Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Pitch Invasion

We performed at Leeds University last night. A really good gig for an African production: this is the department where Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Ngugi wa Thiongo studied. Jane Plastow, the Professor of African Theatre, is there, and so is her predecessor Martin Banham, looking like Father Christmas and smiling benignly over the proceedings. They are celebrating 40 years of the Workshop Theatre with this season of African drama, and Soyinka himself is coming next week to see their work on his Blackout and Beyond sketches. So we're definitely part of something!

Steve and the cast do a workshop with students, while Fiona and I sort out the lighting. The workshop involves teaching the Ghost song. At the end of the show, this has a spectacular effect, when huge numbers of students rush from their seats onto the stage to join the cast in song and dance. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this outside Africa. Prof positive that we've crossed real borders here!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Images and comments from the Plymouth audience

These photos are by Neill Libbert. This first one is Aunty Ama - Adeline Ama Buabeng - as Nana. I'll intersperse them with what the Plymouth audience had to say on their feedback forms.
"Fabulous - very different from anything else I've seen."
"Fantastic performance that provided real food for thought and professional talent."
"Absolutely excellent. Great mixture of drama, comedy and music."
"It was great. As an African married to a Black American, I can relate to it."

"WOW. One minute crying, the next tapping away and smiling."

"I liked the seriousness and maturity of the themes, and wicked music."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Opening in Plymouth

Michael Walling writes:
I'm back! Steve will still be reporting on the show from time to time, I'm sure, as we travel the country over the next few weeks. He's been madly busy for the last few days in Plymouth, facilitating community workshops with the actors for the Respect Festival, and dealing with the streams of notes which pour out of my mouth during technical and dress rehearsals. We did a day of workshops on Thursday, followed by rigging and lighting the show that night. Nick Moran is an old chum, having done Bullie's House as well as various ENO shows with me, so we're able to work quickly with a shared language. It's just as well - on Friday we do the tech in a record four hours, which just about gives us time for a swift lunch and a dress rehearsal before the opening performance.

I love the Barbican Theatre - a converted church in the old part of Plymouth. It has the sense of community focus and radical idealism which fringe theatres ought to have. At 6pm I get paraded in front of the local movers and shakers to talk about the importance of intercultural work, and the significance of this production having its premiere in this city, which is twinned with Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana, and where the first of Britain's slave traders, John Hawkins, had his home and became mayor..... As I finish, I spot Kate Sparshott at the back of the room. An instant flashback to meeting her in Ghana last year, at the Elmina cross-roads itself. A rather wonderful sense of the whole thing coming together floods over me.

And come together it does, in front of a wacky, diverse, and lively full house. There are Ghanaians in traditional clothes, whispering translations of Aunty Ama's Twi to their neighbours. There are apparently staid middle-aged people who end the evening dancing on the stage with the cast. There are older people and quite young children. It all feels great to me.

At the end of the night, I talk to Awusi Michell, the young Ghanaian who has been looking after the cast here. She's been gathering in the audience research questionnaires, and knows how excited the responses are. She tells me that, like many Ghanaians, she studied this play at school, and appeared in it as the ghost of Eulalie's mother. And yet, she says, it's only in this production that she feels she's truly come to understand the play. And she's quite clear that it's because we have used both Ghanaian and Western actors, allowing the play to express and give weight to both cultures. I couldn't ask for a better reaction.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Lights, Camera, Act on

Time for the second full run, the costumes are on and have to be negotiated round the set, we have lights - sort of, and the photographer's in to take press shots. Put this all together and you've got a fairly stressful morning. This run was also the one where the designers and Kate the producer got to watch it before we go to Plymouth.

The problem with having people watching it for the first time is that it never goes as well as it should. And so, fairly inevitably, it didn't. Which was a shame, but it was all the classic things of pace and energy and costume changes, and all the sort of gubbins that give you a tinge of worry.

In the afternoon I got to go through the workshops that we'll be delivering in Plymouth and we've managed to put together something fun - and informative, obviously. And Patrick from Eastenders came in and all the girls said that their mums fancy him, whilst actively fancying him themselves - what a celeb ridden process this is.

And so we're on our way, one morning of rehearsals left and then it's no sleep till Plymouth. Though I will obviously endeavour to keep you, who are by now hanging on my every glib word, informed of our progress.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Notes, notes everywhere...

