Sunday, 19 April 2015

Chase the Dog Star over the Sea.

Our final day in Chile and we head out of Santiago for a day trip to Valparaiso. There are few places on earth that conjure so many romantic and evocative stories as the city. For centuries it was the first safe port for any sailor successfully negotiating the icy westerly winds and jagged terrain round the treacherous Cape Horn and so must have been seen as some kind of utopia at the edge of the world. To arrive was to have survived the most dangerous of voyages. To leave meant you were prepared to risk it all again. It's an in-between place, where time stands still.

The first Englishman Francis Drake was the first Englishman to navigate into these waters was Francis Drake, on his round the world voyage. His chronicler Richard Hakluyt describes Drake's approach in his book Voyages and Discoveries.

'We ran, supposing the coast of Chile to lie as the general maps have described it, namely northwest, which we found to lie and trend to the northeast and eastwards, whereby it appeareth that this part of Chile hath not been truly hitherto discovered, or at least not truly reported.'

Nobody was expecting an English ship to sail into Valparaiso and so Drake was able to lay up next to a Spanish Galleon heaving with gold from Peru, board her and with a cry of 'abajo perro.' (Go down dog!) beat up and captured the sailors.

He then went ashore and rifled a chapel and wine warehouse before charting a course north for more plundering in unknown waters as he looked for a safe passage home.

We came in a different way, by minibus, and parked up in the Plaza Sotomayor facing the sea.

None of us have had a lot of time to pick up gifts and souvenirs and so we spent an hour bustling round the harbourside market and watching the ships from fishing boats to navel frigates manoeuvre in the bay, before heading off to a local seafood restaurant where our drivers knew they'd get a free lunch in return for bringing in such a shoal of tourists.

The meal was a joyous affair. Nobody really knew what they were ordering, but so much food was brought out and passed around that it barely mattered. News spread quickly of our presence and a within minutes of our arrival a smiley faced salty seadog appeared to serenade us with stories and songs from long ago.

We could have stayed all afternoon, but the town was calling and so after one final chorus of a song about a sailor who left his heart on shore and will one day return, we set out to explore.

Most of the old town is built on the hills over looking the harbour, where the brightly painted houses are packed tightly together. No cars can climb up to these places, but a string of funicular railways pluck visitors from port side into the labyrinth of winding streets where you can lose yourself for hours.

And that is what we did, meandering slowly admiring the colourful murals and small craft shops, every now and then turning a corner and catching a glimpse of the ocean.

Eventually we found ourselves back down by the sea standing next to the statue of another of Chile's unlikely heroes from the War of Independence, the Scottish Sea Lord Thomas Cochrane.

Cochrane is a fabulous figure, a contemporary of Lord Nelson he left England in disgrace having made significant money on the stock exchange during a boom period prompted by rumours of the Emperor Napoleon's death. The Lord was accused of being responsible for the hoax and was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a short humiliating hour in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange. The final straw came when his banner was taken down a physically kicked out of the chapel and down the steps at Westminster Abbey in a rarely performed official degradation ceremony. It was time for new adventure.

Cochrane, like many radicals of the time, had been sympathetic to the struggles for independence going on in the new world and so when he was approached by a representative of O'Higgins' recently established post-colonial government and offered command of the Chilean navy, he not only jumped at the chance, but proposed an even more exciting plan, which would not only strengthen the military position of the newly formed states, but revenge the great wrong he perceived his country had done him.

Defeated at Waterloo, Napoleon had, by this time, been left in penury and exile on the Island of St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, an act of meanness that had left Cochrane full of contempt at 'the disgraceful conduct of those minions who would leave this colossus of the modern world to rot in captivity.'

So Cochrane decided, as he was now bound for the South, to commission a ship, rescue the Emperor, sail with him, chasing the dog star, through the straits of Magellan to Valparaiso and have him crowned as the supreme ruler of South America. In this way, he reasoned, South America could provide a republic to rival the United States in the north. Sadly for Cochrane, his own ship took longer to build than the Deptford boat builders initially suggested and so, impatient to leave, he and his family hitched a lift on a Chilean sailing ship that he redirected to return to Valparaiso via St Helena.  En route, however, news arrived that the Spanish had galvanised themselves and were set to attack Santiago. The ship redirected course, again, and headed, with full speed back to Chile to lend support. Napoleon never got to hear of the plan and died broken, alone  and seemingly forgotten three years later.

Oh what might have been?

Time was all too short and Antonia was keen to get us to the beach at Vina del Mar in time for sunset. I was suddenly struck that our own wonderful adventure to the far end of the world was coming to an end and as the light fell and the students got their feet wet in the Pacific. I made a promise to the twinkling lights of Valpariso that I'd come back soon.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Highest Point.

