Monday, September 29, 2008

Funding panics

I arrived in the office this morning, thinking it would be an easy enough day, starting to work on some funding applications for Origins. Then I start checking out the websites, and discover that the Commonwealth Foundation deadline is, er.... tomorrow.....

You can imagine what the day's been like.....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Funders and Communities

Penny, Roe and I went to the Arts Council last week. A very positive meeting about the Trilogy, with Nick Williams offering his knowledge and advice helpfully. As for Origins, he's passed me on to the Combined Arts department, which is a new venture for me. I'm preparing an "outline" for them, prior to a "surgery". I get the sense of the formality of a new contact, after having been used to friendly informality at the Theatre Department, where we are known.

Penny asks the crucial ongoing question about RFO status. For years, we've been trying to make some headway here - 13 years is a long time to keep going on a wing, a prayer and the odd project grant! ACE has just re-worked its RFO file, with the new clients being largely in the areas of street theatre and community art. I suspect this may be to do with the Olympic 2012 agenda. Nick says that I should make sure I respond to their "Theatre Assessment" - much of which is again community focused.

In many ways, this community agenda sits very well with what we do - cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue being at the heart of our work. What troubles me is how we can make an overt integration of the community-based practice which current policy seems to demand and the professionalism of our work. Sometimes it's really worked - the workshops which led to Orientations, for example - and I suppose we have to continue to build in these sorts of initiatives on a project basis, without making them mere add-ons for the sake of funder PR. Community involvement only works if it's fully integrated into the project.

I'm thinking about this when I meet up with Rosanna Raymond. Rosanna is a Samoan artist, who was on the Origins advisory board last year, and has been very helpful in my contacts with New Zealand. We talk about the Festival as a chance for the diasporic communities of Maori, Polynesians and Native Americans in London (yes, there really are Native Americans in this crucible of a city) to re-connect with their country of origin, welcoming the artists, hosting them, and entering into dialogue with them in the workshops and so on. This is a really integrated approach - and one which also yields tangible benefits to the organisation. We need to take it further!

I also talk to Jatinder Verma from Tara Arts about the Trilogy. They did a trilogy - Journey to the West - a few years back, and I'm curious as to how they managed to sell it to the venues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jatinder says that their community work was key: they sent their own education people ahead of the tour to do education and outreach workshops, and even created short plays which were performed before the main show, like a short film before the main feature. This was called "Stage Share". All worth thinking about!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Films of the Inuit

More time at the National Film Board: the perfect research tool for anybody curating a festival with a film element. I watch more of Alanis’s amazing oeuvre, including her 2006 feature "Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises". It’s an altogether quieter, more gently film than "Kanehstake", with Alanis going back to her own people, to the reservation where she was born, and tracing the ongoing presence of traditional ways in contemporary life. She also raises the very thorny issue of identity politics – the strange ways in which the Indian Act deprives (for example) women of the right to land on the reservation if they marry white men (but not indigenous men if they marry white women….)

There are also a number of very powerful and inspiring films from the Inuit people of Nunavut and Nunavik. One called "Qallunaat" is hilarious. Sub-titled "Why White People are Funny", it subverts the colonial and anthropological stereotypes, with the Inuit setting up an institute to study the strange ways of the white people, or Qallunaat. There’s one particularly disruptive scene in which the white people are issued with numbered tags by which to identify them, because Qallunaat names are very difficult to pronounce or remember. It is, of course, an exact inversion of the categorisation of Inuit people by the white authorities – and all the funnier for that.

There is also a wonderful shorter film called "If the Weather Permits", by a young film-maker called Elisapie Isaac. This is more of a documentary, looking at the rapid decline in the traditional ways, and the split in identity felt by younger Inuit, including Elisapie herself. She talks to one of the Elders, in a sequence which reminds me of "Sunset to Sunrise" (maybe they would screen well together….), and he talks about the Inuit’s dogs being shot by the authorities, so that they could no longer operate as nomadic hunters, and would have to live in settlements. It’s very simple, and incredibly touching. Elisapie is also a singer, and was part of the band Taima (which means “Enough!” in Inuktitut). I meet her for lunch, and she talks animatedly about Inuit culture, about other indigenous artists, about what can be done globally if we can bring the idealists together. And then we get on to the US election, and the extraordinary way in which Sarah Palin has managed to snatch the limelight from Obama. “She’s got no experience of anything – she’s just from Alaska!” says the Inuit artist without a hint of irony!

