Thursday, 31 December 2009

Chasing Becks through Milan.

I'm ending the year in Italy - catching up with friends. Firstly Venice to see Feda, Bruna and Gianni and now onto Milan to spend some time with Paola, Paolo and their four month year old son Mario.

It's been quite a year for Paolo not only fatherhood, but he also happened to be in the right place at the right time a couple of weeks ago when Berlusconi had a statuette of the Duomo thrown in his face. Paolo's photo whizzed round the world in seconds and for a vital few minutes it was the hottest digital image on the planet, grabbing the attention of Reuters, who ever since have been offering him regular paid assignments.
... And so it was that we set off on a vesper through the frozen cobbled streets to try and catch David Beckham's arrival at his first press conference since his return to the city.

It struck me standing in the cold outside an exclusive hotel in the fashion district, waiting for him that few others have had quite the global impact on the decade that Becks has had. Blair? Obama? One went, one arrived - but Becks seems to have spanned the whole period.

He began the noughties still in disgrace for being sent off against Argentina in Lyon in 1998 - but quickly redeemed himself by marrying a Spice Girl, scoring a last minute free kick against Greece to take us to Japan in 2002 and a life changing penalty against the Argentinians to complete his prodigal return. Then came disappointments against Portugal, a move to Real Madrid and celebrity super stardom and now here he is in the fag end of his football career, trying to find form and enough competitive games to sneak a place on the plane to his fourth World Cup finals in South Africa next year. Is there one more chapter to write, one more iconic miracle?
Suddenly he was with us, dapper in waistcoat and tie, sweeping past without stopping in his black people carrier. The paps - including Paolo panicked and realising he was heading through the backdoor sprinted round the block to try and catch him there.

I didn't run. The decade was drawing to a close and if we're honest we've all lost a little pace; the future is probably Aaron Lennon's.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Oxfordshire Nativity.

Christmas has been really relaxing. I've spent the last few days back in rural Oxfordshire putting my thoughts about the trip to Cantabria in some kind of order. Appleford has many things in common with Bielva - it's about the same size and demographic and coming back here straight after Spain makes me realise how attached to my own sense Eden I am.

When I was growing up the village came together once a year for the fete, which I remember as always taking place on a hot and sunny Saturday in June. It was always a mixture of things - part car boot sale, part Aunt Sally competition and part cakes and traction engines... but it was always magic and everybody seemed to join in with contributions to the tombola, by swapping junk or baking something. One year Dad won half a pig in the nine pin bowling, which we couldn't fit into the fridge so it had to be donated to our trunk freezer owning neighbours. These kind of events quickly gather mythical status.

This year Helen, our fun filled vicar, who amongst other radical initiatives hands out Rolos during her sermons, organised the Appleford nativity - which I missed - but seems to have been another successfully organised community gathering. Chocolate the donkey was hired from a sanctuary for the day and the village elders gathered on the green in dressing gowns and tea towels to walk up Church Street knocking on three doors where pre rehearsed exchanges took place with unfriendly inn keepers. One was too busy watching Strictly Come Dancing, another had lots of relatives over and a third was worried about Chocolate defecating on the rhododendrons. Eventually everybody arrived at the church where not only was a warm nativity crib found, but also a pile of mince pies and mulled wine for every one.


Monday, 21 December 2009

The Habit of Art

London is full of slush. I had lunch with Patrick and Claire from Tfac, over here for Christmas, and we talked through a couple of ideas for bringing further performance skills into some of the facilitator training back in Malawi, particularly as a way of collating evidence for baseline assessments through improvisation. Monitoring attitudes towards safe sex is one of the key tools used to prove the work is ultimately effective in HIV/AIDS reduction and helps funders decide whether to support the work or not.

Boal's notion of 'The Joker' - a figure able to mitigate the relationship between the audience and actors seems a way forward. In effect we'd monitor behaviour and attitude amongst participants, through forum work - taking them through three or four increasingly complicated provocations with the facilitators trained as jokers to regulate the level of antagonism offered. In this way we'd build in the flexibility to complicate the improvisations and hope to overcome the problem of participants revealing what they think we'd like to see, rather than there own behaviour. I argue that this would produce a more authentic set of results. It's a fusion of sociological research and play.

In the evening I went to the National to see The Habit of Art. It's a complex, layered and deeply melancholic play. Early in the season the theatre premiered The Power of Yes, a play essentially about the inability to write a play about the credit crunch. Now Alan Bennett has given us a play that also comes at it's subject sideways.

The conceit is that a National Theatre Company are rehearsing a new work about an imagined meeting between the poet W.H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. As the director has been called away to a conference on the future of regional theatre in Leeds - the rehearsal is left in the capable hands of the stage manager, brilliantly played by Frances De La Tour. This Pirandello type set up gives volume for any number of knowing jokes and debates about rehearsals, the role and relationships between key creative figures in the process, theatre itself, as well as providing a tiny window into both artists' desire to create and the personal cost of doing so. Ironically the clever triple frame of watching an NT play about a rehearsal of a NT play allows Bennett to defend the very act of crafting a tuned, nuanced script rather than indulging for the sake of it in the visual or experimental.

It's heavy weight work, peppered with excellent performances Richard Griffiths nobly inheriting Auden, a part clearly written for Michael Gambon, Alex Jennings wonderful as Britten. Elliot Levey and Adrian Scarborough offer super support as the over protective playwrite and the under developed character. Ultimately I felt I'd been taken on a meandering journey exploring a topic with no particular thesis before being landed smoothly back to earth. In a final moment the stage manager checks the empty room and turns out the lights, knowing we'll all be back tomorrow. Perhaps, after all, that is all that can be truthfully said about theatre.

Time to Go

Sunday 20th December 2009.

It's time to go and let Bielva return to it's own sense of normality. After a late breakfast we made our way to Mass, responding to an invitiation made earlier in the week. Our cast were all there. Nucu and Yolanda singing in the choir, Chello passing round the collection, Lola, Carmen, Cesare and many of our other friends in the congregation. Afterwards we're joined by Luis, who prefers to take his dog for a walk on Sunday mornings - his own time for communion in beautiful fields surrounding the village. Soon the first flowers of a new year will push up through the soil.

It was a gentle landing as one by one the villagers left church kissing each of us as they went. The choir high on the balcony above the nave sang their own farewell and waved. Carmen was the last to go. She wished us health and we told her how honoured we'd been to spend a week in the company of the grandest actress in Cantabria. She thwacked at this and left.

Cars loaded we headed of for a short hour on the sea front at Santander. It felt glorious, but we're all perhaps too tired, emotional and caught between two worlds to really appreicate it...

... and also the goodbyes to Spiral, which are less easy to bare each time and only possible in the knowledge that it won't be long until we see each other again!

And so we flew home.


Saturday 19th December 2009

The village was in a state of excitement all day. We've had to ticket the two shows - which is pretty unheard of, but the performance space is relatively small and although we've cleared all available exits it's not the easiest place to evacuate should the need arise. The decision has caused some rumbling amongst the cast and there are worries that some of the audience won't accept the limit on numbers (especially those who don't get in.)

The cast stoically went through their lines. There are still some struggles, but we managed to stagger through a couple of times in the morning and that made things settle. The centrepiece of the show is a big meal organised by the village for the returning Fausto, with genuine Cantabrian delicacies. It takes six minutes to set up, underscored by traditional music and full company involvement.

The ever chatty Chello led the cooking and we were invited into her kitchen to see the bean stews, fish pastries and chicken and onion pizzas being knocked out. The students meanwhile knocked out a big sign saying Teatro - which they rigged up over the front door with minutes to spare.

The shows went brilliantly and were totally packed out. Early on in the first Carmen broke her glasses and tried to leave the stage to nip home and get her spare pair. Stage Managers and fellow actors tried to disuade her, but as she rightly said to the audience,

' This is ridiculous. You all know where I live, I'll only be a moment!'