It's a slightly later start this morning which gives me a chance to slip out for an hour and take a long walk around the near deserted city centre. I skirt Cerro Santa Lucia and pick up the Alameda down to La Moneda, gleaming in the early light. I can't ever pass the Palace without my thoughts going to the coup. I picture the jets flying in low to bomb, the soldiers storming the side entrances and Allende in an old tin helmet, using the AK47 that Che Guevara had given him as a gift to take pot shots out of a window. I wanted to wander through the two courtyards, but the guards were only allowing certain people in and I clearly wasn't on the list. Instead I did a lap and then took a lift down from the Plaza de la Ciudadania to a new cultural centre built underground. A quarter of a century into democracy there is still a feeling that this is a country finding its voice. Everywhere old haunts are being reclaimed as new galleries, arts centres and theatres. In this Chile feels an upbeat and exhilarating place to work. There's still many problems to solve and many stories to tell, but at 9am on a Saturday morning it's just me a cleaner and the owner of the coffee shop. Patience, I suspect, is a Chilean  virtue. The day lies ahead, so I walk back to La Cascona.

The groups wish each other luck and the minibuses set off to the Senames for the last time. It's a glorious morning and spirits are up.

The children are very excited to see us. Jonathan has been waiting by reception for half an hour, keen for us to get at least one run through in before the showing. Some face paints have been bought and a small team of the children appoint themselves make up artists. It doesn't take long to get ready.

The show itself takes place in the sun baked playground and all the residents and teachers have been invited. The space is huge and their is little shelter for the audience, who end up a fair distance away from the action in the only shade available. A mic is produced and the children take turns introducing the work.

We start with Gilverto's story and then move into a dance routine and onto Jonathan's narration. I'm struggling to see how this eclectic mix is working for the audience, who look a little bemused.

Jose though is delighted, Gilverto has never completed a project before. He's either always walked out or been taken out of class before the end. This we're assured is a breakthrough moment for him. The moment where both the teachers and, more importantly, he himself finished something. Jose hopes he'll be given more opportunities and more credibility, as a result.

Other students are wanting to contribute and the session breaks its formal arrangement and evolves into an impromptu Karaoke and dance.

One ten year old lad, who we're told comes from a rural community in the North of Chile, formally invites a girl to dance and whilst many of the others jump and whoop and joyfully enjoy the freedom of the music. The two of them hold each other and with great poise, dignity and composure, dance together. Nobody mocks, in fact nobody really notices. They are left alone and it's rather beautiful.

The grand finale is a mass game of musical statues.

Back in the classroom I thank Jonathan and ask him whether he'd consider me for future projects? He agrees. I asked if there are any tips he has for me as an actor. Any thing I could do to improve?

'The trouble with you Mark,' he says after a moment of thought 'is that you think too much with your head. You need to trust your heart more.'

We have a small celebratory party with the children who've been here all week, but soon it's time to go. It's been a terrific week. The children present us with friendship bands and bid us a safe flight. It's a sad parting, but it's Saturday there's and there's football to play. We head for the exit and they run out into the playground demanding to be on one team or the other.

We're back at base by 2pm, the work is done and we're free until the evening. Half the group want to chill, but half come decide to come with me for a final walk round Santiago.

We head first for the Emporio La Rosa, the city's most famous ice cream shop and according to The Daily Mail (so it must be right!) one of the world's top 25 parlours. We've been promising to try and get to it all week. The choice is impossible: chocolate and chilli, raspberries and mint, grapefruit and lime etc. and so we pick something each and share them round.

We cross the river at Plaza Italia and wander through the street markets of trendy Bellavista, until we arrive at the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal where we take the rickety funicular railway pass the zoo up to the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the summit.

The statue is Santiago's version of Rio's Christ the Redeemer, but pre-dates that more famous icon by nearly twenty years. Both stand at the highest point of their respective cities, protective symbols for the millions of people who live in their shadows; but whereas the redeemer tilts his head downwards towards the millions who live in his shadow, Mary's gaze is heavenward, up and over the Andes, that stand even prouder than her on the horizon.

It's breathtaking and we spend an hour wandering the site. Like most tourists, we've taken the easy way up, but  we're joined by the many Santiguans who daily take the challenge of mountain biking their way up. Sleek and sweaty, they've really earnt the view and the chance to free wheel back to town.

In 1987, the fag end days of the dictatorship, Pope Jean Paul II blessed the city from this spot and a third group of visitors make their own steady pilgrimage up the mountain to pray, light candles and leave messages and offerings at Mary's feet.