The first run through is just about the scariest part of the rehearsal process. It's at this point that you get to sit back and see what the audience will see - and cross your fingers that it works. It's also the time when you see most clearly the mistakes and the moments that jar with the rest of the piece - and if you're into that kid of thing, it's pretty interesting.

Thankfully, we're looking pretty good. The first go through, two and a half weeks after the first read though and four days before opening night, and everything seems to be doing well. Michael went back over the opening and tinkered to make the communication of the text clearer, but generally spent the afternoon giving notes, and though that took the rest of the day, virtually all of them were just reminders.

Osei only needed prompting once - I'm so proud.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ama Ata Aidoo video

Here's a link to a video extract of the interview which Michael did with Ama when he was in Ghana last year.
Greetings from a sunny London. It's the end of another week and our last full week of rehearsals, as we travel to Plymouth next Wednesday in time for Friday's opening.

Now, any reasonable human being would be feeling a little nervy about this looming deadline - but in the latter part of the week things really have been going from strength to strength. Since the mid - week dip things have been eerily smooth, Osei's turned into a comic genius, the set and costumes are all looking excellent and I've won three straight games of Oware.

That's not to say that there's not plenty to worry about, 'cos there is. I've still got to write and deliver two workshops on Thursday for the good people of Plymouth, but I'm sure a couple of sleepless nights and I'll be there.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

One of Our Songs is Missing

As I've written before, this play is a musical, with the songs and musical accompaniment provided by the company and the increasingly watchable Osei.

The songs are used for all sorts of reasons: to underscore action and scene changes, as integral plot points, to change tone, to enhance tone - and much more importantly to create a piece of theatre which is genuinely in the Ghanaian tradition, though with a bit of an international edge.

Everyday we go through all the songs as part of the warm up to remind folks of where they are and what they're doing, and it's taken a good week for us to realise that rather than having two separate songs for parts of Act 1 and Act 4 that sound a bit the same, they were actually the same song! It also took 10 minutes of Fiona thinking she was going mad until the penny dropped.

As soon as it had though it took about 5 minutes before there was a perfectly polished song, ready to go - oh to be so talented.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Happy/ Sad

Hello hello, for all those hungry for the Wednesday edition of the blog, I'm afraid I held off on purpose so that I could write about Thursday at the same time. That's because Wednesday was quite unique in the process in as much as it ended rather badly.

As I wrote the other day this part of the rehearsal process can be both the most painful and the most joyful, and Wednesday was pretty painful. Having only been been physically through the play once everybody started to suffer from collective blocking amnesia, not only that but in many cases all the good work that had been done previously was completely forgotten as we got into act 4. As a result it was all rather frustrating and we finished early and non too happy.

Come Thursday, however it was almost back to normal, and though it did take a while to warm peoples memory's up, after a while we were flying through again.

In fact we did so well that we got to the end of the play in the middle of the afternoon. What that did enable us to do was go back through tricky parts of the play. One of these tricky parts is Osei. His confidence is such a major factor that when he's feeling self conscious he is completely unrecognisable as a performer to when he is in full flow. He's also become something of a project of mine as I try to find a way to get him relaxed and confident. And with a week to opening night - It'll be fine...


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Our Poor Broken Building

The Africa Centre is remarkable. It's a 19th century auction house buried away in Covent Garden,where, apparently, slaves were sold. Which has fascinating resonances for what we're doing.

The problem is that a major refurbishment has just begun, which will no doubt make it look beautiful, but just now is quite a headache - literally. Now I know the roof needs to be fixed, no - one likes a leaking roof, but because of the shape of the auction house, we spent the morning feeling like we were rehearsing in a chiming bell.

In all fairness the builders are jolly nice and genial, it's just the hammers that make a lot of noise. Still, as this is the worst part of the rehearsal process we must be doing OK. The detailed work continues and is throwing up all sorts of interesting challenges and choices, don't want to say to much obviously, but it's looking pretty good.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday Monday ta ta ti ti

Hello to a new week.

We started this morning with a rip roarer of a warm up remembered from the snatches of bits from my work with Jamestown kids - so lots of early morning silliness ensued, and then we were off.