'What shall I do?' asked Maria, left on stage alone.

'Tell them another story,' said Carmen 'we'll pick this one up when I'm back.'

The relief and joy at the end was incredible and the audience hadn't even cleared before the party started. Our well laid 'get out' plans had to be put on hold as the village celebrated. The students sang their song and Arthur, a twelve year old bag pipe player, turned up to provide some jigs. It was gone four in the morning when the final bottle of cava was cracked open and we all wobbled home to bed with Anglo-Cantabrian relations at an all time high.

Lessons from Bielva.

Friday 18th December 2009

Time in the Bielva is flying by now. It's hard to conceive we'll be heading for home in two days, harder still to believe Christmas is a week away. With the show only twenty four hours away the pace is picked up a bit. Chris and Carol run round the village grabbing members of the cast whenever they stop work and rehearsing in their front rooms.

Meanwhile Luis invites the students, Marta and me up to the village primary school. There are only eleven children on the roll, spread across six years. It's clear Luis loves his job and cares for each child with the attention of a gardener nurturing precious seeds. We're all given home made Christmas cards and Zoe leads most of the class in a series of games and songs. Jennie brilliantly mops up a small group of boys who don't want to join in; she gets some pens and paper and everybody draws pictures until, in their own time, one by one, the boys rejoin the main group. It's wonderful to see the St Mary's students working so intelligently and in harmony, not just with each other but these unfamiliar surroundings.

Luis talks about his family who, in the early years of the twentieth century, set up the first newspaper in the valley, which was published and sent to Cantabrians in exile in Cuba, Mexico and other American countries. It was a vital source of information and a plea to those who'd moved away in search of prosperity to remember those left behind. It's yet another strand to the Fausto play.

The dress tonight is a bit all over the place, the cast using hundreds of subtle tactics to hide their nerves. It's also the first time we've had full company and many of the actors seem confused as to the running order and in particular when and where to come on. Carmen thwacks out in all directions. The students, begin to anticpate these problems and working as a brilliant team of stage managers take responsibility for props, exits, entrances and backstage discipline. Things begin to come together.

From rehearsals we return home for an incredible Christmas dinner to thank Spiral for the week. Piles of peas, potatoes, corn fed chicken, gravy, yet more red wine and even Yorkshire puddings are passed round. It's been a mega effort involving the ovens in both houses and some speedy dashes through the slush filled streets to keep the food warm, but it's a wonderful and joyful celebration. Afterwards we sit by the fire and with Danny on guitar the students sing two songs that they've written: one as a thank you to Chris, Marta and Carol and the second for the village which they'll perform after the show tomorrow.

It's very moving. Love spreads around!

Zurdo de Bielva.

Thursday 17th December 2009

This morning Nucu took us on a tour of the village starting at the Bolera court established in the name of the town's local hero Rogelio Gonzales, the demon left handed bowler El Zurdo de Bielva. He was simply inimitable and not only won every competition but performed exhibition shots, such as taking a peseta off the top of a skittle from twenty metres away or back spinning to take out a row of pegs of your choice. His image is everywhere - a small bust overlooking the court, a badly painted picture staring down form us in Maria's bar and he even appears on the key ring which our house keys are on. Nucu became misty eyed as he recalled his childhood memories of El Zurdo.

On we went to the exquisite Romanesque church complete with a beautiful Belen (Spanish nativity scene) that is built up by the village over the weeks leading up to Christmas. The church is amazing with a gorgeous thirteenth century carved alter piece, intricate carvings and an eleventh century font. On we went to a second church at the edge of the village, but with incredible views down into the Nansa valley. The Cantabrian's have a long and proud history of resistance. The raging bandit Caracota stopped the Roman invasion in it's tracks, the Moors took one look at the mountain people and decided not to spread their Arabic culture further and at the end of the nineteenth century the French only got as far as the church door before the Bielvans turned them back. Nucu proudly shows us the scorch marks on the stone floor that mark the end of attempted occupation. We ended the tour at the cemetery where Nucu pointed out his parent's graves and the plot reserved for him.

'I've no intention of using it for a good while yet,' he says with a giggle 'we try and fight off most things that interrupt our way of life.'


Wednesday 16th December 2009

In the morning the students split along year lines and, in consultation with Chris and Marta, had some time to work on project design for next semester's work. Of course without the consent of the rest of their group this can only go so far, but it was a tremendous exercise in exposing some of the problems that both Level 2 and Level 3 will face as they try to construct their own community pieces in January.

Zoe, Jennie, Charlotte and Hannah began to turn their thoughts to the 400th Birthday party at Ham next May. One of the big logisitcal problems so far has been that to get the 3,000 attendees that the house are after into the space will take close to an hour. Somehow we need to create something that will make this process part of the event and help to snowball the participation. The idea of a procession emerged, perhaps gathering on Ham common and then marching down the great Avenues that lead to the house itself. It's an enticing prospect and providing we co-ordinate carefully could be spectacular.

The second years meanwhile were looking at Southsea castle, one of several they're researching into over the Christmas break. They want to tell ghost stories, but today they focused on how, if this location were chosen, they'd go about looking for find partners and groups to work with in and around Portsmouth.

In the afternoon we set to work properly cable tying white sheets around the walls of the bar and removing most of the furniture to create a theatre space, complete with backstage area and props table. Marta and me drove up the valley to pick up 100 chairs from a primary school and on return we all helped design the auditorium.

The actors were delighted when they turned up for rehearsal and the new feel to the space gave all of their work a lift. They're getting there. Slowly, now that I've fully understood the broad story, I'm beginning to understand the nuances of the language - it's highly evocative and poetic. The sensual nature of living in and by the countryside peppers the script with references to the weather, the changes of season, and the rhythms of the natural world. The metaphors are drawn from the ripening of the fruit, the lunar cycle, the arrival of the blossom and the smell of winter. There's no artifice here after all the cast are drawing wholly on the vernacular of the village and it is very, very rich.


Tuesday 15th December 2009.

An excellent session on Brecht's Lehrstuck this morning with Chris using The Decision to demonstrate that participation in active debate was the main purpose of work rather than polished performance. Again we're exploring some of the forerunners of the ideas and techniques that underpinned Freire and Boal's poetics of the oppressed, as well the Drama in Education and TIE movements in Britain that developed in the sixties and seventies. Already the links between these particpatory and democratic ideas and the work on the Fasuto play are becoming apparent to us all.

This afternoon an unexpected treat - a group trip to see the incredible Stalagtites in the Cueva El Sopalo across the valley from Bielva. Miners accidently discovered the cavern in 1905 and since then over twenty kilometres of tunnels have been openned up, all breathtaking in their ancient beauty.

We journeyed half a kilometre underground to find a gorgeous and ornate cathedral cave. Our consdierate guide gave us lots of geological detail, but I was happy just to look at the incredible formations of rossettes, plumes and columns. We spent an hour underground moving through the grandly named chambers, including The Opera House - so called it appeared because of a taped backing track of arias attempting the bizarre illusion of singing calcite. Sometimes the theatrical is in the thing itself!

Back in the village, rehearsals moved into the performance space, a little bar shaped like a diamond, complete with mirror ball and luminous paint on the walls. Charmer Nucu, who plays Fausto, joined us along with Carmen, the eighty six year old, silver backed, matriarch of the village who affectionately uses her script to thwack the person nearest to her around the head whenever she drops a line. We quickly learn to give prompts with caution.


Missions Pedagogicas

Monday 14th December 2009

The full breathtaking beauty of the village revealed itself at first light. It feels like a perfect place to hunker up for Winter. After breakfast we gather in the small open access community hall for our first session. The space is a wonderful resource for the village and serves as a meeting place/ internet cafe/ rehearsal or practice room/ education centre and somewhere to grab a coffee and biscuit whilst you escape the cold. Villagers gain entry through a swipe card and operate a booking system - it belongs to them.

