Monday, October 25, 2021

Totem in Manchester

 Guest blog by Alexandra P. Alberda

Totem Latamat outside Manchester Museum

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Alexandra P. Alberda spent most of her youth in Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. She is mixed race and Jemez Pueblo, which has meant that she has grown up at the thresholds of cultures.  She is Curator of Indigenous Perspectives at Manchester Museum - the first person to hold such a role.

Between October 21st -24th TOTEM LATAMAT was installed on The University of Manchester’s University Place Square opposite the Manchester Museum across Oxford Road. At the Museum, we are proud to host this important work as it contributes not only to our Indigenising Manchester Museum programme, but also to our hello future programme, which is concerned with climate and environmental action. TOTEM LATAMAT was an example of Indigenous action and lived experiences (through QR extra material) that our communities, students, staff and visitors could encounter. Many remarked to me on the beauty of the work and message, and how the materials seemed very important in considering actions we take. 

This installation coincided in a happy accident with the wonderful Corridor of Light celebration, which brings in people and families from across the Greater Manchester area. It was placed next to an audio-visual work by Antonio Roberts called Move Fast and Break Things. Through this event, regular University activity and dozens of prospective student trips on the Saturday, thousands of people viewed or interacted with TOTEM LATAMAT, and I certainly saw at least a couple hundred take selfies with it and read the signs.  Jun Tiburcio’s TOTEM LATAMAT was an important ambassador of Indigenous perspectives on climate crisis/burning and a provoker of conversation.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Totem at the Rollright Stones

 Guest blog by George Lambrick

Totem Latamat at the centre of the stone circle

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  George Lambrick is Chair of the Rollright Trust, which administers the ancient site of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire.

The Rollright Trust was delighted to be asked to host TOTEM LATAMAT at the Rollright Stones for a couple of days on its way to COP26. By dint of a carefully worked out installation, it was possible to place the totem at the centre of the King’s Men stone circle leaving no trace of how it had arrived, thereby enhancing its sense of belonging – which many visitors commented on.   

The stone circle dates from a period about 4,500 years ago when domestication of animals and plants was well-established but before ‘farming’ in the sense of extensive fields and permanent farms and villages was established.  Indeed, it is very possible that the Stones were erected in a still widely forested landscape before increasingly rapid clearance for agriculture in later prehistory (c. 3,000 years ago) led to flooding in the Thames valley as arable agriculture expanded to feed a rapidly growing, increasingly urban population.  It could hardly be a better location for reminding us that in Western Europe we long since went through effects of deforestation for farming which now, on a far greater global scale, are causing even more devastating changes – not just to water land and ecology, but also climate.

The only comparable previous event at the stone circle was a visit by Sir Anish Kapoor’s ‘Turning the World Inside Out’ in 2004 – and this new visitor has been just as impressive, temporarily changing the architectural dynamics of this ancient ceremonial gathering place in ways that draw attention to many of its key characteristics.  The act of placing such a striking, contrasting yet somehow complementary feature at the centre of the circle exactly on its axis from the entrance to the tallest stone makes a profound difference.  The scale of the totem meant it had a presence that was unmistakably significant, one visitor commenting that it made the stone circle’s somewhat inconspicuous entrance seem larger and more significant – not least because the totem was carefully oriented to face the entrance square-on. 

The symbolism of the totem is fascinating in its varied messages.  It was possible to pick up on this in how we placed it, with its more optimistic and hopeful front facing out over the beautiful Cotswolds landscape while turning its back (representing the damage that human development has been done to the environment) on the noisy HGVs and other traffic on the road that passes less than 10m from the stone circle.

Many visitors commented on the cheerful vibrant colours of the totem, which beautifully complemented the more muted but no less varied colours of the 70-odd species of lichens that cover every surface of the stones.  The natural materials of the totem and the unshaped irregular form of the stones also complemented each other, one of our volunteers commenting on it as ‘a real antidote to mass-production.’  Another striking feature of what the totem brought to the site was the sense of life engendered by the movement of the fabric scarf and bamboo ‘wings’ which rattled fiercely in a strong breeze and like wind chimes in gentle gusts.  At one point this percussive effect was complemented by a group of three regular visitors who circumnavigate the stone circle rhythmically sounding a gong and tambour drums as a form of meditation, and on this occasion included the totem in their perambulations.  A player of medieval-style English bagpipes (as reconstructed from illustrations from the time of Chaucer) added another musical dimension.  The combination of colour, movement, sound and smell of the wood (especially down-wind) gave the totem an added sense of liveliness which further enhanced its impact in contrast to the rock-solid stones.  

