Monday, May 28, 2007

Tessa Jowell - and the Dreaming

Now here's a clever way into the ears of the mighty. Roisin Rae, who played Linda in Orientations for its second outing, and who runs a company called Crescent Theatre, also lives in Tessa Jowell's constituency. Which means she can get an MP's surgery with her. I, of course, am a mentor and advisor to Crescent - so on Friday morning I found myself sitting opposite the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Roisin had written in, expressing concern about the recent cut to the GFA fund, so Tessa already knew why we were there. "I can quite see why you're so concerned about this...." she began, "... but I have to tell you it's been blown up out of all proportion". And then we got the usual party line about how much the arts budget had increased under Labour (it had to!), how this cut was really very small and how what really mattered was the Comprehensive Spending Review in October, and how somebody known as "Gordon" had given a "categorical undertaking" that no further Lottery funds would be re-directed towards the Olympics.

There seems to be a pretty serious conflict between the Arts Council and the DCMS / Secretary of State. I asked why it was that the cut had only hit the smaller-scale, experimental companies - those of us who are project-funded. Because that was where the Arts Council spent its Lottery funds. And whose decision was it that this sector should be Lottery-funded, while funding for national institutions and rep companies came from the taxpayer? The Arts Council. Not DCMS. Not Tessa Jowell. And, in any case - "The level of fuss is disproportionate." Not where we're sitting. Why do we sense a cultural shift in the Arts Council over the last couple of months, from an organisation wanting to say "Yes" to one looking for excuses to say "No"? That, she says, is "ridiculous". She seems to feel that the Arts Council was looking for a fight - and now has found one. But, if all this spin is true, then why would the Arts Council want the fight at all? "Look", says the Secretary of State: "if your project is something they want to fund, they will fund it." So - I suppose that means the Arts Council has been funding an extra 35% of projects they didn't want to fund. Just for the sheer hell of it.

I'm not sure what to make of all this. The language of the whole conversation felt so alien to what culture is really about - we could have been talking about any publicly funded sector of the economy. Transport, health, culture.... these things are not the same as one another, and they cannot all be treated the same. We need to find new ways of assessing value, which are not just about money, but which allow the nation to make sense of investing its money.

After this, plus a week of endless admin, it's a relief to go into the Laboratory at the weekend. Sam Cook from Yirra Yaakin does a workshop called Enter the Dreaming. In many ways, it's about clearing the creative space inside us, and shutting out the chaos which gets in the way of the dream. A journey away from modern living, which shows us what indigenous cultures can really offer by way of an alternative. Sam's technique is actually very simple: it's a bit like certain sorts of voice training, or yoga. By breathing, and concentrating on the breath in the abdomen, she puts us in touch with our Liyan – pronounced Lee-anne. For Aboriginal people the centre of our personal world is in our stomach. Certainly this works for us in practical terms: through this meditational process, everybody in the room starts to make contact with their creativity, and often in ways which they're not used to. I did a painting..... And of course, on the most basic level, Sam is expressing a very simple and profound truth: that our dreams do not happen in our heads, but in our bodies. So when we shut out the rational, we have a much more direct route to our personal Dreaming - to the place beyond the rational.

If only Tessa Jowell would come into our Laboratory, lie down on the floor and breath a bit. This is my public offer of a complimentary place on any workshop you choose, Tessa. And feel free to bring Gordon.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Africa looming large

Lots of African events in the last few days. We've been talking to the Africa Centre, where we did Toufann, as a possible central London venue for Dilemma. Graeme Jennings, who is running it on a temporary basis as it recovers from deficits, is rebuilt etc, invites me to its Arts and Culture Advisory Panel meeting, and I end up as part of the panel. There are some fascinating other people on it: Tessa from Africa Beyond, Netsayi Chigwendere, Zina Sar-Wiwa, and Adrian Berry, who programmed some of our work into the Bull at Barnet years ago. Adrian has done a draft programme for how the venue might function once it's re-built: in the meantime, we're talking about performing in its decaying shell. I like this idea for this play - it's a piece which demands the roughness and immediacy of traditional African performance, and where the sense of a decaying history, of ghosts, will be very helpful indeed.

Last night Kate Stafford and I drove up to Birmingham to see the Drum, where Dilemma will perform in Birmingham, and to attend the launch of UK Arts' Africa Consortium. It's a great idea - and displays the huge interest which the UK has in African work now. I find myself wondering what's at the root of this: post-colonial guilt, or a real sense that a continent which lives more closely with nature and at a saner pace might be able to teach us something? John Kani, who is the Consortium's Patron, suggests the latter in his speech. "When you come to Africa, come with an empty suitcase.... we are teachers as well".