We spent the morning looking at the legacy of the Mission Pedagogicas (see video on this link) which were sponsored by the government of the second republic in the pre- civil war Spain of the early thirties to spread culture, art and liberal education to the most remote and rural villages in Spain. The concept was simple, generous and humane to facilitate an appreciation and understanding of art, music, theatre and literature in the poorest and least literate. The modernity of the work was incredible - out went the sedantry, submissive and static idea of repeating the words and thoughts of the priest or teacher and in came a democratic, particpatory and active method of learning that used the surroundings of the village and the intuitive communication of the educators. Under the directorship of Manuel Cossio the mission brought mobile libraries, staged performances, gramophone players, full scale reproductions of the classic canvass paintings in the Prado and even film projectors into areas untouched by industrial advances elsewhere in Europe. The war and subsequent Franco dictatorship abruptly halted these moments of utopia but progressive educationalists the world over owe these pioneers a huge debt. Implicitly their commitment influences all of the work the Applied Theatre course at St Mary's is engaged in, be it through the local TIE work, our relationship with Tfac in Malawi, The National Trust in Ham or back here with Spiral in Spain. Their's is an inspiring story of stimulating aspiration.

In the evening we met many of the cast of the show (as yet unnamed) for a stagger through of some of the scenes. We're still getting our heads around the storyline, but it was clear that the work, imagined and scripted by the actors, under the shaping and crafty gaze of Chris is poetic, complex and multi layered. Although fictional the situations, language and conflicts in the play reflect a composite profile of the tension between modern progress and comforting tradition faced by many rural communities in Spain today.
The twinkly eyed Fausto, who left the village, and his love Piedra, as a teenager returns forty years later with wealth and attempts to win back favour by proposing the building of a ski station. This basic structure provides the company with a forum to, amongst many other things, explore notions of change, the importance of democratic decision making, our emotional engagement with place, the meaning of prosperity and the value of modernisation. As with much of this work the play itself is of secondary importance to the questions faced by the actors in creating it.

The cast were excited to see us and incredibly welcoming, Luis, the local primary school teacher was concerned that we wouldn't understand and he was particularly eager to incorperate us into the rehearsal whilst Lola, his eighty six year old mother, and Yolanda a local farmer sat close, pointing to relevant lines in the script looking for signs that we understood. It's going to be fascinating to see how the work develops between now and next weekend.

Bielva Bound

Sunday 13th December 2009

Following another successful day at Ham House on Saturday, nine 2nd and 3rd year students Zoe, Hannah, Jennie, Charlotte, Danny, Jess, Hayley, Sem, Sophie have flown with me down to Spain for a week working with Spiral in the small village of Bielva, high in the Cantabrian mountains. We're joining the company for the last week of rehearsal, the culmination of a project that Carol, in particular, has been developing since October. A play written and performed by the villagers themselves. Time seems to have flown since August, when Carol was fleshing out the idea and it's hard to believe just a few short weeks later here we are to see, and to support if we can, the final work.

After a trouble free flight, we're met at the airport in Santander and ferried back to the Nansa valley by the team: Chris, Marta and Carol. Unusually so close to the coast, snow has fallen and the streets are icy, but as we climb in darkness slowly up the mountain road you can sense the beauty of the place. A Casa rural has been found for the students and a huge pot of spaghetti bolognese is rustled up, wine is poured and a fire stoked to welcome them. Spiral have never knowing underfed anybody!

Over dinner we all quickly make friends and Chris briefs us a little on the week ahead. In the mornings we'll carry out our own workshops, contextualising both this project and the purposes using theatre for community engagement in Spain. After siesta we'll head for rehearsals to watch the different threads of the play pull together, ready for the final performance on Saturday. Hopefully the week will also help us to think ahead and generate some ideas for the production work both year groups will take on next semester. The work in Bielva so far has been confined to weekends, but now with us all present and correct it's time to move up a gear. Finally we can eat no more and so stuffed, tired and expectant we fall into bed.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Babies and Bathwater.

We're coming to the end of the semester and it's been quite a tough week. On Monday we had a full on staff meeting which looked a little ahead and tried to anticipate the future. Whoever wins the election next year it's clear that the Higher Education sector will face some big and potentially sacrificial decisions. All we can really do is keep watch to make sure that the programmes we're proposing are as relevant, valuable and effective as we can make them. Hard times always offer opportunity for the inventive, and it'll be our vision, or lack of it, for the next few years that will ultimately determine whether exciting students join us or not. If they do we'll flourish regardless of the cuts.

My sense is that we could do more to link the modules together and perhaps look to run each year as a series of projects rather than courses. We'd still meet the learning objectives, but also begin to see ourselves as a varied and fascinating centre of innovation and production. The model that I think we should strive towards is one where the 300 or so students effectively become the Drama St Mary's theatre company, producing shows and outreach work whilst also training and sharpening their skills. It'd enable us to be lighter on our toes, more able to respond rapidly to change. In this regard we should look for coherence through diversity rather than orthodoxy or methodology. We shouldn't teach anything just for the sake of it or because it's always been taught, but instead take every chance to be vital and connected.

I also hope we'll also start to move further towards gradients in development with third years taking major decisions over the scope, content and delivery of the work, aided by problem solving second years and hard working, supportive first years. It's so important that by the end of the degree students know what to do next and know which direction they want to turn. It's the move from a dependence on authority to taking responsibility as a creative independent and resourceful artist.

... And brave artists are what we'll all need to see the way forward, to provide the playful metaphors through which we'll explore the alternative futures, to provide resistance and possibilities. It may be the time to tighten our belts, but it's certainly not the time to go on the backfoot.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Cup Cakes and Hats.

We learnt a lot from yesterday and today the storytelling really flew. Over 500 people came through the house and I think nearly all of them had a great time. Jess, Emily and Jayne are working with the youngest children who come into the house and have developed a hat story game where the audience see how many hats can be balanced on an elf's head. It causes lots of laughter when they eventually topple off and many stay to play again and again.

We risked being overrun at one point which meant in desperation I was signed up for face painting duty. The first little girl who came wanted an angel.

'On your cheek?' I asked
'Noooooo... I want to be an angel.'

I wasn't sure what angels look like to a six year old child, but I guessed pinks, blues and whites might be involved. Two minutes later I'd created something that looked more like the French flag than a celestial being. The girl was very brave though and refused to cry, even when I showed her what she looked like in the mirror. I sent her next door to the balloon modeller to get some wings. The next little boy wanted a Ben 10 drawn on his cheek. Unfortunately lack of cultural understanding meant I had to be withdrawn from the front line at this point, much to the relief of students, children and parents alike.

Property Manager Gary seemed delighted with the day and treated us all to a box load of sugar sweet cup cakes which we shared out in the kitchen after hours.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Interviewing Mrs Claus about the National Elf Service.

The first day of storytelling at Ham with Drama in the Community students. We've kind of thrown the work together and I was intrigued as to whether we'd done enough to play with confidence to our young audiences. The day started slowly but picked up around lunchtime and by packing up time at 4pm over 200 people had come through.

There's a neat mixture of stories and poems, some very short, told as intimate whispers in corners or corridors. Some longer tales where the audience sit on rugs and cushions and a couple of fun filled sketches - where lazy elves try and motivate themselves for Christmas and Mrs Claus texts her husband to let him know that she's picked up a sleigh Sat Nav on eBay.

Jennie's doing a top job as Mrs Claus, ably assisted by Hannah's Red Bull guzzling elf - Poppy. After the sketch they hold a Q & A session for the children, who ask some seriously taxing questions about how reindeers fly?... whether Santa eats all the mince pies or saves some for boxing day? ... and whether the shift in popularity from wooden toys and board games to Wiis and X-boxes in the digital age has made elves with carpentry and painting skills unemployable?... Only in Richmond!
Fortunately Jennie was able to reassure everybody that even in a time of recession time was set aside during the spring to up skill the elf work force in line with projected consumer trends. Relief all round!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Next Semester.