This is both the most difficult and potentially most joyful part of a rehearsal process; everything's been gone through once, it's up on it's feet and now it's time to start again. This is the point when we can see most clearly what the piece is going to be, whilst still having time to make major changes or just tinker. The work is detailed and enthralling.

Aunty A gave a bit of a star turn today when Michael told her that she could speak directly to the audience, and she suddenly transformed a stilted speech into a moment of flowing comedy brilliance. I was also rather fond of the moment when the chorus sang a passage as an exercise and found the rhythm and inflection of the piece.

Also I won two towns back from Aunty Ama, though I'm pretty sure she let me, I then lost one again but tomorrow's another day.


The Continuing Genius of Agnes

This lil blog is entirely dedicated to the genuine genius of Agnes Dapaah. If you are one of the several trillion greedily following every moment of this rehearsal process then you will know that Agnes can dance and that her dancing is a great digestion aid.

However, it turns out that she is much more than African rhythms' version of Gaviscon. Oh yes.
She is also an incredible performer. She's quite understated and generally funny and amenable and dry, but when she gets on stage she is magnetic. Not in a sycophantic - I'm working on the production and so have got to say that - kind of way, but genuinely. She's got a channel to her emotional core that bi-passes the need for psychology, or seemingly, even effort. She is also possessed of such incredible stage craft that she simply sets the bar for her profession higher.
She's ace.

On a slightly different note, I'm now involved in a game of Ultimate Oware with Aunty Ama, and she's thrashing me, but I haven't completely lost yet.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Sweet Soul Music

This play, it turns out, though it is a serious and seminal piece of Ghanaian literary theatre, is at heart a musical. Who'd have thought.

The folk tradition in Ghana is still so strong that songs, their harmonies, relevance and downright loveliness are producible on a rehearsal room whim. It obviously helps having some of the finest musical talent of the country knocking about too. It's my hope soon to be able to get some of the music recorded and put up on this blog and really go multimedia. There are now half a dozen beautiful songs in the piece and they've all come about through Michael asking for a song about food or marriage - gorgeous.

In other news we're absolutely storming along, having nearly got to the end of walking through the play - though as this is such a short rehearsal process, the more goes through the performers can get before opening night in Plymouth the more relaxed we will all be. Also Osei has again come on leaps and bounds again, after a bit of home tuition from the Ghanaian ladies and I'll not be surprised if Hollywood soon comes a calling.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ode to Oware

Oware is almost definitely the greatest single game ever invented. For the uninitiated it goes a bit like this: on a board of twelve holes you have six and your opponent has six, these are your territories. Each hole starts with four pebbles in it and the aim of the game is to get four pebbles back in the holes, in order to gain your opponents territory - pretty straight forward. I, sadly, have been on the wrong end of so many Ghanaian thrashings that I could have become embittered. However, I saw the beauty of the game, haggled a seller down from two pounds to seventy pence and invested in my own set, and am now pitting my wits against hardened Ghanaian players. And though I'm not winning, I am at least taking longer to lose.

This may seem a rather erroneous blog, however we discovered a new and beautiful use for this great game today, and that was to enable Osai to perform like he's never performed before. Osei, as he keeps reminding us, has never acted before. He's an incredible musician, but is rather nervous of making his stage debut. Today though during an intimate scene between him and his stage nephew, the Oware came out and it was like he'd been training for years. The naturalness he found as soon as he was engaged in a familiar activity was astounding, not least because his timing was all of a sudden fantastic, bringing weight and humour to the scene which hadn't been there before.

And it's all thanks to Oware, all in all 70p well spent.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

To Act or Not to Act

Sorry, bit of a pretentious title but I had to draw you in somehow.

When chomping down on fufu a couple of months ago Dzifa told me about the Abibigromma tradition, in which she and the National Theatre of Ghana Players, also known as Abibigromma, are trained. It all goes back to the times of village performances, when in the evenings people would gather round to tell and hear a story. At these events folks, having eaten a large evening meal, would start to doze off, so in order to keep them awake, the storytellers would introduce a song, which everyone would know and everyone would sing. Then dancing and musical accompaniment, until simple story telling being performance, with skilled versatile performers. I'm not sure she'd completely agree that the whole of the Ghanaian theatre tradition came about in order to stop well sated people from nodding off, but it's a good story.

