Thursday, 31 December 2009
Sunday, 27 December 2009
Monday, 21 December 2009
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.
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.
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!
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.
Thursday, 10 December 2009
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Saturday, 5 December 2009
Friday, 4 December 2009
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.