Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Amnesty at 50

It was my birthday on Saturday - thanks to everybody who left messages on Facebook! It was also an important birthday for Amnesty International - and I've been reading the special issue of their magazine.

It's very striking just how much of this magazine deals with theatre. There's a discussion of a play which was made from an exchange of letters between activists and a political prisoner. There's an interview with Daves Guzha, who I met in Zimbabwe as long ago as 1998, and who is still using performance to work against Mugabe. There's a piece on the assassination of Juliano Mer-Khamis from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. And there's a very strong piece on Henning Mankel and his Teatro Avenida in Mozambique.

Mankel talks about the importance of theatre in illiterate communities - he's very clear that literacy is a way to improve health conditions in a very direct way. And he says something else which could almost be a description of our work at Border Crossings:

"Living theatre is one of the few meeting points in the world where all the false borders, like language and race, come down. Actors, white or brown or yellow, even if they don't speak the same language, can start working together and create art immediately."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Brussels day 2

Today we moved from the threadbare-friendly surroundings of La Maison des Cultures and into the European Commission's Albert Borschette conference centre, complete with numerous translators in booths relaying our every word. In this more formal space, we have the chance to dialogue with people from the Commission itself - Vladimir Sucha, who is the Director of Culture and Media, and Giulia Amaducci, who works in immigration and integration. She's Italian, and speaks English at Italian speed and in Italian tunes, which made me wish she could be translated into English.

Vladimir had some very heartening things to say. In particular, he talked about some theatre he had seen in his native Slovakia, which engaged with the Roma community, and with the huge local prejudice against them. "Twenty minutes of theatre", he said, "has a life-long impact. This is the way to change perceptions profoundly and to involve people actively in intercultural dialogue." I wrote it down so that I can quote it everywhere!

I was also very impressed by a man called Ahmed Ahkim, who runs an organisation for Roma and traveller people in Belgium. Ahmed talked about the importance of imagination in overcoming prejudice: when people look at a traveller, they imagine them to be something. We need engineers of the imagination to suggest other possibilities. "In order to establish cultural dialogue you have to dream - and artists are the professional dreamers." I wrote this one down because it's true.

In Brussels

I'm in the default EU capital for the annual gathering of the Platform for Intercultural Europe (which really does abbreviate to pie...). It's a two day event this year, so one overnight stay is unavoidable, though I still managed to make yesterday a very long one, getting up at 4 to catch the Eurostar and be here for 9.30 (and don't forget Belgium is an hour ahead!).

I sang for my supper in the morning, reporting back to the Platform on the Practice Exchange we hosted late last year. The report on the website is so exhaustive that I didn't have to go through everything that happened, but was able instead to talk about some of the key issues which emerged. The crucial one, which led to lots of discussion yesterday, was whether we could find a common language between people working in cross-cultural dialogue (be that in the arts, education or advocacy) and the politicians who increasingly conceived of "value" not in moral or cultural terms, but solely as something quantifiable and monetary.

The afternoon session was brilliantly done, with a series of discussions at tables around projects which members were developing in their own countries. I talked to an Italian trade unionist about his work to help Somali refugees into the labour market, a Jewish woman from Belgium about work with religious groups on gender and sexual orientation, and a woman from Cyprus who was doing cross-cultural theatre work in primary schools. There's clearly huge potential for future collaborations in this network.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The footprints of creation

The workshop over, I had a weekend in Botswana with David and Adala, before a "planning for the future" meeting on Monday morning, and the long flight home. Currently blogging in Johannesburg airport, which is not such a terrible place as airports go, but hardly the most inspiring place to be for five hours. They charge colossal sums for internet access, so I'm determined to use every minute I paid for!

On Saturday night, we were back at Maitisong, where the workshop took place. This time we were in the audience for a Punjabi community event. I had no idea there could be so many Sikhs in Gabarone. All ages too - from babies to grandmothers. They had brought over a performance group from India (via South Africa), who were very good. The first half of the show involved martial arts - the highlight being the smashing of a coconut on a man's head by a blindfolded performer armed with a club. "Don't try this at home", they told us. The second half was bangra, with lots of noise and bling - and this was the part of the show which led to the spontaneous audience participation. Young men whooped and leapt on one side of the stage, and little girls on the other. As the local women started to dance, the little girls, who seemed to have learnt the moves while their mummies practiced, invaded the stage, only to be shooed away by an irate professional. It was all totally anarchic and wonderfully affirmative of community. We even got curry included in the ticket price.

