Friday, July 24, 2009

The Wall in the Sahara

Last night there was a showing of work-in-progress by our old friend and colleague Giles Foreman, who played James in the first run of Double Tongue. Giles now runs Caravanserai Productions, which is an acting studio and production company; and includes Candis Nergaard, who is also a member of the Romany Company, and will be in O Patrin in the autumn. Caravanserai has teamed up with Sandblast to work on the refugee crisis in the Western Sahara - a story which is hardly ever covered in the press and is all the more important for that.

When Spain de-colonised the Western Sahara, Morocco illegally occupied the territory, which is (surprise) very rich in mineral deposits. That was as long ago as 1975. The occupation has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council - but still it goes on. And the Saharawi people, who are denied the right to self-determination, are largely banished behind a huge wall, living in refugee camps in Algeria. Danielle Smith, who runs Sandblast, has been lobbying for them for 18 years: so she has a battle on her hands. She and Giles are trying to raise awareness through performance.

The show is still developing, but has potential to be very powerful. It's based around interviews with Saharawi refugees, but manages to avoid the traps of the "verbatim", and has a theatricality about it. Given that I'd just come from a dramaturgy session with Brian, I was thinking about structures and conflicts - and felt this was where the play needed to grow. The problem with directly political work is that it can be a bit short on moral complexity. If we see and hear a lot about brutality, we will all agree that it's wrong - so where is the drama? Maybe the play should not be "There is a refugee crisis", not even "We're not helping to solve the refugee crisis" but "Why are we not doing anything about this refugee crisis?" That's something we can and should usefully be asking a British audience.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dramaturgy for devised work

As we get closer to the next stage of workshops on the Trilogy, I’m working closely with Brian Woolland on the dramaturgy of the third play (and a bit on the first two as well). It’s a new departure for us to work with a dramaturg – though Mahesh took on this task in Shanghai, and Brian is taking it up now, so we’re making a pretty heavy commitment to the idea. Dramaturgy is the art of mediation between text, rehearsal, theory and cultural / political context. In some cases, it can involve a significant element of writing. With devised work, I’ve often felt that the visual and theatrical aspects can be much stronger than the dramatic, the storytelling, the key conflicts and changes. By bringing in dramaturgical voices, I’m hoping we can redress the balance a bit.

For an experienced playwright, like Brian or Mahesh, the job probably feels quite strange. They are used to working alone, imagining the characters, setting them goals and actions, working out their decisions and the stakes. Here, the characters, and many of the dramatic situations, or at least their theatrical realisations, already exist. The way of beginning this process with Brian was to present him with the DVDs of our improvisations in Shanghai.

On our first day working together, Brian laid down lots of challenges to me about aspects of the work so far which didn’t make sense, which were under-developed, or which simply weren’t dramatically interesting. This led us to pull together a potential new structure. To begin with, Brian wrote this, with lots of new ideas. We batted it backwards and forwards, with me weaving into his storylines for different sets of characters the material from the workshops which I felt to be particularly strong theatrically. Sometimes this led to some very surprising alterations: some scenes which we had made around particular characters turned out to be about different ones.

Today, we’ve been working through it again, asking how the various events in the stories can be about the characters doing things – and how the decisions to do these things can be made more significant to them – raising the stakes and putting obstacles in the way. This has been hugely productive, and has started to make the different storylines intersect far more. Brian has also written one scene (to give two actors a new starting point), and we’ve picked out two more which we think he’ll probably need to write once they’ve been workshopped some more.

It feels like a very exciting way of working. Breeding devised theatre with what writers do best. Nice to feel a distinctive approach emerging for us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

From our submission to the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development

We have been invited to submit our ideas to the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development. Here's an extract from what we sent in:

"In addressing the dialogue between culture and development, it is crucial that the Commonwealth Group should see these arenas as equal partners, rather than regarding one as the medium through which the other can be achieved. All too often, culture for development practice follows the model that culture can be “used” to put across a pre-conceived “message”. More often than not, this “message” is to do with apparently enlightened mainstream / Western values being “better” than those of the indigenous culture. Such practice, while fitting very clearly the specific agendas of many NGOs, for example in relation to AIDS awareness, is neither good culture nor good development. It is essentially propaganda, and perpetuates a neo-colonial mode of thinking, in which so-called “developing” cultures are regarded as inferior. It is not surprising that such practice rarely leads to real change.

The sort of cultural practice which can genuinely lead to change is practice which acknowledges and validates indigenous cultures and cultural forms, and which encourages a genuine dialogue with and within the community. Performances should not be driven by the “message” that there is a pre-ordained answer to a problem, but should rather seek to open up the problem to the community. It may be that a range of viewpoints are offered or encouraged by the performance, and that the audience is given the space to articulate their own ideas in response. Such approaches lead to creative solutions which work far better than those imposed, because they arise from the cultural context.

The model is, of course, inherently democratic. This is in itself important in terms of developmental agendas. Dialogue and creativity are far more potent than propaganda and passivity.

The key issue is to encourage governments, international agencies and NGOs to put sufficient trust in the cultural sector to permit this sort of initiative. It is difficult, in terms of “outcomes” and “targets”, to justify investment in open-ended processes. However, we would cite a number of initiatives which have followed these models, and which have been highly effective in terms of development, empowerment, and democracy.