Back at street level we wander round the corner to La Chascona. Pablo Neruda's town house, where he hid his lover Matilde, before eventually the affair broke and the couple married. Matilde had a wild mane of bright red curls and this inspired the name of the house, which literally translates as messy hair.

The house is closed by the time we arrive, but a little amphitheatre has been constructed facing the property and several musicians and poets sit, jamming lightly in the warm evening air. The mood is relaxed and so we sit for a while and enjoy the moment with them.

We get back to La Cascona in time to change and hit the town. Carolina and Consuela are taking the group clubbing Chilean style. Julie and I are out to dinner with Antonia, Jose, Allie, who's been working as a translator at the Pudahuel sename and her boyfriend, with plans to join them later.

It's great to have a chance to reflect informally on the week. Both Antonia and Jose are very pleased with the work, and already we're talking about how we can improve the experience for next year. We talk, drink and eat far to much to make dancing sensible, but promises are promises and so we set off into the night to find the students. Allie locates half the group in a small 'picada' not far from Quinta Normal, where traditional Cueca is being played by a gang of poncho wearing huasos.

'This area was very badly hit during the dictatorship,' says Antonia as we drive through the deserted streets, 'even now this quiet is how I imagine Santiago was during those years.'

The bar itself is a little beacon of light in still of the night, a hang out for actors, artists and students. Allie orders a couple of jugs of borgona (chilled red wine and strawberries) whilst Antonia goes through the basics of the dance.

'You have to be the rooster,' she explains ' and use your handkerchief to lure your hen. Watch carefully and you'll pick it up.'

I delay getting up for as long as possible and enjoy watching, but the men are hopelessly outnumbered on the floor and it becomes clear that I'm not going to get out before I've at least had one go.

One older man in particular seems especially dignified. He walks side by side with his partner and then when the music starts begins to twirl his handkerchief joyfully above his head, occasionally running it seductively across the back of his neck or over his shoulder. At certain moments he becomes slightly more assertive and proudly stamps his feet to ensure he can't be ignored! Meanwhile his partner responds slightly defensively, twirling and flirting gently with the handkerchief, but refusing to enter into the same extravagant show. The only contact is with the eyes, until the final moment when partners link arms and thank each other for the pleasure.

Finally it can be avoided no longer. I try my hardest, but it's much subtler than it looks and I'm grateful for our host's politeness when the music stops.

'Well!' says Julie as I return to the table 'you can certainly dance like a cock!'

Friday, 17 April 2015

Jesus and the Zombies.

Our final visit to La Pintana this morning for the last couple of workshops. It was a joyous celebration of the week's work with all the students firing on full cylinders, confident, resourceful and easy with the work. The children, as they have all week, responded by throwing themselves into each exercise. It was a great couple of hours.

We were sad when time finally caught up with us, but delighted with the response from both the kids and the School. The kindly deputy head gave a short impromptu speech in which she explained what a positive impact our time in the School had had.

'You're famous in every house in the neighbourhood.' She said smiling.

Back in the centre. I decided to forego a lengthy lunch and instead used the hour to rush around the Museo Historico Nationale in the Plaza des Armes. I didn't have time to look at the pre-Colombian collection, but instead took a whistle stop tour from the 1810 revolution to the present day.

There's a fascinating three way struggle between the Spanish rulers, the Chilean liberators and somewhere in the background the indigenous Indians, who by the time of the revolution had long been subdued, but in recent years are beginning to reassert their position in Chilean society. At the heart of all this is Santiago - acting as a pivot and a magnet for all the major events and decisions that have forged Chile's story over the last 200 years.

In the last room a small cabinet is supposed to house Allende's broken spectacles, retrieved from La Moneda Palace - a powerful metaphor. Ironically, but perhaps fittingly, they weren't in the case, having been removed for conservation purposes.

Our final rehearsals at the Sename and I'm back in Galvarino. Faith, Rachel and Chloe seemed to have cracked their group and the work in their room is purposeful and understood. The kids are excited about the prospect of performing tomorrow and keen to get things right. There is less impatient slumping into the sofa when things aren't perfect first time round, less trips to the bathroom, less shouting out of the window to friends in other classrooms. Those children who weren't so keen on performing were also busy, designing posters for tomorrow's show.

The other room, however, seems to have lost a little focus. Aliyah and Hannah look exhausted and the kids are struggling to agree on what exactly should go into the show and what not.

The saving grace in the middle of this was eight year old Jonathan who told us he had a hundred stories he wanted to tell. We persuaded him to focus on one and the rest of the room agreed to help tell it.

So Jonathan began.

'My story,' he announced 'is called Jesus and the Zombies!'

'What happens in your story?' asks Aliyah.