There is a very long tradition of people placing a wide variety of offerings or decorations on and around the Stones.  During the installation, we were very anxious about forecast high winds and wanted to make the totem even more stable.  As a pragmatic solution, we placed two smallish but heavy stones that we use for a children’s stone-moving exercise on the base as temporary extra contribution, literally helping to make the totem more ‘grounded’ but in a manner suitable to its new setting.  Subsequently an apple was added between the eagle’s talons, and later some hawthorn berries. 

Numerous children visited (including a class from the local primary school) – one child familiar with the Stones, but not aware of what she was about to see coming round the corner, let out a delighted whoop of ‘WOW!’  Also very welcome is the unforeseen effect that the totem’s visit has made to the work of our Trust – several of our Friends group visited with enthusiasm, we renewed and reinforced our connections with volunteers who helped with the installation and removal as well as neighbours who helped keep an eye on the totem overnight.  

Finally, congratulations to Jun Tiburcio for his brilliant and moving sculpture; greetings to the Totonac peoples in making so clear their commitment to the vital importance of safeguarding Indigenous culture and the environment; and a very big thank you to all involved in making this special visit possible. 

Totem in Coventry

 Guest blog by Thomas Ellmer

Totem Latamat outside Warwick Arts Centre

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Thomas Ellmer is Deputy Curator at Warwick Arts Centre, in Coventry, the 2021 UK City of Culture.  During Cop, WAC will host the Change Festival, which is collaborating with ORIGINS for Indigenous programming.  

We were thrilled to welcome Totem Latamat to Warwick Arts Centre and to the University of Warwick campus. Stately yet spooky, majestic and mysterious, Totem Latamat was quickly surrounded by University of Warwick students. The Totem posed for photos, making sure its colourful headdress was nicely lit from above and its environmental proposition was felt.

Students and members of staff were surprised by the sculpture’s scale and moving elements. Now we know what 4.5m in height is.   
“Oh wow, it’ll have its work cut out at Cop26,” said one student.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Totem in Enfield

Guest blog by Ali Istanbullu

YTA's Young Notes Choir welcome Totem Latamat to Enfield

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Ali Istanbullu is a child protection social worker, living in Enfield.  He has worked with refugees in different locations across the Middle East, and for the last decade has been working in a deprived and diverse London borough in the child protection area.

Colossal heatwaves, wildfires, torrential rains, and stronger hurricanes that devastated swathes of land and killed dozens of people across Africa, South America and Europe. The Earth is telling us something and we need to do something about it. Poorest communities are at the receiving end of these devastating effects.  Totem Latamat is a messenger sent by Indigenous people to the leaders in COP26. Totem Latamat is not only a response to the leaders but also it is our connection to the environment and Earth. Totem Latamat is an art with a loud and resonating voice for the most important issues of our day and age. It was a great experience for us to meet this Indigenous Mexican response to climate change en route to COP26.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Totem in Milton Keynes

 Guest blog by Joan Harris

TOTEM LATAMAT surrounded by lasers in Milton Keynes

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter.  Joan Harris was part of the group from Interfaith Milton Keynes who welcomed the totem to Station Square.

I was surprised at how colourful and beautiful the totem is!  The photo in the initial information I had seen obviously showed the totem not finished, so it was a glorious sight against a blue autumn sky. The juxtaposition of the totem against the building project behind it focused the message of nature being dominated by human activity.  The gathered observers raising their voices in song (even in 2 parts in rounds!), is encouraging that we can work together for the good. Thanks to all involved in getting that beautiful symbol and art here to our city.