Anyway, the point is that performers are trained in Ghana to be versatile and to perform. The difference between performing and acting is subtle but huge, and the effect on the audience can be the difference between being spoken to and overhearing someone else's conversation. In the UK actors are trained to act, to go through the six steps, and the Method and naval gaze their way through character development and performance - don't get me wrong I enjoy a good naval gaze as much as the next person, but there's a time and a place.

Great Children's theatre actors and Ghanaians perform and West End performers act - and I know which I prefer. So there.


Up and About

Today's the day it got on it's feet, and how lovely it was.

After the previous days of intricate text work, going through deciphering meaning and voice, this morning the performers seemed to shake off the memory of sitting still and found a fresh, vibrant energy in the space.

That is of course after we'd all turned up late - apart from Fiona the stage manager who is punctuation personified. A little bit of rain and it seems that London doesn't quite know what to do with itself. In Accra when it rains everybody becomes the sole of generosity, offering you shelter and lifts, in London everyone gets in their car and makes sure that they don't share their dryness with anyone - a cultural insight if ever there was one.

Anyway, once we were all there and the performers were up and about the action seemed to speed along. A really good thing is that we are able to rehearse in the space that we will be performing in for the majority of our time in London, so the performers are really able to get used to the space and respond to the atmosphere of the place. And the physical layout of course. Being an old auction house it's quite spacious and lends itself to being played with the audience on three sides and a large performance space in the middle. This will be slightly different when we tour, but here it creates a real intimacy with the audience and interestingly allows the performers more freedom because they do not have to be so conscious of being seen all the time, because as long as they don't stand with their noses up against the back wall, someone will always see their face.

I think my favourite part of the day was when we started looking at the action that will proceed the prologue, and seeing how hilarious the performers were without any words, particularly Auntie Ama - naturally.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Chasing the Monday Blues Away

Hello again dear reader, and we begin a new week as we ended the last - with a song.

I think a Sunday in grey London town might have got to the Ghanaians, who are obviously used to friendlier weather, and who led us all in a Northern Region dance in order to shake off all thoughts of the chill autumn days ahead.

We picked up the text from the start of Act 4 and worked our way through. It's such a full text it's incredible, and rather annoying, that Ama Ata Aidoo penned it as a 22 year old university student. There's a real emotional truth behind the text and the greater political intentions of the piece, it's no wonder it was an instant hit in Ghana. The only really surprising thing is that this is its first showing in the UK. Still, after forty two years it's incredibly fresh, and we are finding resonances everyday that makes the showing of it in 21st century Britain make perfect sense, from the clash of cultures, to miscommunication to the breakdown and forming of relationships.

Also, any days work that ends with banging drums and singing songs is alright by me.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Kids are Alright

Day three and we're on a roll. We begin by holding rehearsals in a corridor - a surprisingly excellent way to start a productive day. After the builders turn up with the keys to the rehearsal room we find ourselves back in the chill of the space proper, requisite tea in hand and the read through in full flow.

We are still working our way through the text and after the lesson in exsquisite Ghanaian performance yesterday it was the turn of our younger cast to step up. The themes of the play are becoming more pertenent day by day as the difference of style and background between the Ghanaian performers and the UK trained cast members becomes evident. The real achievement of the casting is that this mix compliments the play so well - the real difference between Eulalie and Ato and his Ghanaian family and their values is acknowledged by the real cultural divide in the cast, but the playing of the piece is enhanced by the way the younger performers are holding their own, diving in and taking risks.

The songs are also starting to really work as Michael is able to ask for a lament, or somthing up beat and two minutes later a perfectly honed and harmonised piece of music fills the room.

So, rehearsals are going well - so well in fact that when Agnes and Aunty Ama were given the afternoon off they were back in the room an hour later, singing along with everyone else - apparently all that London has to offer pales in comparison to a bit of a Ghanaian boogie.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Back to School

Day two and my head is full. This project is an education and a half.

After yesterdays initial read through we began this morning by starting again. Slower. By the end of the day we'd got to the end of Act I, but it was incredible.