'When Jesus was little he was a good boy and ate up all his dinner. Then one day he wasn't and so God got mad and sent the zombies to get him. Jesus survived, but everybody was angry with him for bringing the zombies and so they decided to crucify him. His mother, who was called Mary was very sad. She knelt at his feet and cried a lot!'

'I've got an idea.' said another lad, who'd only really joined today.

'What is it?' asked Carolina.

'I think we should do a rap at this point to cheer Mary up.'

'A rap?'

'Yes. I've got a good one.'

'Ok. Let's try.'

To be fair the rap was very good and so we kept it in.

'Then,' Jonathan continued, perhaps worried that we'd forgot the main part of the story 'God sent the zombies to kill Mary and the rapper and all the gangstas! But Jesus was too high in the air, up on the cross for them to get him, so they were sad. It didn't really matter anyway  because Jesus died as well.'

Story established we moved on to casting and directing. I was chosen to play Jesus, Carolina, Mary and everybody else zombies.

Jonathan proved to be a very exacting director and to begin with he wasn't happy with the angle of my head or the way my feet were placed when I was put on the cross. He also took a long while to sort out Mary's kneeling and crying position, during which time my arms began to get tired. I shook them out. and was immediately reprimanded for my lack of professional discipline with a withering glare and the unarguable reminder that :-


We moved onto the rap and Carolina was instructed to stop crying and throw some gangsta shapes.

'What's the rap about?' I asked

'It's about the state of education in Chile,' said Carolina 'it's quite good actually. Very political.'

As my arms were really aching now I decided to try my luck with the director again and asked whether Jesus might join in the dance, if only to get rid of the pins and needles.

'Listen!' said Jonathan firmly 'At this point in the story your wrists are nailed to the cross. So you can't just start dancing. The audience would never believe it!'

We ran it through a couple of times and then Jonathan went

through all the exits and entrances with us, just to get our timing right.

'Because you can't speak Spanish,' he said to me 'I'm going to nod like this when I want you to get up onto the chair. And then I'll cough like this when I want you to put your arms out for the crucifixion.'

Time ran out but Jonathan called the room together and wished us a good night's rest,

'Tomorrow,' he told us 'will be a big day.'

This evening Jose and Antonia took us to the Centro Cultural Matucana 100 by Quinta Normal Park to see a new play Leftraru, directed by friends of theirs. The centre itself feels like The Pleasance in Edinburgh, several venues, reclaimed from old storage sheds which used to be used to repair rail cars, set around a vibrant courtyard.

The show was sold out, but Antonia pulled some strings and with the health and safety officer looking the other way, we crammed into the stairwells to watch.

Although in Spanish the acting was crisp and with a little bit of context from our hosts we were able to really enjoy the story which focuses on a Mapuche community who are asked to choose the design for a statue of one of their warrior ancestors Lautaro. In order to help them make a decision they perform excerpts from an earlier play, about the warrior, written by Isidora Aguirre, a renowned Chilean playwright and social reformer, in the 1960s.  This leads to a debate about whether an authentic ancestral voice can be heard if all the stories have already been colonised by post-colonial writers. The whole story is set in Temuco, some 400 miles south of Santiago and the heart of the ancestral Mapuche lands.

Antonia also explains that some of the work is verbatim and is collected on the morning of the show, rehearsed in the afternoon and sectioned into the performance each night. Thus the work has three levels - a sampled 1960s piece, contemporary updates brought in daily and the play itself. A fascinating structure.

Back in Belle Artes Friday night is kicking off. A masked street band wanders down the road and the weekend begins to unfold. We haven't eaten yet and so gratefully fall into a smoky Thai cafe for some noodles, fired up in front of our eyes by a showman of a chef. The problem with this city is you never want to sleep! But I have the words of my director buzzing in my head.

'Tomorrow is a big day.'

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Chile's other September 11th.

With no call until three a small group of us take a walk across town following the Calle Montijas into the Plaza des Armes and then onwards past the old church of Santa Ana and over the duel carriage way that marks the end of the compact city centre. We keep on Catedral and through the Burrio Brasil, a party area that stays up late, but sleepy now and abandoned to the the Kiltros who watch us warily, causing us to cross the road a few times. This is there territory and their time. Let sleeping dogs lie.

All the way we notice the carbineros are gathering ready for the strike. They hang round on street corners or sit in armoured trucks. smoking cigarettes and laughing. The show of strength is a little unnerving, but the business men and other commuters rushing to work don't bat an eyelid.

Finally we arrive at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights a huge, but rather beautiful in a National Theatre kind of way, concrete and glass building opened five years ago as a centre from which to research and reclaim the atrocities committed during the dictatorship.