Totem at Chiswick House


Pupils from Chiswick School encounter Totem Latamat

A guest blog by Ellie Scott

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about the encounter. The first post is by Ellie Scott, who is a pupil at Chiswick School.  

Hi, I'm Ellie and on Monday, my friends went to Chiswick House to do a speech about the environment. It was really great meeting the Deputy Ambassador of Mexico, the Mayor of Chiswick and seeing the big totem used to spread environmental awareness and peace. Something I found really cool about the totem was the fact that it was carved entirely out of wood! On our way to Chiswick House, some students and I had to carry a massive pole full of information about ourselves, our nationality and much more! On the way there, it was pretty tiring due to us carrying the pole. Then, we carried the steelpan instruments to the grass from the van they were in, before doing some pictures for the press. Not so long after that, my friends and I said our speeches and introduced ourselves to the Deputy Ambassador of Mexico. What's more, Chiswick School’s steelpan band then played Levitating as a welcome to the totem, before we met the Mayor of Chiswick after a song blessing the totem, from a Shaman. This day was an amazing experience and I loved it.

Quechua shaman Kurikindi blesses Totem Latamat

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Coming of Totem Latamat

The story began back in  March, when we first approached Jun Tiburcio to make the totem. It was clear that this year's ORIGINS was not going to be the same as previous editions, with travel and audience gathering so uncertain. Indigenous people had been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, and this fact was also affecting the other great concern of 2021, the Cop26 summit on Climate Change.  As Greta Thunberg pointed out, vaccination inequality compounds existing divisions between rich and poor, effectively excluding Indigenous voices from the crucial debates in November. As a UK-based organisation working with Indigenous cultures, we felt a deep need to find another way in which their environmental ideas and agendas could be brought to the world's attention. TOTEM LATAMAT is the answer.

Accompanied by a ceremony to give thanks for the life that was being offered, a single tree was felled by Jun and other men from his village back in June. He carved it over many weeks, working with the entire community to shape the tree, to sculpt its intricate designs, to paint it in the magnificent, sun-kissed colours of Mexico. TOTEM LATAMAT is the work of a great artist - and it is also the work of his Totonac village community.

By early August, the totem was ready to move to Veracruz for shipping. It's not a simple matter... but we really couldn't send this by plane: the whole project has to be as environmentally positive as possible. We needed export licences and we're still doing import paperwork. The totem turned out too be too big for the 20 foot shipping container we had booked, so we had to get a bigger one. Then the queue of goods for the ship proved too long, and there was a two week delay before it could be loaded onto the next ship. Finally, on 7th September, it was able to begin its sea crossing.  

The ship stopped in Houston, and then Le Havre. Mid-Atlantic there was another delay that meant the ceremony of welcome had to be put back. Just this morning we heard the departure from Le Havre was 9 hours late, which means the ship will be unloaded overnight tonight at London Gateway. Then it's a question of how long it takes to get through customs. The shippers will drive it across London to Chiswick House, and at last we will meet TOTEM LATAMAT, for the beginning of the UK journey.  

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Une Semaine au Soleil


Nicola Bonazzi and Dominique Jambert in the Cre-Actors workshop

After seemingly endless Covid delays, and surrounded by vaccination certificates and antigen tests, we were finally able to hold the first workshop in the Cre-Actors project, run through our Irish company, in the last week of July.  I couldn't have wished for a better return to the world of live theatre-making: not only were we able to gather in a large intercultural devising group, we were on the main stage of La Cartouchrie, working with actors from the great Théâtre du Soleil itself.  In the image above, you can see Nicola Bonazzi, from the Teatro dell'Argine in Bologna, working in a costume from their legendary production of LES ATRIDES.  We were able, quite literally, to cover ourselves with the great theatrical tradition of this remarkable troupe.  It was deeply refreshing and restorative to reconnect with theatrical tradition, sensing a continuity and a dedication that has survived the rupture.  It was, in the fullest sense, a week in the sun.

The Soleil is famously a company which bases its work in mask; in the traditional forms of Asian theatre and commedia, in which the mask is a sacred object that carries the spirit of a pre-existing character.  While we made little use of actual masks in this workshop, there were costumes involved from the very beginning, as well as music in every improvisation, often used as the stimulus for the scenario.  The workshop leaders, Dominique Jambert and Vincent Mangado, also made use of the framework from THE TEMPEST as a stimulus to creativity, and I suppose that was like another mask - another tradition of theatre to inform our creativity.  

