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.

Friday, June 27, 2008


The forest fires are raging in the San Francisco Bay area, and Lake Tahoe is swathed in smoke. The mountains, when you can see them, are hazy and clouded. The lake disappears into mist. Several of my actors are getting serious asthma attacks - they tell me the air quality feels worse than New York City, and I can well believe them.

Meanwhile, our American Dream is taking shape. It's usual when talking about rehearsal processes to say "slowly taking shape", but this process is astonishingly fast. It's barely two weeks since we sat down to read the play, and today we were running long sections of it. Given that the same cast are also rehearsing Richard III, this is lightning progress. We've also been joined by our Native American flute player, Kelvin Mockingbird. Kelvin's work is transforming the play, giving a magical echo-chamber to Shakespeare's verse, and filtering it through the indigenous culture into the consciousness of modern America. He's also a wonderful consultant for the First Nations elements we're including in the production.

Last night Kelvin, Catherine Atack and I were invited to the house of one of the board members, Vicki, where we met Danny and Rose, two First Nations people who are working to keep cultural traditions alive in this area. Danny had been part of the AIM (American Indian Movement) in the 1970s - supporting Wounded Knee and going on the Longest Walk. Rose had brought her daughter with her: a beautiful child whose traditional name is Evening Star, and whose English name is Hope. As we talked and laughed around the fire in Vicki's garden, and Kelvin played his flute, there was a real sense that this little girl had been given the right name. We are working together to create real cultural dialogue - and that is an action filled with hope.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I took my Dream cast to a pow-wow which the Washo nation was hosting for Father's Day. Although I'm the foreigner, it seemed to be a new experience for them as well - very few Americans seem to have much contact with or knowledge of indigenous cultures.

To begin with, it seemed a bit like a village fete - although the stalls were selling sage sticks for smudging ceremonies and dream-catchers rather than home-made cakes and gigantic marrows. Once the dancing started, however, it was an extraordinary experience. The music came from a group of men around a huge drum, beating it together and singing in a very high voice, which seems somehow to be produced by tightening the throat - it's not falsetto. The sound is very mesmerising, and deliberately unvaried. Dancing to this sound, in their incredible bright costumes, people can easily move into a trance-like state: and of course that is the purpose of many First Nations dances - they help us to contact some other state. We were invited to have a go at the round dance ourselves - it's not exactly difficult.... you just face into the big circle and move sideways in time with the drum.... but the repetitiveness, even of this simple step, does take you into a slightly altered consciousness.

Under a clear night sky, with a nearly full moon, the landscape came alive.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dinner with the Washo

I'm back at Lake Tahoe, in the US, directing A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Festival (and my old friend Jan Powell, the new Artistic Director here). One project often influences another, and I'm making use of all the ORIGINS work with First Nations people to explore the play's magic, its relationship to the environment, and its preoccupation with healing.

If there's one thing I learnt from Bullie's House, it's the importance of following the traditional protocols in dealing with First Nations people. It's not just that it's right and proper, it also enriches the process massively. Here, the traditional custodians of the land are the Washo people, and we need to be sure that they are not mis-represented in what we do. More than that, I want them to be represented in person - the Indian boy should surely be Washo, and perhaps there should be an adult present to give the whole thing weight and dignity.

Last night, I had dinner with some senior members of the tribe, and realised just how much dignity this might be. Steven, one of the Elders, said a Washo prayer before we ate. It was extraordinary to hear the language, which is very ancient (at least 10,000 years) and very musical. Totally unlike Indo-European sounds and rhythms. I asked them about ceremony and blessing, about music and dance, about clothing and face-painting. As with so many of the people from older cultures I've been lucky enough to meet, they were thrilled that somebody actually wanted to know.

The Washo are quite a small tribe today - about 2,000. There were more before a massacre in the 19th century, from which the nation has never really recovered. The community centre where we met to share our meal was in a small settlement next to the old boarding school, where Washo children were sent to teach them Western ways. The Elders reminisced about the time when their customs and language were illegal; how they had learnt from their own Elders in secret. Listening to Steven speak his Washo prayer, I wondered how long the language could survive at all.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

It's official

The project has been announced on the EU website, so I think we can tell everybody now!

I should be back in Tahoe by now, but the visa has only just arrived. It always takes so long to get a US work visa... I am told, however, that there is hope - and it's not just to do with Obama! Check this article. It finally cam this morning, and I fly tomorrow. So - lots to do today!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Welcome Penny!

Thursday morning was spent interviewing people who'd applied for the Creative Producer's position on the Trilogy. The appointment coincided with signing the contract for the EU grant, and Collage Arts signing the guarantee - and I had Preeti from Collage with me as we did the interviews. The people who came through the room were one of the first bits of proof I'd had that this bigger project really will be a leap forward for the company on every level.

The person we ended up appointing is Penny Mayes - who used to run Trestle, raised the money for Arts Depot, has previously toured in China, and who for a time chaired the Arts Council's projects panel. If anybody can make this work, she can! And on Friday we got a little blessing for her arrival, in the form of a Connections Through Culture grant which will allow her to come to Shanghai with us later in the year.