Saturday, March 26, 2016

Guest blog from Lesbos

Björn Dahlman, Artistic Director of our Swedish partner organisation Banateater, reports on his recent work among newly arrived refugees on the island of Lesbos.

Björn clowning in Lesbos
Clowns without Borders (Sweden) got funding from Sweden to make a series of so-called Emergency programmes. We went to Lesbos for four days of performances. The Lesbos Project was quite unusual: normally there is an organisation in the country we visit that welcomes us and have prepared a programme, but for Lesbos we just went there, checked in at a hotel, and took every day as it came. We had apps on the phone telling us where boats had arrived the previous nights and where there could be lots of new people. Refugees usually stay only 1 or 2 days on Lesbos before they are moved on.

Mainly, there were four big camps we visited. The biggest one, Moria, is where everyone has to go to register. When we were there we used to do big shows for 4-500 people. Also in some other camps we managed to arrange shows, but sometimes we only did mingle gigs, walking around as clowns and playing with the children that came up to us.

We had to find friends in each new camp that could help us, for example in Moria Save the Children, who had some kind of permission to be in the camp, told us that we could say that we were collaborating with them when the guards asked.

In the camps we just defined a performance space using a rope. We walked around the camp in clown characters inviting people to come and see the show. Walking around was very difficult: we wanted to be happy and joyful and tempt the kids and the parents, who often felt a need to protect their children, to actually come. At the same time many families were gathering to mourn family members that had drowned just the night before and of course we did not want to disturb them. Being thrown between sorrow and despair in one second and joy and happiness the other was a totally bizarre experience.

We also visited a hotel where some rich dude just rented the whole hotel and let families who had special needs or great grief use them for a couple of nights to recover. Since many families were in grief the staff there didn´t want us to perform, but finally they agreed to let us sneak down in the basement where no-one who didn’t go there on purpose could see. About 50 people, mostly children, came to see the show and it was a huge success - the hotel asked us to come back regularly.

The one experience I bring along is meeting the parents. Children are children; sometimes I think that they don´t understand what they have just been through, and just like all the other children I meet they are a bit shy at first and then they just crack up with laughter. But the parents, who just one day earlier took the decision to put their children in a small boat that would cross the stormy Mediterranean in the night - a journey that should take only two hours but usually lasts for 10-12 hours because the boats are so full - were amazing to watch. They look scared at first, but when they see their children laugh again I see them smiling, having tears in their eyes, and dancing with us in the final number in a way that I never seen anyone dance before.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sharing Stages with Chickenshed

The Red Balloon
In our home borough of Enfield, there's an unusual, and very successful, theatre for young people called Chickenshed.  It's a place with some very interesting ideas about diversity, especially in relation to disability, and an interest in theatre that is open and inclusive.  We've had a relationship for some time - curating events there and even touring Consumed into the Studio, as well as complementing that with a youth project led by Lucy.   Dave Carey, their remarkable Director of Creative Development, has written music for two of our shows now.

So it was great to be asked by Dave to become directly involved with the company for a few weeks, as part of their new project Sharing Stages.  The clue's in the name - this is a project about the company's partnerships - although actually very few of these are purely theatrical.  There are partners like Amnesty and Barnado's in the mix.  One other director who has been involved is Lou Stein - famous for founding the Gate - and he's just been announced as the holder of a new post in the theatre, which is its Artistic Directorship.  Interesting times in Enfield....

Our piece, devised with 12 young people (a tiny cast by Chickenshed's standards, and a huge one by ours) is about what it feels like to be a teenager today.  We approached it through their own stories, refracted through one another's telling processes; short scenes written in response to the theme; movement based on statistics we found online.  The result, called The Red Balloon, is a rather beautiful and very intense 10-minute play in three short "movements" - and is very musical.  It's not "about" disability or ethnicity in any overt way - but the presence of disabled and diverse young people within it is key to the way it works.  They don't operate on stage in spite of who they are - what they do and what they mean there is very much about who they are.

It's on till this weekend.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A welcome to APAM

Mana Wahine - from Okareka
I've been in Brisbane for the biennial APAM, which - while the "M" does indeed stand for "Market" - is an extraordinary opportunity to meet up with indigenous Australian performers and producers, see some of their work, hear what they are planning, and generally breathe in the atmosphere so crucial to programming Origins.  This year was particularly rich for me, as APAM had reached out to other groups of indigenous people around the world, creating links with Maori, Canadian First Nations and Inuit, and Melanesia.  It was wonderful to meet people from Canada who were new to me - Ryan Cunningham from Native Earth, Starr Muranko from Raven Spirit, Kathleen Merritt from Ivaluarjuk - and to see Maori work alongside the Australian, particularly the wonderful Mana Wahine by Okareka (pictured).   The opening ceremony was an exchange between different indigenous groups - not unlike what we do at Origins, but given a different resonance because it took place on the lands of indigenous Australians.  At its start, there was what I have come to think of as a traditional Welcome to Country.

But apparently the Welcome to Country isn't so traditional after all.  In the week of APAM, there was a Guardian article which talked about how this "tradition" was created, some 40 years ago.  At the time, this must have been incredibly important.  Indigenous people had not long moved out of the category of "flora and fauna" in Australia, so anything that went even a small way towards acknowledging their traditional custodianship of the land was a huge step.  But, I was told by indigenous producer Nadine McDonald-Dowd, the format that this has now taken is a long way from what in fact happened between indigenous groups historically.  "We didn't welcome people to our country until those people had asked permission to be on our country", she says.  Put like that, you begin to see that there is still a long way to go.  The Welcome to Country may acknowledge traditional ownership, but it places the responsibility on the indigenous people to articulate that acknowledgment, and it assumes the right of other people to be welcomed to the land - even if they have done nothing to earn it.  Not even asked.  I'm not sure that we can do much to shift this paradigm from our space in London - we are welcoming indigenous people as visitors, rather than expecting them to be our hosts.  But something should be done to make non-indigenous people work within the framework of welcome - we can't just expect indigenous people to be nice to us because we happen to be present on their ancestral lands.