There will be other posts about this week on the Cre-Actors blog, and detailed discussions of the methodology in the project e-book next year.  But at this point, I simply feel a desire to celebrate a return to theatre-making, and to express the joy of being part of the traditions that come together on the Cartoucherie stage.  It is fun.  It is holy.  It is political.  It is community.  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Acropolis / Apocalypse

Flying into Athens, the fires are already visible. We step into 45°. The Metro line from the airport isn't running. Maybe the rails have buckled in the heat.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

In the Acropolis Museum a statue is weeping. She offers an ancestor for Catherine Schaub's lamenting witness - the Libation Bearer. Only last week we were on the stage of the Soleil - battling to grace these whimpering tomorrows with the name of tragedy.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

Our meeting is brief and desultory. We attempt to debate the socially engaged. Some people don't stay beyond the first morning - present only to record their presence. Their cynicism oppresses more deeply than the sun. A moral vacuum. A failure of vision. They fiddle with their phones and cremate the planet with the fuel of their insouciance.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

Today is August 6th. Hiroshima Day. We knew in 1945. In Beirut, 1982, Mahmoud Darwish witnessed this day under a hail of shelling. The vacuum bomb. He longed for coffee and he knew today. The statue on the Acropolis too. Aeschylus, Electra, Oedipus, Tiresias.... We have always known.

The attendance report is sent to the funder.

Ash falls in a hot snow over the city.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

215 Children


A nun shaves a child's head on arrival at a Residential School:
Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan

The discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 First Nations children at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia has shocked many people, both in Canada and elsewhere. Today, 6th June, there is a gathering outside Canada House in London to commemorate these children, some of whom seem to have been as young as three. At our online event on Thursday, with two First Nations poets, we observed a minute of silence. This horrific discovery may at last serve to draw attention to the true horror of the Residential School system. I hope so. But the grave has come as no surprise to First Nations people themselves.  Richard Jock, CEO of the First Nations Health Authority, acknowledged that the discovery was deeply distressing for Indigenous people, but at the same time pointed out: "That this situation exists is sadly not a surprise and illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities.''  There has been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Residential School system, led by the Indigenous Justice Murray Sinclair (who spoke at ORIGINS 2013), which reported in 2015. There have also been numerous autobiographies, novels and films. In London, we have screened WE WERE CHILDREN and INDIAN HORSE. Yet, in spite of this, people still seem astonished. The crime against humanity is systematically ignored. Why?

I suspect it has something to do with the acknowledgment of responsibility, and the need for reparation that is consequent upon it.

I'd like to explore this in reference to a similar, though not of course identical, case in Ireland: the Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes, published last October. Here too, there was a mass grave of children whose burials went unrecorded, at the home in Tuam, operated by the Sisters of Bon Secours. Like First Nations children in Canada, the children of unmarried mothers in Ireland were placed in the "care" of Catholic orders, where many were abused, where many died, and where few or none were deemed worthy of a recorded or humane burial. They lived and died beyond the gaze of society.  

When the commission's report was discussed in the Dáil, Catherine Connolly (who Chairs the house), quote Hannah Arendt's important aphorism in relation to German guilt for the Shoah: "Where all are guilty, none is." Connolly was objecting to the idea that "society" should be blamed for Tuam, since the guilty individuals were clearly the nuns charged with running the home. If, Arendt argues, everyone is regarded as guilty then there is no risk attached to acknowledging guilt, and injustice comes to appear inevitable. It can actually become very convenient, even narcissistic, to declare guilt, and we could perhaps read some public apologies by contemporary political leaders for historical wrongs in this way.

