeling his own personal sufferings and conflicts through the figure".

As is this wasn´t synchronicity enough, I was sitting with Filip and Mia (one of the performers), waiting for a meeting, when who should walk into the coffee bar but Robert Lyons, who heads the drama department at the univesity here? So now we have a link to a researcher who has studied this figure in some depth, and is fascinated by the use we'll be making of him.

The meeting was with Birgitta Winnberg-Rydh, who is Artistic Director of the Göteborg Festival, and seems very excited by the idea of bringing the Trilogy here in 2010. It´s necessarily a brief chat, since this is Festival week, but the foundation is laid. It's a good week to be in Göteborg. I've seen Tim Etchells´piece with Belgian children (called That Night Follows Day), and heard him discuss his work at some length in the Open Lab curated by Ong Keng Sen (this being Sweden, the Open Lab can be held in English and nobody has any problem). I´ve also seen Akram Khan´s work with the National Ballet of China, bahok. Like our own work, this is concerned with the nomad, the migrant, with global diasporas and zones of transition. I loved his use of an airport departures board.

Tonight, I shall be staring at one myself, as I head back to London.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Holiday reading

I spent a week in Wales with the family, getting well and truly rained on. Luckily, the house we were in was beautiful, and I had Volume 3 of John Richardson's incredible Picasso biography to keep me happy. I love the way this writer combines the narrative of Picasso's life with his own critical insights, and somehow avoids the trap which so many artistic biographies fall into - namely, implying that every aspect of the subject's work can be related to their life in a specific and direct way. Psychoanalytical theory run mad. When Richardson does relate the paintings to biographical specifics, it's with a sense of the way in which the art transforms those specifics, making them resonant way beyond the moment of and impulse to creation. So his knowledge of the background to the paintings informs the viewer, without diminishing our response to the work.

It also serves very nicely to blow away the romantic myth of the solitary genius which surrounds so many visual artists. We theatre-makers are often perceived as rather second-rate in the creative stakes because we collaborate (in fact I once knew a painter who actually defined art as "something you do on your own"). Picasso was himself a theatre-maker, of course - but what this book demonstrates over and above that is the way in which the artistic milieu in which he moved served to develop him. Well, of course - it's called a culture. And what a milieu it was: Diaghilev, Nijinsky and sister, Massine, Cocteau, Dali, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Braque, Apollinaire, Brassai, Eluard.... even James Joyce puts in an appearance.

Having convinced myself how important collaboration is, I go on a round of Embassies related to the Origins Festival, and meet up with Nick Yu from Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (in London for a seminar at the Royal Court). We do lots of juggling of dates and funds. The most frustrating part of any project is this long gestation period, and at the moment we're in two of them!

My new book on Chinese theatre is out. It's co-authored with Doug Holton, and published by University of Stranmillis Press, Belfast.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dream Reviews

Some very nice reviews of the Tahoe Dream production. There were also some not very nice ones, which suggest that racism is far from dead in West Coast America. It's quite astonishing how dismissive they were of Native American culture - which apparently is no match for the great Shakespeare... It just shows how important it is to do this sort of work - the barriers are still very present indeed.

But, from the positive reviews:

" Director Michael Walling’s outdoor production of this evergreen comedy begins conventionally enough, with the humans in modern dress (and soon the young lovers strip to undergarments), while the nature-spirits wear American Indian feathers and hides. (Titania carries a papoose.) But what begins as a cute costume conceit deepens into an elegant reimagining of this oft-produced play. Puck becomes a coyote-like trickster from tribal legend. And Shakespearean lines like the “the wolf behowls the moon” take on fresh resonance when chanted under the starry Western sky, with moonlight on Lake Tahoe’s waters. The haunting music performed onstage by American Indian flutist K. Mockingbird is an inspired addition. Walling’s spiritual finale (part Shakespeare, part tribal rite) is serene and visionary—and also well-grounded in the text. You may have seen other productions before, but you haven’t seen a Dream quite like this one. "

(Sacremento News and Review *****)

"What makes this Dream stand out is the use of Native American themes in a gorgeous outdoor setting.... This production moves from comedy into a spiritual dimension, presenting Shakespeare's nature poetry in a new light... It's lovely, almost cosmic... A fresh, satisfying take on this familiar play."

