Monday, December 19, 2016

Speaking in Stockholm

Stockholm is a very beautiful city: even in December, when it's dark almost all the time.  I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference there by Chris Torch of Intercult.  Once again, Rosanna Lewis and I were presenting the Voices of Culture report on the role of the arts in the refugee crisis.  It's starting to feel a bit like a Farewell Tour of European Capitals in the run-up to Brexit...

Anyway - here's a brief extract from what I had to say - which I suppose is also a bit of a Christmas 2016 message.

"It’s December.  I am so happy that this appalling, terrifying year is coming to an end - let’s just have a new one, shall we?  Not that 2017 is exactly looking full of promise……   January will see the unthinkable happen, when a President endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan enters the White House.  In March, Article 50 will, it seems, be triggered - with the agenda of what Teresa May has called “a red, white and blue Brexit”  - whatever that’s supposed to mean….     And everyone who might physically have some tiny chance of getting out of Aleppo will carry on trying to get out of the bloodbath that is Aleppo.  The flow of refugees is not going to be stemmed.

And what is the West doing?  It’s putting up walls.  Some of these walls are absolutely literal - the UK government built a huge wall in Calais as yet another barrier to the movement of refugees.  Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall right along the US-Mexico border and get the Mexicans to pay for it…  (hello..)…  And some of them are more metaphorical - like the deal the EU did with the Turkish autocrat to prevent Syrian refugees crossing into Europe.  Or the Swedish government’s sudden decision last January to impose border controls on the bridge from Denmark. This continent defined itself, declared itself in a moment of hope in Berlin in 1989, when a wall came down.  And today - we see the exact opposite.  It’s a very strange time to be running a theatre company called Border Crossings - just as it’s probably a very strange time to be running an organisation in Sweden called Intercult - and it’s a very strange time to be working with communities of refugees.

And yet it is in these refugees themselves that our most precious resource is to be found - and that is something called Hope.  Hope, which in turn leads to creativity and transformation.   Hope is that treasured vision in the deepest part of the human soul that people locate and draw off in the darkest of times, in the most pitiful of conditions.  Hope is what enables a human being to commit their body to a massively overcrowded, makeshift craft adrift on an open sea - that will take them to an alien land where they know they will not be made welcome.  And hope - for us - for artists and cultural workers - hope is the choice we make deliberately to follow the most difficult path in our own lives because of something that we believe in.  Justice."

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Weesageechak Begins to Dance

RELaps by Aria Evans
I've been in Toronto this week - thanks to the British Council here - for Native Earth's annual new writing festival, called after the Cree Trickster Weesageechak.  Being a trickster festival, "new writing" turns out not only to mean rehearsed readings, but new dance pieces presented as work in progress, and even extracts from a musical and an opera.

This is the 29th edition of the annual festival - from a company that will be 35 years old next year.  It dates back to the landmark moment in indigenous theatre, when Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters exploded onto the stage and offered a contemporary voice for First Nations cultures in North America.  Since Tomson, there have been a number of Artistic Directors - when we brought the company to the first Origins Festival back in 2009, it was led by the wonderful Yvette Nolan.  Today, the AD is a dynamic young Plains Cree man from Edmonton, Ryan Cunningham.  I first met him in Brisbane back in March, and we've had a lot to talk about....  Ryan has curated a festival that deliberately ranges very wide - not only in the forms showcased but also in the content.  For one thing, he's managed to bring over some Indigenous Australian artists from Mooghalin: Billy McPherson's play Cuz was read by First Nations actors from Canada, suggesting all sorts of parallels - and differences.  But more striking for me was the number of pieces - often the most striking pieces in dramatic or theatrical terms - that were made by First Nations artists but which resisted easy categorisation as 'First Nations work'.