I got to the theatre on Saturday night. There’s not much on in Montréal in September: if it’s warm enough to walk the streets without a jumper, the Québécois are not going to spend the evening indoors. But the piece I did manage to see, called "Carnet de Voyages", was rather beautiful. It’s produced by a company called Théâtre des Deux Mondes, which has certain similarities to Border Crossings. For one thing, they work in multi-media – there are some wonderful games with video and computer graphics, which remind me of another Québécois director I know – and they also work internationally. I wouldn’t call this piece intercultural – in spite of its citations of Africa, China and Latin America, its viewpoint is entirely Francophone and white – but it is very aware of its position in the global village. Would all Qallunaat shared that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ondinnok and the Theatre of Healing

Lunch with Alanis Obamsawin. She’s a slight woman, with very piercing eyes, and a reputation formidable enough to have won her a retrospective at MOMA in New York last year. She’s been making films for 40 years, and has 35 to her credit. Most of these are documentaries about First Nations people – although she’s almost coyly pleased when I tell her how much I like Sigwan, which on the surface is a children’s film, though its mythic quality carries profound resonance for adults. She’s intending it to be the first in a series. Great to see somebody who has been working so long at the top of her profession trying a completely new direction, and doing it with such freshness.

She tells me that Kanehsatake had its first screenings in London (courtesy of Channel 4, back when it had a reason for existing), and was met with standing ovations, before anybody dared to screen it in Canada. It was finally shown on CBC on the condition that it was followed by a discussion, to overcome accusations of bias. Shades of Lord Hutton. Alanis refused to participate in the discussion – saying the film itself made her point. She’s also adamant that there is no place for “objectivity” and “balance” in documentary film-making: it’s about making a point with passion. Other people can disagree afterwards. What is amazing is that she works out of the National Film Board, which is a government body and yet acts as Producer for all her films, most of which are deeply critical of the government. I tell her that I find that a ringing endorsement of Canadian democracy. She agrees – but tells me such freedoms are very much under threat. We compare notes on censorship and the war on terror.

Alanis is thrilled that we want to show her work in Origins, and would like to come to London for the Festival. So – the programme grows. All we have to do is find the money to back it up….

The rest of the day is spent with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the directors of Ondinnok. This company, the only First Nations theatre group in Québec, is the crux of this trip to Montréal, and I’m not disappointed in them. Ondinnok’s work is mythological and shamanic in its inspiration. They deal with “issues” and the contemporary reality of Native life – but they do it through a return to the spiritual power of the culture. For Yves, he tells me in his halting but eloquent Francophone English, the theatre is “a big work of re-opening the soul of the people and all the wounds they have”.

The company has been going for more than 20 years, and they show me a DVD which commemorates the 20th anniversary. In the centre of this time-frame sits the moment in 1995 when Yves and Catherine were approached by a community in rural Québec, the Atikamekw of Manawan. This approach was the result of the community’s severe social and spiritual malaise: the high levels of alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse which sadly characterise so many contemporary First Nations groups, not only in Canada but across the world. Why the community felt that theatre could be the way out of this downward spiral I do not know – but Yves and Catherine felt they had to do something in response, and they ended up staying for three years. During this crucial period they evolved their Theatre of Healing techniques, which they now apply to their own creative processes. For Ondinnok (which means “a theatrical ritual healing that reveals the secret longings of the soul”), theatre and ritual are linked to divination. They ask who we are, and what is going on. They enable us to re-contact our forebears through cultural practice, and so to link with memory, roots and ancestors. And the results are real – the Atikamekw underwent real change.

During the evening, I get the chance to watch some of this in practice. Ondinnok is just beginning a new piece, which will pre-Columbian in its inspiration. The workshop begins with limbering up, which crosses very naturally into a smudging ritual, as the actors wash themselves in smoke. The lights are dim, and there is shamanic music playing. Yves projects a video of Mayan images, and the participants watch it, as the music throbs, and they dance, adopting some of the physical imagery from the projections. Then, in darkness, Yves places masks at the west end of the room, the sunset space where the ancestors lie. The actors take the masks and respond to them, summoning forces and presences older than themselves. In many ways, the mask work is like my own – what is different is its framing within the specific cultural ritual, which has brought the actors to a place of trance, in which they contact their own, and perhaps also their culture’s subconscious.

Yves and Catherine are hugely excited by the idea of a Theatre of Healing workshop at the centre of Origins. If I can, I would like them to run a five-day workshop in the middle of the Festival, which will be free to the other First Nations performers involved. The encounters could be truly extraordinary.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I popped down to Toronto on the train last night (a mere five hours), and now I’m popping back to Montréal, after really rather a great day in a city I got to know well four years ago, when I was doing The Handmaid’s Tale for Canadian Opera. It was even the same time of year, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by Toronto’s Indian summer. Yvette Nolan, AD of Native Earth, bought me a coffee, and we sat outside at a pavement café in the Distillery district, and talked about Origins.