(National Public Radio)

So - as ever - the same things which makes some people rave about a show are exactly the things that other people hate. And that's just the way it should be.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Black Watch / Dark Knight

I saw Black Watch at the Barbican on Thursday. After all the hype, it was either going to be brilliant or unbelievably disappointing: and I'm happy to say it was brilliant! Theatrically, it was very exciting, with a wonderful blend of movement work into stylised fights, song, flying, video.... but what was truly invigorating about the piece was the way in which all this theatricality was employed in the service of a deeply humane politics. I've seen plenty of "the Iraq war is a bad thing" plays, most of which seemed to me to be stating the obvious. What was terrific here was that this was already taken to be the obvious - the consensus "back home" that this was "the worst western foreign policy disaster ever" was simply taken as read - and that freed up the production to talk about the human truth of the war. And so the play is less about Iraq than Fife: it's about male identity, about community and bonding, about belonging and about loss. I was reminded of Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme - in both plays, it becomes very clear that for the soldiers at least war is less about your enemies than your friends.

By way of contrast, the movie of the moment was my cultural fare for Friday night. The Dark Knight has much going for it - it's exciting, it's visually amazing and it's got Heath Ledger in it - and Nancy Crane, who was in Dis-Orientations crops up as a Nurse, no doubt earning far more for a few lines than she did in her entire time with us! But, as usual with Hollywood, the politics are very disturbing. Christopher Nolan's Gotham is far more recognisably New York than was Tim Burton's - and it's a very contemporary New York at that, with much imagery of burnt-out sky-scrapers and crowds running for cover: this is America post 9/11. The Joker is several times described quite explicitly as "a terrorist" - so it's particularly disturbing that, for all of Ledger's whizz-kid performing, he is given no motive. Indeed, Michael Caine as the butler and the "voice of reason" deliberately tells Batman that this enemy has no motive, but simply wishes to destroy, that he is evil. This has been the constant attitude of the right to the perceived Islamist threat, and it is a deeply dangerous attitude because, like the Joker's make-up, it de-humanises the "enemy". Add to this the fact that Batman invades the mobile phones of everybody in the city - and that when Morgan Freeman puts the civil rights case the plot proves that such freedoms are only taken from us for our own good by our wonderful leaders... and the whole thing starts to look suspiciously like an apology for the Bush regime.

Monday, July 21, 2008

First Nations writing

On the plane coming home, I finish reading Carpentaria by the Aboriginal Australian writer Alexis Wright. It's an extraordinary book - incredibly dense in its prose, crazy in its plotting, laden in symbolism, and somehow incredibly compelling. What fascinates me about this book is the way it shifts between what a western writer would construct as different realities, without so much as nodding at any notion that they may be different. Periods of time, dream and waking, politics and prophecy, the mythic and the scientific blend into one another with total disarming ease.

While in America, I've been hunting for pieces to show at the Origins Festival. One new play, by a Cherokee writer called Diane Glancy, has a similar way of blurring what to a western mind would seem to be distinctions or layers of reality. It's called Salvage, and it's being developed with an LA-based organisation called Native Voices at the Autry. In much of my own work, including this recent Dream, and the Orientations plays, I've tried to use theatre as a way of shifting between the everyday world and something more spiritual, more dream-like, more poetic and resonant. But what this writing from First Nations people shows me is a facility in this which makes the very idea of the distinction absurd.

Back to work this morning. New copies of Toufann have been printed, and our new office intern, Ro Lane, reports for duty. We do a VAT return, and post a large cheque. Billy Hiscoke turns up with some DVDs, and Penny is on her way in to discuss the Trilogy. Back to reality, then....

Monday, July 14, 2008


At the cast party for the Dream, one of the actors (Lori Prince, who plays Hermia), says she thinks that I deliberately look for "the opposite" of the text. At the time, I say that I might be looking for the opposite of what most people think the text is - but having been mulling it over for the past day or so, I suspect there's a lot in what she says - though I'd never thought of it in quite that way before. After all, theatre is interesting because it's ambiguous, because of the suggestions it can make to the imaginations of the audience. So there's no point in just presenting one thing - a "straight" surface. We need to find the contradictions inherent in human behaviour.