The work of First Nations artists is often reduced to mere representation - as if they existed merely to report on the state of their peoples to an otherwise unknowing world.  Of course, that is never their own agenda: although there is inevitably a certain preoccupation with important questions about the meaning of indigenous cultures and identities in a world that largely shuns their traditional values and continues to marginalise their communities.  At its most sophisticated, for example in Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife (the Native Earth piece at Origins 2009), theatre becomes a space to deconstruct the process whereby identities have been written onto native peoples, and a process to articulate an historically informed response through the live body in the current moment.

In this year's Weesageechak, there was certainly an element of this - but I found myself most drawn to pieces in which the First Nations identity of the artists was (at least apparently) coincidental.  The young choreographer Aria Evans presented two pieces - a solo called link and a two-person piece called RElaps.  The latter was particularly strong - looking at emotional violence in intimate relationships.  Even more surprisingly, perhaps, the last night of the festival was a reading of a new script by a very well-known Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser - whose Métis identity has not hitherto been exactly proclaimed.  Brad's play, called Ménage à Trois, deals with the unraveling lives of three friends over a period of several decades - there's a particular emphasis on shifting gender and sexual identities from the 70s to the present, and on parent-child relationships.  The dramaturgy is deliberately fragmented, so that a scene from 2016 can be juxtaposed with one from the 70s.  The three main characters are each played at various points by three actors of different ages - a scheme made all the more complex by the fact that one character changes gender..... 

It's not remotely confusing, though.  In fact, it feels very like the mental and emotional processes through which human beings tend to think about their personal stories.  A moment from the distant past suddenly acquires new meaning in relation to the current moment.  It's like Eliot's Four Quartets in its sense of all time being eternally present.  Or even J.B. Priestley - when I talked to Brad after the reading, he acknowledged the influence of An Inspector Calls and  Time and the Conways.  If it's possible to imagine J.B Priestley crossed with Angels in America - that's sort of what this play is...   Except that I think it's an indigenous play as well.

At no point is any character mentioned to be First Nations.  Very possibly none of them are - although in last night's reading, every actor was a First Nations person, and that was very resonant.  For one thing, the gender change is something that would not surprise more traditional Cree people - as Tomson Highway has pointed out, the Cree language has no genders, and fluid gender identities characterise Cree Trickster figures like Nanabush.  At one point in the play a female character, Kit, is given the latest thing as a gift in the 70s - a digital watch.  She comments that this is a new way to look at time - that it doesn't go in circles any more, but in a number line.  The play seems deliberately to resist this, following the circular, indigenous, natural sense of time as a circular movement - time as something repeated and re-visited constantly, rather than time as a constant journey forward towards some "goal" or other.  At the end of the play, a child conceived in the 70s is reflected in one born in the present - and there is a sense that one is the spiritual sister of the other.  That attitude to time, history and spiritual connection - nestling within a play that seems on the surface to be very urban, postmodern and ironic - is surely about bringing indigenous ideas and spirituality into the contemporary space where First Nations people live today. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

A letter from ASHTAR Theatre

Iman Aoun of ASHTAR Theatre in When Nobody Returns
The text below is an open letter from our friends and collaborators at ASHTAR Theatre in Palestine.  Iman Aoun (Artistic Director) and Bayan Shbib have been working with us for the last two months on PLAYS OF LOVE AND WAR: and the company as a whole has been engaged with this project since 2014, most importantly hosting the rehearsals and opening performances of THIS FLESH IS MINE at their Ramallah base.  This is an incredibly important theatre company - one of the most important in the world - and now they really need our support.  

Colleagues and Friends of ASHTAR Theatre
Friends and Supporters of Palestine throughout the World

Ever since its establishment as the first drama teaching institution in 1991, ASHTAR Theatre with both branches in the West Bank and Gaza, gave scores of artistic theatrical presentations that earned a number of local, regional and global prizes. It helped bring Palestine’s message to the whole world in a civilized, humane and refined artistic means. Starting in 2010 ASHTAR Theatre launched an artistic global program designed to bring the voice of Gaza’s children to world forums with a view to lift the siege laid to it entitled the “Gaza Monologues”. We were honored by the participation of a number of theatre companies around the world to this program that ASHTAR Theatre launched in the city of Ramallah and Gaza to tour the world, passing through the United Nations.

