Monday, December 14, 2009

Red Shift

Emma invited Nisha and myself for dinner last night, to meet some other friends of hers. They were Jonathan Holloway, and his wife Jane. Jonathan is AD of Red Shift. I first saw his work as long ago as 1983 (!), when he directed The Duchess of Malfi at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was a really important production for me then - formative in terms of my early voice as a director - so it's nice to be able to tell the director in person!

Much in common. Jane used to be General Manager of Opera Factory, so they know David Freeman, Susannah Self, Janis Kelly.... Jonathan is involved with Central and Middlesex.... It's kind of amazing we've not met before. It's particularly interesting to hear how he's fared with running a company over a quarter of a century. For a long time, Red Shift was an Arts Council RFO (regularly funded organisation), and was a client of the national office, running long tours on the small to medium scale. Then everything was devolved to the regions, and touring became far less of a priority. Jonathan decided he wanted to move into more specific forms of theatre anyway - and actually gave up RFO status as a pre-emptive strike against a likely cut. Now, like us, they rely on project grants and partnerships. Interestingly, he regards it as a liberation. Strange to hear when RFO status is regarded as your holy grail....

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Opera Jawa

I spent last night watching the DVD of Opera Jawa; one of the films which Peter commissioned for the New Crowned Hope Festival. Click here for a synopsis and a review by the ever-perceptive Tony Rayns, who also wrote about it for the Festival programme.

For me, what was fascinating about this film was the combination of traditional Indonesian performance forms with a contemporary setting, and with very strong social and political concerns. Like our Trilogy, this film draws off Hindu mythology and the danced and sung theatre forms of Asia, at the same time as confronting some of the contemporary issues in the region. In the Trilogy, I've been alternating scenes of naturalism with more fantastical, magical and mythological moments. In Opera Jawa, the film-maker Garin Nugroho makes no distinction between the mythic and modern worlds. His Ram and Sita are contemporary working-class Indonesians, and they sing and dance as well as make pots and ride bicycles. The film is through-sung, so totally operatic - the only spoken text emanates from a TV, which (with the multiple layering characteristic of this work) is a carved statue. I can learn something from Garin's approach: I should trust non-naturalistic styles as being capable of conveying everyday life as well as the dream - indeed, of showing what is magical and dream-like in our everyday lives. It's a beautiful film.

Annika, our intern, has got herself a permanent job in a casting agency. She's only been with us a short time, but did some terrific work: transcribing the Swedish sections of the Re-Orientations script, preparing sponsorship proposals, and more than doubling the number of friends we have on MySpace! Thanks and good luck to her.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Paul Sirett joins Border Crossings

Paul Sirett, a leading dramatist with a special interest in intercultural theatre, is joining Border Crossings as Associate Director. Paul is currently International Associate at Soho Theatre Company, and Associate Writer at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. He was formerly Dramaturg at the RSC. Recent plays include: Bad Blood Blues (Stratford East), Running the Silk Road (Yellow Earth at BITE), The Big Life (Stratford East and Apollo West End), and Rat Pack Confidential (Whitehall, West End). Two volumes of Paul's plays have been published by Oberon Books.

Paul will be working closely with me to develop the company's programme and infrastructure. His wealth of experience will be invaluable to the company; and his inspiring work in intercultural theatre makes him an ideal member of our core team. Anyone who knows plays like Worlds Apart or Crusade will recognise his as a distinctive and perceptive voice, talking with humour and urgency about cultural cross-currents in the contemporary world.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Wangari Maathai

The British Council invites me to a lecture, in a series called Talking without Borders (logical enough I should be there, I guess). It's at the RSA, and is given by Wangari Maathai: the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement, who in 2004 won the Nobel Peace Prize. She's on her way to Copenhagen, where she'll be lobbying at the summit on behalf of Africa, the forests and the poor.

The lecture is very good, although nothing she says is particularly surprising. There are some exciting new ways of putting old problems - I particularly liked her question as to how we can make a tree which is standing worth the same, economically, as one which has been felled. What is perhaps more striking about the evening is the way in which climate change activism has become establishment. You don't get much closer to the establishment than the British Council at the RSA, with the Acting Chair doing the introduction. Lots of the guests, who all toe the line, are people from embassies, government departments, quangos, even industry. The man sitting next to me turns out to run BP. "I'm interested in environmental issues", he tells me.

So - with Copenhagen on the way - the burning issue is surely not "there is an environmental problem", not "what can we do to solve the environmental problem?" but "why are we not acting to solve the environmental problem?"

Monday, November 30, 2009

Problems of a global audience

In this weekend's Guardian, there's an article by Pankaj Mishra which talks about the problems of writing for a global audience. Writers from non-Western countries, he suggests, may often end up perpetuating the exotic cliched way in which the West looks at their cultures, because that is what sells to the monied Western audience. So Cuba is sex and salsa, Africa is starvation and corruption, India is poverty and spirituality in equal measure. I've written a bit about this before, thinking in terms of the Indian novel, and how often it is actually written with an eye to British and American readers, for all its "authenticity".

Usually, this isn't an issue which affects theatre. After all, theatre tends to address a specific, often very localised audience, about particular issues and concerns. Often its power comes from its very specificity. But in the case of work created cross-culturally, and intended to be seen in more than one country, this is no longer so. And so, if we're not careful, the globalised cliches could easily sneak in through the back door.

The sentence in Mishra's article which set the alarm bells ringing ways near the end: "Perhaps, one day soon, a Chinese novelist aspiring for an international reputation will be able to steer clear of the misery of the cultural revolution or the massacre in Tiananmen Square (perennial favourites in the west). " Dis-Orientations includes (admittedly very subtle) references to both of these things, and the imagery continues into Re-Orientations. Does that mean we are simply doing what the West expects / wants us to do? I remember Wang Jue being worried that the image of China presented in the plays might be too negative (although I do feel there are many, many positive things we say about the culture). On the other hand, part of the point of this work is to deconstruct the exotic cliche of the Orient: if you don't show aspects of this, then you can't overturn it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tewanee Joseph

I was at the Canadian High Commission last night, to hear a talk by Tewanee Joseph. Tewanee heads up the Four First Nations groups who are hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. This does seem to be a genuine embracing of the Aboriginal people and culture of Canada by the IOC - they really are the hosts, their protocols are really being respected, and there are real economic initiatives which are allowing them to generate a legacy for the Aboriginal communities. Hopefully the 2012 team will learn a bit from this achievement.

This morning, our new intern, Annika Magnberg, started in the office. She's from Sweden, and at the moment she's wrestling with how to turn three files into a single .pdf to send as a funding application. What a way to begin.

Good news from New Zealand - Creative NZ have invited me to the International Festival in March, and the British Council in NZ have agreed to fund the flight. This will be a terrific opportunity for Origins. What's more, I'll be doing some workshops with Taki Rua while I'm out there. Very exciting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Karnad in Punjabi, Shakespeare in Dutch

Girish Karnad emailed from India to say that I should see Neelam Mansingh Chowdry's production of his play Naga-mandala (Play with a Cobra) at Sadler's Wells. It's a fascinating piece of work - though not perhaps at its best in this vast theatre, and definitely not helped by the worst supertitle operator in recorded history. But the play is so strange and wonderful, and the leading actors make the transitions between characters incredibly powerfully. Chowdry has expanded on the doubling already present in the text, so that the same actor not only plays the husband and the cobra, but also the playwright in the prologue. Similarly the "Story" is also one of two performers who play Rani - so that role is doubled in a different way. The production actually becomes about those layerings and correspondences. And so about theatre as life.