We're into the last leg before Christmas now and are beginning to turn our thoughts to 2010. I've been to a couple of meetings with Ham House to begin to put in plans for their 400th birthday party on May 15th. It looks as if we're going for a large scale participatory event - perhaps involving up to 3,000 people. At the centre of the event would be a communal singing of anthems, backed by local choirs. Our job will be to organise and host the event. Provide the pre and post-show entertainment and ensure everything is done safely. In my head it's just going to be about having fun and really enjoying what is a very, very special place.

I've also managed to catch up with Stef O'Driscoll and start putting in place some early plans for a research trip to Bosnia in February as preparation for a production of Miljenko Jerkovic's Sarajevo Marlbro short stories, which we want to create probably next Summer. We've made contact with some theatre directors in the capital and hopefully can look to shape up work for one of the city's annual theatre festivals.

Matt, Trevor and I also had a meeting with Laura who works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She's been given some money by the Bill Gates foundation to develop a Theatre in Education project around Malaria in the Cameroon. The money is substantial, but the focus seems - as perhaps is inevitable from a medical perspective - to be on cure rather than prevention. The missing link for us is to consider the issue from the position of the victims or potential victims. What are the obstacles, including the emotional obstacles, that stop effective immunisation? Doctors, chemists and researchers are fantastic at developing the drugs and calculating how to eliminate the disease. What storytellers and play makers are equally wonderful at is revealing, through narrative, the psychological and socio-economic contradictions that mark the experience of living in the wake and fear of the disease. Laura's going to come back to us in the new year with a proposal.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Going Postal.

Went to see the Drama Society's show of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal this evening in Studio 3. It's the second production they've put up, after a version of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and it brings to an end a successful first semester for them.

It's very good to see an independent student company made up of actors and technicians from across the pathways and incorporating students from beyond the department wrestle something so ambitious on. The society isn't yet affiliated to the Union (a dispute over the level of support they could expect for the sign up fee has kept them a bit on a limb) but hopefully as Drama Soc continues to establish itself into the cultural life of the University, negotiations will open again. It's a shame that sports clubs dominate the culture and It'd be great to see an influential Drama Soc making waves to redress the balance.

There were some promising work as well. Bianca Barrett and Jack Fisher grow in ease and confidence every time I see them perform and Mikey O'Neill lifted the work with a neatly drawn cameo as a doddery old postal worker.

Inevitably the work overreached itself and it was hard to keep focus as it shifted into its third hour. I don't think you can do anything to curb the enthusiasm of this, students love the epic and love performing (I certainly did in my undergraduate days); but I do think there's a eureka moment for developing practitioners when they stop making choices based on what they and their mates want and genuinely focus on providing a quality experience for the audience. It's a de schooling process but the brave have faith in their own emerging craft skills and ability to reach out beyond their peer group rather than try to replicate a derivative amateur dramatic model.
This may be for the future, however, for now the society deserves a huge round of applause for making itself work.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Festivals and Soaps.

The Bill is being filmed in Ham at the minute. There's a specially built vandalised bus stop and several police cars with their windscreens smashed lying about outside Tesco. It's made our peaceful little estate look like Beirut at the worst of times. The first morning I cycled through I thought something dreadful had happened. I locked the bike up and went over to see if I could find out what was going on. It was only when I overheard two policemen eating bacon sandwiches and talking about a disastrous casting for Eastenders that I realised what was going on.

Poor Patsy and Ben, who've only just moved in to their new flat above the shops have been woken every morning at 4am by searching arc lights and the noisy sounds of the location caterers whirring their generators into life. They hadn't even had time to put their curtains up! The big worry is of course that as they unpack and arrange their furniture in the front room any sense of continuity will be broken. The temptation to lean out the window and shout must be huge!

It's as busy as ever. Yelina, the director for the Kingston International Youth Festival came in to talk to the students about taking part in next summer's programme - either as participants or organisers. It's taking these kind of opportunities that really count. As a department we've only got the time and resources to offer a basic training and it's so important for students to pitch their work up to the public. It may succeed, it may fail gloriously... either way you learn so much more about yourself as a artist.

Late on Monsay, who graduated last summer, sent a text to remind me that she's on Holby City tomorrow night. She was called for casting by a producer who saw her in Yard Gal which started as a Uni show two years ago and went on to win Best London fringe performance last year when it transferred to The Oval. It's the first of two parts she's been given by the BBC. She's got another chunky roll in a one off drama AWOL, which will screen in the new year.

She's living proof that a bit of talent and a lot of determination can take you pretty far, pretty quickly

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Stand Up Camden Town

Our friends at The Comedy School ran their wonderful annual funny festival today and nine of our students came along for the ride. It was a full on, but pretty stimulating day starting with Roland Muldoon (who ran the Hackney Empire for twenty years)'s provocative, but highly entertaining rant on the anodyne state of British comedy. His thesis that there are only twelve jokes in play, all of them observational, held water to me - he reserved quite a bit of bile for the high flying Michael McIntyre, who has huge exposure and never says a dangerous thing. Roland lamented the bravery of previous comics, inspired by Lenny Bruce and in this country, fuelled by the cruelty of the Thatcher era, who tackled things head on.

Has Stand Up become a pale reflection of the mediated world? Does it suffer from the same kind of callous disinterest that allows a newspaper to devote a column of type to a genocidal conflict and eight pages to Katie Price? The real deal is that observational stuff is introverted. Sure it pulls an audience into the absurd gap between appearance and reality and catches them off balance, but at best is simply knowing. The braver stuff might tell a deeper truth and not mind too much who is offended by it. A lack of respect for hierarchy, tradition or power doesn't half liberate and offer the potential for a more humane reordering of attitudes and resources.

Set up for the day the ten of us ranged around. I dropped in on Ivor Debima's stand up workshop and Neil Mullarkey's Impro class. The day ended with a question and answer session with Hugh Dennis, pretty much dominated by St. Mary's students. We fell out of the building an into the Dublin Castle at 7pm to talk about whether Stand Up Comedy might have a role to play within the department. There seems so much to say, if you can fly the fear of saying it.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Our Class.

To the National to finally catch up with Our Class in the Cottesloe. Tadeusz Slobodzianek has written an incredibly important and powerful play.

Essentially it's a history of Poland in the twentieth century told by ten classmates - five Jewish and five Catholic - all born in 1918. At the heart of this collective memory is the 1941 massacre of 1,600 Jews at Jedwabne and the disputed blame for the atrocity. Was it Nazi forces or anti-communist Polish nationalists taking revenge for Jewish collaboration with the Bolsheviks? Using childhood songs, playground games, first person recollection and snatches of dialogue, fleeting and exquisitely handled so as never to to live in any more concrete a form than a memory, the ten children piece together a collage of pain, anger, recrimination and hard fought forgiveness. Their lives, loves and beliefs fatally intertwining with the grand narratives of history itself. The first half watches the classmates take sides, the second sees them look for reconciliation after the massacre - a search that carries the action through right into the twenty first century.

Played out on a bare wooden stage and ten school chairs the excellent ensemble playing and fast paced direction - crafted wonderfully by Bijan Sheibani - give little room for question or reflection and it's this sense of being caught up in the broad sweep of events that exhumes all sense of sentimentalism from a brilliant, but harrowing story.

One by one the classmates are murdered, converted, killed, commit suicide or die of illness and age, in Poland, Israel and America, profoundly affected, poisoned or liberated by the moments of cruelty or kindness inflicted on them by their peers. This is a heartbreaking and humane elegy for the most brutal loss of innocence. When it was over I wasn't the only member of the audience to leave quickly and in tears.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Seize the Day

On Friday night I cycled into Richmond to see A Serious Man, the new Coen brother's movie. They are brilliant storytellers in the Grimm brothers tradition and this dark, brooding morality tale is a mini wonder. Their sharp plot twists, lack of sentimentalism in their driving narratives and beautiful staging make them the most theatrical of film makers.