In addition, ASHTAR Theatre graduated hundreds of students who gained social and artistic stature. They established new theater companies in the country. ASHTAR Theatre was also active in the introduction of drama in governmental and private as well as UNRWA schools starting in 2002. At the onset of 2012 ASHTAR Theatre administers a long term national programme in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education and other bodies with a view to provide training to “drama teachers” in Palestinian elementary schools.

For the last four years, ASHTAR Theatre has been facing dire financial difficulties that bar it from carrying on with its artistic and national journey, unless it obtains material support to offset this financial predicament.

We, at ASHTAR Theatre, administrators, artists, students and graduates contact you, the friends of ASHTAR and of Palestine, beseeching your support to enable keeping our Theatre doors open for the service of our children, our youth and our audiences spread throughout the entire Palestinian Territories. Any financial support geared towards us helps that purpose. Our campaign, today, aims at securing US$ 150,000, the amount of an accumulated deficit represented by the rental of the Theatre premises for the last three years and the operational costs of the institution in both branches, in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Should this amount be secured, it will greatly assist ASHTAR to continue in its existence and proceed with its operations in embarking on new programmes and doubling its presence as an important drama forum in Palestine.

We sincerely appreciate any efforts and contributions made to save this institution from eclipsing and help it maintain alive its message for Palestine.

For those who wish to assist ASHTAR Theatre, please contact us at the following e-mail address to provide you with the means of contribution.

Best regards to you.
ASHTAR Team and Students

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Theatre under the Motorway

When Nobody Returns - Iman Aoun and David Broughton-Davies

When we first presented This Flesh is Mine, back in 2014, we used all three spaces in ASHTAR Theatre's lovely Ramallah space, and a fabulous London venue called Testbed 1.   We always knew that Testbed would be a one-off: the bulldozers moved in back in January, and it's doubtless well on the way to becoming a set of desirable dwellings.  So we've been resourceful again - and found a space under the Westway, just along from the bar where Elliot Tupac painted his extraordinary mural during Origins 2015.

The bay under the motorway is large.  You can see the concrete slabs that are the foundation of the road above your head.  Our set, which uses two raked stages facing one another, looks as if the road has fallen in and smashed in the space.  Cladding is ripped and incomplete.  Everywhere there is a sense of wreckage and of provisionality.  The perfect space, in other words, for a pair of productions about war and occupation.  Palestine too is a space with far too much wreckage, and a space where everything is provisional and nothing stable or secure.

The great bonus of a found space like this is that it allows us to play to the epic qualities of Brian Woolland's Plays of Love and War at the same time as being very intimate with the audience.  There are some scenes that take place at height and distance - there are others which happen within touching distance of an audience that is never more than four rows deep.  This is fantastic for the thematic concerns of the plays, which move constantly between the personal and the political, as they explore the impact of war and violence on the lives of fragile individuals caught up in the power of global forces.

When Nobody Returns - Bayan Shbib and Andrew French
As well as being large, the space is also unforgiving in terms of sound.  The Westway itself doesn't make much noise - amazingly - but the area around sometimes does, and the concrete space doesn't resonate at all for voices.  So we have had to develop a sound design solution, and actually this too has become a contributor to meaning.  The actors have been brilliantly miked by Hannu Kuosmanen, and Dave Carey has created an almost continuous soundscape into which their treated voices are injected.  Often you don't even realise there is artificial sound - but there is enough to counteract the motorway and to generate an ambience that supports the voices.  Hannu's mixing of the quadrophonic speakers allows the vocal sound to seem to be coming directly from the actors' mouths, even when they are very close to you.

The space is full of challenges of course - but challenges are often what lead to brilliant creativity and to exciting solutions. The audience and the reviewers have certainly loved this space.  In fact - I find it very hard to imagine how the plays could be done in a conventional theatre....