The amazing production of The Roman Tragedies which I saw at the Barbican on Saturday is also about theatre as life. Political theatre and political life, to be precise. It's a version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra - all in six hours - by a company called Toneelgroep Amsterdam, directed by Ivo van Hove. I thought I was at least aware of the world's great directors - but his is a new name to me, and he is beyond doubt a really important artist. The production is "modern-dress" and multi-media - nothing new there - but in this case the use of video is so carefully shaped that it becomes about the way in which modern politics, modern life perhaps, is constantly performed from the camera, to the extent that only the image on the camera seems to carry any meaning. So, the scenes of private life (Coriolanus and his mother, Caesar and his wife) are filmed and relayed on TV and big screen - but all the scenes involving ordinary people, even soldiers, are cut. Not that there is any shortage of "the people" on display. The audience moves between their seats and the stage, where there are lots of sofas, and you can watch the highlighted action on a TV, as well as seeing the actors from another angle, choosing your own route of composition. This also means that you constantly see "ordinary people" in the play, consuming the action and so contributing to it. The form in which the theatre is used contributes to the meaning. There are no intervals as such, but lots of short breaks, during which sets are changed, and the audience buy drinks and food onstage, and contribute their thoughts on the show via a computer station - these are then relayed to the rest of us! So there's an element of real democracy about the whole thing. It raises endless questions about theatre and politics - not least whether politics might be turning into nothing but performance.

I've been thinking about this production ever since. Wonderful to be stimulated so strongly and to have my faith in the power of theatre so powerfully renewed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Illegals

I was at the Rich Mix last night (London's most car-park like venue), to see a piece called The Illegals, presented by the Actors for Human Rights branch of Ice and Fire. It's a company with which we have a lot in common - so as much as anything I was glad to see them in action.

The play is verbatim theatre, based on interviews with "illegal immigrants". I'm not a great fan of verbatim as a form - just because somebody "real" has said something, it doesn't instantly become valid as dramatic dialogue - but this piece was skillfully composed from five very intense personal stories, intercut with quotations from the likes of Jackie Smith, John Reid, and the Border Agency. The collage effect was what gave it the artistry - official lines juxtaposed with human truths to make a very clear and powerful political point.

The actor who'd invited me, Jeremy Tiang, speaks the words of a Chinese man who came to England for economic reasons, and works in Chinese restaurants for incredibly low wages, in constant fear of the police, while sending money home for his children's schooling. The loneliness which came through was very touching. Then there's an Egyptian driver, whose passport has been with the Home Office for two years, so he can't even leave the country(!), a political refugee from Ethiopia who went underground when the authorities refused to recognise the nature of his persecution; and a woman with a similar case from Ecuador, who cleans toilets all night for a pittance. The last case is a woman from Guatemala, who was deported because she had too little money. As always, the border controls favour the rich. It's only poor people who have problems moving around.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Interns and Architecting

We’re taking on an intern. This has worked well in the past, with both Wojtek and Roe being a huge help in the office and learning enough to move on in their chosen spheres. In fact, Wojtek went straight from us to being Administrator at Paines Plough. I think internships have to work in this way, as a genuine exchange, and they have to be a fixed term, allowing that exchange to happen. Otherwise it just turns into slave labour. We put something to this effect in the job ad. So I was a bit surprised on the morning of the interviews to get a very angry email from the first interviewee, saying that he wouldn’t be coming because he felt that unpaid work was morally unacceptable. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course – but I can’t really see why, under the circumstances, he applied for the job at all… Anyway, it puts me on my guard for the rest of the day, and I make sure that all the other interviewees are fully on board for the exchange, and that I am clear what they want to get from it.

I end up offering the internship to a young woman from Sweden, called Annika Magnberg. Annika did a dance training in Gothenburg, and is aware of Teater Eksem. She’s also got a band here, and has done lots of PR and the like. But, most important, she’s passionate about theatre and intercultural dialogue. And has the right sort of energy to be around our office for a few months. Good luck and welcome to her! She may well be writing the odd posting on this blog too.

Long and creative discussion with Gabrielle from Polygon. We’re both very pleased with the work we were able to do together on Origins, and want to continue the association. Some very interesting ideas about keeping Origins moving until the next festival through the education work, and for ways of building on the education aspects of the Trilogy. We’re thinking about linking workshops in China and the UK, so that the interculturalism becomes a direct part of the education work too.

I went to see Architecting at the Pit on Friday. It’s a piece about America’s failures to rebuild itself, after the Civil War and after Hurricane Katrina. The main resource it exploits for this is Gone With the Wind, both film, novel and cult – and it’s all done with wit and intelligence. So this is, in many ways, just the sort of theatre that excites me. But I wasn’t moved. The intellectual side took over so much that there wasn’t a real human engagement with the characters, and many of them weren’t very well acted either. There was a lot of engagement with technical possibilities too – but these also weren’t very elegantly done. Ideas alone aren’t enough – you’ve got to pull them off as well.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Developing the board

Monday was a board development day. With new people on the board, it was important that we re-examined the role of the board in the company, and exploited its full potential. Jessica Stockford from Arts and Business agreed to facilitate the day. Her main remit is to work on governance in arts organisations, so we got lots of useful guidance on the duties of trustees, and the risks (!); but she was also very good at helping us to address our needs in developing the company. The scale of the projects we create now far outstrips the infrastructure, and we have to catch up. I think we have the right group of people to do that: the trustees are a very high-powered bunch, and they are very dedicated to what we're trying to achieve.

One thing which really surprised me was the emphasis placed on needing a written statement of our vision, mission and values. For a long time, I'd be tootling along, thinking that these things were self-evident. Clearly they aren't. If we're to focus the organisation, then everybody needs to know what it is we're trying to do. So - that's a first priority for me.

Two very useful meetings with potential funders. The Swedish Cultural Attache was very excited about the role of Teater Eksem in the Trilogy, and Creative New Zealand had lots of positive things to say about Origins. Apparently the report they received on it was one of the best they've EVER had!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Atom Egoyan and Warwick Thornton

On Friday night, I was at BAFTA, at the invitation of my old friend Atom Egoyan, to see his new film Chloe, and to listen to him deliver the David Lean Lecture. The lecture was filmed for a webcast, so you can see it if you follow the BAFTA link.

I've known Atom ever since we worked on Dr. Ox's Experiment at ENO, a full decade ago, and we've stayed in touch on and off ever since. He's somebody you can go back to, knowing they won't have changed in their friendship. He's also one of the most exciting and original thinkers, and brilliant film-makers / artists I've ever been lucky enough to encounter.

Chloe is, in some ways, familiar territory for the maker of Exotica. Julianne Moore plays a successful Toronto doctor, who becomes convinced that her husband is being unfaithful, and hires a prostitute to test him out. What's fascinating in this is the way in which different layers of fiction interact and begin to effect or become reality - fantasies and role-play turning into or creating truths. It's a clever game to play with a medium which, because of its photographic nature, we tend to take at face value. Atom exposes that. His world of performance as life and erotic tensions is something I've learnt from in terms of the Trilogy.

Saturday allows me the chance to meet another wonderful film director - Warwick Thornton. We screened his film Dark Science (scripted by David Milroy) as part of Origins, and now he's in London at the Film Festival, with his first feature Samson and Delilah. Samson and Delilah won the Camera d'Or at Cannes this year, and it isn't hard to see why. It's a painfully honest account of life in Aboriginal communities, touching on the poverty and violence, the petrol-sniffing, the exploitation of indigenous artists, the homelessness... and yet somehow still managing to feel life-affirming and ultimately hopeful. Warwick uses very little dialogue - and quite a proportion of what he does use is in Walipiri - but he employs an intense visual poetry and an incredible emotional engagement by the two teenage leads to move into a world of image, music and sheer intensity which is quite overwhelming.

Warwick is a large, solid Aboriginal man, with the self-deprecating humour characteristic of his people. Asked why there's so little dialogue, he recounts his own first teenage love, and his inability to speak to the girl. Asked about the actors, he simply says that he needed people who would be "with him" - people who came from the world he had experienced when he was young, and who had "done thirteen years of research on it". Their performances are hardly acting. Just living on screen - and telling us deeply uncomfortable truths.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chinese movies

I've been taking advantage of the London Film Festival to keep up my research on what's going on in contemporary Chinese culture. I saw two films at the ICA on Tuesday. The first, The Search, is from Tibet, and is interesting in a slightly academic way, as it deals with traditional theatre forms. It's about a director who is casting a film of the traditional opera Prince Drime Kunden. This is a fascinating legend, about a prince who gives away all sorts of things to the poor, including his own eyes. There's a lovely Jesus of Montreal-type moment when this is paralleled with modern medical donations (of which more anon) - but overall I found the film a bit underpowered, considering the depth of the culture and the magnificence of the landscape.