Larry Gopnik, a diligent, hard working and altruistic Physics professor in a small mid- west town is shafted on all sides from colleagues, family, students and the fickleness of fate. Nobody means him direct harm, but each person in his life makes a demand that chips away at his own sense of self. Appearances are held together long enough for him to see , his distracted son through bar mitzvah, before the ultimate stroke of fatal luck leaves the audience hanging on the question of what's it all for? Without occasional rage how do we keep afloat? It's a brilliant movie.

On Saturday I went up to the Tricycle in Kilburn to see Seize the Day (see pic) by Kwame Kwei-Armah, part of the theatre's Not Black and White season.
Nick Kent, the theatre's artistic director has commissioned three black writers, Roy Williams and Bola Agbaje are the companion authors, to write plays about black experience in contemporary London. Roy's piece Category B looks at the prison system and Bola's work Detaining Justice, tackles issues around immigration.

Seize the Day looks at politics and in particular the Mayoralty. Can Jeremy Charles, a reality TV presenter carry enough 'white' votes to become London's first black mayor? And whose agenda can he represent? Have Mandela and Obama provided the only blueprints for acceptable black leadership - what are the next steps? In many ways it's a companion piece to David Hare's An Abscence of War, which, written in the early nineties portrayed the machinations in a semi-fictious Labour Party battening down the hatches in preparation for power. Both plays demonstrate how ruthlessly dehumanising the aquistion of political power has become. Image over conviction.

It's great to see a really well made play about something - a provocation for debate, accessible and crafted.

The Tricycle is a perfect theatre for politics. Intimate and resonant, the audience shake their heads, intake breath, murmur both approval and disapproval against the action in front of them. A community venue preparing its audience for national debate. It's vital stuff.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Speak What We Feel. Not What We Ought to Say.

Where does the time go? Another week down and Christmas speeding towards us.

Actor Ian Redford came in on Monday and gave an excellent, gregarious session on 'actioning text,' which seemed to go down really well. Ian's been in a few times before and always gives us great value. He's got so much experience working at The Globe, The National, with Out of Joint as well as loads of TV, but talks softly and with great humility about the process of acting. He's just finished playing Joe Keller in a highly acclaimed production All My Sons at the Belgrade in Coventry and is writing a one man show based on Samuel Johnson, to perform at the Johnson Museum off Fleet Street in December, a role decked in benign generosity and hooting laughter. He was born for it.

At lunchtime Patsy gave a brilliantly accessible presentation on her Vocal Points project, which unashamedly advocates finding as many opportunities as possible to banish reticence and release voice throughout childhood and into adulthood. We could all do with being a bit louder and a lot prouder seemed to be the welcome key message. There's no patience in this thinking for a University of repressed reflection.

On Tuesday the second year 'scratched' an idea for a forum theatre play aimed at Primary School children. The social realism of most interactive pieces replaced with a composite fairy story - can Little Red Riding Hood, cope with the peer group pressure of the seven dwarfs, the foolish behaviour of Hansel and Gretel, the bullying of the Troll guarding the bridge and the thieving tendencies of light fingered Goldilocks... and still out manoeuvre the wolf? The work was flawed in not quite being ready for intervention, but the idea had great potential. We accept that children will be vocal participants in theatre events, why not give them the chance to influence the action as well.

Wednesday was full of meetings - firstly with Richmond Community Safety team at Twickenham Stadium to go through the programme for the community day we're going to help facilitate next February working with the local police. The session focused on trying to pull out some key messages, particularly around alcohol abuse and stop and search, the two areas which seem to course the most aggravation between teenagers and police officers in the borough.
Then onto Ham House for a planning session with Gary and Jorge looking ahead to the 400th birthday party next May.

Ambitiously we're going to try and get 3,000 people in for the day listening to local bands and choirs, having fun and culminating in a community sing song... Happy Birthday, Our House by Madness, Country House by Blur... you get the picture! On Rugby days a DJ at the Barmy Arms plays a cracking three hour set of anthems, the pub rocks and the songs are carried across the town and down the river. Gary wants something of the same uninhibited and anarchic nature for the party.
Our students will lightly host the event, playing many of the famous and infamous visitors and owners of the house over the past four centuries. It's a bit of a relief to see a shape emerging for this event, however vague it may be at this stage.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Applied Theatre Centre?

Had a meeting with Trevor to try and consolidate some of our work and also begin to work towards a strategy. It feels wonderful to work here at present, but there are so many projects, initiatives and partnerships that we risk missing the tricks if we don't begin to lay out our objectives and possibilities.

Tfac is obviously a major focus and I'm keen to push on with shaping the way St Mary's students can have a positive impact on the development of the Community Theatre Centre in Lilongwe. We're also looking at delivering other key component parts of the course with outside agencies. I hope The Comedy School will deliver the Prison Drama module for us next year at Level 3 and that the National Trust will develop a module in Drama and Heritage with us during the spring and I'd love to keep the relationship with the Creative Learning department at Richmond Theatre going through the Schools Based Project.

We also want to keep the ever wonderful Spiral close to us and I'm going to take ten or so students out in December to do a short week's work in Cantabria on arguments surrounding the new legislation allowing for the exhumation of the old civil war graves, with Carol and Chris, perhaps as a taster for bigger things in the future. Meanwhile Matt's work on the Robben Island project and Trevor's Cancer Tales continue to develop.

There are local projects too, both Richmond Council and the Kingston International Youth Arts Festival have approached us in recent weeks asking if we'd be interested in developing work for them.

Trevor thinks we need to become an Applied Theatre centre. A place both for consultancy and research. Once all the various strands of our work are tied together we make quite an impressive bundle. Can we turn this into something sustainable, a place where we explore community cohesion through theatre making and perhaps begin to embed the notion of storytelling into local cultural practice?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Mixed Up North.

Back at University and it's been a bit of a Verbatim fest. On Tuesday night we hosted an inset with Richmond Theatre for local secondary school teachers on approaches to the form and tonight I headed off to Wilton's Music Hall to see the latest Max Stafford-Clark, Robin Soans collaboration Mixed Up North, a piece exploring inter faith relationships amongst a youth drama group in Burnley. The conceit is that the audience are a group of liberal minded visitors invited up from London by group community worker Trish, played by Celia Imrie, who've popped in to see the dress rehearsal for a play performed by the group. The process is slow as each character has to negotiate their inhibitions and the often spiky group dynamic, but these lulls in the stage action offer ample opportunity for cups of tea to be made, stories to be told and a sense of community to be created.

The show never happens as the leading man is persuaded by his girlfriend, who thinks 'drama is gay', to walk out. A hastily arranged question and answer session is organised, which allows for some prolonged talking heads. At this point the editing becomes clunky as each character uses their spotlight to tell a story of neglect or abuse, before the return of the leading man and a hastily arranged final run through.

Verbatim as a form is developing, we're beginning to hear new music, but I still think it's at its best when it produces a cacophony of voices merging and inter cutting rather than a series of blanket monologues. It's as much a study of how place, time and other people affect our words as it is a platform from which to voice our own stories.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

...Next Steps.

Saturday 7th November: So what's next? We'll be back in Lilongwe in eighteen months with the third years. It'd be fantastic if MADSOC had been bought for Tfac by then. We spend the morning talking about ways to support and the idea begins to grow that together with Tfac we could work to raise the funds to buy the space and rename it the CTC (Community Theatre Centre.) It would mean that our students would take performance work out to perform there and this would provide the prompt for a week of exploration and workshop. The £80,000 needed to purchase the space seems manageable, particularly if our St Mary's students feel they have a stake in the building. It's hugely important to find the right material to take to Malawi, but if we are, in part, heading out to celebrate the new centre then there's a genuine and immediate focus. It's important to start now. How to organise?