Connolly, however, continued to argue: "You're saying here today that we are all responsible. I am not responsible, my family was not responsible, the people I know were not responsible."  This is where she parts company with Arendt, who was very careful to differentiate between responsibility and guilt.  Without asking anyone to acknowledge a guilt or blame which is clearly not theirs, Arendt still insisted that we can and should be held politically responsible for the actions committed by the states of which we are citizens, not least because we have inherited whatever may have been gained through those actions.  It is only by an acknowledgment of that collective responsibility, and meaningful action to redress the harm done, that we can truly be reconciled to historical injustice.  

This is what makes attempts to shift all the blame for Tuam or Kamloops onto the Catholic Church disingenuous, and what renders expressions of disbelief and sorrow from Canada's settler populations and (yes) the UK woefully inadequate.  In the same way that much of Britain's modern wealth is founded on slavery, it is also drawn from the systematic plundering of Indigenous lands and resources, and a key element of that was the campaign to destroy Indigenous culture and de-humanise Indigenous people, of which the Residential Schools formed a significant part. 

If we are genuinely shocked by the discovery at Kamloops, then let us be shocked into a recognition of the need for a genuine reparative justice. Let us explore how sovereignty over unceded territory might be returned. Let us look at who decides what happens to natural resources. Let us consider what should happen to the vast wealth that corporations and individuals have amassed through ongoing processes of colonisation. This call resonates with the recent words of the Indigenous Australian artist Richard Bell: “We need a new constitution for a new republic... There’s got to be a day of reckoning. There has to be exchanges of money and land. That cannot be avoided. Until then, we’re never going to say that you [non-Indigenous people] belong here. You won’t be able to say that until we say you can.”

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Indigenous festivals and the re-making of the world - guest blog by Graham Harvey

Among the many impacts of the Covid19 pandemic is the moving of festivals to online venues.  Starting on 13 May 2021, this year’s ORIGINS Festival of First Nations will begin with a series of digital events. Previously, the biennial festival has brought Indigenous artists and thinkers from around the world to perform and present in London. Before the pandemic, an exciting programme of events over a period of about two months provided audiences with opportunities to enjoy and engage with music, theatre, dance, talks, films and other media in venues as diverse as the British Museum, Rich Mix and public parks. The festival not only begins with a ceremony informed and largely led by Indigenous participants but also includes many performances inspired and informed by Indigenous ceremonial repertoires and or sacred knowledges. In addition to be hugely enjoyable and profoundly educational, ORIGINS has been an exciting site for my research about religion. The 2021 ORIGINS Festival promises to be similarly inspiring and provocative.

You can find plenty of information about this year’s year-long ORIGINS Festival of First Nations – and about previous festivals – in the organising company’s website and in social media. The opening event on May 13th includes an online performance of the short play, Katharsis, by Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Canada) – billed as “a digital love letter to a theatre left empty by the pandemic”. The festival continues with a series of talks by Indigenous writers (poets, environmentalists, and a horror novelist) addressing the three main themes of this year’s festival: Covid, Climate Change and Colonialism. As the festival continues throughout 2021 and into 2022, live, face-to-face performance-based interventions in public spaces are planned. Some will move beyond London, including a journey of a Totonac artist’s totem carving to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this autumn.

In addition to contributing to dialogue with some of the Indigenous presenters and performers, my involvement with the festival involves research focused on dynamic interplays between ritual and performance, and celebration and decolonisation. The first of these seeming contrasts is a classic issue in the study of religions and related disciplines. Some scholars have insisted that theatrical performances are different from religious rituals in several ways. Rituals, it has been claimed, do not have audiences, only participants. They carry and convey serious meanings rather than offering entertainment. They do not encourage improvisation but should follow established traditions. Each of these (and other) comparisons have been challenged and the inadequacies of their underlying assumptions often rejected. More recent studies of both theatre and ritual have reflected deeply on their commonalities. This is improved understanding of and debate about the ways in which people improvise when they get involved in religious rituals, making them part of contemporary lives in one way or another. We might also play with phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “make-believe”, sometimes used in relation to theatrical performance to think about what happens when people do ceremonies.

