Sunday, January 29, 2006


One of the student actors asks me how he can reconcile the apparent contradictions that are emerging in the character he's developing for Dis-Orientations. I find myself committing what must amount to heresy in a Stanislavski-based drama school, and telling him he shouldn't even try. One of the many joys of devised work is that the characters only emerge at the end, once we've decided what to do with them in the play. So the artificial pressure to be consistent just isn't there. Character consistency is actually a false way of seeing the world, which maybe has its theoretcial roots in Freud and certainly has its theatrical roots in the System. But the reality is surely that we create our own characters out of the myriad available possibilities, and that we constantly astonish ourselves and others by behaving "out of character", when another of our possible selves emerges.

I'm reminded of this conversation when I go to see Robert Lepage perform The Andersen Project at the Barbican. As with all his solo presentations, this is a deconstruction of his own personality through the presentation of several "characters" (each of whom reflects / shadows the others), and an essay in loneliness. There's no consistency here, although there is psychological insight in buckets. And theatrical transformation - which is always the key to seeing theatre work as the metaphor of our self-creation. Lepage's work has got much more technologically sophisticated (and expensive) since The Dragon's Trilogy and Needles and Opium; but tonight too the moments which really astonish are the simplest of theatrical effects, as when he performs the Andersen story of The Shadow with the help of a bedside lamp and a top hat. The magic is in the simplicity.

Heresy number two. I've been appearing on various panels recently; and I'm getting really fed up with it. Because nobody seems to want to talk about what's actually interesting and exciting in the theatre any more. It's always a discussion of how we can reach out to communities, or involve young people, or facilitate the careers of emerging artists, or find appropriate funding. All this is fine, but they have become ends in themselves, and nobody is asking with what we should reach out - why there's any point in bringing people to this thing called theatre - what it is that we actually want to say. In our blandly commodified, consumerist, exploitative, "New Labour" era, we have to offer theatre which offers genuine depth in the face of the crassness, and which empowers politically and democratically in the face of our dis-franchisement. If we become obsessed with the means and forget the ends, forget even that there are ends, then we should not be having the discussion at all.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Theatre for a Change

The project grows. We've not got video projection facilities in the rehearsal space, and even elements of the lighting, so we can start to experiment properly with the machine of theatre. Usually, you have to guess what will work, and bung it all in at the last minute during the tech. Here, we can treat the design and technical elements as an integral part of the production, rather than an add-on. Bliss.

I spent this evening with Patrick Young, who runs Theatre for a Change in Ghana. It's a Boal-ish, interactive theatre organisation, with a particular interest in work around gender, sexual health and HIV. What they emphatically do not do is "Theatre for Development" (a term which I always suspect means "Theatre to make African people more like us"). Patrick and his young facilitators work to ensure that the questions they ask do not impose the answers, but offer the participative space for the solutions. When the participants play, men can become women and women men, and so gradually they can begin to ask how people might behave differently. I find myself very inspired, and tentatively book Patrick to lead a Laboratory workshop when he's next in England (probably March). Watch this space......

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Constraint and Creativity

So much going on - so little time to blog it. The creative process for this first version of Dis-Orientations is intense, fascinating and chaotic. The student actors are responding with incredible energy: and a depth of knowledge of the human condition that people often lose as they get older. Maybe the young are more honest.

Much of the process is in response to them as personalities and performers - they are the only tools available! Sometimes this is wonderfully liberating, when we discover particular talents or slants on an idea. Sometimes I feel that the real challenge is to find enough for all thirteen people to do - it's a bigger group than I've worked with in this way before, except in outreach work. But this too fires the creativity. Scenes and characters, even whole story-lines, are emerging which I would never have thought of if I hadn't needed to make these roles. And a lot of these are very telling. So often the constraints within which you work are what actually fires the creativity.

Four copies of Suspect arrive from Alphabet City in Toronto: a beautifully-produced, diverse and provocative book about the horrors of the post 9/11 world, with my essay on directing The Handmaid's Tale out there during the US Presidential election in 2004. Nice to see it snuggling in with Ariel Dorfman, Naomi Klein and Slovoj Zizek.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


It's fascinating, complex and difficult work. I can't begin to chronicle it all - and anyway that's not what this blog is for (though there may be other avenues later on). But two things have really hit me.

The first was when Haili worked with the students on Yueju movement. It turned out that they found the male movement much easier than the female, even though most of them are girls. Haili thinks it's because in our modern way of living, we are expected to be "male".

The second was tonight, when two of the students stayed behind to talk to me. They were finding the improvised material very disturbing - mainly because the sexual content seemed very haphazard - as if we were just presenting that aspect of life without any sense of its emotional content. I could have hugged them - well, I did actually. This desire for a spiritual dimension in theatre and in life is so crucial to our work - and so difficult to achieve. But if the longing is there, then we will find something. The question they are asking is itself our subject.

A big break-through today when we find out that some of the students have trained in classical ballet. This form might take on the job which baroque opera did in the first play. We tried a scene in which somebody breaks into dance - and it opens up the possibility of real communication.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New beginnings

The blog's been silent for a while, because life has been mad - buying and selling homes for one thing. And it's likely to continue crazily for a while, not least because we've just started developing Dis-Orientations with final year students at CSSD. This is the most exciting part of the job - but it's also the most difficult to blog, because it keeps me in the rehearsal room full time. Already, in two days, we've had a whole morning of me talking about the company, the background and what the play might be; improvisation games with images; the discovery that the students have never improvised before (!); a visit to the V&A's exhibition Between Past and Future (which is incredibly inspiring - a great video of women re-creating themselves in a Shanghai night-club toilet, shot with a hidden camera); a whole series of short scenes about sexual harassment on tube trains; and Haili's introduction to the Yue form, which involved going right back to the Taoist world view, so as to explain why everything in Yue moves in circles.

This process won't create the final play - but it will certainly facilitate it. What I have to remember is that Haili is the only Chinese voice in the room, and she is not performing - so we need to treat this as a Western view of China, and think of this process as contributing the Western half of the play. Lots of scenes today dealing with tourism and alienation in a different culture..... Also, we've got 13 actors in this process, 11 of whom are women. The days when Border Crossings will be able to afford casts like that are still far away.

They have big casts in tiny theatres sometimes, though. I went to see The Emperor Jones at the Gate the other night. 16 on stage, 65 in the audience. I got to know this play as the piece which inspired Soyinka to write The Strong Breed: and to my mind it works like Soyinka's piece, as a spiritual journey into a cultural and historical space of the mind which the post-colonial subject may feel divorced from, but which is still present in a very real way. The set positions the audience above and around a pit, like lookers-on at an autopsy. It's like the configuration for Grotowski's The Constant Prince; and, like that play, it flays the central character. Jones being played by Paterson Joseph, who I've long regarded as a really great actor, the pain is palpable. People say that Cieslak's body glowed with an inner spiritual light in The Constant Prince: well, Joseph's body steams. It feels like African spirituality's more visceral answer to the transformative power of Grotowski.