After all, everything contains its opposite. Love contains hatred, and vice-versa. Laughter contains tears: which is why people often laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. "Action is suffering and suffering is action" (Eliot). Sexual attraction includes a powerful element of disgust. And comedy and tragedy are at their most exciting when they turn momentarily one into another. I guess that's really what I'm trying to achieve.

Thanks to Lori for pointing that one out!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

American Dream

My production of A Midsummer Night's Dream opened on Lake Tahoe last night. Although it's not a Border Crossings production, it (perhaps inevitably) reflects a lot of the concerns in our work, particularly in the way we engage with Native American culture and spirituality. Watching the ending, as the cast go out into the auditorium with their smudge sticks, Kelvin plays his flute and Art speaks his Washo prayer, as the moon shines above them and reflects in the lake, is extremely moving.

I spent the last day or so of rehearsals wondering about the strangeness of the audience in this open-air space. Never having directed outdoors, I wasn't really prepared for the way in which the daylight in which the first half of the play is performed makes the audience far less passive, far more likely to move around, to chat (admittedly about the play), to eat and drink. To begin with, I found it irritating, until we got to Act 5, the play within a play, and I realised that Shakespeare himself portrays an audience which does exactly that. The Dream was probably written for a wedding, so the party element at Tahoe is very much in keeping with the play. Realising that, I began to realise how the early part of the play, which is full of conflicts, actually serves to subvert the conventions within which it was placed. Realising this, we were able to rehearse a much more jolting, intense approach to the early scenes, which really energised the play, and set up an inspiring dynamic between the stage and the auditorium. Space educates again....

Sunday, July 06, 2008

4th of July

I've never been in America on Independence Day before. The fireworks over Lake Tahoe, complete with orchestral accompaniment from the Reno Philharmonic, were certainly spectacular! But our afternoon's rehearsal was more so.... I had at last managed to bring a member of the Washo nation, Art George, into the rehearsal room. Art is quite a prominent activist among his people, and we've had a number of conversations about how this production can help heal rifts between them and the other communities here. We showed him our closing scene, the smudging ceremony; and then he told us why it mattered so much to him. For 150 years, Art said, the Washo have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands. Now, they believe that the time has come for their return - not removing the other people who live there today, but as custodians and guardians who care for the beauty and eco-system of this environment. He spoke of spiritual signs that this time was coming. And he thanked us that our work was welcoming and open to the Washo. I looked around the room, and could see that the actors' eyes were filling up. It's not often that our work receives this sort of validation.

The Dream is going to end with another Epilogue, beyond that of Puck and Shakespeare. Art comes onto the stage, bringing his shell and his sage. As the cast move out into the auditorium, he lights the sage from the fire. And then, as Kelvin's flute resonates through the space, he says a prayer in the Washo language, blessing the place, the land, the lake, and the people. He tells me that this will be the first time that these words have been spoken on this sacred land for 150 years.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The great outdoors

For the last couple of days, we've been rehearsing the Dream on the stage at Sand Harbour, Lake Tahoe. It's the first time I have ever directed in the open air, and I am truly loving it. I think the experience of visiting Athens and (especially) Epidauros last year has made a big difference to my understanding of outdoor theatre. I've become much more aware of the power that performance can acquire when it sits in relation to landscape.

Of course, there couldn't be a more perfect play to display this than the Dream. Titania's great speech about climate change acquires a whole new force when there are real mountains, forests, beaches and lakes for her to refer to. And the fact that she is wearing a Native American costume makes it doubly powerful. You become aware of a ritual connection between the performer, the text, the land and the indigenous culture. It's very multi-layered, and at the same time astonishingly simple - because it simply requires the stating of what is actually happening in the moment of performance.

I'm also really enjoying the experience of directing American actors in Shakespeare. The discipline of verse seems to me to be better understood here than it is in contemporary Britain. UK drama schools have just about given up teaching verse in the interests of the fast-track to TV. Maybe that's true of some places here too - but America is a big place and there are enough people with specialist knowledge and detailed training for some masterly iambics to be spun by the lake.