Grupo Sotz’il in OXLAJUJ B’AQTUN – ORIGINS 2015 photo by John Cobb

All of this is useful to students of religion in reconsidering some key terms and debates in our discipline. But what happens at the ORIGINS Festival suggests that another phrase might be more useful: “world making”. Performers, artists, film-makers and speakers raise important issues and proffer powerful suggestions about ways of tackling the contemporary challenges. In various ways, audiences are invited to set aside colonial and romantic perspectives and to reflect on how things might be different. They are challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to consider the legacy of European historical, cultural and religious processes, and especially to re-imagine communities that embrace rather than exclude Indigenous peoples and the larger-than-human world. There are, then, religious and political world-making projects braided in with the enjoyment of rich cultural events. If the world is, as many Indigenous people insist, made up of multi-species communities, then the solutions to pandemics, climate crises and colonialism have to involve the needs of all living beings. My research at ORIGINS and other Indigenous festivals leads me to think that we could expand our notions of religion and democracy to embrace many more participants than just us humans.

Graham Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University

Monday, April 05, 2021

Indigenous Enterprise: Preserve, Perform, Progress

Indigenous Enterprise Dancer

2021 is going to see a series of online events under the ORIGINS banner, several in partnership with our friends at BEYOND THE SPECTACLE. One of these was a film presentation of dance styles and discussion with the Native American dance troupe INDIGENOUS ENTERPRISE, who had already started the year impressively through their participation in President Biden's virtual Inauguration Parade. Here are some of the ideas put forward by MC Prophecy as part of the discussion that followed the film.

As Chief Arvol Looking Horse says whenever he's called forward, any time you find Native people under attack, you will find that the land is under attack, because Native people are the stewards of the land. The recent resistance movements, for example Standing Rock, are environmental movements and they are also youth-led movements. That's why organisations like Indigenous Enterprise work with forms like hip-hop as well as more traditional music and dance - it's a way "to light the fire, to spark the flame".

The Covid-19 pandemic gives us an opportunity to see how Indigenous culture points towards social change. "Sit down, sit still, think about what's going on in the world." It's showing that we have to put the self aside for the good of the community and of the planet. His own moniker as MC Prophecy is taken from the 7 Fires Prophecy of a choice between two paths: one well-worn and scorched, the other new and green. 

"We need to change.  As a species on the planet, we need to change."

MC Prophecy
Like Standing Rock, the American Indian Movement of the 1970s started as an environmental movement, with the resistance to the drilling for uranium that broke a treaty with the Lakota people over control of the land. The drilling led to radioactive water: and Standing Rock also reflects an attack on water.  

These youth-led movements complement the teachings of Elders. Mutual teaching and exchange is at the heart of Native culture. Even enemies should sit down and talk together before they resort to conflict. But isolating people on reservations doesn't allow for this kind of interaction. When there is real interaction, then there should be a proper exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people: "we have to think about ourselves as a species." It's fine to be inspired by other cultures: he was himself inspired by a Japanese village that has managed to reach a point where it has no waste.  

"But we have a group of people who can't think that way....  Are we going to live with the Earth, or try to be masters of it?"

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Seun Shote


Seun Shote as Ato in THE DILEMMA OF A GHOST, with Shonel Jackson

Everyone involved with Border Crossings will be deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Seun Shote, at the age of only 47.  There is a very full and warm obituary in The Guardian, so this blog post is specifically about the time he worked with us, playing the leading role of Ato in our production of The Dilemma of a Ghost by Ama Ata Aidoo, back in 2007. Seun was at the centre of a rich and challenging casting mix, with four performers from the National Theatre of Ghana, and two young Black British women straight out of drama school.  This meant he was the most experienced cast member with regard to UK theatre, and it was very beautiful to see how carefully and tactfully he took on a mentoring role towards Shonel Jackson and Anniwaa Buachie, without ever assuming any higher status. At the same time, he offered a cultural bridge for the Ghanaian performers, making their first foray into Europe: as a British man with Nigerian heritage, he was deeply sensitive to their West African culture and expectations. He made my job as director a whole lot easier.  

Seun's warmth and good humour made the tour of that production the most joyful and carefree I can remember. Touring is exhausting, potentially stressful and often challenging - you need a cast who understand how to look after one another, and Seun did that in spades.  