The launch coincides with the press night of his play Nothing but the Truth at the Rep. In the programme, Zakes Mda (who knows a thing or two about this) says that the play is a milestone in South African theatre, and that it shows that Kani really is a fine writer - overturning the myth that it was really Fugard who wrote The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead. I'm quite sure that John Kani and Winston Ntshona fed a hige amount into those plays - they were genuine devised collaborations, like lots of what we do - but that doesn't make them great playwrights on their own, and to my mind this play showed it. I couldn't see how the family tiff was supposed to connect to the politics. I found the Ibsenite naturalism, unearthing past secrets, creaky and obvious. And so Western - box set and all. Kani is a wonderful actor and a great ambassador for African theatre, but this play shows him receiving Western models wholesale and then sending them back, long out of fashion and looking a bit bedraggled. I suppose it may be part of a malaise that I've been told has gripped many South African theatre-makers in the years since apartheid ended: the sense that there is no focus any more. One thing which did feel very resonant in the play was the way Kani's own character felt washed up and abandoined in the new South Africa - still, in his early 60s, unable to rise to the post of Chief Librarian. As if the generation that did all the suffering and all the campaigning has just been left behind.

It makes it poignant to compare this with the revival of Sizwe Banzi at the Barbican, with Peter Brook's company. Two young African actors perform this with virtuoso brilliance - particularly Habib Dembele in the John Kani role. The opening monologue (which is well known as Kani's own work - based on his experiences at Ford and developed through the stand-up like experience of performing the play in the townships) feels very alive, very current and incredibly funny. Because it is so concrete - because the politics and the human experience are the same thing - this play continues to resonate right now.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Favela education

The Barbican sent me an invitation to a seminar called "Can Culture be Our Weapon?". The title is surprisingly literal - this session was about cultural work with young people in the inner cities (notably Hackney), responding to gun crime and knife crime. There was a Commander from the Met on the panel, Jeremy Weller from Grassmarket project, and the remarkable Camila Batmanghelidjh, who runs something called Kids Company, which combines art and therapy for young people. She comes up with some fascinating ideas - for example that "brain research" (does she mean neurology or psychoanalytical theory?) is showing that violence is often the result of poor attachment or of trauma. Art / performance, she argues, allows the processing of unresolved emotional material, and so is therapeutic and a force against violence. If this is true then science proves Aristotle and catharsis theory....

I email Paul, my favourite neurologist. Here's what he says: "Attachment theory is a psychological theory (after Bowlby) and is about social relationships. Neuroscience is really at its limits with social relationships. The first journals in this area came out only last year. I was at Westminster today addressing (with Susan Greenfield no less) some all party group about neuromyths - and how Hilary Clinton helped start the myth that brain research tells us how people are going to turn out. This is baloney. Biology is not destiny."

So - catharsis is still theory.

The impetus for the seminar, however, is very real - a group called Afro-Reggae from Brazil, who grew up in response to the 1993 police-led massacre in the favela Vigario Geral, and have done an enormous amount to empower youth through music and performance, to turn people against the drug war, and to suggest a different way of living. It's almost evangelical - you "join" Afro-Reggae - but that is what it needs. Now, in the person of their distinctly street-cred lead percussionist and insightful thinker Altair Martins, they are in London, starting a project with Hackney youth, which the Barbican is backing for five years, no less. "The longest we've ever backed any project" Louise Jeffreys tells me. "God - they were some I backed for three and regretted it." This one is called Favela to the World, and I suspect she won't regret one second of it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Answer to Phelim

Dear Phelim

You've written me a very interesting and helpful comment - I appreciate it. Your tone indicates that you know I'm coming at this from the position of somebody who shares the idealism behind what you have been (so bravely) attempting in Satyagraha. I grapple with the sort of challenges which are present in this work all the time: as much as anything because of the nature of Border Crossings as an intercultural company, and the fact that I sit in the comparatively privileged position of a white director who manages to make a living out of this. I chose to write as I did in the blog after thinking very hard about the production for some days - because I was genuinely discomforted and I wanted to discover why. This may be as much a discomfort about aspects of my own work, which I need to question constantly, as it is about yours. As I said in my last post, so much of your production reminded me of things I've done myself. Given that I was already pre-disposed towards the idea of the opera, I thought I would come out with feelings different from the ones I in fact experienced. Now, that is probably a good thing - what's theatre for if it doesn't disrupt an audience's expectations? - but it also requires some careful probing.