More info and booking links here!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Palestinian approaches to plays

When Nobody Returns - Iman Aoun as Penelope
In a talk we did on Saturday, between the two Plays of Love and War, Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud suggested that Palestinian theatre-makers have a very distinct approach to dramaturgy and playwriting.  The reason there are no famous Palestinian playwrights, he said, was not that there are no good writers, but that they work collaboratively with actors and directors.  Perhaps, we speculated, this has something to do with the huge importance of building community in Palestine.  And perhaps it also relates to the resistance to authority that comes with that community's oppression.

On one level, this collaborative approach to dramaturgy is very close to what we have been evolving at Border Crossings for some time - we balance devised work with authored plays, and we deliberately work with writers like Brian Woolland who have a collaborative approach to authorship and are open to changes, sometimes very radical changes, as a result of the rehearsal process.  Brian has already written about the evolution of the plays on the dedicated blog.

Working on these plays has been even more complex than we're used to rehearsals being - and I found Ahmed's comments very helpful in understanding what we've been engaged with.  For a Palestinian company like Ashtar, there is a huge political meaning in every action that we present on stage.  It is not enough that something is dramatically potent or psychologically truthful - there is always the sense that the audience will read something in relation to their position under occupation and the way they respond to that.  So, when a character emerges from warfare covered in blood, that could be read as suggesting he is a maniac - a smaller amount of blood suggests he is engaged in violence at a level where he can retain some rationality.  It's very complicated and nuanced.

Time and again in rehearsals we have found ourselves asking "What are we actually trying to say?"  In many situations, I would regard the question as invalid - if we could say what we wanted to say, we wouldn't need the play, with its ambiguities and contradictions, through which to say it.  But, in this case, it was very often exactly the right question, because it allowed us to weigh our actions and decisions in relation to the wider political context.  What will the audience - this UK audience in London - feel about the Middle East and our own role there at the end of these performances?

Tomorrow is press night.  After that, we may know the answer.

You can book by clicking here!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Rehearsing Plays of Love and War

This Flesh is Mine - Gerrard McArthur and Iman Aoun
After more than two years, we are back in the extraordinary mythic world of Brian Woolland's Homeric plays.  This Flesh is Mine, which we co-produced with Palestine's ASHTAR Theatre in 2014, was one of the finest pieces we have ever done - acclaimed by the press and by its audiences in both Ramallah and London.  Now we're bringing it back, together with a fantastic new companion piece called When Nobody Returns.   It's an Odyssey to go with the Iliad of This Flesh is Mine.

If anything, the new play is even more complex, unstable, politically engaged and emotionally charged than This Flesh is Mine.  It's benefitted from the company - including Brian - being able to spend time in the West Bank when we rehearsed the first piece there, and from the opportunity to develop the script in dialogue with other theatre-makers from the Middle East, as well as the military families we encountered at Salisbury Playhouse last year.  Brian's written very eloquently about the writing process on the dedicated blog.  

I never used to like The Odyssey.  It seemed to me a fairytale, rather silly after the great themes of The Iliad.  It was nice to be proved wrong.  As Brian worked on the script, it became more and more clear that the famous bits of the epic are actually the bits about spin - stories at one remove from the real story.  At the heart of Homer's poem is a hero's long-delayed return to free a land that is under occupation.  It is this aspect of the Odyssey - so resonant with the Palestinian situation - that has inspired When Nobody Returns.

We've been incredibly lucky to get almost all the original cast back - and they will be performing in both plays, on the same set.  Andrew French, who was so compelling and passionate as Achilles, will also play Odysseus in the new play.  Iman Aoun, the Artistic Director of ASHTAR, returns as Hecuba, and plays Odysseus' wife Penelope - weaving her tapestry as she awaits his return, in what Iman has called an act of cultural resistance.  Gerrard McArthur is Priam and Antinous, the leader of the suitors for Penelope's hand;while David Broughton-Davies plays two brothers - Agamemnon in the first play and Menelaus in the second.  Tariq Jordan, who was so exciting as Hector and Patroclus in This Flesh is Mine, has the key role of Telemakhos - the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who has never known his father, and is now the age Odysseus was when he set sail for Troy.  