Feast of Villains, on the other hand, is an amazing piece of work. This is a very contemporary, urban film, about a young working-class man who is trying to get money to help his sick father be treated. He sells a kidney, illegally, and is ripped off by the dealer. What I found extraordinary was the degree of frankness with which this film, directed by the edgy indie Pan Jianlin, deals with some of the nastier aspects of contemporary Chinese society. The amorality on show is palpable - with criminal gangs and corruption in the system at every turn. It shows bribery, it shows insane bureaucracy, and even the "positive" aspects like increased wealth and glamorous bars are exposed as fronts for crime and prostitution. I had been worried that our productions might be felt to be showing too much of this - now I am far less concerned. If this film got past the censor, then our work, which is actually very positive about Chinese culture, shouldn't have any problem (in theory at least)! There's one moment when a criminal mastermind explains to his Japanese client that the government's human rights policy is making it much harder to get organs from executed criminals - and this is the only sign that the film comes from the supposedly repressive PRC. As so often, the Western view is proved wrong - or at least too simple.

But just because the film is edgy and honest didn't make it popular in China. I get talking to a Chinese film buff, who tells me "He got panned" (I don't think the pun was intended). Maybe it's not so much what the censor says, as what people want to believe about their society that counts. All the more reason why I need to make sure the Chinese characters are very sympathetic and recognisable, before we take them on complex journeys.

Oddly, the film which has so far reminded me most of our own work is actually from Palestine. Called Ajami, it's a brilliant interweaving of stories from Palestinian and Jewish families, full of surprising coincidences and moments of shock which make you realise how everybody in that society is locked in to a web of violence - whether they like it or not.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Roma of Edmonton

O Patrin did its final performance this morning at the Art Zone in Edmonton. And what a performance it was... The Art Zone houses a classroom for young Roma who don't have school places (why they don't have them was something I didn't discover). They come from Poland and Roumania, and there are interpreters in the classroom with the teacher. The youngsters all have a distinct Roma look, reminding me of Christopher Simpson when he played B in Double Tongue, and making the Indian origins of their people very clear, even after all the centuries. The girls wear long skirts, big earrings and have their hair tied back.

Although they had seen many puppet plays before (they apparently have these every week in the camp in Roumania), many of them had never seen live actors before. The English was something of a language barrier - though the Romany wasn't - but they seemed to understand very clearly what the play was about. Lots of this is down to Dan's physical approach to the direction, with the philosophical conflicts turning into real fights. When Rachel Drazek as Athalia enumerated the horrors perpetrated on gypsy people in the past, there was a real tension in the room. It was these people's families who had been victims of this forgotten holocaust. And the most extraordinary thing was that their response seemed to be gratitude to the actors for caring enough to tell the story.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Before Tomorrow

Tuesday night saw the screening of Before Tomorrow at Canada House, in association with Origins. It's an amazing film - the story of an old woman and her grandson, who are the only survivors of a plague that hits an Inuit community in the wake of colonial incursions. It's full of beautiful imagery, and amazing social and cultural detail. And it brings a rare and distinct voice into the cinematic world.

I was asked to introduce the film, which was largely an exercise in contextualising, since I didn't want to tell the story. I talked about some of the exciting developments in First Nations film, particularly in Canada, and the power of DV to democratise the medium. I also talked about ten years of Nunavut, and the amazing success of that side of democracy - the way in which the Inuit have shown a real ability to bring the open debate of the tribal council into the institutional world of the 21st century.

Otherwise, this week is having its ups and downs. We've realised that the Trilogy is not going to get the UK tour we had hoped for - the recession has hit touring really badly. So - we've had to pull out of the Manchester leg of the work. Very disappointing all round.

On the plus side, O Patrin continues to wow young people all over London, and to engage them with Romany and First Nations cultures. Click here for a link to the Resource Pack, which is full of fascinating info and great pictures!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Canada, the Arctic - Howard Barker

I've been at Canada House quite a lot this week. On Monday, I was talking about Origins at an academic conference on Aboriginal Studies. I think the idea was that I should be a bit of light relief at the end of the day, after all the academic papers. As it turned out, this meant I had very little time available - so I extemporised as best I could, saying I would try to be like a First Nations person and not let the pressure of time get the better of me. I managed to talk about the Theatre and Healing workshop at least, and to make the crucial point that Yves and Catherine had been very generous with the Huron-Wendat culture, and had shown ways forward to people from a very diverse range of backgrounds. This points to the fact that scholars studying indigenous people can't just watch them from the outside, or look at the problems in the society and history in a scientific way. We are implicated in this - and so we need the healing too. So we should be doing more than learning about these people - we should be learning from them.

Tuesday night took me back there to see Atanarjuat - one of the films in the series about the Arctic that Canada House is showing in association with Origins. It's an incredible piece of work: with an entirely Inuit cast and director (Zacharias Kunuk), and in Inuktitut with subtitles. Imagine the organisational feat! But more than that, it is completely a film that emerges from the specific culture and landscape of the Inuit. It doesn't give cultural information as information - you just come to realise certain assumptions and ideas through the narrative itself. So, when a woman commits adultery, the man's wife says to her: "He's your brother-in-law. You're not even supposed to speak to him, never mind sleep with him."

Wednesday night, by way of contrast, takes me to Riverside Studios to see the latest Howard Barker play, presented by The Wrestling School. Chris Corner, the General Manager, is an old friend (he's administered several projects for us), and he's on fine form. In fact, I'm amazed to see from the programme that the Arts Council has cut its funding to this company, and it is now living off a private benefactor. In terms of production values and acting standards, it has done them no harm at all. In fact, the production is probably the finest I've seen from the company. The play itself, Found in the Ground, is very much in the vein of Barker's recent work - clearly about the process of ageing, and the fight to cling on to a sexual energy which goes with that. Barker has always associated sex and death - and he does it particularly violently here. Much of the play feels very ritualised, which is in keeping with its subjects, and turns it towards installation art. But I felt it lost its way when Hitler appeared as a rather benign character, chatting about art, and there were a great many false endings. Still - he is always incredibly brave.

At Riverside, I met up with Susie Self, who is a singer and composer, and was in Nixon in China in Greece. She saw the Re-Orientations showing, and is very excited about it. She's interested in writing music for us, and suggests that she try and do a couple of substitute bits for Re-Orientations, just to see if it works. From such beginnings.....

Friday, October 02, 2009

More on Brussels

There was a round-robin email asking for comments on the Culture Forum, so I've put in my tuppence-worth. The comments are all at, but here's the gist of what I said. First of all, I quibbled a bit with the "speeches by experts" format: a conference should involve far more give and take. The panels had been selected by the organisers, so the great revelation of "we all agree" should not have been so surprising. I much preferred the open debate which characterised the Platform for an Intercultural Europe event in June.

Which said, the fact that the DG went to such trouble to indicate its support for a cultural agenda and for the integration of cultural policy across EU actions was extremely positive. I think Steve Green was right to compare it with the situation at national level. In Britain, at least, we remain poor cousins of people with "proper Jobs", an add-on luxury which entertains and flatters the "real economy". This is likely to get worse, not better, after the next election. So let's be grateful to Europe for this.

On the catering - by the way - the sandwiches were not the greatest, BUT the breakfast pastries were lovely and the tapas with wine before the wonderful concert was terrific. Oh, guess what - sandwiches are English - croissants are French and tapas are Spanish. Subtext, surely??

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

European Culture Forum

I'm in Brussels as a guest of the EU, for the European Culture Forum - a two-day bunfight involving policy-makers, producers, advocates and even the odd artist from all over Europe, plus a few from elsewhere. Given the importance of the European element in much of what we're doing at the moment, it seemed important to be here - and, well, they did ask....

Not that Britain is particularly well represented at this event - as so often in Europe, though it's not exactly very far by Eurostar. I bump into Yvette Vaughan-Jones from Visiting Arts, who was on the same (very early) train as me this morning. She knows she needs to ask me something, but the 4am start prevents her remembering what it was... I also have long chat with Deborah Shaw from the RSC, who I last met in Hong Kong. She runs the intercultural aspects of their operation, which at the moment seems to mean work with Russia (as witness the new plays just opened) and with the Middle East. She tells me that Arabic has no infinitives, so that when "To be or not to be" is translated, it comes out as "Shall we be or shall we not be", which makes the abstract question a whole lot more immediate, catapulting it into the political arena.