I’m very keen on Daniel David Moses’ play Almighty Voice and His Wife, which Native Earth are reviving in the spring, and we plot to bring the production to London. Yvette seems confident about money from her end, and we print out and sign an official invitation letter there and then. She tells me the biggest challenge of running even this most established of First Nations companies is casting. As soon as a First Nations actor gets any notice, they are instantly devoured by the TV and film industries. You can hardly blame them – the money’s so much better, and so is the kudos. But you can’t help feeling that it’s only in spaces like Native Earth that these actors can be sure they are representing their nations accurately and with an appropriate political energy – at least in the current cultural climate.

I squeeze in a lunchtime visit to a theatre bookshop to get some more of Moses’ scripts to read, before a relaxing and stimulating afternoon with Wayne Strongman and Tom Diamond from Tapestry Opera. Wayne and I got on well when I was here before – I gave a talk to their conductors and directors lab – and we’ve been in fleeting contact ever since. Today we talk very speculatively about possible projects we could collaborate on. Great to range around like this, and to talk with no specific agenda. It allows us to explore the real reasons why we’re doing the sort of work we are.

And now I’m back on the train. It has wireless – of a sort… It keeps coming and going.

Orchestra meets Inuit

Wednesday dawns beautifully sunny in Montréal, and I make my way to the Chapelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur, where I’ve been invited to what is described as an open rehearsal, and is really the only chance in the comparative mainstream to hear a very important, pioneering piece of work. It’s an initiative by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, seven of whose members are on stage this morning, conducted by none other than their music director Kent Nagano. (He also conducted Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand last night, and will do it again tonight – the stamina of leading conductors never ceases to amaze me!)

What makes today’s pieces so significant is that the composers have combined orchestral sounds with the language of the Inuit people, Inuktitut, and (most strikingly) with two Inuit throat singers, Evie Mark and Taqralik Partridge. It’s Taqralik, with whom I’ve been emailing, who invited me today. Check out her My Space page, and you’ll see she combines her Inuit identity with a very contemporary urban aesthetic – very exciting and inspiring. I’d not heard throat singing live before – it’s extraordinarily visceral, physical and elemental. The singers hold one another by the elbows, staring into each other’s eyes, and alternate their tones, which are sucked rhythmically from very deep in the body. It’s intensely powerful, highly charged, and with the music evoking tundra, it gives an incredible sense of a way of living anchored in a particular and extraordinary relationship to nature.

Tomorrow, this project flies to Nunavik: the area in the north of Québec which, although it’s about the size of France, has a population of only about 10,000. Taqralik explains to me, over smoked salmon and grilled prawns, that they will have to fly between the different communities where they are performing, because there are no roads. The Inuit of Nunavik remain very isolated, and perhaps that is no bad thing. You have to make a very special effort to contact them, as the MSO has done here. Nor is this just a case of “Let’s play music to the Inuit” – Taqralik and Evie make this a full collaboration, and the MSO has worked with the Inuit Cultural Institute Avataq, which is run by Inuit Elders. It’s a very inspiring piece of inter-cultural dialogue; and I feel very privileged to be there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


As a suitable follow-up to the Lepage piece, I'm now in Montreal, researching First Nations work for the Origins Festival - thanks to a grant from the Québec government office in London, and its amazing Cultural Director Colin Hicks.

Montréal is lovely - at least now that it's not raining. Its ambiance combines the café culture and intellectual buzz of Paris with the energy of America. Hard to imagine, I know - but that's what it feels like. I'm painfully aware of how long it is since I've really had to speak French - whenever I ask for something the bi-lingual Québécois reply in perfect (if strangely accented) English, which is simultaneously helpful and embarrassing.

I spent much of rainy Tuesday in the HQ of the National Film Board, which has a wonderful facility for viewing just about every Canadian film ever made at the click of a mouse. For somebody researching the film element of a Festival (like me, say), this is a god-send. I watch a film about an Algonquin elder, which reminds me of Allan Collins' Sunset to Sunrise (screened at the launch last year); Drew Hayden Taylor's film on Native humour; and a whole string of shorter pieces. One of these is Sigwan, a beautifully photographed 13 minute fable by the legendary Abenaki film-maker Alanis Obomsawin. Watching this amazing little parable, which in so short a time manages to brig together theatricality, the environment and ideas of reconciliation, I feel all the sadder that I wasn't able to find a contact for the director before I came: she is somebody I'd really wanted to meet, but none of my "feelers" had paid off. Walk back to the hotel (everything seems to be in walking distance, even though it's a big city), and there, with Jungian synchronicity, is an email from Alanis Obomsawin. She's heard I was here and wanting to meet her, and has emailed her mobile number. I ring it, and we arrange to meet on Friday morning. Given the timetable I'm on before then, I decide to dash back to the NFB, and, to the amazement of the girl at reception, spend a few more hours watching her films. In particular, I take in her famous documentary Kanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance: which deals with the 1990 Mohawk resistance over land rights. It's stunningly done - full of wider resonance beyond the basic issue of the golf course, which started the war-like events it covers. How we relate to land, to colonialism, to history, to nature.... all the big questions, staring at us and demanding to be answered.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Massively Long Production