The one new cast member is another actress from ASHTAR.  Bayan Shbib has been seen in London before - she played the Queen when ASHTAR brought Richard II  to the Globe to Globe Festival.  She also has an extraordinary personal history: born in Syria, she now lives in Austria, where she has been working in theatre for refugees.  And, of course, this is another theme that resonates powerfully through the new play: after the war, there are displaced people on the seas.  

It's going to be an exciting few weeks.  We open October 21st. And here's a booking link!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Brussels speech

A speech given by Michael Walling to the EU's OMC group on the role of Culture in the Refugee Crisis: 14th September 2016.  

Good morning everybody – my name is Michael Walling and my friend and colleague here is Rosanna Lewis. We are very grateful to you for this opportunity to present the report on behalf of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue Group on the Role of Culture in Promoting Inclusion in the Context of Migration.

We are particularly grateful to the Structured Dialogue group for taking the shocking decision to choose as their representatives today two citizens of the United Kingdom. Not only is ours the only member state that is not taking part in this OMC group – it is also the only member state whose population has voted to withdraw from the entire European project – albeit by a very small margin in a non-binding advisory referendum that has yet to be debated, never mind endorsed, by our sovereign Parliament, the bulk of whose members in both houses are much opposed to its result. Just saying….

If the UK’s political class was largely in favour of remaining in the EU, the cultural sector was overwhelming so – and across the country, people working in the arts were devastated, disoriented, bereaved by the referendum result. In the cultural sector, the European project is deeply admired and loved – loved because of its idealism. Because it is fundamentally about an openness to the Other. Because it generates new channels of communication and intercultural dialogues, building empathy, understanding, a sense of common humanity – and peace.

These are also the great virtues of the arts and culture themselves. These are the reasons why the European project is at its heart a cultural project, and why culture has to be at the centre of all the EU does. And they are also the reasons why culture is so fundamental to the great challenge currently faced by the continent around migration and refugees.

This year, renegade Britain has been commemorating the fourth centenary of the death of William Shakespeare – whose theatre, even now in the 21st century, remains the model for truly inclusive, transformative and politically impactful cultural practice. Shakespeare’s theatre was called The Globe – it was not called The Island – and it was emphatically about creating an open space in which people from a huge range of backgrounds could come together and encounter people who were different from themselves. He puts into public space the elderly, the mentally ill, gay people, transgender people, the homeless, the displaced, Africans, Muslims, Jews. And in every case, he invites us to see beyond the simplistic label and into the common humanity that we share:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

If Britain really wants to celebrate Shakespeare, then it needs to celebrate the European, the humanitarian, the dangerous border crosser. If we reject Europe, we reject culture. If we reject culture, we reject humanity. And if we reject humanity, then we will reject the refugees.

Both Rosanna and myself have been working on projects that run counter to this deeply disturbing trend. Rosanna works with the British Council, and has been one of the driving forces behind “Queens of Syria” – a theatre project that brought a group of Syrian refugee women to the UK, where they were able to tell their own, very personal stories of displacement and loss. And on Monday, I will be starting rehearsals for a pair of new plays jointly produced by my company Border Crossings and Palestine’s ASHTAR Theatre – plays that feature alongside professional performers from the UK and the Occupied Territories a Community Chorus of refugees. The plays, called “Ilium and Ithaka: Plays of Love and War”, are based on the founding myths of European culture – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. So the first play is about what it feels like to be caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence – and the second play is about what happens in the wake of war: post-traumatic stress, families rent apart, displaced people on the sea. At the very source of European culture, Homer speaks to the refugee experience of the current moment:

“If any god has marked me out again
for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured
at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.”