The plane was two hours late leaving and only just missed another huge storm, which seemed about to sweep across the airport as we left the runway and headed north, back towards Ethiopia. I tuned out a bit and watched the in flight movie (500) Days of Summer - which was perfect travel fodder, soft and quirky. Once we'd changed planes at Addis there was nothing to do but sit back and wait for a morning arrival. In and out of sleep, we drifted silently over the neon constellations of towns in Sudan, Egypt, Libya and then out across the Mediterranean and back to Europe in time for breakfast.

ABC Group.

Friday 6th November: Back at MADSOC Jack and I spent the morning working with the ABC group of sex workers from Mchessi in a workshop led by Togo, a Malawian actor, who'd travelled up from Blantyre. I'd met these women eighteen months ago when they were first forming their group. They put together a fantastic forum performance which we took to play outside a local police station. It caused quite stir. Buoyed by that and the continuation of Tfac workshops they've grown from strength to strength and now each woman has their own focus group of further sex workers, some as young as 12 years old - all of whom are exploring through drama the strategies and alternatives to improve their lives. The ripple effect of this empowering work is clear to see.

The drama too is more sophisticated. Ryan is looking to take some of their work to an international AIDS conference in Vienna next July and Togo's work this morning is designed to help the group see some strategies for theatricalising their stories.

Quickly we're turning inanimate objects into life. A bar is set up, Gift plays a bowl of nuts, whilst I join Bettina, Hawa and Mabel as bottles of beer. Soundscapes are created and the objects dance with each other, only to freeze when a man walks into the bar. It's playful, subversive and all the time offers new perspective, new ways of seeing. We laugh shed loads.

At the end of the session condoms are distributed and the women pile into their mini bus back to the township. This afternoon they'll run their workshops. It's all been incredibly inspirational.

Back at the Tfac office in the British Council we have a debrief meeting about the base lines. Jack is sharp and honest, questioning whether the improvisations set up to observe current behaviour are effective.

'Surely we're not seeing how the participants really feel and behave,' he says 'aren't we watching them perform what they think we want to see? I'm not sure the results will be accurate. Role play isn't about personal reaction. It's about perfecting a character.'

The comments take us into debate. One proposal is not to announce the intention of the improvisation, but have a member of the Tfac team lead it. With training the leader could tease out a whole range of attitudes and opinions. There's still no guarantee that participants won't escape into character however, but there's less opportunity to avoid the focus if you play against a trained antagonist.

Claire, who interprets the data, questions the morality keeping back information from the participants prior to their participation, but as we don't reveal the specifics of the questionnaire before it's being answered this new idea seems a direct parallel of effective practice elsewhere on the baseline. The debate will continue on Monday.

The week over we head to a bar in the animal sanctuary and enjoy a couple of Kuche Kuche beers whilst another lightening storm sweeps across the park. It's been a wonderful week.

Rolling with Royce

Thursday 5th November: An early morning suited and booted meeting with Dr Kayira the head of Education at Mzuzu University to see if there is any room for exchange programmes with St Mary's. The taxis heading up the hill away from the market are all 50 Kwache (15p) regardless of distance, but operate like buses, pulling in to let people in and out up to a rather squashed maximum of six or seven.

The campus itself is green and peaceful and although nowhere near as well equipped as our place it felt like a purposeful academic community. St Mary's works best on a vocational level. Subjects like Sports Science, Drama and Education bring in the most students and Mzuzu has a similar feel - albeit Environmental and Agricultural study take priority over creative and recreational industry.

Dr Kayira met me in his study and we talked for about an hour without really getting beyond positive intention. There are possibilities here, but I'm not clear on the outcome beyond the wonderful experience that coming to Malawi brings our students. It's a long way to come without a clearly defined, deliverable project. Still there is time to muse on this and Dr Kayira certainly seemed interested in hosting.

Back in the bus station I realised that I'd missed all the reputable companies shuttles back to Lilongwe. The only choice was to get on one of the owner operator buses. The only one available had a huge spiders web of a crack over most of the windscreen. I asked what time it was due to leave.

'When it's full!' answered the man in front of me boarding with two chickens in a basket.

About an hour later, with standing room only and a double mattress completely blocking the rear windscreen a local priest boarded the bus prayed for our safe delivery back in the capital, shook the driver's hand for luck and crossed himself as we shunted out onto the open road.

The man next to me had an oil pump in a plastic bag on his lap. He quickly introduced himself to me as Royce.

'I own my own bus company!' he announced proudly.

'Great!' I replied ' how many buses?'

'One!!!' he said laughing at my stupid question, 'but things are not so good just now. The pump has gone and I can only get it repaired in Lilongwe, that's why I'm travelling.'

We spent much of the six hour journey talking about everything from the impact of the World Cup in South Africa next summer, to irrigation, to the popular re-election of the progressive Dr Bingo, which seems to have brought added stability and no little hope for future development. Each year new technologies mean that fewer rural families are made vulnerable by seasonal famine.

'It's good you're here,' says Royce,' as we approach the suburbs. 'Malawi is full of business, survival teaches you enterprise, but we need more infrastructure. We have a wonderful lake, but no port. Beautiful scenery, but no tourism. So education is a key, not the only one, but without it nobody will take us seriously. So it's good you're here.'

We said goodbye in at the bus depot by Devil's Street Market. Shaking hands I wished him well and hoped he would find a good mechanic. He smiled and told me he knew England would win the World Cup. Then suddenly a huge thunder clap and the sky opened up for the first time since June. The rains had come.


Wednesday 4th November: Morning back in the TTC to have a brief look at the initial questionnaire responses. The only issue is that the women interviewed are much less forthcoming, even in anonymity, about their sexual practice than the men and many of the more personal questions have been left blank. Tfac has only been three three weeks and we question whether, even with consent forms and confidentiality statements, that's long enough for the trainees to build the trust needed to have confidence in this part of the process. Of course no responses also reveal something of use for a baseline survey, particularly if the questions are answered at endline in a few months, but it's difficult to gauge whether the reticence is a cultural measure or an indicator that, signatures aside, we've not gained genuine consent to conduct the work yet.

Gheneli is also worried that the questionnaire was handed out at 4pm and this didn't give participants enough time to answer everything thoughtfully before the mad rush for dinner in the canteen began at 5.30pm. She decides before reading on to collect another sample of respondents this afternoon.

Unfortunately I need to begin the long journey home and so bid a fond farewell to the future President and her team. The ever joyful Patrick drives me to the bus depot, offers his greetings and best wishes to all my family and friends and helps me negotiate a ticket for the first leg of my journey, the two hundred miles South to Mzuzu.

It's slow progress as we pull into every village and hamlet en route. Children crowd round, bang on he windows and reach up to offer nuclear orange coloured Fanta, bananas, bags of water, corn on the cob and fried chicken pieces to the travellers. At one point a group of monkeys appear by the side of the road and the driver slows up so we can throw them some food and watch them squabble. There's clearly no hurry to arrive.
I snooze, read and watch the glorious scenery as we climb up away from the lake and into the cooler air of the mountains. Five hours later and we dusk drawing in we pull into town.

I find the Flaming Tree guest house - it's a calm haven; a few rooms doted around a communal courtyard. A library of second hand books donated by the backpackers who've previously come through stands in the reception area and the owner serves a seemingly never ending round of tea, toast and sweet homemade mango jam as tired guests relax into the evening. It could almost be late August in Sussex, but for the lizards still and blinking on the bedroom wall.

Starting Points.

Tuesday 3rd November: It's hot in Karonga. No surprise really as we're 400 miles nearer the equator than in Lilongwe and everybody is waiting for the rainy season to come. Still it's a fascinating border town, a little Wild Westy, a transient feeling of people arriving or leaving, of import and export. In the centre of the one roundabout - exits for Malawi South, Tanzania North or Zambia West - sits the chipped fibre glass model of the town's most famous resident: Malawiasaurus, reminding the traveller both of the town's Paleontological past and poential for tourism. It's like a humid Drummnadrocit - but unlike Nessie - the monster here actually existed.