Not much coming from the stage is as exciting as this - though there are odd gems among the plethora of platitudes which tend to be obligatory on such occasions. The liveliest sessions are, predicably enough, the smaller ones - like a discussion of access and participation, or the session around the Platform for Intercultural Europe. Border Crossings is now a member of this Platform, and I spend some time discussing its implications with Sabine Frank (who runs it) and Chris Torch (from Intercult in Sweden). They are both very keen to integrate cultural action more fully into other aspects of policy (particularly social policy) - and I'm very enthusiastic about that. The one area where I find myself diverging from the Platform is when it states that "The potential lies in... highlighting similarities rather than differences between people." If you do that, then where is the drama? Without conflict, there is no cultural production, nor indeed any dialogue. This is a basic problem in a forum of this kind. We talk about the arts as a social bond, and indeed they are - but that must not blind us to the fact that they are actually about divisions and differences and conflicts and turbulence.

In the evening, there is a concert which makes the point very well. It's programmed, and mainly conducted, by the wonderful baroque specialist Jordi Savall. Watching him and his performers, it becomes very clear how dialogue is at the basis of all European culture. In the baroque, one instrument answers another, one phrase complements the next. It's a fallacy to see this music as still and beautiful - its beauty in fact lies in dynamism and change.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Clive James and Australian Literature

I was invited to Australia House the other night for the launch of a new Anthology of Australian writing. It's a very exciting book - a fantastic range of different sorts of literature, and a clear decision to resist the "progress" narrative (which would have constructed Australia as Terra Nullius, waiting to be turned into the sunny happy land of today by the colonists...). However, Clive James, who was one of the Aussie luminaries paraded to launch the book, seems still to live under such delusions. Even though he was on a platform where his remit was surely to praise the book, he started laying into it for having "too much Aboriginal writing".

Now, what does this mean? Does it mean that there is too little "white writing"? But, of course, the idea of "white writing" is absurd - it ranges from James's own comic reminiscences to the profound engagements with history and landscape found in Thomas Keneally or Louis Nowra. But doesn't that rather explode the concept of "Aboriginal writing" too? After all, Jack Davis is not the 19th century Aboriginal woman Tasma, and she is not Sally Morgan, and Sally Morgan is not Lionel Fogarty. So was Clive James in fact saying that "once you've got one Aboriginal, you've got them all"? I suspect that is the logical conclusion.

Given that only 12% of the book represents the words of the country's indigenous people, it seems little enough to me. After all, what is Australian culture if it isn't Aboriginal culture?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Research Centre

On Friday, I was invited out to Royal Holloway for the opening of Helen Gilbert's new Centre for Research in International Theatre and Performance. I used to teach there quite a lot - but haven't been back for years, in spite of being in regular contact with Helen, and some contact with other people in the department there. Chris Megson, sporting a new beard, sat next to me during Joseph Loach's lecture which launched the whole thing. We were both a bit blown away by the range of scholarship on display. To discuss a native American museum and casino in terms of Orphic myths and Miltonic theology is pretty complex stuff.

The whole idea of a research centre in this area is very exciting for us, of course - but especially important at the moment, since its first project is around the performance of indigenous identities. Helen's already contributed some of her funds towards the writers who came to Origins in May. Now that we're looking towards further festivals, the dialogue with the centre could be really productive. On Friday, they had a wonderful indigenous Australian performance poet and film-maker giving a short presentation. I talked to her afterwards - we knew all the same people, of course!

Simon Anderson emails from Canada House. They're running a series of films in partnership with the National Maritime Museum coinciding with their current exhibition, The Northwest Passage: An Arctic Obsession, and have asked me to introduce the one on October 13th. Here's the full programme:

Arctic Film Programme
Canada House, Cockspur Street entrance, Trafalgar Square, London SW1Y 5BJ
Doors open 18.30 for 19.00 start
Advance booking only through the National Maritime Museum on 020 8312 8560.

Sept 22
Film double bill:
Henry Larsen's Northwest Passages (1962, 27mins)
Norwegian-born Superintendent Henry Larsen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage
in both directions. In this film he relates anecdotes of his voyages in the tiny schooner, the St. Roch.

Northwest Passage (1970, 26 mins) Dir. Bernard Gosselin
It took a supertanker like the U.S.S. Manhattan, assisted by a nimble icebreaker, the Canadian John A. Macdonald, to realise the dream of centuries: the navigation of a commercial sea lane through the Arctic channels. This is a record of that historic expedition, filmed in colour from both ships and from a reconnaissance helicopter. Commentary by ships' navigators and observers, and shipside sounds of formidable sea ice groaning, straining and cracking make this an adventure rarely seen on film.

Sept 29
The Necessities of Life (2009, 102 mins) Dir. Benoit Pilon
Set in the 1950s when a tuberculosis epidemic in the Far North forced many Inuit to go to various Canadian cities for treatment. Tivil (Natar Ungalaaq) is taken to a sanatorium in Quebec City. Uprooted, far from his loved ones and faced with a completely alien world, he finds himself unable to communicate with anyone.

Oct 6
Atanajurat: The Fast Runner (2001, 161mins) Dir. Zacharias KunukCannes Camera d’Or winning Atanajurat is Canada's first feature-length fiction film written, produced, directed, and acted by Inuit. An exciting action thriller set in ancient Igloolik, the film unfolds as a life-threatening struggle between powerful natural and supernatural characters.

Oct 13
Before Tomorrow (2009, 93mins) Dir. Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu
Circa. 1840, some Inuit tribes still have never met any white people, although rumours circulate about what they might be, where they come from, and why. Before Tomorrow tells of a woman who demonstrates that human dignity is at the core of life from beginning to end, as she faces with her grandson the ultimate challenge of survival.

Oct 20
Passage (2008, 108 mins) Dir. John Walker
It was news that shook the English-speaking world. Celebrated British explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men had perished in the Arctic ice during an ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage. More shocking, they had descended into madness and cannibalism. Passage is a story of incredible sacrifice, stunning distortion of the truth and single-minded obsession. It challenges the way we look at history.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rehearsing with the Roma

O Patrin, the Participation and Learning project for the Origins Festival, is in rehearsal, and starts touring schools next week. I went in to see them yesterday. Dan, from the Roma Company, has written and is directing the piece, and he's working with two Roma performers and one non-Roma who seems very knowledgeable! Gabrielle from Polygon is also in the room, and a movement director. One of the Roma performers, Sarah, is a very accomplished musician, so the piece is full of song and dance. Lovely to see that this work, like the pieces we create directly ourselves, follows our aesthetic of combining non-naturalistic theatre forms with the more "real" scenes.

The production is a response to the workshops which Dan and the company did with the visiting First Nations companies during the Festival. What's great is that the piece doesn't become didactic about this - the contributions are there in poetry, movement and music, making the Roma experience resonate with others, but they are not overtly stated. When Roma performers speak a piece of text by a Maori ("A spiritual thread binds us together"), then the resonance is so powerful that there is no need to explain it. In any case, the show will be followed by a workshop, so the schools' audience will be able to get directly involved in the debates, which makes it all the more exciting to work by stealth rather than statement.

On the Travellers' Times Blog, there is an article which points up the parallels between the indigenous Australian experience and that of Roma people in the UK. It's by the Roma journalist Jake Bowers, who has often pointed up these similarities of experience.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rustom Bharucha

After several years of email friendship, I finally met Rustom on Friday evening. He's in London for a huge Shakespeare conference at King's, and clearly enjoying it enormously. Conversation with him is a stream of highly sophisticated consciousness: "These guys really know their stuff. We had Stanley Wells talking this morning. Amazing. About the Sonnets. And there was a woman from Canada who really challenged the canonical thing - asking whether we should abandon the numbering of the Sonnets. It's always numbering and ordering. Like the system which forces you to do lighting cues in a particular way. It's all being exploded though. When I was young in India we were taught John Galsworthy. Galsworthy! Then in 1978 Edward Said came along and everything changed. Everything. And now, they're approaching Shakespeare through post-colonial theory, through feminism, through queer theory.... I saw As You Like It at the Globe. Apparently it's one of their better productions. But I couldn't get the radicalism of the text I was hearing to fit with the safety of what I was seeing. I mean, in the end, the production becomes an affirmation of heterosexual marriage..."

