Sunday, November 20, 2016

Weesageechak Begins to Dance

RELaps by Aria Evans
I've been in Toronto this week - thanks to the British Council here - for Native Earth's annual new writing festival, called after the Cree Trickster Weesageechak.  Being a trickster festival, "new writing" turns out not only to mean rehearsed readings, but new dance pieces presented as work in progress, and even extracts from a musical and an opera.

This is the 29th edition of the annual festival - from a company that will be 35 years old next year.  It dates back to the landmark moment in indigenous theatre, when Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters exploded onto the stage and offered a contemporary voice for First Nations cultures in North America.  Since Tomson, there have been a number of Artistic Directors - when we brought the company to the first Origins Festival back in 2009, it was led by the wonderful Yvette Nolan.  Today, the AD is a dynamic young Plains Cree man from Edmonton, Ryan Cunningham.  I first met him in Brisbane back in March, and we've had a lot to talk about....  Ryan has curated a festival that deliberately ranges very wide - not only in the forms showcased but also in the content.  For one thing, he's managed to bring over some Indigenous Australian artists from Mooghalin: Billy McPherson's play Cuz was read by First Nations actors from Canada, suggesting all sorts of parallels - and differences.  But more striking for me was the number of pieces - often the most striking pieces in dramatic or theatrical terms - that were made by First Nations artists but which resisted easy categorisation as 'First Nations work'.

The work of First Nations artists is often reduced to mere representation - as if they existed merely to report on the state of their peoples to an otherwise unknowing world.  Of course, that is never their own agenda: although there is inevitably a certain preoccupation with important questions about the meaning of indigenous cultures and identities in a world that largely shuns their traditional values and continues to marginalise their communities.  At its most sophisticated, for example in Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife (the Native Earth piece at Origins 2009), theatre becomes a space to deconstruct the process whereby identities have been written onto native peoples, and a process to articulate an historically informed response through the live body in the current moment.

In this year's Weesageechak, there was certainly an element of this - but I found myself most drawn to pieces in which the First Nations identity of the artists was (at least apparently) coincidental.  The young choreographer Aria Evans presented two pieces - a solo called link and a two-person piece called RElaps.  The latter was particularly strong - looking at emotional violence in intimate relationships.  Even more surprisingly, perhaps, the last night of the festival was a reading of a new script by a very well-known Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser - whose Métis identity has not hitherto been exactly proclaimed.  Brad's play, called Ménage à Trois, deals with the unraveling lives of three friends over a period of several decades - there's a particular emphasis on shifting gender and sexual identities from the 70s to the present, and on parent-child relationships.  The dramaturgy is deliberately fragmented, so that a scene from 2016 can be juxtaposed with one from the 70s.  The three main characters are each played at various points by three actors of different ages - a scheme made all the more complex by the fact that one character changes gender..... 

It's not remotely confusing, though.  In fact, it feels very like the mental and emotional processes through which human beings tend to think about their personal stories.  A moment from the distant past suddenly acquires new meaning in relation to the current moment.  It's like Eliot's Four Quartets in its sense of all time being eternally present.  Or even J.B. Priestley - when I talked to Brad after the reading, he acknowledged the influence of An Inspector Calls and  Time and the Conways.  If it's possible to imagine J.B Priestley crossed with Angels in America - that's sort of what this play is...   Except that I think it's an indigenous play as well.

At no point is any character mentioned to be First Nations.  Very possibly none of them are - although in last night's reading, every actor was a First Nations person, and that was very resonant.  For one thing, the gender change is something that would not surprise more traditional Cree people - as Tomson Highway has pointed out, the Cree language has no genders, and fluid gender identities characterise Cree Trickster figures like Nanabush.  At one point in the play a female character, Kit, is given the latest thing as a gift in the 70s - a digital watch.  She comments that this is a new way to look at time - that it doesn't go in circles any more, but in a number line.  The play seems deliberately to resist this, following the circular, indigenous, natural sense of time as a circular movement - time as something repeated and re-visited constantly, rather than time as a constant journey forward towards some "goal" or other.  At the end of the play, a child conceived in the 70s is reflected in one born in the present - and there is a sense that one is the spiritual sister of the other.  That attitude to time, history and spiritual connection - nestling within a play that seems on the surface to be very urban, postmodern and ironic - is surely about bringing indigenous ideas and spirituality into the contemporary space where First Nations people live today. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

A letter from ASHTAR Theatre

Iman Aoun of ASHTAR Theatre in When Nobody Returns
The text below is an open letter from our friends and collaborators at ASHTAR Theatre in Palestine.  Iman Aoun (Artistic Director) and Bayan Shbib have been working with us for the last two months on PLAYS OF LOVE AND WAR: and the company as a whole has been engaged with this project since 2014, most importantly hosting the rehearsals and opening performances of THIS FLESH IS MINE at their Ramallah base.  This is an incredibly important theatre company - one of the most important in the world - and now they really need our support.  