The public part of the Museum takes us through the history from the day of the coup on the 11th Spetember 1973 right the way through to Aylwin's assumption of the presidency as a democratically elected head of state in 1990. On the way hundreds of stories, testimonies, newspaper cuttings and photographs tell the stories of the disappeared and tortured.

The first room is dedicated entirely to September 11th and plays Allende's final speech, broadcast on the last uncut radio lines from deep within the Moneda Palace. Harrier Jump Jets were bombing the palace and all four branches of the military had turned against him. He knew time was up, but there is something incredibly noble and brave in his final words.

'Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will be open again where free men will walk to build a better society.'

These are my last words and I am certain that my sacrifices will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice and treason.'

There's also a television monitor which loops the first hastily organised press conference held by the junta later that evening. Pinochet, supported by the heads of the navy, airforce and the carbineros looks into the camera and address the people of Chile in clipped and authoritative terms, assuring them of his patriotism and good intentions. Each commander then adds their own explanation. It reminds me of the Knights speeches over the body of Beckett at the end of Murder in the Cathedral. At the end of the broadcast the camera pans up from to focus on a full size portrait of O'Higgins. The message is clear - these are the 'true' patriots liberating the country from the tyrannical politics of Marxism.

The rest of the Museum deals with the repercussions. We split up and make our own journey through the exhibition, horror stories of exile and execution. The layout is designed to end in hope, however and the final rooms look at the plebiscite which saw Pinochet's final demise and the victory rally in the national stadium designed to be no less that a demonstration of rebirth for the country.

One image from this rally stood out. A elderly woman making her way into the centre of the pitch. She stands in the centre circle and begins slowly to dance alone. She neither smiles nor cries, but rather imagines her long lost love. She stands for so many.

We catch the metro back which rumbles underneath the demonstrations back to Belle Artes, where Jose and Antonia meet us for lunch. The restaurant has a small TV on the wall and we watch the water cannons turn on the protestors barely half a mile away. If this was going on in London it'd be global news, but again most of the diners barely glance up from their soup. It's a piece of theatre and everybody knows their part.

Julie and I swap groups this afternoon and I head off with Antonia to the Sename at Pudahuel where the older children are based. There's a similar set up here - although the two groups are working at opposite ends of the campus to keep a couple of the girls, who have a long running feud, apart. The most noticeable difference is that every window is barred. It's one less escape route from the classroom.

I begin with Alice, Dom and Alex who already have a good relationship with the group. Each of the participants come in with big smiles and hugs. Young Francesca has brought her eight month old baby Damien. He's passed round the group, who take it in turns to keep him occupied whilst the activities take place.

The real problem is that the focus in the room is split and several times the well intentioned exercise is disturbed by a new arrival or sudden exodus. The girls are struggling to hold the group and although the atmosphere is friendly and supportive it's clear that progress is slow.

Antonia looks worried. Some of the exercises have been repeated daily and the participants want more. They haven't really seen the purpose of the work and aren't driving towards the weekend's show.

Things fare slightly better when the sculptures move onto emotions - love, fear, hate, sorrow - but these results aren't capitalised on and again the class becomes distracted.

I head off to the other group where a dance routine is in full rehearsal. Ross and Amy are leading with support from Dannia and Hannah. It's a battle here as well. A couple of lads who'd been absent yesterday are back and their presence is proving an inhibitor to some of the girls. The St Mary's students persevere and manage to get the group into line by the end of the session. It's been hard work, but nobody gave up. Ross is slightly down, feeling that much of the work achieved earlier in the week has been lost.

I'm impressed, however. If what I've seen is the worst class of the week then things are going very well.

Back across the courtyard things have improved for the other group, who have also been choreographing a street dance, which everybody is enjoying and working hard to perfect. We do a quick debrief on the way back to the minibus. Most things are going right, but I'm still a little worried that our students don't have enough ammunition to keep the work alive. All in all they've got ten hours with their groups and they need to have better plans to keep developing and engaging the groups. We talk through a few more strategies and ways in which the participants contributions can be harnessed and turned into exciting Drama.

Back at La Cascona there's real excitement amongst the Galvarino group who feel they've made real progress. Chloe has been in role as a Grandmother and encouraged the children to make up stories about the adventures she's had in her life, which has worked brilliantly.

Tomorrow is the last chance we've got to put everything together for the sharings on Saturday morning.


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Romeo! Romeo! Por que eres tu Romeo?

Back to the relative security of La Pintana this morning, but some of the company look a little worse for wear having drowned their sorrows after last night's straight talk. There's little sympathy from the rest of us, however, especially when the blame is placed on the water in the ice cubes, rather than the drink itself. By the time we reach the School, however, everybody is back on form, ready to go and deliver two cracking sessions, building on the initial work done two days ago.