Sunday morning saw a tour of the touristy sites in the area of Gabarone. Most exciting of these was probably the ancient rock art at Matsieng - where there are footprints which the Tswana say are those of the first man. Given that humanity did indeed originate not far from here, and that this is a very beautiful place, I was happy to credit it as the Garden of Eden.

I've really valued David's friendship during my time in Botswana. It's rare to find somebody you "click" with quite so instantly, and who has such a wealth of life experience and theatre knowledge that he is so willing to share. His stories of life in Malawi during the last days of the dictatorship are at once thrilling and terrifying.

Before the airport this morning, we sit down with Jane and talk about what we can do to develop links further. I'd be very excited to work in Botswana again, of course - and I think we can be of use to them in terms of developing the infrastructure for a company that Jane is so keen to create. There are certainly lots of possibilities in these new links!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Praise Singing

We had our sharing session for the workshop this morning. David, and Jane from the Botswana Society for the Arts, pulled in a reasonable crowd of interested people, with the actors' friends and families (including one rather embarassed mother) making up the rest of the audience. I had been feeling a bit nervous about this event - it's always a bit strange to show work which isn't made with the purpose of performance - but in fact the audience was incredibly responsive. We showed a number of the movement-based exercises we'd been working on, including a lovely performance of posed tableaux, and some of the mini-plays that had been made in response to various creative stimuli. As when they were first formed, I was surprised and delighted by the specifically Botswanan feel of these - the sense that we'd managed to tap into the psyche of the place. The cumulative effect reminded me a bit of Third World Bunfight - the rapid shifts between the spiritual, the farcical, the political and the personal is very exciting in this environment. As so often at the end of a workshop, I was left wanting to carry on, and to see whether this work might become a piece of theatre. David, Jane and I are having a meeting on Monday morning to see what we can plan... who knows? The British Council people, who paid for my flight here, came in during the week, and the director of the Alliance Francaise was here this morning, and seemed to enjoy herself.

At the end of the showing, Jane got me to present certificates in a slightly headmaster-ish way - they looked nice with lots of logos on them and everybody seemed happy. One of the actors, Emmanuel, made a speech about how they could go on to develop what they had learnt. And then came the moving moment. Kagosi, who seems to be one of the shyer members of the group, began to show his real talent as a Praise Singer, improvising in Setwana as the others ululated and danced around him. In spite of not understanding a word of it, I realised that this was a very rare and special honour - that I was being praised by a Praise Singer. They certainly know how to make you feel wanted here. Later, David told me the poem included jokes about Kagosi's limited English, and his desire to be cast in a production in London (there was lots of laughter from the other actors and the audience).

Beautiful and humbling. Thank you fabulous artists.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

More from Gabarone

Another fantastic day in the workshop. The morning was spent on Lecoq's Seven Levels of Tension, which is always a great way to energise inexperienced actors and move them towards spontaneous and original work. That led on to an exercise called "walking into the wrong room", which is self-explanatory and very funny.

In the afternoon, we made use of pieces of clothing that I'd asked the actors to bring in - each had an item with a particular emotional meaning for them. The exercise was deceptively simple - they just had to find a way of presenting that piece of clothing to the whole group. It was truly extraordinary. One young man beat the drum while wearing feathers on his head and a leopard-patterned vest. Another put on shorts, took off his shirt and became a Praise Singer. A mixed-race woman acted her journeys between Africa and Europe, and her decision to buy a traditional German dress so as to embrace that part of her identity. It was all intensely moving, deeply honest, almost shocking in the complexity of its identity politics.

