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.