Despite the occasional problem it's amazing to see how much the St Mary's students have grown over the last three days and they joyfully attack the session with a confident sense of authority. Each section of the workshop is deftly handled and the handovers from one student to another achieved with clarity and confidence.


Their sense of the dynamic in the room is also improving and their antennas are becoming more attuned to the children who are struggling to have full involvement. I'm impressed by the number of one to one discussions that are going on in the fringes of the room. No child is left out and all are feeling valued.

There's also a sense of progression today. The exercises build on each other, each one in turn demanding a more creative response from the children and, of course, the results are terrific. Photo race is the clear favourite. At the drop of a hat the room is filled with astronauts, then roller coasters, then dragons, then ghosts, each image preceded by a signed bi-lingual collaboration and much laughter. I'm aware that the St Mary's students are road testing ideas for the challenges of the afternoon.

Finally the lesson comes to an end and the class sing us a song in English, which they've learnt to say thank you to us. It's a much needed boost.

Julie and I had planned to swap supervisions this afternoon, but the feeling is that another day of continuity is needed to make sure that we follow through on the ideas voiced in our evening evaluations and so, after lunch, once again I head off to Galvarino with the team.

It's day three and we're now beginning to get a sense of which of the children are going to be able to take part on Saturday. Faith, Chloe and Rachel have developed a strong relationship with two young lads, Kevin and Gilverto, and are rightly leaning on their enthusiasm to pull in other kids who would otherwise perhaps prefer to watch from the side lines. A slightly older girl Barbara is always in attendance, waiting for the opportunity to talk to us about the shops in London and the latest trainer fashions. We haven't enticed her to perform yet, but she's happy to take some directorial decisions.

Others come in and out, but you can feel the momentum has changed and trusts are forming. We put together the Chile v England story. Alexis Sanchez scoring the winner with an overhead kick for which Kevin impressively hold a ten second pose.

Next door young Bruno has directed a music video with Aliyah, Hannah, Sophie & Lizzie and together with Jonathan, Bilan and Tamas, a whole range of choreography and storytelling is being put together. It's a much happier minibus that returns to base.

We don't really have time to reflect on the day's progress as the Ministry of Culture have generously  invited us to the opulent Teatro Municipal to see the City ballet perform John Cranko's version of Romeo Y Juilieta. It's a production filled with exuberance and high camp, oranges fly across the stage during the fight scenes and long shimmering capes flutter off to exile, but it's irresistible all the same and there are beautiful performances from the lead dancers.



It's been a much better day and we dine late in a Tapas bar round the corner from the hostel, serving perfect Pisco Sours. The strike has been confirmed for the morning, meaning Julie's planned voice workshop has been cancelled. The Chilean students apparently took a vote on whether to approach the strike committee to seek special dispensation, given how far we've travelled to work with them, but, by a narrow majority, they decided to honour the strike. I think, having worked with them yesterday, this is clearly the right decision, and so for the first time since we arrived tomorrow will be a morning of rest.


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

University Students, Markets and Footballs.

Early morning start at the University of Chile where I was due to run an Applied Theatre workshop for their Drama students, focused on some of the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology that forms such a vital part of our curriculum back home. It's a slight surprise that despite originating with Augusto Boal in Brazil very little of this work seems to have permeated through to the West coast of South America. We only had an hour and a half so I'd prepared and rehearsed a short play with Faith, Amy, Alice and Chloe back in the UK to try and demonstrate some of the key components of the work and introduce the role of the spect-ACTOR. The idea that we're all both artist and witness in the creation of our realities.

The department itself is in a beautiful old building and like the best arts colleges, the students seemed to be running everything. Pianos were wheeled from one room to another, newly learnt steps were being rehearsed in one corner of the central lobby, whilst costume fittings and physical warm ups took place opposite. Occasionally a lecturer wandered through, but their presence certainly wasn't the main motivator for the students who all understood and worked through their own productive routines.

Chile is going on an anti austerity strike on Thursday and so for some of the students this is the last activity for this week. It's not unusual for classes or even productions to be cancelled. In 2011 the University staff and students went out in protest at education cuts in May and only returned that December. Classes still occurred, with pairs of students volunteering weekly to deliver part of the curriculum to their peers. Interesting to imagine why that might not happen in similar circumstances back in the UK.

We're keen to find out more about the strike and so with the St Mary's students' consent I abandon our prearranged workshop and ask the Chilean students to sculpt some images to show us why the strike is important. After a brief discussion of these images. The students spend five minutes animating them into short non verbal scenes which give an active sense of the effect the current austerity measures have on their learning and well being.