I'm parodying, of course - it's exciting to be in the presence of somebody whose mind is so incisive and so eclectic. And great to feel that he's so supportive of all we are doing. He's really delighted about the notice Theatre and Slavery got in The Drama Review.

As part of the conference, we see an extract from a version of The Merchant of Venice performed by the Taiwanese BangZi Opera. This is a new form on me, though it has a great deal in common with Peking Opera (percussive puntuation) and with Yueju (sheng boots and a largely female cast). Shylock (a Saracen merchant in this version) is played by a tough little woman in a false beard, and is presented as a comic figure. Portia is romantic, Bassanio heroic, Antonio tragic. The naivety of the whole thing is actually rather refreshing, and we're reminded that, for centuries, this was how the play was done in the West. I never thought I'd actually see it like this!

Monday, September 07, 2009


Last week was crazy and wonderful. We spent Tuesday and Wednesday teching the show - long days which lasted into the late evening, as we struggled our way through the whole thing. I'm usually fairly efficient in techs - but the first go at any devised piece is always more complex than scripted work, because the reality is that the play isn't even fully scripted at that stage (it still isn't!), never mind rehearsed. We'd managed to work our way through the first half while Denise and Micha were with us, but the second half was still no more than a series of scenes, and I had to stage the transitions at the same time as lighting them, sorting out the sound cues and integrating video more fully. In work of this kind, the tech is not an add-on, but an integrated part of the production's creation: that's why it was so important that we did it in this period, rather than waiting for Manchester.

On Thursday and Friday mornings, we had dress runs, with extensive notes afterwards. The first time through, the main preoccupation for everybody seemed to be with costume changes. The Chinese actors are used to large companies of dressers and make-up artists - and hardly anybody is used to appearing as so many different characters, all of whom have to look different, in a comparatively short play. By Friday morning, we had just about got to a stage where it was possible for a showing to happen - which was just as well, since they were on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

Our invited audiences were wonderful. On Friday, there was a younger group - very diverse - with Swedes, Chinese and Indian people much in evidence. The different laughs rising out of different areas of the audience were very exciting, and instructive. On the Saturday, we made some key changes before the second showing - clarifying bits of the "back-story" which hadn't been apparent to the first audience, adjusting a couple of scenes to overcome language barriers, and speeding up the bits that had dragged. The second showing was a huge leap forward from the first. This time the audience included lots of very knowledgeable and articulate people - Paul Sirrett from Soho, Alaknanda Samarth, Juwon Ogunde, Di Robson, Sarah Nunn... and so on. Haili and Peter were there from earlier casts as well. So the post-show conversation lasted well over an hour, and was incredibly helpful. Not everybody in the audience agreed on everything - there were some people who wanted a stronger sense of "closure", or at least to "know what happened to the characters", while others were excited by the open-ness. It's interesting that the people who wanted narrative closure tended to be white Europeans: Asian people were much more open to the open! There was also a very useful conversation about Song and Alex's lesbian relationship, which continued over our "au revoir" dinner afterwards. This will be hugely helpful for re-working the second play.

On Sunday, I delivered the Chinese performers to the airport, and got the (now much bigger) set back into storage. Once again, we're at a beginning point.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Games at Goldsmiths

It's a huge bonus to be able to do this development period in the theatre at Goldsmiths. For one thing, we're able to accommodate all our overseas visitors on campus at an affordable cost... More crucially, we have the luxury of rehearsing in a real theatre space for the entire period. Usually, you only get the theatre for the last few days before the show opens, which means that anything technical has to be worked out in advance, and done just the once. This inevitably tends to mean that you play safe - there's no time for things to go wrong. But, this time, we can afford the luxury of being playful in our technical work, just as we are being with the rest of the production. We've got our new video projector rigged up, and are playing with live feeds from an onstage camera. With Nancy as camera-person, we ended up re-staging a scene around what these live feeds offered us. What's more, we already have much of the lighting in place, so Nick and David have also been part of this experimental process. It's very liberating.

We've had Denise and Micha with us all week, so the emphasis has been very much on the larger scenes with movement sequences. I feel most of these are working well now, and I've been able to develop aspects of the storyline alongside their physical work. Where the holes are now is in the more intimate scenes - the two and three-handed bits of the play where the emotional depths need to be found. In previous devising processes I've found these the easiest part - but this time it feels harder, perhaps because I've shifted the emphasis. Maybe I'm lucky that Monday is the day we've allocated to the final rigging and focusing of light, and so it's the one day that I won't be working on the stage. Being in a smaller space will force me to concentrate on the more internal aspects of the play.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More devising

The process is moving forward in very exciting ways. I wish I could blog this on a daily basis, as I did in Shanghai, but the journey to work is about an hour and a half each way, and I can't get internet access in the lunch break. It's not like living over the job as we did in China!

Denise and Micha have joined us this week, and are working their usual magic, drawing beautiful and emotive movement out of us all. Their tsunami piece is extraordinary. At the same time, lots of strands which hadn't seemed to mesh before appear to be coming together. I'd been really worried about one scene, and kept putting it off - but today a very simple idea, born out of a previous scene, gave us the key. That key, oddly enough, was to use Yueju. I'd thought it had disappeared from this show - lovely to see it return as the solution here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Publishing and devising

Nice news for the publishing side of the company: there's a brilliant review of Theatre and Slavery in the new issue of The Drama Review. It's by Jane Plastow, the Professor of African Theatre at Leeds, so it should carry lots of weight in academic circles. It's also very nice that she points out it isn't a solely academic publication.

Devising processes continue. It's a big, complex business, but starting to shape very well. I'm enjoying the combination of Method-ish psychological character exploration with wild theatricality. By playing with form, naturalism becomes only one of the theatrical modes employed. There was a hiccough on Monday, with Nancy pointing out that there didn't seem to be much point her character being in the play as things stood. She was absolutely right. As so often in this sort of process, the blip led to a very creative new idea, which solves at least two plot-lines much more satisfactorily than before. Process, process....

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A week in workshops

We're back in workshop for the Trilogy, this time in London. I spent last weekend dashing backwards and forwards to Heathrow, picking up Chinese and Swedish actors, while Penny picked up Radhakrishna. They are all being accommodated in student rooms at Goldsmiths, which, while not exactly five-star, has the distinct advantage of being on-campus for our venue: we're working in the University theatre while the students are on holiday. This is a huge advantage, since we can have the set from the beginning (complete with a new, perfectly reflective and decidedly durable floor), and can experiment with light and projection, rather than simply imagining these additions to the rehearsals and hoping they will work at a last-minute tech. What's more, this period isn't about final preparation for a paying audience (that doesn't happen till February), so we also have the chance to take mad risks in the knowledge that we can revert to safer practice later on. I'm planning to try something particularly mad tomorrow...

Many of the foundations for this third play were laid in Shanghai, but the work Brian and I have been doing since then has re-moulded much of it. As a result, we're creating lots of new scenes, and re-working much of what we had before, with totally different sub-texts and meanings. In many cases, the scenes have different characters in them, while retaining the same theatrical structure. It's all very extraordinary. Brian came in on Tuesday, and worked with us on some of the scenes which require a more textual approach, and he's now sent those through. I've not worked in a way which combines devising and a writer before - but I think it's the way forward for us: it's certainly working at the moment.

The new additions to the company, Lianne and Spatica, are both very creative and very exciting. I'm trying to bear in mind that they don't have the history with the project that everybody else has - but at times they make it hard to think that! The Chinese actors are wonderful - Qi with his piercing intelligence, Hui with her earnest grace, and Jue with the best comic timing since Chaplin.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Back in workshop

We've gathered the Trilogy cast together again for the next round of workshopping on Re-Orientations. Many reunions of old friends from Shanghai, plus one or two new faces. Mahesh's friend Spatica has joined us from India, and Lianne Tucker has taken over as Alex and Linda. There's also the new stage management team, and even an American intern called Mica. Lots of people in the room.