His performance as Ato drew off his understanding of African and Western cultures with great sensitivity. Ato is the "One Scholar" who has returned to Ghana after studying in the States, carrying the hopes and expectations of his family. Watching him negotiate the complexities of that dilemma was an object lesson in the complex performance of the globalised moment. He was also incredibly funny - the great scene in which Ato breaks to his family the news that he has married an American woman was guaranteed to set the audience roaring with laughter, as Seun sat with a huge forced grin on his face in response to the demonstrative expressions of horror erupting all around him.

He was a fine actor and a precious soul, whose unexpected death at such a young age is a cause for great sorrow. With the ancestors.  


A donations page has been set up in Seun's memory, as he leaves a young family.  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Deb Haaland

Deb Haaland

To mark Monday's historic confirmation of Deb Haaland as the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior, we wanted to re-publish here the powerful Afterword that she contributed to our programme for ORIGINS 2019.  Huge congratulations to her, and to the Indigenous people of the Americas and the world.
The Indigenous history of the United States and so many other countries is often overlooked. Having voices like mine in the halls of power provides an important perspective, and shines light on blind spots that have existed due to the nature of who traditionally is elected. With a new movement of Indigenous people across the globe working to protect the planet and our sacred places, we have found our voice. 

Part of my job as one of the first Native American women serving in Congress is to ensure my colleagues know just how important our land is. We can convey to our colleagues what it feels like to have a very long bond with the land, and why it's important that we protect those spaces. It’s about understanding our past and talking about our future. It’s going to save our planet. 

It’s also the key to ensure that no matter what a person’s background is, they too can run for office. Everyone deserves to identify with the governments that represent us. It's not only reserved for other folks. It belongs to all of us. Those of us who want to lead. We should be fierce and lead, because our lived experiences are invaluable to the public discourse. 

 - Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Representing New Mexico.
Confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, 15th March 2021.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Environmental Policy

Hivshu - Magnetic North - photo: Gayla Morell

Border Crossings recently updated its Environmental Policy.  As the policy is, in many ways, a public statement, it seemed important to place it in the public domain.  

Friday, March 12, 2021

Alastair Niven


Alastair Niven at ORIGINS 2015

Until 2013, Border Crossings didn't even have a Chair of the Board.  We rotated the role from meeting to meeting, with the aim of being egalitarian.  When Alastair Niven became our first Chair, we soon discovered that leadership is not the opposite of equality: indeed, it can be the way to facilitate better equality, as a good Chair makes sure that every voice in the room is given equal weight and validation, encouraging the more reticent to speak up and politely silencing anyone who might attempt to dominate.  I shouldn't have been surprised - these are, after all, the qualities needed of the director in rehearsals - but I will confess that it was an unexpected and very pleasing discovery.

During the time he has been Chair, Alastair has shown unstinting dedication to the mission and values of Border Crossings.  He has done far more than run board meetings with characteristic tact and amiability.  He has often spoken at our events: the photo above shows him taking on the role of our Elder, welcoming visiting Indigenous artists to the 2015 ORIGINS Festival.  In the spirit of Indigenous cultures, Alastair has always understood the centrality of hospitality to any productive enterprise, and has several times hosted board dinners at his house in Kennington.  He has even travelled with the company, joining us for an Erasmus + meeting in Malmo during 2019, where we managed to find an Italian restaurant that looked out across the sea, and a very fine bottle of Chianti.  

Well connected and eloquent in his advocacy, Alastair has also been a terrific ambassador for the company, helping us to make many new connections and to forge new partnerships.  He was only able to do this because he understands in such depth the field of interculturalism.  As Director of the Africa Centre, as Literature Director of both the Arts Council and the British Council, and as Principal of Cumberland Lodge, Alastair spent his working life steeped in the diverse arts and cultures of the planet, and was crucial to the changes that have happened in recent decades, as the imperial and imperious monolith of "great art" has been dismantled, and a multiplicity of voices from "the margins" have started to be heard.  It's very pleasing that Alastair saw his role at Border Crossings as a continuation of that journey.  