The results are thoughtful, imaginative and elegiac. We add some text, although it's not really needed, and then invite interventions.

To my delight Alice puts up her hand to intervene and precisely because she doesn't understand Spanish and the students have limited English the scene goes in a completely different direction and becomes something else, something unreal, poetic and strangely beautiful. Without asking, the other  members of the group join the scene, breaking the carefully explained rules of the exercise, until all the are on their feet. Plaster is pulled from a crumbling wall and small amounts are handed round for all to scrawl messages and images on the wall. Nobody knows exactly what the message should be, put together they're actively defining it.

We talk briefly about the links between theatre and political activism. I get the impression that although all the students believe that story telling is morale boosting and the camaraderie of creating work together can of course galvanise a group, none really felt that theatre could offer a methodology where you could rehearse strategies of persuasion or  indeed that it could be used as a tool to engage directly with authority. The fool is only a fool because he speaks the truth to the King.

But this is a country still dealing with repercussions in the aftermath of the Pinochet regime and resistance is embedded deeply into the psychology. Positions of right and left are linked to real ideological differences and much energy is spent defending these positions. There is much more to explore and consider but time is up and the students have an acrobatics assessment to attend. They shake hands politely and file out. It's been a fascinating morning.

We meet up with the rest of the group and head to the one of the many fish restaurants in La Vega, the noisy market overlooking the fast flowing Mapocho river where we're once again bowled over by the plates and plates of delicious food that make their way onto our table for just a few pesos. The market itself is wonderful, vendors shouting about the sweetness of their strawberries, the bite of their chilli peppers and the size of their plums. Everybody fills up with bags of fruit to take back to the hostel.

We don't have a huge amount of time before we head back out to the Senames but it's enough for Sophie, Hannah, Lizzie and I take a short detour to the older Mercado Central on the opposite bank where, under a beautiful cast-iron roof and vaulted ceiling, designed in the 1870s by Charles Henry Driver, the British architect who also designed the Westminster Embankment, every kind of seafood is on offer in bountiful quantities.

I spend most of the afternoon session with Faith, Chloe and Rachel to see if we can turn round some of the problems encountered yesterday. A couple of plastic footballs have been bought in the market and these quickly become the focus for a series of exercises once we start work. To begin with they help as several games involve passing them to each other in a name game around a circle, but things quickly deteriorate and before we've really realised it they're being used as weapons.

Eventually we move on and try and persuade the group to invent a short story which we can tell in five freeze frames. The footballs have at least kept the children in the room and so sensibly the three leaders begin to lead them into a story of the football match. Chile v England. What happens? What are the five most important moments? What would photographs of those moments be? The session ends with a difference of opinion. Chile will win of course, but will they return from going two goals down to win 3-2 or is it more satisfying just to stuff England 5-0? Which narrative works best and why?

It's slow, but again the feeling is that we're getting there.

Jose, though, is quiet and just before we arrive back as La Cascona asks if the four of us - Julie and Antonia included - can have a meeting.

He's worried that we're not enjoying the sessions and that the indiscipline of the children has surprised us. He's unhappy about the balls - the kids aren't usually allowed them in class - and isn't sure that the work is going anywhere. Similar problems are coming up in the other Sename which Julie and Antonia talk about.

This is tough teaching and the temptation is to pack in and just play games. The groups are caught between trying to follow through the prepared work and keeping the sessions light and flexible. The truth is they need to be fluid and instinctive enough to do both.

We talk about the role of the translators who are key to the process. Occasionally our students are making the mistake of talking to them directly rather than talking to the children and trusting the translator to convert the language. This is putting unfair pressure on Carolina and Consuela and sending out the wrong message to the children over who is actually running the sessions.

I don't think we're miles away from getting things right, but I agree a more confident presence in the space is required and a sense that we're moving purposefully to a performance on Saturday. Do the students have the stamina? Do they have the technique?

Antonia and Jose head home and we call the students together again to underline some of the key points.

The students are tired and some harsh words are exchanged. Each session has little victories, but our continued critical evaluation of the work serves to underline that there is still much for all of us to learn.

Monday, 13 April 2015

First Day of Work.

Breakfast: toast, cornflakes and empanadas smuggled out of the barbecue, is a bit of a scramble in the communal dining room, but by 8am we're ready to ship out. Most of the group take the minibuses towards the primary School in La Pintana, south of the centre. Jose and I head back to the airport to pick up Sophie, the last of the students, who had a family wedding and so delayed her flight by 24 hours.

She hasn't slept a great deal and looks a bit shell shocked, but to her credit declines the offer to head back to the hostel for a rest and insists on going straight to the School for the first workshop.

As we drive Jose explains that La Pintana is one of the poorer districts of the city with 80% of its population living below the poverty line. The School itself, brightly painted on the inside, is surrounded by high barbed wire to discourage drug dealers from trying to peddle to the children. We have to go through two security gates to enter. The others arrive and after checking in on Sophie begin a quick physical and vocal warm up to prepare for the session.

The sessions in the School are all focused on speaking and listening skills and each hour long workshop has been divided down into five or six activities each led by an individual student. Team teaching with this many can be difficult and so to avoid chaos we've also designated a lead facilitator each time, which we'll rotate as the week progresses.

In the main we have a really good time and the two workshop go really well. We've stressed the need for full focus from everybody throughout and the students work really hard to support whoever is leading an exercise. The children, having to negotiate English and Spanish, as well as the sudden arrival of sixteen strangers into their midsts, quickly join in and a hundred ways of communicating make themselves apparent.

The children leave with big smiles and hugs. It's certainly been a different learning experience for them. In the minibus heading home we begin our evaluation. Clearly the energy was right and the team had worked well together to encourage full participation and remove any insecurities that the children might have had about working with us, but there's a feeling that some of the exercises are unconnected and that we didn't develop the session in as coherent a way as we could have done. It was great fun, but there's more to find and develop for our next visit on Wednesday.

Back in the centre Antonia takes us round the corner for lunch in our Bellas Artes neighbourhood. Lentil soup, fish, rice and sweet jellied flan all for 3000 pesos (about three quid.) There's little time to dwell further on the morning's work as we've the afternoon to focus on. Antonia is worried that the group will need more than energy and teamwork to make an impact in the Senames. She also advises everybody to change from shorts to leggings.

We split into two groups. Julie and Antonia head with half of the students to work with 12-17 year olds at the Cread Sename Pudahuel  I go with Jose, our second translator, Consuelo, and the other half to work with the younger 5-12 year olds at Cread Sename Galvarino.

En route Consuelo explains the way the system here works. The children stay resident in the Senames for as long as it's the safest place for them to be and there is direct transference at 12 from Galvarino to Pudahuel. Regardless of their status they leave the relative security of these homes at 18. She tells me that if you're still in the Sename by that stage things are fairly bleak for you. Over 90% of the young people who are not reintegrated back into a family by then end up in prison. We're allowed to take photographs, but because of the vulnerable status of many of the children we're asked not to upload them on line.

We're met by Freddie, the avuncular principal, who welcomes us with a big smile and wishes us luck. He tells us competition to earn a place in our workshops has been fierce and that we should be clear if any of the children are disruptive that they're free to leave. Then a surprise as we're split into two rooms to work. This causes a moment of panic, but  it's quickly solved Aliyah, Hannah & Lizzie take the first group and Faith, Chloe and Rachel work next door. I move between both groups.

It's hard at first to understand the rules of the house. Children wander in and out, use the window as frequently as the door and half an hour in their form tutor, Osvaldo arrives with tea and biscuits for all. Both groups initially struggle to get any focus from the excited participants, but slowly and surely with perseverance a couple of exercises gain traction.

Aliyah's group find the groove first. In essence she runs the session, talking directly to the kids but staying close to Carolina and insisting everything is translated back and forth. She establishes presence, refuses to be ruffled and takes her time. Hannah and Lizzie provide able support, listening and gently encouraging those on the fringes to take part, sometimes they do and sometimes not. By inches games are bought into and exercises explored.


Next door the struggle is harder. All three of the students are really able workshop leaders, but funnily enough it's their competence in this that seems to be causing a problem. In the UK they'd switch fluidly from one to another in this kind of setting, but here it's causing problems and by the time each exercise has been explained and made ready the room has been lost and the kids are indicating their disinterest. They battle through, but we all know a regrouping is needed. It's a thoughtful minibus ride home.

The other group have also found it tough and a few tears have been shed - a mixture of shock at the conditions in which the young people find themselves and our own failure to make an instant impact.

Back at La Cascona Julie and I convene an evaluation session in the common room. Everybody is keen to talk and so it lasts a good two hours. There's a slight tension in the room between those who want to simply find the games and exercises that will make the workshop run smoothly and those who feel that, despite the problems of the day, we should be working towards some kind of sharing of work for Saturday. This latter goal seems impossible to those who've not managed to make much connection today. The conversation is direct, honest  but by the end of it all of us are determined to galvanise our efforts and try and push ahead with some of the play making and story telling exercises that we'd prepared back in the UK.

We knew it wasn't going to be completely plain sailing.