We go early to the teacher training college to meet the Principal and prepare for the baseline tests that Gheneli is here to oversee. As the sun beats remorselessly down on the campus, groups of students drag their chairs from tree to tree looking for some shade in which to conduct the lesson.

Base lining is a key component in measuring the impact of the training that the young teachers are going to go through and is conducted in three distinct parts. Firstly a rigorous questionnaire which measures knowledge about HIV/AIDS and understanding about prevention. Secondly some semi-structured interviews which gives the facilitators the chance to find out a little more about individual attitudes to sex and finally a series of improvised scenes which help to explore some of the participants current behaviour patterns. None of these instruments for data collection is completely fool proof, but collectively the hope is that they give a pretty good indication of knowledge, attitude, understanding and practice of the participants prior to them engaging in the curriculum. At the end of the training the same processes will be repeated and behaviour change measured. It's the kind of quantifiable evidence that helps to attribute measurable value to the project.

Over lunch Patrick and I head for the small Museum which tells the story of the region in an ambitiously entitled exhibition 'From Dinosaurs to Democracy.' The central attraction is of course Malawisaurus himself, twelve foot long and impressive, posed in front of a rough painted tableau of dramtic volcanos.
The northern lake shore is one of the world's richest fossil sites, the rift valley bends here and that has forced ancient bedrock towards the surface making the uncovering of our prehistory possible. Patrick's impressed, but not persuaded - tapping the bones and shaking his head. Next to the skeleton is a small exhibit dedicated to our genus ancestor Homo Rudeolfensis, whose early remains have also been found a few miles south. It seems, we all came from Karonga at one time.

Back in sweltering conditions to the TTC to join in with Dan's workshop and administrate some of the baseline, before ending the evening with Gheneli and Patrick, eating fresh caught chambo and rice by the gently lapping lake, twinkling under the light of a bright full moon.

A Long Journey.

Monday 2nd November: An early start. Tfac have facilitators delivering curriculum in five of Malawi's teacher training colleges and so today we headed out to support some of this work. Jack and Ryan went to check in with Dumisani and Flora in Kasunga - an hour and a half north of Lilongwe and the birthplace of the revered first President Hastings Bandu. I continued on with Gheneli and our driver also called Patrick for the long journey to Karonga almost on the Tanzanian border.

I met Gheneli and Dumisani on my last visit when they had just been recruited to take part in the initial Tfac training and now eighteen months on they both hold key roles within the organisation. Dumi is now in charge of delivering a year's worth of training at Kasunga, supported by Flora, who completed her initial training this spring.

Gheneli is now one of three senior monitoring officers responsible for overseeing the work both in Kasunga and looking after Daniel and Joesph, two more recent graduates, who are in charge of the day to day running in Karonga.

On the journey up Gheneli talked a little about how Tfac had really helped focus her activism, particularly in the field of gender assertiveness.

'I'm really interested in the young women we work with,' she said. 'I grew up in a village close to Karonga and although because my father had a University education and my mother was the daughter of a chief I had some respect, I always grew up believing women had to be submissive. That it was just the nature of things. Too many rural communities believe in superstition and initiation. On market days the boys would come and buy the girls they liked some small domestic thing - pots and pans for example. If you accepted, you were seen as the man's property. If you refused you were seen as not doing your duty, as being difficult and strange. It's difficult to break out of these kind of customs.'

'Are things improving?' I asked 'You have a job, an independent income, and a huge amount of respect within you organisation.'

'In the cities things are improving. We even have some ministers who are women now.'

'So everything is set for you to be the first woman president of Malawi?'

'President Gheneli....I like that. Give me twenty years!'

'Can I still be your driver?' asked Patrick laughing 'I want a nicer car!'

The road between Kasunga and Mzuzu took us past miles of deforested land. The result of a fairly brutal scorched earth policy by the Chinese industrialists, who are investing huge amounts into this part of the South. Whatever the plans to reinvigorate the Malawian economy, maintaining sustainable woodland doesn't seem to figure. It was an upsetting sight.

We stopped for lunch in Mzuzu and then took one of the most beautiful roads in Africa, high through the coffee plantation mountains and over into the rift valley of the great escarpment, where the land falls dramatically away down towards the mighty lake, sparkling cobalt under a powder blue sky. Stunning and breathtaking scenery as we descended slowly down to the shore. Dr Livingstone came this way and found enough glory to re settle his Mission here at the end of the nineteenth century, high enough to see the curvature of the earth.

It was nightfall by the time we arrived in Karonga to be met outside the petrol station by Dan and Joseph. They helped me check in to a beautiful little guest house, complete with a flickering TV that offered a two channel choice between Spanish football or African Big Brother (the Malawian contestant is, I read in a local newspaper, currently binging shame on the country through her brazen behaviour.) Neither channel proved much of a distraction and I was soon fast asleep.


Sunday 1st November: We were up early with the sun and the dawn chorus - which in Lilongwe includes birds, crickets, hyenas and an operatic call to prayer from the city's mosque - and off to the markets with Ryan as guide. We're in the last days of the dry season, the hottest time of the year and by 6am the town is in action.

As Mzungus (whites - or in our case sweaty lobster reds) we immediately stand out and the local traders see us coming a mile off.

'Brace yourselves!' advises Ryan and soon we're swamped by hard wood carvers, painters and artists who've recycled bottle tops, glass and rubber tubes to create their work.

'That was intense!' said Jack as we disengaged after about twenty minutes and head fro the fruit market - huge walls of cabbages, sweet onions, avocados the size of footballs and everywhere the staple food bananas.

We work our way through the semi permanent shacks to the river where enterprising builders have constructed a network of rickety bridges from discarded wood. Ryan asks Jack to pick the one that looks strongest, we pay our 10 Kwache toll (3p) and precariously cross.

On the other side are hardware stalls, shoes and radios we walk through and arrive at MADSOC - The Malawian Amateur Dramatic Society, where Tfac have been basing their workshops for the last year or so.

The building was originally built in 1961 for the Scouts and Guides of Nyasaland, and still retains a slightly colonial feel. It's main use before Tfac arrived was to put on an irregular programme of light entertainment by and for the ex-pat community. The walls of the bar area are replete with photo montages of The Wizard of Oz and various traditional pantomimes from the last forty years.

The white community has slowly changed since Malawi gained independence in 1964 and the English administrators and land owners, who delighted in dressing up and prating around a couple of times a year in remembrance of home, have been replaced by an international army of NGOs. MADSOC feels like a relic left standing long after the sun has set. It is, however, the only theatre in Lilongwe.

Patrick meets us here and completes our tour. A flexible performance area, with two slightly raised stages either end. A bar area, an outdoor workshop space, dressing rooms, technical storage, a green room and land aplenty to develop storytelling spaces or even an outdoor amphitheatre.

The plan is to buy the place - about £80,000 is needed and change it to the CTC (Community Theatre Centre.) Run by and for Tfac as a place to both workshop, but also to programme some of the exciting work that's now being developed alongside the training programmes. It would be a wonderful extension to the work

Sunday, 1 November 2009

South for Winter.

Its reading week so I've grabbed the opportunity to come South to Malawi and consolidate our partnership with Theatre for A Change and begin to thrash out in more detail the way in which this can develop in preparation for the Level 3 visit next year. Tfac generously funded the airfare for one of that cohort to come along on a fact finding week to establish a point of contact between the office in Lilongwe and our students - Jack is here with me.

We set off on Friday and flew South overnight to Addis Ababa - warm and bright, compared with the mellow mist of London, from here we connected to the four hour flight over Mount Kilimanjaro and the equator down to Lilongwe where Patrick and Lyn met and drove us the short distance to old town and the Tfac house. I was here eighteen months ago when Patrick was putting together a core team, training an initial group of facilitators - now the organisation has grown and the make up of the house reflects the development. Eric, the ever graceful Ghanaian facilitator, is still here, but logically now promoted to deputy director. He's been joined in the house itself by the charming and thoghtful Ryan from Iowa, brought on board to explore performance opportunities within the programme.