Colleagues and Friends of ASHTAR Theatre
Friends and Supporters of Palestine throughout the World

Ever since its establishment as the first drama teaching institution in 1991, ASHTAR Theatre with both branches in the West Bank and Gaza, gave scores of artistic theatrical presentations that earned a number of local, regional and global prizes. It helped bring Palestine’s message to the whole world in a civilized, humane and refined artistic means. Starting in 2010 ASHTAR Theatre launched an artistic global program designed to bring the voice of Gaza’s children to world forums with a view to lift the siege laid to it entitled the “Gaza Monologues”. We were honored by the participation of a number of theatre companies around the world to this program that ASHTAR Theatre launched in the city of Ramallah and Gaza to tour the world, passing through the United Nations.

In addition, ASHTAR Theatre graduated hundreds of students who gained social and artistic stature. They established new theater companies in the country. ASHTAR Theatre was also active in the introduction of drama in governmental and private as well as UNRWA schools starting in 2002. At the onset of 2012 ASHTAR Theatre administers a long term national programme in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education and other bodies with a view to provide training to “drama teachers” in Palestinian elementary schools.

For the last four years, ASHTAR Theatre has been facing dire financial difficulties that bar it from carrying on with its artistic and national journey, unless it obtains material support to offset this financial predicament.

We, at ASHTAR Theatre, administrators, artists, students and graduates contact you, the friends of ASHTAR and of Palestine, beseeching your support to enable keeping our Theatre doors open for the service of our children, our youth and our audiences spread throughout the entire Palestinian Territories. Any financial support geared towards us helps that purpose. Our campaign, today, aims at securing US$ 150,000, the amount of an accumulated deficit represented by the rental of the Theatre premises for the last three years and the operational costs of the institution in both branches, in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Should this amount be secured, it will greatly assist ASHTAR to continue in its existence and proceed with its operations in embarking on new programmes and doubling its presence as an important drama forum in Palestine.

We sincerely appreciate any efforts and contributions made to save this institution from eclipsing and help it maintain alive its message for Palestine.

For those who wish to assist ASHTAR Theatre, please contact us at the following e-mail address to provide you with the means of contribution.

Best regards to you.
ASHTAR Team and Students

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Theatre under the Motorway

When Nobody Returns - Iman Aoun and David Broughton-Davies

When we first presented This Flesh is Mine, back in 2014, we used all three spaces in ASHTAR Theatre's lovely Ramallah space, and a fabulous London venue called Testbed 1.   We always knew that Testbed would be a one-off: the bulldozers moved in back in January, and it's doubtless well on the way to becoming a set of desirable dwellings.  So we've been resourceful again - and found a space under the Westway, just along from the bar where Elliot Tupac painted his extraordinary mural during Origins 2015.

The bay under the motorway is large.  You can see the concrete slabs that are the foundation of the road above your head.  Our set, which uses two raked stages facing one another, looks as if the road has fallen in and smashed in the space.  Cladding is ripped and incomplete.  Everywhere there is a sense of wreckage and of provisionality.  The perfect space, in other words, for a pair of productions about war and occupation.  Palestine too is a space with far too much wreckage, and a space where everything is provisional and nothing stable or secure.

The great bonus of a found space like this is that it allows us to play to the epic qualities of Brian Woolland's Plays of Love and War at the same time as being very intimate with the audience.  There are some scenes that take place at height and distance - there are others which happen within touching distance of an audience that is never more than four rows deep.  This is fantastic for the thematic concerns of the plays, which move constantly between the personal and the political, as they explore the impact of war and violence on the lives of fragile individuals caught up in the power of global forces.

When Nobody Returns - Bayan Shbib and Andrew French
As well as being large, the space is also unforgiving in terms of sound.  The Westway itself doesn't make much noise - amazingly - but the area around sometimes does, and the concrete space doesn't resonate at all for voices.  So we have had to develop a sound design solution, and actually this too has become a contributor to meaning.  The actors have been brilliantly miked by Hannu Kuosmanen, and Dave Carey has created an almost continuous soundscape into which their treated voices are injected.  Often you don't even realise there is artificial sound - but there is enough to counteract the motorway and to generate an ambience that supports the voices.  Hannu's mixing of the quadrophonic speakers allows the vocal sound to seem to be coming directly from the actors' mouths, even when they are very close to you.

The space is full of challenges of course - but challenges are often what lead to brilliant creativity and to exciting solutions. The audience and the reviewers have certainly loved this space.  In fact - I find it very hard to imagine how the plays could be done in a conventional theatre....

More info and booking links here!