His memoir, In Glad or Sorry Hours, has just been published, and is full of extraordinary insights and revelations.  Alastair writes in the same way that he talks - so the memoir is very good company.  Border Crossings has a brief but warm mention - appearing on page 245 of a 250 page book!  We always knew that we were quite a small, though pleasingly significant, part of his story - but he has been a huge part of ours.  Alastair chaired his last board meeting yesterday, passing on the role into the very capable, and doubtless very different hands of Jatinder Verma.  We will miss his presence at our meetings, but we know he will still be coming to our events, and will always be a part of the Border Crossings family.  

So this blog post isn't a goodbye - but it is a thank you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Write Theatre is Back!

 Guest blog by Brian Woolland, who wrote THIS FLESH IS MINE, WHEN NOBODY RETURNS and DOUBLE TONGUE for Border Crossings.  With Rib Davis, Brian runs the playwriting course WRITE THEATRE, held at the Cockpit in association with Border Crossings.

Well these last 12 months have been a slog, haven’t they?

This time last year, Rib wrote in a blog piece for Lane’s List:  ‘Write Theatre courses are one of the highlights of my year, every year. Stimulating, fun, challenging,  exciting – and exhausting. That’s how I find them. The writer-participants seem to feel the same, and the actors too.’ And he merrily went on to give the dates of the next course, as May of last year. 

Little did we know…

But at least in 2020 we managed to run one online course, and it was fun. Zoom may not be ideal for theatre, but it’s something. The writers seemed to benefit from the course and – as ever – so did we, but I can’t pretend it was the same. 

It wasn’t. Not only were we not in the same physical room with the writers, but, more importantly, for the first time we had no actors involved. And having actors involved is really central to what we do at Write Theatre.  So while we’re pleased with what we achieved, we can’t wait to get back to the in-person course. 
And now it’s starting to seem possible – we are really hoping to get back to our original model which we love so much: one weekend working with the writers (2 tutors and no more than 8 writers) on various aspects of the creation of scripts for the stage, and developing their ideas with them; then a few weeks when the writers go home and write scenes, which they send to us for comment; and then a second weekend, and this is where it really takes off, as we employ excellent professional actors to workshop the scenes that the writers have written. 

This is what suddenly – and often astonishingly – brings the scripts to life, and of course the actors interrogate those scripts, just as happens in a professional production.  It is this part of the process, every time, that the writers tell us they gain from most of all. 

So, with our fingers firmly crossed, we have a new course scheduled for May and June of this year, with real people in a real room.  We’re hoping to get our usual diverse mix of writers: some with experience of writing plays, but wanting to become excellent; some with writing experience in a different field (journalists, poets, novelists, copy-writers); some not so experienced (and perhaps having been put off in the past); and some absolute beginners. 

The mix is stimulating, and everyone benefits from the supportive atmosphere. But, as ever, we don’t accept everyone onto the course, and it’s not simply a matter of experience – we still demand that participants should love theatre, go to theatre regularly (when that’s possible – oh heady days!), and read playscripts. 

We, Brian and Rib, have both had difficult years. We have used the enforced time at home to write, as you’d expect, but like everyone else we have sorely missed the face-to-face human contact, which is possibly more important in theatre than in any other kind of writing.

So we are hugely looking forward to getting back to the Cockpit in Marylebone, and diving into the workshops on dialogue, characterisation, structure, getting started and the rest, getting to know the writer-participants over lunch or in the café by the street market round the corner, and then exploring and developing their writing. 

We’re hoping, too, that as in the past some of our students will go on to have their plays produced. That’s what we’re helping them to work towards. 

Our next in-person course is scheduled to run over the 2 weekends of May 22-23 and June 12-13.
Cost of complete 2-weekend course £400.

And for once, ‘small print’ that’s not so small you can’t read it, and is in your favour: 

Given the continuing uncertainty about the pandemic, we are making a small change to our terms and conditions. The £50 deposit that participants pay at the time of booking a place is normally not refundable unless we have to cancel or postpone the course. Knowing how difficult it is for people to plan ahead in these times, we have decided that anyone who books a place on the course and wishes to cancel (for whatever reason) up to two weeks before the first weekend will receive a FULL refund of ALL fees paid , including the deposit.

If you have any questions, please get in touch with us: