Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Good News from The White House.

In haste I wanted to post up this short video made by Cassie, one of our friends currently working with Drama St.Mary's associates' Theatre for a Change out in Malawi. Both Matt and myself were lucky enough to have been involved in the workshops that lead to the creation of the play shown here and we also went with the women to support the final performance. The bus ride back in triumph was every bit as joyful as depicted here.

Today, President Bush has pledged a further $48 billion for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, with much of it going to sub-Sahara Africa. Further good news is that he's lifted a ban (which I didn't even realise existed!) preventing those infected with HIV from entering the States and has lifted the rule that said a third of all US funding on HIV/AIDS must be spent on abstinence projects. All of this is as fantastic as it is suprising!

I'm going to meet up with Patrick Young, the director of Tfac, when we're both back in London in late August to put together a bid for money both to support our students going out to Malawi as intern practitioners and also to co-write a validation document so that African teachers learning these Augusto Boal influenced Tfac techniques can be given a valuable qualification, supporting their work going forward.

I think the video gives some sense of the value of our partnership.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Sport and Drama.

In between sorting out flowers, printing programmes, helping to write vows and family visits I'm finding a bit of time to catch up on my reading. I'm not great at focusing on what I should over the summer and, despite having a decent chunk of time to refresh my head, always seem to arrive in early September with a mild panic at how little subject specific research I've done.

Still inspired by Naples I've read De Fillipo's collected plays - which would be fun to direct -and a couple of brief histories on Pompeii - but mostly I've found myself turning to sports philosophy. Ed Smith's brilliant "What Sport Teaches us About Life" and, in deference to my American adventure, Michael Lewis' hymn to baseball pragmatism "Moneyball".

The drama department have made a commitment to support St.Marys 2012 - a project focused on ensuring that the Olympics don't pass the University by. I'm the representative advising on the input into the Cultural Olympiad - so I can justify my choices, albeit thinly.

One of the things we've struggled with in our discussions is trying to find a link between sport and drama. Many of the project proposals focus on colour, life and carnivalesque celebration - but are compromised in terms of their content by the 'need' to be universal in appeal.

It seems odd to me that there should be problems here. My love of sport comes from its drama - the flawed psychology of its heroes and heroines, - the spontaneous decision making of top athletes, combining prowess with intelligence, building over many years a seemingly inevitable narrative of triumph and despair etc etc. These evolving biographies seems essentially to contain the same search for a moral imperative that great playwrights, throughout the ages, have sought to capture for their protagonists.

Hasn't Beckham lived out a morality play of sort? or Gascoigne? or Zidane? Navratilova? Michael Jordan? Schumacher? Zola Budd? Ben Johnson? Shane Warne? They are the heroes and anti-heroes of our time.

For all this there are very few great plays about sport or sportsmen and women. Aside from The Changing Room by David Storey, which focuses brilliantly on the dynamic of 13 rugby league players and their coaches, owners and trainers, Richard Bean's cricket loving The English Game and the NYT's, high octane recreation of the northern terrace culture in the sixties, Zigger Zagger - there's little out there that I'm aware of.

It'd be exciting to commission something for 2012. Maybe on the Coe v Ovett battle that gripped the nation at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (see above). It felt, at the time, like a clash of two very different Gods and, with hindsight and the monumental changes that occurred in the world during the eighties, might there not be something of interest in the legacy of that particular moment to explore?

Monday, 28 July 2008

Tyre de Farce?

I spent Sunday at the races with Matt's cousins Kevin and David and David's kids - Jacob (13) and Danny (15). It a stroke of luck that I'm in town for the Nascar 400 - the second biggest race of the year at Indianapolis' Brickyard track.

I'm useless with cars, but managed to gen up enough information from the Indy Star, so as not to look like a complete fool. Over 300, 000 spectators turned up and we all got major sunburn. With the speed and the noise of the cars, and the excitement of the gathering, it was an incredibly impressive spectacle.

My only reference point really is F1 - but this kind of racing is very different with pit stops every ten or twelve laps and the safety car out at the slightest sign of a bump or nudge. In all the race was stopped eleven times, each time this allows the field to bunch up again and again, in turn this leads to the feeling that some unseen force is manipulating and controlling the result. It wasn't a surprise when Jimmie Johnson, who started in pole won, after successfully managing an 'enforced' pit stop, he rode out the final ten laps of green flag racing, unchallenged.

The crowd felt cheated - being live at an event fills you with the irrational belief that you are an essential part of the proceedings, or at the very least that you can influence them. That simple pleasure is taken away when officials, sitting faceless in a box, determine the rhythm of the race -without any sense of twists to the narrative.

There is so much money involved, that I wonder if this form of corruption becomes inevitable? Good Year recently bought an exclusivity clause to supply all the tyres for the race and they seemed unable to keep the drivers safe, without regular checks and suspensions of the action. Without doubt they were pulling the strings to ensure driver safety - yes, but in their monopoly of the race tyre (which turned out to be untested and a bit dodgy on this track) -the competitive edge is severely blunted. It makes sport as undramatic, impersonable and dull as watching lottery balls come out of a machine.

Right Brain Brainer

I flew into Indianapolis on Thursday. I'm in the States for Matt's wedding to Aida and have come out a little early to offer help in the inevitable stress of the build up. Afterwards I'm hoping to travel South before heading back to the UK in mid August.

I'm in the heart of the mid-West here, and after three days here am still really acclimatising to the left brained culture that is modern America. I think part of the problem is that, incomprehensibly, to most of my hosts I can't fathom the grid system (or any form of pure logic) easily. To me It's a number based, accident prone and purely abstract. In fact I've become aware that without visual architectural landmarks I struggle to trust my sense of direction at all.

Trust is a huge part of the sense of freedom here - and this includes a very literal use of language. Being clear and saying what you mean was , I suspect, vital to the survival of the first pioneers pushing westward and it's a quality that is celebrated and maintained in every social transaction. I've already confined several passages of my best man's speech to the bin as 'over ironic,' they'd work in London, but die here.

The efficiency culture also has a major downside. In February I spent three days at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin and was amazed at the obesity levels amongst in the town. Again walking around the malls here it feels like a dangerous warning. It's a car driven society - meaning all journeys need planning. The restaurants serve huge portions of cheap food -fast, and every major domestic breakthrough is still focused on convenience, mechanisation and ease. For an aging population this is fantastic news, but for the young, the sense of compromise needed to be part of united and efficient team America lacks spontaneity, rebellion and feels almost intellectually dispiriting. America is so vast that, of course, it teems with counter cultures but I can't help wondering if an encouraged subservient infantilism, masquerading as freedom of choice, isn't terrorism's hidden victory.

The Hoosier hospitality though is wonderful and Matt's extended family of Aunts, cousins, sisters and his parents, who are putting me up, couldn't be doing more to welcome Aida into the Hahn tribe.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


Went to the National last night to see Michael Frayn's Afterlife. It hasn't been reviewed kindly.
Michal Blakemore, who'd so brilliantly given shape to Frayn's Copenhagen, directed, and Roger Allam, who was outstanding as Willy Brandt in Frayn's Democracy, took the lead role as another charismatic force, Jewish Impresario Max Reinhardt. So on paper it was a bit of collaborative dream ticket

But something is wrong with the work. It just might be too clever for its own good, so many thoughts and ideas overlying themselves that it kind of ate itself and ended up being rather... dare I say it... dull?
On one level it's an experiment in biography - a kind of theatrical Flaubert's parrott -with Frayn taking the structure of the morality play Everyman (directed every summer throughout the twenties and early thirties by Reinhardt on the steps of Salzburg cathedral) to tell the joint story of Reinhardt's life and the rise of the Nazis. So from scene one its clear that the Poor Neighbour, rejected by Everyman will eventually become an SS officer who will in turn transform into Death etc etc. But once you've entered into, and understood, the clever parallels there was little else to engage with.
The brilliance of Copenhagen was that form and content became seamless, so the two principal characters Bohr and Heisenberg moved around each other in the strict relationship of the atomic particles they were discussing. The complex morality of nuclear science was given a human form which twisted, reacted and collided. It was thrilling.
I wondered on the train home whether I'd just missed a similar academic approach - was the staging as close a reproduction to Reinhardt's own direction as possible. It felt dated, but maybe that was the point? Melodrama and gurning Nazis?
Somewhere in there is an interesting play about the relationship of our egos to our work, the director as dictator, which could draw out something new about the rise of both popular spectacle (9,000 per performance for Reinhardt's Everyman) and Facism (Many thousands more for the Nuremberg rallies.) I looked very hard, but could only see its outline.

News from Belgrade

Back in town for 72 hours and lots to catch up on. The biggest and greatest news is the arrest of Karadzic in Belgrade. I ended up staying up half the night in happy disbelief whilst the story broke. Incredible that he was hiding, by not hiding. I guess changing your identity and learning your new part thoroughly is the safest way to escape - he was always a self-deluded actor!

Two years ago I celebrated New Year's Eve in Sarajevo. I stayed with Mumo & Valida, a couple exactly the same age as me. Whilst I spent my early twenties finishing off my degree, training to teach and putting up my first shows in fringe venues in Manchester - they spent theirs daily dodging bullets to get a few bottles of essential water from the spring under the brewery and taking unrelenting 18 hours on, 18 hours off shifts to defend their city from the Serb artillery on the hill.

This year I spent New Year's Eve in Belgrade and met with Darko -again the same age as me- who'd served for the Serb army, mostly on the border of Kosovo. As the American bombs began to fall on Belgrade and his military commanders refused to surrender he felt it was only a matter of time before the backlash caught up with him. He wrote several 'final' letters back to his family.

Karadzic had a deathwish for both.

What united my Bosnian and Serb friends was a sense of Yugo-nostalgia, but they also both agreed on was the need to move forward and that stability, if possible in such a tribal region, would only be reached by some kind of truth and reconciliation process. In this context the handing over of, a major architect of the ethnic cleansing programme, to The Hague tribunal, by the Serbian government seems to offer an opportunity for further progress. I hope so.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Hand of God.

It's Sunday morning now and I'm in full post-recovery mode with an espresso in a Milanese pavement cafe after the most wonderful wedding... bride arrives in shades on a vesper, a list of saints to bless the union that was so long that my neighbour in the pew began showing me pictures of his children on his mobile, dancing barefoot under vines to a Balkan gypsy punk band until six in the morning, free ice cream all night. Typical Italian traditions.

My last days in Naples were also extraordinary. I took the funicular up to Vermero, walked along the the sea at Mergellina and explored the Palazzo Reale - with its exquisite private Teatrino di Corte before coffee in the Cafe Grimbus, where Oscar Wilde once met Bosie. I fell into conversation with a man called Giovanni here. We were quickly onto the tragic subject of my disappearing luggage (most Neapolitans have now had to endure this sob story.)

'Marco. You must pray!' he said,
'It might be worth a try, but I'm agnostic-a at best,' I replied.
'Ah, but do you like football?'
'Ye, very much.'
'Then we go to the shrine for you in Napoli! I have time to show you!' and without further discussion we were off in double time up Via Toledo, past Piazza del Gusu Nuovo, along Via San Biagio del Librai until we stopped outside a small coffee shop opposite the Statua del Nilo where we found the shrine of the Maradona (see above), complete with a wiry hair plucked in 1987 when Napoli (or rather he and ten journeymen) won the Scudetto and a small vial of the great man's tears.
'Now we pray for your clothes!' said Giovanni. But in my mind all I could see was Maradona breaking my fifteen year old heart as he rose like a salmon to punch the ball over Peter Shilton's head at Mexico World Cup in '86. Giovanni noticed my anxiety. 'He took from Ingleterra - yes? Maybe he owes you something? Come on you are in the South!'
So we stood and I silently wished that Maradona would deliver my luggage safely back to me. Once we'd done Giovanni went on his way warmly shaking my hand and assuring me 'Maradona - he makes miracles. You 'll see!'
Several hours later back at the hotel I was greeted by Umberto, the friendly desk clerk who with a broad smile took me personally to my room, opened the door with a flourish and pointing at the bed proudly announced:
'Mr Griffin, I am honour-ed to present your luggage!'
Thank you Maradona...(wherever you are!)

Friday, 18 July 2008

King of the Mountain.

The Neapolitan adventure continues. On Tuesday I went to Pompeii and walked around for hours - such a wonderful saucy place if the frescoes are anything to go by. The ancients seemed to have got living pretty sorted at the time Vesuvius exploded, as well as the houses of ill repute, wonderful gardens, orchards, communal baths, a huge sports arena, an athletics quad, there are two perfect theatres, one for plays and music the other for poetry and song. Never a dull moment!

In the afternoon I caught the bus up to Vesuvius and at a pre-arranged but very polite tourist hijack met the mischievous Andrew Grigori the 81 year old self proclaimed King of the Volcano.

"When the volcano last exploded in 1944 I was 16 years old," he told me in between signing and thumb printing copies for anybody willing to buy a guidebook from his small cafe, "Many of my friends were famished, because the lava killed all the crops. But I was able to find a job as a runner for the chef of a group of English soldiers billeted in Naples. They gave me scraps so I didn't starve and when they moved to Albania I begged and they took me with them. That is why I am called Andrew."

"After I came back, I had learnt eight different languages and for 39 years I was in charge of the funiculara that took many friends to the crater at the top of the volcano, but one day 15 years ago lightening hit the wires and the funiculara stopped. They promised to fix it in 2 years, but this was 15 years ago!"

"Now Greenpeace say they don t want the funiculara - so you see I am a victim of environmentalism and am forced to tell my story and sell postcards." Then he conspiratorially leant forward "Sometimes I sell volcanic rock and tell everybody only I have a licence and if you pick any from the mountain you will be prosecuted... by the court of King Andrew! It s incredible how many believe me!"

"I am very famous and all of the television companies will take my call. They say to me 'Andrew if the mountain rumbles again phone us, only us, ok'"

As we left he waved us into the distance blue thumb on his right hand clearly visible, til we turned the corner and headed for the summit.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Napoli Milionaria!

I m in Italy for a week - mostly for my friend Paola's wedding in Milano next Saturday - but I've also taken the opportunity of a few days in Napoli to chill out a bit, drink some espresso, eat some ice cream and generally explore a city I've not visited before.

Things went badly to begin with as AirItalia saved me the trouble of getting mugged by managing to lose my luggage in transit and despite repeated phone calls and trips back and forth to the airport the only thing that can be said with any truth or certainty is that my bag is anywhere between Heathrow and here. Napoli is hot and not the best place to be without a change of clothes. I've entered hard and loose into bargaining for fake Calvin Kleins with the Ghanaian street traders around the station but I feel odd not having my own threads.

Although I m both suit and present less for the wedding I m refusing to let this get me down and have sent out an emergency SOS plea to my three friends in Milano, who hopefully will find me something sharp by Saturday...

Napoli though is fantastic. I spent yesterday wandering the streets, enjoying the everyday. The Neapolitans are full of life and fun but shrewd, there's not much money so people are incredibly resourceful. I was told that on the day that seat belts were introduced some of the street sellers made a mint by selling T Shirts with a black stripe across them, completely undetectable to the police.

Amongst my afternoon highlights was Sammartino's beautiful artistry of the veiled Christ in the Sanservo chapel and the sad routunda wheel in the old orphanage shown to me by Isabella who just happened to be standing near to it. Her English matched my Italian in being basically rubbish, but through signs and occasional luckily guessed words I managed to understand that until the 1980's the wheel was used to orphan children. The parents would place the child in the spinning chamber facing the street and turn them into the orphanage where a nun would receive them, date their arrival, bless and name them.

At the end of the day I had pizza... well not just any old pizza! It was incredible! The waiter told me it was due to the volcanic water in the dough and that nowhere else in the world should be allowed to sell them. I had my mouth full, but wouldn't have disagreed anyway!

Friday, 11 July 2008

Living History

Jorge from Ham House has sent through the verbatim testimony from Douglas Beasley, a second footman, who worked for the Earl Dysart, at the house, in the 1930s. It's hysterical stuff, written in the discreet tones of the backstairs, and the real story, you sense happening in the gaps.

I'd like to develop it as a promenade tour with a few students. Maybe have Douglas as guide telling his story as he takes punters round the house - peeking in on scenes in the kitchen, servants quarters, the rat runs etc. Suspect we could create and do this form of living history very well.

December's Shakespeare festival might also spin its way out to Ham. I'd like to develop half an hour children's versions of Shakespeare's Jacobean plays - the house was built in 1610 - maybe The Tempest and The Winter's Tale and then perform them using narrators, object theatre, shadow puppets and marionettes in the great hall (see above).

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Autumn Guests

It's my last week before starting summer leave - so the focus is really to sort out my desk, ensuring I can hit the ground running in September. It's fun, though, dreaming up projects for next semester and trying to get a sense of the shape of the year ahead.

Some money was spent doing up the foyer in the Spring and over the next year we're looking to turn it into a receiving house from time to time, encouraging professional companies to tour out to us.

This part of London has a very high percentage of theatre goers - in fact the National Theatre estimate that a third of their audience is made up of people who live on the railway lines running from Waterloo past us and out to Reading, Windsor and Woking - and we hope eventually to create our own constituency audiences from beyond the University community for our work; as with everything it's about finding the niche. The starting place seems to be to keep building a positive reputation locally through outreach and carefully organised events, masterclasses and workshops, hosted on campus.
To kick start in the Autumn I've booked in the wonderful Cardboard Citizens who will bring their forum theatre hostels tour to us prior to it going out on the road and Kasia has booked in My Life With The Dogs by NIE, (see above) who use clowning and visual theatre to tell epic European stories that cross language and culture. They're a lot of fun!
In different ways the two companies really reflect the kind of politically aware, non elitist kind of theatre and storytelling that we as a department are interested in exploring.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Benevolent Neglect in the rain

On Sunday I went with Matt and two of our second year students, Rosie and Carolina, to fulfil a commission to provide some drama games for children and a mask making tent at the Notting Hill Jazz festival, which is all a spin off from the Drama in the Community work we did with the National Trust earlier in the Spring.

It earned us a £150, but also helped to promote our outreach work further. It poured all afternoon, which meant more masks were made than games played, but everybody seemed to have a good time.

We're kind of developing an easy going, low tech, guerrilla approach to this kind of creative community work - face painting, doodle tents, lots of glue, glitter, feathers, felt tips, tissue paper, string, sellotape, mess and only the occasional adult intervention. Some kids stayed for hours.

Around the corner were a big corporate children's entertainment company with plasma video screens, funky music pumping out, lots of flashing lights and highly energised facilitators ... but on a rainy day in west London our benevolent neglect and focus on letting the kids explore and make what they want, how they want, seemed far more popular.

Merry at Midnight.

I've spent a lot of time up in London over the last few days, mostly to remind myself what a great place it is.

From the University it only takes half an hour to be in Waterloo and with things winding down a bit at work I'm finding every excuse to escape for the afternoon and catch an exhibition, re visit a museum or see a show. With a bit of planning it's cheap as well.

On Thursday I spent some time looking round the beautiful Ramayana exhibition of 17th century Indian cartoons at the British Library and then wandered into the newly renovated St.Pancras station to have a look round.

On Friday I went over to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and ended up with friends via Brick Lane at The Globe for a £5 midnight matinee of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was terrific fun, particularly as Andrew Harvill, the actor playing Ford, was attending the birth of his first child, so the director, Chris Luscombe, had to read the part, script in hand. The late hour, the fact that many of the groundlings arrived, raucous fresh, from the pub and the irresistible mischief the actors had at the directors expense (to his horror grabbing the script and throwing round the stage like a rugby ball at one point) made for a heady evening. It's a great idea to roll out on a summer's night.
Home via night bus in time for the dawn chorus and breakfast before bed!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Black Watch

On Wednesday night Kasia and I went over to the Barbican to see The National Theatre of Scotland's production of Black Watch.

I first saw the show in its opening week at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, and although the story of the insensitive betrayal of the regiment, whilst serving in Iraq, is now two years old, rather than just a few weeks fresh, the play still lays bare many of the complex and conflicting forces at work for serving soldiers be they in Kosovo, Basra or Hellmund Province.

At it's heart the work is brilliantly theatrical, merging stunning visual set pieces and choreographed regimental songs with a self referential verbatim text, which not only finds authentic voices for the story, but also gives space to the problems of trusting the theatre to understand without sentiment or prejudice what it means to be a member of the armed forces. It's an 'Oh What a Lovely War' for our times and one of the most exciting pieces of theatre around.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Physical Theatre Workshop and plans for Autumn

Kasia's running a Physical Theatre summer school for a couple of weeks in August and I've decided to take part. There's a couple of reasons.

Firstly I'm feeling in need of a bit of sharpening up. It's over a year since I last attended a practical course and the best way to renew your teaching is always to return to being a student for a little while.

Secondly we're team teaching the Theatre Games and Spontaneity module for the first year students arriving in Autumn and working together for a fortnight will really give us a chance to tune into each other strengths and hopefully make that course a bit special.

I hope it's not a hint but, since I've declared an interest, Kasia's found every opportunity of inviting Trevor and me to her fitness club, mostly it has to be said to put in place the planning for next year, but I'm also beginning to ache from all the badminton we've played in the last few days.

Some great ideas are beginning to come out. A fantastic Shakespeare project for second years in December - turning the theatre into the forest of Arden and the Waldegrave Drawing room, if we can prise it away from conferencing, into Queen Elizabeth's court at Richmond. Flash mobbing scenes all over the college. Montagues facing Capulets in the refectory, Once more unto the Breach on the rugby pitch etc etc... installations, plasma screened sonnets, meta texts, caper cutting, Shakespeare for Children workshops, music, food etc... A bit of a festival all in.