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.