Tuesday, 14 April 2015

University Students, Markets and Footballs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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