I realised that the gesture of the projected Chorus was an echo of the Satyagraha oath - but it does have the same feeling as a gesture of blessing, and in the context of the scene, where Gandhi and King are both being constructed as sacrificial figures, it seemed to me to have the effect of softening that sacrifice, and making it easier for the audience to deal with. I suspect this is partly because of the medium of projection, and the choice of white, which gave them the aura of a film-like heavenly chorus (and we do easily read Glass as filmic music) - which I can quite see was not what you intended. What you say about the relationship with Arjuna in the Gita suggests that you read sacrifice in a much more powerful and disturbing way. If we are to meditate on the assassinations of Gandhi and King - these iconic figures who perform the rare feat of bridging the gaping void between the spiritual and the political - then it is essential that we root this in a physical form which allows us to locate them politically - in the real world which requires social and economic, rather than merely ideological alteration. This is something which theatre is very well equipped to do, and music theatre (by virtue of the spiritual strength of the human voice, produced with such physical effort), supremely so. Gandhi's spirituality, like all Hinduism, is rooted in the physical and the elemental: that is what defines him, and makes the paradoxical concept of "maya" so powerful at the heart of his philosophy. Much of your production emphatically did this - but for me it pulled back into an easier, more Western numinosity in certain key moments. I felt a lot of the time that the physicality of the production was deliberately distanced from the singers, and that as a result we saw a Western spirit-body duality, and not the holistic ideas of Indian religion. Singer as spirit, actor as body - in the Indian theatre these specialisms do not exist.... So maybe it's the form, yes.

Your closing comments are acute, and I think they strike at the heart of my response. I used to love the Coliseum, in all its broken-down shabby functionality. I loved the fact that it embodied the destruction of empire within its decaying shell. I loved the sense of the secular cathedral with fraying seats. And now - it disturbs me. It feels imperial, fascistic and triumphalist. It glows like a Hygena kitchen. It has no theatrical roughness. Now - we live in an age of dislocation, and sometimes the placing of contemporary work in a relic of past theatrical glory can be incredibly telling. But for me, the dislocation on this particular night was beyond this, and was compounded by the fact that virtually everybody on the stage was white (you're right), and that I was sitting with a friend from Tagore's University in Bengal who had never been to an opera before.....

This is strange territory - because I had just come back from reviving Nixon in China in Athens, and I did the same piece in the Coliseum last year. Minimalist music again - white people playing Asians, modern political icons on stage, multi-layered realities, a sense of Asian spirituality...... So I really am talking about my own work as much as yours, and I do thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that. Your production has opened my mind and set me thinking. And I can absolutely see why it was the hottest ticket in town.

Thank you for engaging in the dialogue.

warmest regards

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Some successes, some setbacks, Satyagraha

I plough on with arranging the tour for Dilemma. Lots of positive noises on the financial front, though nothing totally solid as yet. I'm hoping to get some hard cash behind it soon, so that we can wave it at the Arts Council and avoid the problem of the last application! Although the application is in, the discussions with venues are ongoing, and not always easy. One venue emails to say there have been internal confusions, and the key person didn't actually know our show had been booked - which is a nice way of saying it isn't booked any more. On the phone - trying to plug a gap in the tour.

We announce the next set of Laboratory workshops, with Sam Cook, Hone Kouka and Miria George, and Denise and Michael from A Fleur de Peau. The response is very encouraging - lots of bookings straight away. What's really nice about this programme is the way in which the first two workshops should lay some foundations for the Origins Festival. I've carried on touting this around the Embassies these last few days - meeting Cultural representatives at New Zealand House (the best view of London I've ever seen is from its penthouse) and Canada House. There's the usual litany of "We have no money", but at least these people are good at pointing us towards those who do. The Australia Council emails this morning with the offer of funds to take me to the Festival of the Dreaming next month. The perfect place to talent scout indigenous artists.

I went last week to see Satyagraha at ENO. A strange night for me. I really ought to have liked it, and I expected to. There was so much in it which felt very like my own work. Minimalist music - Philip Glass isn't John Adams, but his way of setting voices really reminds me of Paul Howard-Jones's scores for several of our productions, especially since Paul loves to work with made-up language, and this was in Sanskrit (which isn't made-up, but sounds it). A corrugated iron wall with flying panels - just like our Mauritian Macbeth. Projections of proverbial texts, and projection used to frame figures in little rooms - like the Magic Flute I did with Will Hargreaves and Mark Doubleday in Stowe years ago. And above all the sense that this was a piece which was taking the audience into a meditational space: that holy quality in the theatre which we strive for in our productions.

So - why did I find myself disliking this production? After a week, I'm beginning to feel it was because it was all too easy. The text comes from the Gita, and the opening is clearly intended to suggest a parallel between Gandhi and Arjuna - but that correspondence is not justified or pursued within the piece. The Gita works because Arjuna is in crisis, and his crisis is over (wait for it) the fact that he is going to use violence. Whereas Gandhi's campaigns are about non-violence. And there is no sense in the piece that he, or anybody else, is in any sort of crisis about anything. Be good, don't fight, peace, love.... Until at the end the Chorus is projected on a cloud raising hands in blessing. Yes really - a heavenly chorus. It's too easy - too sure of itself - too smug. And, as a piece about de-colonisation sitting in the newly renovated triumphalist auditorium of that Edwardian theatre, it really cannot afford to be smug. Sorry.