The text is full, naturally, of references to Ghanaian customs and culture and it really showed why Michael had worked so hard to get Ghanaian performers in the cast to play the older characters. The depth of understanding that they bring into the room, from discussions of matrilinear societies and the implications of a man marrying outside the tribe, to why the extended family invest so heavily in bright children, to the songs and jokes and spirit that they bring to the process, has added an astonishing amount of depth to the text already - and that's just Act I.

The best moment of the day prize is a close contest between the guy that got the heaters working and Aunty Ama, who delivered her big speech with such vigour and style and experience that it garnered a day 2 round of applause. I think Ama may have just pipped it!


The actors have their visas, the rehearsal room coffee is fairtrade and the roof leaks - it's pretty much ideal.

By way of a tiny intro to this blog, it will be my pleasure and, well, job to take you, the indifaticable reader, through the highs, the lows, the smiles and the miles of Dilemma of a Ghost.

Considering the effort and energy that's gone into to making it to this point, what with airmiles, embassies and several kilo of fufu consumed, it's rather incredible that eleven people found themselves sat in a circle at ten in the morning observing that greatest of first day traditions - having a nice cup of tea.

And by lunch the Ghanaian's were dancing. It gives me great pleasure to be able to officially state that there is nothing better for the digestion than watching Agnes Dapaah dancing as High Life music pours from the magical fingers of Osei Korankye.

We even had a read through! And already the incredible talent in the room is obvious, it's very humbling to see people performing in a second language, particulaly when they do it better than most people do in their first. Aunty Ama is particulaly enigmatic - but then she did begin performing in Concert Parties in 1965 - so she's had plenty of practice.

One of the great things about this process is the challenges that have been taken on. From language barriers, to cultural differences to the sheer logistcal odyssey that has gotten us to the first day - and I hope that there are many more like it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Rehearsal hand-over

We started rehearsals this morning. Already a fascinating and extraordinary day. And nothing like I expected!
We've always said that this blog was not personal but a blog of the company and its work, but we've not really put that into practice before. Now we will - for the rehearsals, the blog will be written by my assistant, Steve Collins. Enjoy what he has to say about the process!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

They got the Visas

24 hours of hell. I phoned Moses at the British Council in Ghana. Moses went up the mountain and brought down the tablets. Elsie phoned the British High Commissioner. HE took a personal interest. I also phoned our MP, who is an immigration Minister, and was told that nothing could be done......

So - at 3.30 Dzifa finally called from Ghana to say Visas were in passports. Phew. They fly at 11.40 tonight. At last.

But the point remains.... that in the 21st century we are still dependent on people like Elsie and myself being able to phone personal contacts, and that is sadly evidence of an unjust system. Part of the point of this project is meant to be that in the year when we celebrate 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade and 50 years of Ghana's independence, we can now relate to West Africa in a different way. But this visa incident suggests that there is still a major problem of status for African people.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Nightmare in Accra

I am not paranoid. There IS a conspiracy. Or so I conclude when Dzifa phones this lunchtime to say the Visa requests have not been granted, and the High Commission is asking for further information about accommodation, finance etc. Further information?? When they fly TOMORROW?? And the applications were put in on the 13th of last month?? WITH VALID WORK PERMITS FOR WHICH WE'D ALREADY SHOWN ALL THE FINANCIAL AND ACCOMMODATION INFO???/

I try not to die, and phone the British Council in Ghana. They will phone the High Comm. I will fax through everything I have. Hopefully we can save this..... I can't believe this is happening the day before the flights are booked.

All other problems, including one or two about contracts which would normally make me lose sleep, become as minor irritants in the face of this colossal bureaucratic obstacle.

I try to think back to Saturday night, when I was at the QEH, with Peter Sellars and Tony Guilfoyle, watching Lemi Ponifasio's extraordinary Requiem. So many things drew me to this show - Peter having commissioned it, the fact that it's First Nations work from New Zealand, the LIFT involvement, the idea.... but nothing had prepared me for its truly staggering beauty. It is less a piece of theatre than a liturgy. An act of remembrance and contemplation, and a meditation on our futures. It's everything I talked about at the ORIGINS launch - theatre which brings the deep values of First Nations peoples emphatically and powerfully into the present century.

A very powerful contrast with the chaos of contemporary bureaucratic hell.