I always find it difficult to start something. Maybe a re-start is even harder. I spent the morning playing devising games with the cast - as much as anything to get people in touch with their creativity, and with one another, after six months' gap. In the afternoon I talked them through the new ideas for the structure. It took quite a bit of time, so that at one point Jue asked how long I thought the play would be (!), but there seemed to be a general sense that things were moving forward very positively.

Jet-lag hit the Chinese actors from about mid-afternoon, so I sent them home and worked in some detail with Lianne, Spatica, Sarah and Radhakrishna on the tsunami and the background to the Indian story. Some very interesting possibilities starting to show. Brian's coming in tomorrow - we'll check out some possible approaches to key scenes which I'm hoping he may script. Really exciting to be mixing the written with the improvised like this.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Observer

I saw The Observer at the National the other night. Two reasons for going: firstly that it's a new play about Africa, which is always of interest; and second that Joy Richardson (who played Olivia when our Twelfth Night went to Zimbabwe) is in it. Joy plays the mother of a young man who's been beaten up during a supposedly "free" election, for ferrying people to the polling station on his motorbike. The underlying point is that the people in the rural areas of this fictional African country (coyly un-named, but reminiscent of Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and even hinting at Ghana) are more likely to vote for "the leader of the opposition", and so become targets for the bullying tactics of "the President". What's interesting in the play is that the "democratic" opposition is the preferred candidate of the western powers in terms of trade, getting their hands on resources etc., and the altruistic heroine finds herself becoming their unconscious agent as she endeavours to get voters to register. The fact that her encouragement is concentrated in the rural areas also compromises the apparent objectivity of the international observer. It's intelligent, and at times very powerful - but I found it a bit Shavian, with the characters existing primarily to voice particular viewpoints, and the African voice being denied. Joy's big scene is wonderfully acted (of course), but it's almost entirely in Igbo, and so relies for its effect on her emotional performance, rather than on the articulation of viewpoint. The figure of the translator is, symbolically enough, the only African character who is explored in any depth, and his role as translator seems so specific that he only really exists to explain. It's difficult territory, of course. But it did make me feel that we're right to be looking to create our work through many different voices, rather than looking at ourselves looking at "the Other". There's a reason this play is called The Observer.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Who is that bloodied man?

Nisha and I went to see the Polish open-air Macbeth, which is being performed beside the Thames at the National's new Square 2. It's presented by Teatr Biuno Podrozy, who specialise in very visual, physical, outdoor work. I remember seeing them years ago, doing Carmen Funebre at the City of London Festival - and being totally thrilled by it. The Macbeth is not quite the stunning experience that was, but it's still very exciting. You have, as far as possible, to forget about Shakespeare's play - except in terms of a synopsis which tells you the story (because the performance doesn't). There are very few lines at all (and some of them aren't from the play anyway), but there is a powerful visual poetry and a language of ritual and brutality which works wonderfully on its own level, and which communicates in a large open-air space in ways which text-based theatre finds very challenging. I kept comparing it to the difficulties I faced last year at Lake Tahoe, trying to get the text of the Dream to resonate out of doors. I remember it all got much easier once it was dark: this performance of Macbeth has the advantage of only being an hour long, and so starts at 9.30, after the sun's gone down. And because it's about roughness rather than beauty, it copes very well with the unpredictability of the open-air show: at one point a passing hooligan threw a beer can into the space - and it seemed like part of the show. There's lots of fire - thrillingly used - motorbikes and gunshots, and blaring music. I remember years ago, when I tackled the play at university, and was pitching it to the college societies for financial backing, explaining the "leather jackets and jackboots" approach, the beer kegs and the cigarettes. "Macbeth on motorbikes?" somebody sneered. Well - here you can see it literally! And very exciting it is too.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Wall in the Sahara

Last night there was a showing of work-in-progress by our old friend and colleague Giles Foreman, who played James in the first run of Double Tongue. Giles now runs Caravanserai Productions, which is an acting studio and production company; and includes Candis Nergaard, who is also a member of the Romany Company, and will be in O Patrin in the autumn. Caravanserai has teamed up with Sandblast to work on the refugee crisis in the Western Sahara - a story which is hardly ever covered in the press and is all the more important for that.

When Spain de-colonised the Western Sahara, Morocco illegally occupied the territory, which is (surprise) very rich in mineral deposits. That was as long ago as 1975. The occupation has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council - but still it goes on. And the Saharawi people, who are denied the right to self-determination, are largely banished behind a huge wall, living in refugee camps in Algeria. Danielle Smith, who runs Sandblast, has been lobbying for them for 18 years: so she has a battle on her hands. She and Giles are trying to raise awareness through performance.

The show is still developing, but has potential to be very powerful. It's based around interviews with Saharawi refugees, but manages to avoid the traps of the "verbatim", and has a theatricality about it. Given that I'd just come from a dramaturgy session with Brian, I was thinking about structures and conflicts - and felt this was where the play needed to grow. The problem with directly political work is that it can be a bit short on moral complexity. If we see and hear a lot about brutality, we will all agree that it's wrong - so where is the drama? Maybe the play should not be "There is a refugee crisis", not even "We're not helping to solve the refugee crisis" but "Why are we not doing anything about this refugee crisis?" That's something we can and should usefully be asking a British audience.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dramaturgy for devised work

As we get closer to the next stage of workshops on the Trilogy, I’m working closely with Brian Woolland on the dramaturgy of the third play (and a bit on the first two as well). It’s a new departure for us to work with a dramaturg – though Mahesh took on this task in Shanghai, and Brian is taking it up now, so we’re making a pretty heavy commitment to the idea. Dramaturgy is the art of mediation between text, rehearsal, theory and cultural / political context. In some cases, it can involve a significant element of writing. With devised work, I’ve often felt that the visual and theatrical aspects can be much stronger than the dramatic, the storytelling, the key conflicts and changes. By bringing in dramaturgical voices, I’m hoping we can redress the balance a bit.

For an experienced playwright, like Brian or Mahesh, the job probably feels quite strange. They are used to working alone, imagining the characters, setting them goals and actions, working out their decisions and the stakes. Here, the characters, and many of the dramatic situations, or at least their theatrical realisations, already exist. The way of beginning this process with Brian was to present him with the DVDs of our improvisations in Shanghai.

On our first day working together, Brian laid down lots of challenges to me about aspects of the work so far which didn’t make sense, which were under-developed, or which simply weren’t dramatically interesting. This led us to pull together a potential new structure. To begin with, Brian wrote this, with lots of new ideas. We batted it backwards and forwards, with me weaving into his storylines for different sets of characters the material from the workshops which I felt to be particularly strong theatrically. Sometimes this led to some very surprising alterations: some scenes which we had made around particular characters turned out to be about different ones.

Today, we’ve been working through it again, asking how the various events in the stories can be about the characters doing things – and how the decisions to do these things can be made more significant to them – raising the stakes and putting obstacles in the way. This has been hugely productive, and has started to make the different storylines intersect far more. Brian has also written one scene (to give two actors a new starting point), and we’ve picked out two more which we think he’ll probably need to write once they’ve been workshopped some more.

It feels like a very exciting way of working. Breeding devised theatre with what writers do best. Nice to feel a distinctive approach emerging for us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

From our submission to the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development

We have been invited to submit our ideas to the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development. Here's an extract from what we sent in:

"In addressing the dialogue between culture and development, it is crucial that the Commonwealth Group should see these arenas as equal partners, rather than regarding one as the medium through which the other can be achieved. All too often, culture for development practice follows the model that culture can be “used” to put across a pre-conceived “message”. More often than not, this “message” is to do with apparently enlightened mainstream / Western values being “better” than those of the indigenous culture. Such practice, while fitting very clearly the specific agendas of many NGOs, for example in relation to AIDS awareness, is neither good culture nor good development. It is essentially propaganda, and perpetuates a neo-colonial mode of thinking, in which so-called “developing” cultures are regarded as inferior. It is not surprising that such practice rarely leads to real change.

The sort of cultural practice which can genuinely lead to change is practice which acknowledges and validates indigenous cultures and cultural forms, and which encourages a genuine dialogue with and within the community. Performances should not be driven by the “message” that there is a pre-ordained answer to a problem, but should rather seek to open up the problem to the community. It may be that a range of viewpoints are offered or encouraged by the performance, and that the audience is given the space to articulate their own ideas in response. Such approaches lead to creative solutions which work far better than those imposed, because they arise from the cultural context.