Long talk with David about theatre for development. He's been involved in the form since the 70s, and knows everybody. He's also full of amazing stories about work with Zapu PF during the guerilla war, workshops in Bangladesh which landlords tried to sabotage, theatre workers being imprisoned in or deported from Malawi. We discuss the fact that theatre for development seems to have lost its radical edge these days, has become a little "worthy", and very westernised. In part, he blames the shifting agendas of funders, and in part the more rigorous accounting procedures they are following. In the old days, you used to be able to sneak in revolution under the counter.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wonderful Batswana

The third day of the workshop has been the strongest so far - there's a real sense of growth in the room, as the artists come to trust one another and me. It's a very interesting bunch - three of David's students from the Performing Arts course at University of Botswana, and ten young actors (not students) from Botswana Society for the Arts. The latter include a fascinating young woman called Mora, whose father was German and whose Matswana mother teaches at the university. She is also a painter, musician and most other things.... as so often, the polymath abilities of people from non-Western cultures stagger me. There's also a young man called Tommy with a real flair for comedy, people who can sing and dance.... and act.

But the really fascinating thing is the way in which the work is starting to reflect more and more on the internal drama of being young Batswana today. Scene after scene deals with real conflicts between the sense of standing in an ancient culture, and the power of modernity. Nor is this a simple old v new battle - sometimes the older generation stands accused of selling out or cashing in. It's fascinating that these profound dramas are emerging with very little language - most of the work is happening through movement and song. There's a great deal of fluidity between the spirit world and the "real" - something which I love, and which seems very current here.

And the sun is shining too.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Botswana workshop

Typing this in a very slow internet cafe in Gabarone, so there won't be a full report on the last two days! I've been in a workshop, hosted jointly by University of Botswana and Botswana Society for the Arts. I'm working with a group of young performers, most of whom have very limited experience (there is no professional theatre in the country), but all of whom have energy and enthusiasm in buckets. As often in Africa, the plus side of the process is music and dance. Rhythm games which would take ages anywhere else in the world simply materialise here. You don't have to ask for songs or dances - the moment they are on stage, that is what they do.

On the other hand, there's not much awareness of theatre language, and so anything spoken requires a lot of work. It's interesting to see how colloquial and poetic registers don't seem different to them. This may be a language issue - but I'm deliberately working as much as possible with African texts. They are certainly open to direction, and don't have any inhibitions whatsoever. We saw some sexually explicit material within minutes of starting, and with no prompting in that direction.

I don't know if we'll have any great art to show at the end of the week, but I do know that both they and I will have learnt a huge amount.

More to follow when the typing is easier!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Arrival in Botswana

I'm typing this in Prof. David Kerr's office at the University of Botswana. I arrived here yesterday, via Jo'berg, to run a workshop for a mixed group of David's students and the Botswana Society for the Arts. It's an initial dipping of toes in Botswanan waters - and I'm feeling very excited about it!

David is an extraordinary man: an academic, a director and an activist, who has devoted his life to working in Southern Africa. He's spent two long periods in Malawi, where he met Kate Stafford, and she introduced us when he visited London a while ago. Since then he's been on our mailing list, and when he saw the level of intercultural engagement we were making with Re-Orientations, along came an invitation to come here and see what could be done. Thanks to the British Council for the funding!

David and his Zambian wife Adela met me at the airport, and took me straight to an arts and crafts centre called Batswanacrafts, where there was a schools competition going on in traditional dance. There's less drumming here than in many other parts of Africa - the rhythms come from clapping and rattles on the feet. It's very mesmerising, all the same. David tells me about a time he was working on a scene about traditional healing with a student group, and one student really did go into the trance state that the rhythms are designed to induce. It reminds me of Brett's work with Third World Bunfight - the emphasis on altered states of consciousness.

Much of the theatre which is done here is issue-based, particularly TfD work and HIV /AIDS awareness (with a 25% infection rate, that's no big surprise). I read a couple of the devised pieces David has made with his students - one of which is in the African Theatre volume on Youth, and the other is a recent piece about homophobia, called Straight and Narrow. It's not illegal to be gay here, but homosexual acts are... which must be pretty tricky. David says that even five years ago, it would have been impossible to do this play, but that now it seemed easy: even the straight actors were willing to play gay characters. On the other hand, there are negative aspects to this new distance which younger Batswana are acquiring from tradition - they don't, for example, know the traditional songs, there's a cultural limbo. All of which could make for a fascinating workshop. And I start tomorrow....