Tuesday, March 07, 2023

China re-opens

Ningbo Tianran Stage Theatre
This weekend, I was giving an online class to Rose Bruford students. Because the classes are done remotely, there are students all over the world, including China. One of them, Xuyu Zhang, lives in Ningbo, a city to the South of Shanghai where I used to go quite often to lead work for the University of Nottingham's campus there.

The class was about the effect Covid has had on theatre, using Rustom Bharucha's wonderful lecture series as a start point.  Towards the end of the class, the image of Xuyu went dark.  It turned out that she was in a taxi - although the connectivity remained perfect and she was still able to share a presentation while travelling!  She explained that the Grand Theatre in Ningbo was finally re-opening that evening, with a play called The Face of Chiang Kai-shek, and she simply had to be there.  I hadn't really taken into account the different speeds of re-opening, and the huge amount of pressure people in China must have been under as the rest of the world returned to social activity and performance, while they remained in their apartments, masked and isolated.  

As the class ended, the taxi drew to a halt, and Xuyu turned her phone towards the theatre.  She walked up the imposing staircase, and joined the very long queue at the Box Office.  It was wonderful to be there.  

The Face of Chiang Kai-shek

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Reflecting on BOTANY BAY - guest blog by Carolyn Defrin


BOTANY BAY celebration - Manchester
BOTANY BAY was a major Participation and Learning project, which we ran as part of ORIGINS 2021-22 with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  Here our External Evaluator, Dr. Carolyn Defrin, reflects on the project's journey and impact.


The timeline of BOTANY BAY, from its launch in the peak of Omicron to its completion in what now feels like a post-pandemic landscape, speaks to its imperative value. In the last three years the entire globe has been visibly impacted by a health crisis. But Covid’s necessary slowing down of society has created space and time to more clearly witness and experience the long interconnected crises between people and the planet. The entanglement of Covid, the Climate Crisis and Colonialism is deep and complex and a project like BOTANY BAY enters the conversation by creating numerous pathways into understanding our inter-relationships with people and land, illuminating how we might start tending to both with more care, awareness and deliberate action.

With attention on Indigenous practices and principles, BOTANY BAY aimed to address the critical need to look after our world differently. Indigenous inspired growing and gardening practices have a lot to teach us about how interconnected we are and how much care is needed to keep those interconnections alive and thriving. By shining a light on the values and cultural traditions of a range of Indigenous communities across the map, BOTANY BAY platformed looking back as a means to look forward. Drawing out more complete histories of plant origins and the ways in which politics have complicated those stories invited understanding and acknowledgement as a means to grasp at large concepts of Colonialism and Climate Change through a series of experiential activities.

Through museum visits, treasure hunts in heritage gardens, special visits from heritage experts and performances from artists with direct links to Indigenous backgrounds, BOTANY BAY offered a wide set of access points for children to encounter new knowledge. Children became more inquisitive about the environmental repercussions of deforestation in the Amazon as they watched intricate puppet animals created and performed by José Navarro lose critical access to their food and homes. As students acted out a game with the Manchester Museum, where they had to follow butterflies to find specific medicinal plants and flowers, they embodied not only the inter-relationships between humans and animals, and the mutual care needed to sustain such ecologies, but also learned of the detrimental impact of certain types of farming, land ownership and extraction on those relationships as the game began to introduce obstacles for the students to find the butterflies.

BOTANY BAY is not encapsulated through a box ticking exercise of finite learnings and rote memorisations. Rather it is a programme of multi-sensory, embodied learning activities that built skills in attention, care and individual thinking and adaptation. As Manchester Museum's Curator of Indigenous Perspectives Alexandra P Alberda, an institution can be a conversation starter, and BOTANY BAY feels very much about starting conversations, activating ideas, getting one’s hands literally and metaphorically dirty with some messy problems in our current world.

As students created their own gardens- planting, tending, growing and cooking their own food inspired by Indigenous practices and principles- they witnessed acts of visible growth and change. They paid attention to what fruits, flowers and vegetables need to survive, learning how to adjust the plan when survival wasn’t at its optimum. In the final months of the project they considered how to invite others in to appreciate and enjoy their harvest and their learnings.

These essential observations and actions manifest the literal attention and awareness needed in our current climate emergency and the metaphoric care and iteration needed across our inter-personal relationships where social inequities continue to divide us.

Inquiry begets further inquiry. Several questions arose from the partnering schools, museums and heritage experts as BOTANY BAY drew to a close. How do we learn from Indigenous principles? How do we adapt them to a UK context? How do we embed the learning more deeply and continue to grasp large and sprawling concepts like Colonialism and Climate Change that need our attention urgently?

These big ideas underpinning BOTANY BAY are not only conceptual (and in need of translation depending on the audience), they are also in an early phase of becoming more mainstream. Between the pandemic, the building attention around socio-economic disparity deriving from far-reaching impacts of colonialism, and the climate crisis becoming ever more visible, institutions and communities are growing an awareness around the need for systemic change. But this is slow, long-term work. BOTANY BAY and its numerous impacts on several stakeholders, including Border Crossings, offers a huge opportunity to develop and build the kinds of relationships that can contribute significantly to such systemic change.

There are many immediate and long-term positive impacts that have emanated from BOTANY BAY. The practical skills built in gardening, growing, cooking and ceremony making, the strengthening of critical soft skills like confidence, team work, communication, planning and adapting are valuable outcomes– especially coming out of numerous pandemic lockdowns that hampered such skill development. Theses skills will have life-long residual impacts for young people resonant with the Indigenous principle to create sustainability by thinking 7 generations in the future.

Carolyn Defrin