The model is, of course, inherently democratic. This is in itself important in terms of developmental agendas. Dialogue and creativity are far more potent than propaganda and passivity.

The key issue is to encourage governments, international agencies and NGOs to put sufficient trust in the cultural sector to permit this sort of initiative. It is difficult, in terms of “outcomes” and “targets”, to justify investment in open-ended processes. However, we would cite a number of initiatives which have followed these models, and which have been highly effective in terms of development, empowerment, and democracy.

It is also crucial to ensure that the cultural productions which result from initiatives at community level are able to engage directly with the agencies, especially local and national governments, with the power to effect change. This is an area where the Commonwealth Group’s reports might be particularly useful: there is a need for a paradigm shift which encourages governments to regard culture as central to the development agenda.

In 2007, Border Crossings published Theatre and Slavery, a book which accompanied our production of The Dilemma of a Ghost. This book includes a case study by Shikha Ghildyal on her work with child labourers (near-slaves) in India and Nepal. The work was emphatically about allowing these children a space in which to articulate their own concerns, and giving them a cultural platform from which they could engage with people in authority.

In the same book, there is a dialogue with Rustom Bharucha, in which we discuss many of the issues around culture and development. In particular, he looks at the ways in which cultural actions can be empowering processes for socially and economically marginalised people and communities, and how these might then become platforms for their interaction with civil society and governments.

The methods used by Shikha Ghildyal were taught to her by Michael Etherton, whose work with Save the Children seems to us to be a model of good practice in this area. Michael’s work is also documented in his book African Theatre: Youth (James Currey Press 2006). Sadly, Save the Children no longer uses his approach, and this is because of the language of targets and outcomes which current funding systems require. There is a clear need for a major shift in the way in which developmental agencies view culture if these more integrated, progressive and effective models are to become widespread."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

China Witness

I've just finished reading Xinran's amazing book China Witness. Xinran was very helpful to us during Dis-Orientations, writing pieces for the programme and the website, as well as doing a post-show discussion, and I very much hope we'll be able to involve her in the next stage of the Trilogy too (she's already offered her services if she's around!).

When I met her in September 2006, Xinran had just got back from China, where she had been making the journey and conducting the interviews that eventually became China Witness. It's an incredibly important work of oral history. As much as anything, because so many records were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and so much of the official line is politicised fiction, it is only by direct engagement with older people who lived through the huge changes of China's last century that we have any chance of understanding that history. The work she's undertaken is made all the more urgent by the fact that time and again the interviewees themselves doubt its validity. They keep asking why she wants to talk about the past. Their own children and grandchildren have no interest in history, and certainly don't want to know about their ancestors poverty and struggles. To them, it would seem, all that matters is the immediate gratification of the present economic moment.

Reading these interviews, which are presented in the book almost like dramatic dialogues between Xinran and her subjects, I started to think about the way in which we use testimony in the creation of theatre. There are people who are making plays which are pure testimony - like Talking to Terrorists, for example. In our work, the testimony gets buried in the layering of fiction and intervention - and I tend to prefer this approach in theory as well as in practice. It seems to me that something is not necessarily more telling in the theatre just because a "real person" said it. Art is about refining what "real people" say and do - as Brecht said, "If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors".

Even so, testimony is crucial to our work on the Trilogy. Without the interviews we did through the Naz project, or Pritham's conversations with the hijras, it would have been impossible to construct Orientations and to feel that it had any integrity. My own experiences in China, and Haili, Ruihong and Ieng Un's personal experiences and family histories, fed into Dis-Orientations, just as I'm sure the testimonies of our performers and their contacts will continue to inform the growth of the third play.

When you're dealing with huge traumatic events, testimony becomes very important, but also very problematic. In the Trilogy, we look at the Cultural Revolution, the tsunami and the Szechuan earthquake. In each case, we've drawn off an element of testimony in our research, and yet that testimony is necessarily incomplete, because it is always the testimony of the survivor, and not the victims themselves. Moreover, because it is testimony to trauma, it is not factual - it is a collection of fragments, many of which are deeply emotional responses. But that is how we perceive the world. The demand of the survivor to be heard, to tell their story, becomes a sort of intervention in the historical process, rather than a record of the historical process. That's why it's more theatrical than objectively historical. And perhaps this allows an intimacy and a sort of reckoning with the audience. I hope so.

I certainly felt something of that when I was reading China Witness. Click here for a video of Xinran talking about it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

An open letter to the President of Peru

S.E. Alan Garcia
Presidente de la Republica del Peru
Palacio de Armas
Lima 1

1st July 2009

Dear President Garcia,

I am the director of the Origins Festival of First Nations: a cultural event in London which seeks to validate the marginalised cultures of indigenous peoples around the world. My colleagues and I are deeply disturbed at the recent violence in northern Peru that has resulted in so many deaths.

As I am sure you are aware, the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon have been protesting peacefully for months at the way their lands have been opened up to oil and gas companies without their consent.

Under both Peruvian and international law, these peoples have the right to the ownership of their traditional lands, and development should not take place there without their consent.

The recent actions of your government have been in clear violation of this right.

I urge you to suspend the activities of oil and gas companies in the Amazon pending peaceful negotiations between your government and the representatives of the indigenous people. These representatives, for example AIDESEP and its leader, are well-respected internationally, and to describe them as 'barbaric', 'ignorant' and 'savages', is counter-productive and will surely simply exacerbate an already inflamed situation. I would also call upon you to set up an independent and impartial enquiry into the tragic events of June 5th.

Yours sincerely

Michael Walling - Artistic Director

Sunday, June 28, 2009

When the Rain Stops Falling

I was at the Almeida the other night, to see this remarkable Australian play by Andrew Bovell. I really enjoyed reading some earlier work of his: I got to know a piece called Holy Day back when we were working on Bullie's House, because Natasha had been in it. I've been skirting round the idea of doing a production of it ever since.... I suggested it to David Zoob as something we could do at Rose Bruford, and it nearly happened. Maybe now this play has done well at the Almeida, there's a chance to look at Holy Day again....

If that wasn't incentive enough to get across to Islington, the production features Leah Purcell, whose film, Black Chicks Talking, we included in Origins. Her trip to London to perform in this meant that she was able to come to quite a lot of the Festival, and her husband, Bain Stewart, was able to introduce the film - of which he was the Producer. I'm very interested in Leah's theatre work as something we might include in future Festivals: she is an astonishing performer, as this production bears out. She plays a woman slowly losing track of herself through Alzheimer's, and nursing a deep grief for the father of her child, who died in a car crash before the child was even born. Oh, and the child has lost touch, and her brother was murdered when he was 8, and both her parents committed suicide. I won't tell you who it turns out was the murderer, but that adds yet more to the misery. What's more, poor Leah is hobbling around the stage on a crutch, with her foot in plaster, having broken it in a backstage fall. Given all this misery, it's amazing that she manages to be very funny - but she does. In fact, it feels like a surprisingly light and witty evening, which is remarkable.

The play leaps between London and Australia, and is set variously in the 1960s, 1988, 2013 and 2039. The bits in the future are very funny, with references to the extinction of fish, the decline and fall of the American Empire, and a global catastrophe in climate. But the real subject of the play is family, and the way in which we are shaped by events in our family history of which we may have no knowledge at all. Sometimes it gets a bit "clever", as when characters from different eras speak exactly the same lines - but more often it achieves great power by simple means, for example the presence of characters on stage in an era not their own - ghosts whose presence alone makes sense of what is happening. And this is a theatrical poetry.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I saw the Stone Crabs double bill of Mishima plays at Oval House last night. It was a bit of a reunion, since I know Kwong Loke (one of the directors), Wai Yin Kwok (designer), Yuka Yamanaka (performer), and bumped into Valerie Lucas, an academic who was in the audience! Small world or what?