At the bottom of the garden the small stable block has been renovated and is home to new members of the team, Yorkshire woman Linda and her husband, financial director John. Mira the dog completes the menagerie.

We settled in, set up our mosquito nets and headed off for a welcome dinner in town, accompanied by chorus of frogs. The conversation led by Lyn, focused on ways in which an arts based organisation could attract the kind of development funding that a science or research based initiative might expect. It's simple to measure the effect of a new drug, or to project how investment in establishing a sustainable infrastructure might bring tangible results, but it's harder to measure the effect of interactive education and even if you can do it - and Tfac have been absolutely rigorous in devising ways to produce quantifiable evidence that can equate to a serious reduction in HIV/AIDS infection - it's hard to gain credibility with major funders who are more used to trusting pure data rather than narrative and metaphor.

One of the most impressive aspects of Tfac's work is that it's inherited by the participants. They train in an initial group of twenty or so, but as part of that training these participants recruit their own focus group of twenty or so further participants - and so the methodology and curriculum are rolled out. This year, just three years into the project, it's hoped that 72,000 primary children in Malawi will be taught about sexual health and gender assertiveness through forum based drama activity. It's absolutely central to the ethos that eventually Patrick can withdraw, leaving the organisation run by Malawians for Malawians, free of cultural bias but prepared to evolve and face the inevitable changes that the future will bring.

I wonder whether ultimately it's a question of sensibility. I've always been drawn to theatre because I think it reveals the truth and in this I don't doubt for a moment that it's a subtler indicator of impact than a balance sheet or needs assessment document (which often feel manipulable). How to convince others that it's a perfect tool to highlight need and to propose sustainable solutions?

Eventually the wine, conversation and the balmy evening came to an end and we fell tired but happy into our beds.


Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Open Day and What We're After!

We had a cracking open day today and it's hard to believe that we're now recruiting the third year of the re validated programme. This time next year all students will be on the same degree and we can really begin to assess how well the changes have worked.

Kasia, Ian and me led the talks today and re explaining what we do and why we do it gave me a reminder of how unique St Mary's is. X-factor we ain't!

Against received wisdom we've abandoned the supermarket freedoms of a modular structure and instead offer rigorous core training. It's a bold statement of intent that takes an element of choice away from students, but asserts our confidence as lecturers, who know what should be in the curriculum. By taking responsibility in this way and cutting options we've doubled the contact time between lecturers and students. Most have understood and responded well to the coherence of the new programme.
At the same time we've introduced modules designed to help students to think and learn - so that we're not just factory farming performing puppets, but genuine independent artists who are geared up to go out challenge, refine, liberate, advocate or make a revolutionary impact in the creative industries and beyond. There are a million and one ways to fly...

For us, back on the ground, the ideal situation will come when, as in drama schools, assessment is hidden and all of us are focusing on improving through work. I can see a future where our 300 or so students are operating like a large theatre company, off shooting into year group or pathway projects, but all contributing to a yearly programme of public performances and sharings, evolving from workshops, classes and rehearsal periods. Other needs would arise - for box office, marketing, review writing, education and outreach perhaps even catering and merchandising, but these could be developed expediently to the growth in confidence in ourselves as a creative powerhouse, with continuity assured as each year graduates into more responsible roles before flying the nest to do us proud in the industry itself and being replaced by the next cohort of potential artists, who themselves will evolve and adapt to tell the stories relevent to their generation.

We're getting closer.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A Tale of Two Theatres.

Went with Level 1 on a whistle stop tour of the Royal Opera House this afternoon, made doubly entertaining by the eccentricities of the guide, who seemed petrified that we'd get lost in the rabbit warren of corridors, studios and offices hidden away behind the vast auditorium and stage and rather panicked whenever we seemed to dawdle or want to explore.

I have to admit I'm not drawn to the Opera - to me it has a musty Victorian air, as extreme as an intoxicating potpourri. For all the undoubted technical virtuosity, the vocal dexterity of the great singers and the breast swelling, cleavage raising, passion of the arias, I find it slightly ridiculous.

There were some fascinating moments as we trawled around the building, however. A window into the Fredrick Ashton studio, allowed us to watch a ballerina work through her impressive paces and admire the strength, precision and control of her work. The beautiful ironwork architecture of the old floral hall, raised a level from its original foundations offered a whiff of bright nouveau opulence and the gilded glory of the auditorium, huge and expectant waiting for the evening's performance of Mayerling.

Afterwards I travelled East to catch Cosh Omar's new farce The Great Extension at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. It was great fun and, along with a brave plot, the show seemed to play homage to the style of performance that Joan Littlewood pioneered here back in the fifties. Then, as now, the playing was broad, clear and compared with the psychological realism of their theatre rivals at the Royal Court, unambiguous. In some ways it was the fore runner of the great sitcoms of the late sixties and early seventies. The Rag Trade, George and Mildred, and Steptoe and Son, all featured actors and actresses, who cut their teeth on the stage here. It's hard to find this kind of performance in the mainstream.

If the style harked back, the narrative theme was bang up to date.

Omar, himself plays hero Hassan, a second generation Turk and secular Muslim Sufi, living
with transexual houseboy Sanjay, is trying - in a neat metaphor for EU expansion - to build an extension on his house. Ranged against him are his racist English neighbour Mr Brown, who disputes the land, Dave, a Jewish builder, hiring Polish workers and the orthodox Salafi Khan family, who have turned up to rescue their sister Jamila, from an accidental drunken marriage to Hassan, carried out, under influence, the previous evening. Insults, profanities, jokes and slurs fly about the stage in a glorious attack on the linguistic taboos of political correctness as each cultural stereotype is destroyed in turn. No sacred cows here. Eventually an Uber positive policeman, bearing a cunning resemblance to President Obama enters and delighting in the gathering of the creeds, forces everybody, against their will, to celebrate multi culturalism.

The local audience as culturally diverse as the characters on stage, laughed until they cried and went home delighted. There's an advertising campaign for the Olympics that proudly asserts the world is coming to Stratford in 2012. The truth is they're already here.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Our Own Little Piece of Shit Paradise.

Went to see Stef's show Our Own Little Piece of Shit Paradise in an awesome octagonal hall at the Lillian Bayliss Old School, tucked away on a housing estate just off the Kennington Road. Stef had worked the piece in response to Shooting Rats, a play originally written in Austrian by Peter Turrini in 1967, but brilliantly updated and transposed to contemporary London. The work has been programmed as part of Oval House's Elsewhere season, which seeks to explore some of the disused and hidden spaces in Kennington, Vauxhall and Lambeth.

Both pieces explore ideas of worth, value and reputation and paint rather depressing pictures of young love at the end of the decade. In Shooting Rats Ads takes Evie on a date to the rubbish tip, to shoot the rats that live there. Through a series of flirtatious exchanges and come clean admissions they begin to strip away, literally and metaphorically, the inhibitions, games and possessions they've affected to assertively define them. Their descent together towards a form of innocence offers protection, even in the face of the original expectations that both of them started the evening with. For all the lack of self -belief and the pessimistic sense that the tip is an inevitable destination, it's a tender end.

Stef's piece interlinked five characters in a series of hopes, betrayals and disappointments, with the real weight coming through excellent performances by Monsay, back working with Stef a year on from Yard Gal, and Natasha Sparkes, who seems a real talent. Stef's great skill, as a director, comes in her uncompromising ability to get performances of total physical commitment from her cast. The energy at the heart of the work hints at self destruction and whilst this is, in itself, disturbing, the investment and immediacy of the action makes for an almost electric theatrical experience.

In the pub afterwards Mons told us slightly more positive stories of her experiences at the BBC (She's been filming recently for Holby City and a new drama AWOL, to be broadcast next year.) Although she's unfazed, and certainly unchanged, by her new found success it does sounds as if she's eating producers alive. It's great to see recent graduates making an impact.