I’m a bit of a fan of massively long productions. This may be partly because I’ve directed Wagner’s Ring (and they don’t come much longer than that). I remember the sense, with the mantra-like music at the start of The Rhinegold, of an audience moving collectively into a slightly different state of consciousness – a trance-like suspension of everyday life - having abandoned the hectic schedule of contemporary living to invest a substantial amount of time in something other.

It’s not just Wagner. Lots of my most memorable theatrical experiences have been with massively long productions. I remember the marathons of Angels in America (both parts in one day), Le Dernier Caravasérail at Le Théâtre du Soleil, Cloudstreet from Australia, and Robert Lepage’s The Dragon’s Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota. In each case, as a member of a privileged audience, you had a sense of moving beyond the comparatively commonplace experience of watching a play. You felt that this was an event of particular significance: that it was, in some sense, historic.

If I’m honest, then I must confess that this is what I am attempting to achieve with The Orientations Trilogy. It is, of course, an incredibly tall order – and a very “tough sell”. With a Wagner opera or a Lepage epic, the audience comes already expecting greatness, and that expectation does much of the work for you. With a lesser-known company, the marathon element is more likely to put people off than to tempt them. Penny and I are spending much of our time at the moment working on strategies to make the Trilogy work in the UK theatre market. Maybe it should play as three individual productions on Wednesday to Friday, with the marathons restricted to weekends (and the day off on Monday). Maybe this means we can’t actually go into most of the venues we’ve used in the past. On the other hand, with the kudos of the Asian partners and the EU behind us, why shouldn’t we be able to re-position ourselves, and give our audience the sense that they are coming not to “a play” but to “an event”?

All these thoughts were focused for me yesterday, as I arrived at the Barbican at lunchtime, ready to spend nine hours watching Lepage’s latest epic, Lipsynch. There had certainly been no problem getting an audience for this: the theatre was packed, and packed with theatrical luminaries at that. I chatted to Tony Guilfoyle (who was Julian in Dis-Orientations, and has worked with Robert several times), with Nick Williams, our Arts Council officer, with Angie and Louise from the Barbican management…. This felt less like an audience, and more like a congregation. So perhaps it is heresy to say this – but I didn’t think this production had the qualities which made Robert’s earlier epics so powerful and luminous, and which have inspired me to search for something analogous in our own work. There were moments of emotional power, and a great deal of humour – but the bulk of the production remained on the level of the mundane, almost deliberately avoiding the transformations between different layers of reality which characterised the earlier shows. And with that, there came a clumsiness in the actual handling of theatrical space, which is the last thing I would expect from this most technically adroit of directors. There were numerous long set changes, in silence, when the performance seemed deliberately to lose its own momentum, and with it any sense of the magical, the hypnotic, the spiritual.

I remember that the first version of Ota was also very disappointing, and yet emerged as a wonderful production two years later. Perhaps the same will happen with Lipsynch. But the first version of Ota was only three hours long, and the later one was eight…..

Monday, September 01, 2008

The tyranny of schedules

Why does everything depend on dates?

We've been thinking for some time that the development workshop for the third part of the Trilogy would be in late September / early October. Slowly, that slipped away from us. We suggested that it should move to January, when everybody is available. That was fine, except that China shuts down for the last couple of weeks of January because of the spring holiday. It's like trying to work in England at Christmas. So now we're looking at February.... Luckily we can change the start date for EU eligibility - although it means that things like my trip to Sweden are not eligible, and the money has to come from our general pot.

The other side-effect is that this opens up the autumn in a rather distressing way.....

When the workshop was for the autumn, I'd planned to combine it with Roshni's conference at Ningbo. She was keen for me to do a workshop on intercultural Shakespeare. When the workshop fell through, I let her know, then plugged that particular gap with the trip to Canada for Origins which the Quebec government office offered to fund. Only when the flights were booked did I get an email from Roshni saying the British Council would fund me for Ningbo, and provide a fee.

I spend most of my time juggling dates. If only it was all simple.....