The plays are very strange, as you'd expect with Mishima, I suppose. Strangeness is what makes theatre interesting... The first piece, Hanjo, is a three-hander, interestingly played by an all-female cast in this production. It's about a young geisha, who has gone mad with longing for her lover, and is being held by an unmarried woman painter. The gay subtext is very clear, and the fact that when the lover appears, he is played by another woman compounds it. The second piece, about a painter making a screen to represent hell, is remarkable. Yuka plays the painter's daughter, and draws off her knowledge of traditional Japanese dance in a very beautiful and characteristically controlled performance. The rest of the cast (except for the other woman) are Caucasian actors, dressed in modern grey business suits, and the effect is very powerful. Kwong says that the Japanese is deliberately written in an archaic style. I would have loved to hear the translation in a heightened English, like Barker or Barnes. This could have taken it into really fascinating territory. The translation into modern English just seemed a bit too banal for the exotic events portrayed.

Translation is notoriously difficult, of course. I met up with Al Parkinson earlier in the day, to discuss possible technical staff for the Trilogy, and we reminisced about how he'd had to supertitle into a English a scene in Hindi which seemed to change every night. Hopefully, we'll finally tie down the text this time round!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Endless Evaluations

One of the drawbacks of having been funded by so many different agencies for Origins is that we now have to do a specific tailored Evaluation of the project for every single one of them. We finished our own internal Evaluation for the board meeting last week - but it's not enough just to send this to everybody. For one thing, most of them have their own form they want filling in, and the questions are not the same!

Evaluating cultural projects is always a minefield anyway. What constitutes a "success" or a "failure"? We clearly can't measure the success in purely commercial terms: if that were the sole criterion, then there would be no need for funding in the first place. On the other hand, if the cultural event only reaches a small audience, then there's a real element of failure about that - it feels like failure. One good thing about the Festival from this point of view was that there were lots of clear objectives which we were able to lay down before-hand, and which made it attractive to the funders. So yes - exposing London audiences to First Nations arts, but also providing a platform for these artists in London, networking opportunities, artist-to-artist interaction, the generation of the legacy in the Participation and Learning programme....

The latter is still in progress. Gabrielle from Polygon has just sent me the flyer for the play which is touring schools this autumn. This was generated in response to a series of workshops between Roma performers and the First Nations companies we brought over for the Festival. It's called O Patrin (which is Roma for The Way). The title refers to a system of Gypsy symbols imparting knowledge of conditions on the road or showing the way. It's touring London secondary schools 21 September - 16 October 2009, and the performance lasts 35 minutes, followed by workshop (up to 90 minutes). The package, for up to 60 students, can be delivered twice in one day. There's a Resource Pack with activities and curriculum links, and there is no charge for schools! Now, how about that for a good deal?

Teachers who would like to book should email or phone 020 8368 1592. The co-producer is the Romany Theatre Company.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Death and the King's Horseman

I'd known Wole Soyinka's masterpiece for a long time - written about it and workshopped scenes from it on various occasions. So I was genuinely excited finally to get the chance to see a full production at the National on Friday. The play's only been done once before in the UK, when Phyllida directed it in Manchester back in 1990 (!). In fact, I've only ever seen one other Soyinka play at all - which was The Lion and the Jewel at the Barbican a while ago. This is an altogether bigger piece, and it is brilliantly done at the National. Oddly, I'd not seen Rufus Norris's work before - but he has done this wonderfully. It's very funny and it's genuinely tragic.

One of the most interesting decisions is to have the white characters played by black actors, who are "whited up" on stage at the start of the performance. It's very similar to the effect in Almighty Voice and His Wife - where the ghosts are in white-face for the second half - you sense the conventions of a racist theatre being turned on their head by a post-colonial production. If the District Officer and his wife were played by white actors, then it's almost inevitable that, for all the absurdity of the characters, the predominantly white, middle-class audience at the National would end up identifying with them. Done like this, the whole play clearly emerges from the Yoruba viewpoint, so the two-dimensionality of the white characters becomes an advantage, and their absurd, sub-Coward language is the comic relief to the rich poetry of the Yoruba characters.

I keep remembering our own production of The Dilemma of a Ghost - which had a similar aesthetic, though a lower budget! The presence of Seun Shote in the cast makes the memory very tangible.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Politics in Brussels

On Monday, I had a day at the European Commission in Brussels, at a gathering of the Platform for Intercultural Europe. I'd been interested in this initiative since it began (for obvious reasons), and when the invitation turned up, complete with Eurostar ticket, I felt I really needed to get myself and Border Crossings involved, even if it meant getting up at 4am!

In Britain, artists get very little say in the shaping of policy. There's the occasional consultation by the Arts Council, which doesn't seem to achieve very much. In the EU, however, this Platform has an official role as a consultant to the Commission. It's not only made up of artists (and is none the worse for that), but it includes many arts practitioners from across the continent (and indeed beyond), and really does have a role in policy-making. This was powerfully brought home to me when I walked in to the meeting room, and discovered a UN-like set-up, with microphones, headphones and simultaneous translators in sound-proofed booths. Given that this was the very morning when the European election results had been announced, and the rise of the radical right was made evident, including two seats for the BNP in the European Parliament, I was very struck by the level of responsibility attached to this work. If Europe can't encourage intercultural dialogue, then we know where we could be heading.

Of the keynote speakers, the one who really impressed me was Chris Torch, from a Swedish-based organisation called Intercult. He had a wonderful image for the role of the arts in contemporary society: in early societies, people used to gather in a circle for a cultural event, and the circle was broken by professionalisation and proscenium - our role is to repair it. The second keynote speaker, on the other hand, was talking very much in terms of the arts conveying a pre-conceived "message". I found myself banging the drum for the arts as themselves a dialogic process, as a forum which can work towards meaning in democratic society, and not simply as a form of propaganda. This intervention proved very popular, I'm happy to say!

I had lunch with two Slovenians, and Tarafa Baghajati (a Muslim man, originally from Syria and now living in Vienna). The Slovenians were laughing about the way people in the former Yugoslavia are now nostalgic for Tito. Tarafa tells us that the same is true of Syria, where Tito was the only world leader to be a friend. When Tarafa was seven, he and his class had to go to the airport to welcome Tito to Damascus. They stood for five hours in the heat, until he finally arrived. Then, they all released doves of peace into the air.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Tiananmen Square - 20 years ago

If you've been following this blog for a while (and yes, some people actually do), then you may remember that I first visited China in 2005, beginning the preparations for Dis-Orientations, and so, by implication, for the Trilogy. Back then, I was very struck by the way in which the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square had been wiped out of popular consciousness. Click here for that memory.

Not much has changed since, it seems. On the 20th anniversary, while Hong Kong held a huge vigil, the square itself was surrounded by police, and nobody was able to enter. The firewalls went up very high - nobody was Twittering about this in China. And this ongoing silence, this refusal to acknowledge so drastic a moment in recent history, makes the ghosts more hungry than ever.

Dis-Orientations refers to the killings - albeit rather obliquely. My hope is that this will get it past the censors, on the grounds that if you don't know what the characters are talking about, then this won't tell you. We now know that we will be performing these plays in China next year, so I'm feeling very aware of the complexities and responsibilities of our position as cultural ambassadors, especially in the thick of all the current news coverage of the anniversary. So far, none of our Chinese colleagues has even mentioned this scene as potentially sensitive; though they have certainly talked about the Cultural Revolution (which everybody is concerned about) and homosexuality (which bothers lots of people but not the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre). It may be that this is part of the silence. We must simply wait and see.

And not forget.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Festival Finale

Origins came to an end last Sunday, and I'm only now emerging into the daylight to acknowledge the fact! It was an amazing couple of weeks. Of course, some things worked better than others, and some things drew bigger crowds than others - but that's to be expected, especially with the first Festival. Two standing ovations: one for the last performance of Almighty Voice and His Wife, and one for Alanis Obomsawin's incredibly moving Lecture.

At the Closing Ceremony on Sunday, Robert Greygrass and Jean Bruce-Scott presented me with a beautiful blanket, which is a great honour amongst the Native Americans. Considering that their show had (for some reason) drawn the smallest crowds, it was especially moving. I got a very powerful sense that everybody involved was seeing the bigger picture, and looking to future Festivals and wider possibilities.

I had dinner with David Milroy that evening. Great to talk to him at length, two years after we first discussed bringing over Windmill Baby. We go to the Festival hotel, and find the bar full of First Nations people. Patrick is playing his guitar, and Ant his flute. They are surrounded by Elders, performers, crew, and by the ever-increasing crowd of Origins fans we have assembled. An image of community.