It is also crucial to ensure that the cultural productions which result from initiatives at community level are able to engage directly with the agencies, especially local and national governments, with the power to effect change. This is an area where the Commonwealth Group’s reports might be particularly useful: there is a need for a paradigm shift which encourages governments to regard culture as central to the development agenda.

In 2007, Border Crossings published Theatre and Slavery, a book which accompanied our production of The Dilemma of a Ghost. This book includes a case study by Shikha Ghildyal on her work with child labourers (near-slaves) in India and Nepal. The work was emphatically about allowing these children a space in which to articulate their own concerns, and giving them a cultural platform from which they could engage with people in authority.

In the same book, there is a dialogue with Rustom Bharucha, in which we discuss many of the issues around culture and development. In particular, he looks at the ways in which cultural actions can be empowering processes for socially and economically marginalised people and communities, and how these might then become platforms for their interaction with civil society and governments.

The methods used by Shikha Ghildyal were taught to her by Michael Etherton, whose work with Save the Children seems to us to be a model of good practice in this area. Michael’s work is also documented in his book African Theatre: Youth (James Currey Press 2006). Sadly, Save the Children no longer uses his approach, and this is because of the language of targets and outcomes which current funding systems require. There is a clear need for a major shift in the way in which developmental agencies view culture if these more integrated, progressive and effective models are to become widespread."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

China Witness

I've just finished reading Xinran's amazing book China Witness. Xinran was very helpful to us during Dis-Orientations, writing pieces for the programme and the website, as well as doing a post-show discussion, and I very much hope we'll be able to involve her in the next stage of the Trilogy too (she's already offered her services if she's around!).

When I met her in September 2006, Xinran had just got back from China, where she had been making the journey and conducting the interviews that eventually became China Witness. It's an incredibly important work of oral history. As much as anything, because so many records were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and so much of the official line is politicised fiction, it is only by direct engagement with older people who lived through the huge changes of China's last century that we have any chance of understanding that history. The work she's undertaken is made all the more urgent by the fact that time and again the interviewees themselves doubt its validity. They keep asking why she wants to talk about the past. Their own children and grandchildren have no interest in history, and certainly don't want to know about their ancestors poverty and struggles. To them, it would seem, all that matters is the immediate gratification of the present economic moment.

Reading these interviews, which are presented in the book almost like dramatic dialogues between Xinran and her subjects, I started to think about the way in which we use testimony in the creation of theatre. There are people who are making plays which are pure testimony - like Talking to Terrorists, for example. In our work, the testimony gets buried in the layering of fiction and intervention - and I tend to prefer this approach in theory as well as in practice. It seems to me that something is not necessarily more telling in the theatre just because a "real person" said it. Art is about refining what "real people" say and do - as Brecht said, "If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors".

Even so, testimony is crucial to our work on the Trilogy. Without the interviews we did through the Naz project, or Pritham's conversations with the hijras, it would have been impossible to construct Orientations and to feel that it had any integrity. My own experiences in China, and Haili, Ruihong and Ieng Un's personal experiences and family histories, fed into Dis-Orientations, just as I'm sure the testimonies of our performers and their contacts will continue to inform the growth of the third play.

When you're dealing with huge traumatic events, testimony becomes very important, but also very problematic. In the Trilogy, we look at the Cultural Revolution, the tsunami and the Szechuan earthquake. In each case, we've drawn off an element of testimony in our research, and yet that testimony is necessarily incomplete, because it is always the testimony of the survivor, and not the victims themselves. Moreover, because it is testimony to trauma, it is not factual - it is a collection of fragments, many of which are deeply emotional responses. But that is how we perceive the world. The demand of the survivor to be heard, to tell their story, becomes a sort of intervention in the historical process, rather than a record of the historical process. That's why it's more theatrical than objectively historical. And perhaps this allows an intimacy and a sort of reckoning with the audience. I hope so.

I certainly felt something of that when I was reading China Witness. Click here for a video of Xinran talking about it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

An open letter to the President of Peru

S.E. Alan Garcia
Presidente de la Republica del Peru
Palacio de Armas
Lima 1

1st July 2009

Dear President Garcia,

I am the director of the Origins Festival of First Nations: a cultural event in London which seeks to validate the marginalised cultures of indigenous peoples around the world. My colleagues and I are deeply disturbed at the recent violence in northern Peru that has resulted in so many deaths.

As I am sure you are aware, the indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon have been protesting peacefully for months at the way their lands have been opened up to oil and gas companies without their consent.

Under both Peruvian and international law, these peoples have the right to the ownership of their traditional lands, and development should not take place there without their consent.

The recent actions of your government have been in clear violation of this right.

I urge you to suspend the activities of oil and gas companies in the Amazon pending peaceful negotiations between your government and the representatives of the indigenous people. These representatives, for example AIDESEP and its leader, are well-respected internationally, and to describe them as 'barbaric', 'ignorant' and 'savages', is counter-productive and will surely simply exacerbate an already inflamed situation. I would also call upon you to set up an independent and impartial enquiry into the tragic events of June 5th.

Yours sincerely

Michael Walling - Artistic Director