Monday, February 23, 2015

Bethnal Green Academy

Border Crossings has been working with Bethnal Green Academy since early 2013, engaging the school in a number of our projects.  We have always found it to be an excellent school, and fully deserving its "Outstanding" Ofsted rating.  We would like to express our solidarity with the school as it deals with the fallout from three of its students heading to Syria in the apparent hope of joining Islamic State.

We would also like to express our solidarity with the staff in the face of the Prime Minister's remarks that this case underlines the need for schools to combat Islamism.  These comments could be understood to imply that the teachers and other staff at this school have somehow failed their students and the wider community, and that they are in some way culpable in this case.  The radicalisation of young people is a much more complex issue than this; and one of the main reasons often given by these people themselves is the ongoing involvement of the UK in what are perceived to be anti-Islamic wars in the Middle East.  It is certainly a gross oversimplification to lay the blame on a conscientious and caring group of teachers and support staff at the school.

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Evening with Peter Sellars

Peter Sellars
A great start to 2015 for the Border Crossings Laboratory - with our Patron Peter Sellars giving an inspiring talk to a packed house at Rich Mix!

Peter's talk, like Rustom Bharucha's a few months ago, was a way for us to interrogate, expand upon and share some of the key ideas which are informing our work.  So we started with a discussion of the relationship between Greek myth and contemporary warfare in the Middle East: the parallel we used in This Flesh is Mine, and which Peter has also employed in productions like The Children of Herakles, The Persians and Ajax.  The Children of Herakles seemed particularly interesting for us, as it combined the presentation of a classical Greek tragedy with the presence of real refugees, both on stage as a silent Chorus, and in the framing events, engaging directly with the audience.  It's always of interest to us - and at times a challenge to us - to find direct connections between our community engagement work and our artistic productions (however obvious the indirect connections may be).  Peter talked about the way in which the presence of the refugees in that show served to interrogate the performance, to measure it against the reality of lived experience; while at the same time the performance also gives that experience an imaginative dimension.  So it becomes a two-way traffic.

Greece is also a wonderful model, because its drama was part of the brief but powerful flowering of democracy in Athens.  As Peter pointed out, even this wasn't an ideal time if you happened to be a woman, a slave, a foreigner or a child....  and yet, as a result, the title of every Greek play is the name of a woman, or of a group of slaves, or foreigners, or children.  Theatre became the way to give voice to the voiceless.  That should remain its function today.

The Children of Herakles
The Children of Herakles wasn't just a performance.  In fact, Peter was very explicit that he's become more and more interested in creating the context for a performance - to the extent that he now gives that every bit as much attention as the performance itself.  In this piece, the evening started with a debate about refugee issues.  It was only 30 minutes long - deliberately not enough time to do the subject justice or to resolve anything.  But this means that the audience go into the performance provoked, thinking about the current situation, and so activated and alive to possibility.  And, after the performance comes the meal, which is then followed by a film about refugees.  The meal is crucial, because that is the opportunity for people to engage directly with individual refugees and to hear their stories and their views.  Peter being Peter, he was able to bring ministers and mayors to break bread with the stateless.

Listening to these ideas was very helpful to me in thinking about our forthcoming Origins Festival, which also needs to be a meeting place and a space for dialogues between people who would not normally meet.  It's no accident that Peter has devoted much of his career to Festivals.  What's more, he also has a powerful interest in indigenous cultures - another subject he discussed that evening.

He embraced the secrecy.  For a lot of Western people who approach indigenous cultures, the element of secrecy is a frustration, or a "challenge".  There is an assumption that, eventually, if we keep applying our scientific and anthropological curiosity, we will break through and learn.  But that is not how indigenous cultures work.  Certain knowledge is not open, but is preserved and treasured as the private property of the culture, known only to certain elders, and shared only as needed.  And, to Peter's mind, that is crucial to the cross-cultural dialogue, because it forces the Westerner, if they have real respect and regard the indigenous people as their human  equals, to adopt a position of unaccustomed humility.  We have to acknowledge that we may never know, and that it is not our decision whether or not we will learn.

Peter's next production is The Indian Queen.  Its opening is about the invasion of the Americas - an attack on the indigenous:

"Wake, Quivera, wake, our soft rest must cease,
And fly together with our country's peace;
No more must we sleep under plantain's shade,
Which neither heat could pierce nor cold invade;
Where bounteous nature never feels decay,
And opening buds drive falling fruits away."