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Structured Dialogue group does not consist entirely of Europhile Fifth Columnists fleeing Brexit Britain, but is in fact very diverse, covering a range of sectors and member states. It’s particularly important that the group includes two people who are themselves from refugee backgrounds. One of these is a musician from the Southern Sudan: the other is a museum worker who now lives in Slovenia, where she fled with her family during the wars in former Yugoslavia. The testimonies of refugees from European conflicts – quite recent ones – are a very important resource in dealing with the current crisis. We need to listen to them when they tell us “The moment it all went wrong was when people started saying ‘Let’s segregate all the Muslims’.” If we allow the new citizens of our continent to be “Othered” in this way again – and it is already starting to happen, more than starting – then we could be looking at another Bosnia. The great symbol of the Balkans conflict is the destruction of the beautiful 400 year-old bridge at Mostar: a bridge of no real strategic importance but of great symbolic, cultural value – because it was built by Muslims, and because it was a bridge – a means of connection across a chasm. Fear and hatred destroy bridges: our role as artists and as cultural policy-makers is to build and re-build them.

When the Structured Dialogue group – 33 people from across the continent, very few of whom had even met before - came to Brussels in June, we had only two days to address these incredibly complex and important issues, through what was in many ways an Open Space approach. Those of us who led particular discussion groups within that process have, slightly by default, ended up as the final authors of this report – but we have endeavoured to make it genuinely reflective of the many distinct voices in the room. Before the meeting, we had already been sent, and had given our individual written answers to, three framing questions from the Commission:

• Which recent initiatives best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What were the key success factors and have these been
• What are the best ways to organise cultural activities to do this on arrival and after six months?
• What are the strongest arguments that can be made for the use of culture in this way?

While the three Parts of our report do not exactly follow this structure, you can see it underlying the main themes that have emerged. The first Part, dealing with the reasons why culture is such a crucial element in the creation of inclusive societies that embrace migration, is very rooted in specific evidence of projects known to the group from across Europe and indeed beyond. The third Part is about the crucial question of evaluation and how we can measure or assess the impact that cultural initiatives have in developing open and inclusive social and political spaces.

However, we did not entirely follow the structure that had been suggested, in that we felt it concentrated almost entirely on cultural work directly with refugees and migrants, rather than work about relating them to their new host societies. Our report does not in any way deny the value of direct cultural interventions – indeed, it is full of examples of projects that have enabled refugees and migrants to acquire language skills and cultural understanding, to recover from trauma or to develop their employability. But we were also mindful that such an instrumental cultural offer, presented on its own, could be understood by refugees and migrants as a simplistic programme of cultural education, even of indoctrination, positing an inflexible and monolithic European culture to which they, as new arrivals, are obliged to conform. It could be thought to place all the responsibility for learning and adaptation on the migrants themselves.

Cultural rights are human rights, and if people feel that their culture is somehow being rejected - that they are being asked to adopt a completely different way of being – they are likely to resent that. Research has shown that it is a sense of cultural rejection that fuels radicalisation: conversely, people who feel that they are accepted in a community for who they are - are not going to blow it up. And so we also emphasise the importance of cultural and artistic initiatives to introduce the migrants and refugees, their cultures, their stories and their sheer humanity, to the existing European public.

Building bridges. Narrating voyages. Embracing Globes.

Work of this kind is not just about generating the conditions in which new citizens can be accepted and included in European societies. It is also about enriching those societies. Throughout our history, cultural Renaissances have happened when existing cultural traditions come together, and people see all the exciting things that other people do – their imagery, their music, their dances, their poetry, their food. And so Part 2 of our report looks at the potential for art and culture to catalyse positive social change in the context of migration; to affect real transformations in peoples’ minds, hearts and lives; and even to create new policy.

In fact, I would say that only culture can do this – because culture is the only space where we can meet our new neighbours on an equal footing. Because politically – there is no equality. And economically – there is no equality. And socially, perhaps educationally, certainly in terms of health and wellbeing – there is no equality. But in the sacred space of art and culture – there everyone has a voice. So it is in the cultural space that we must begin.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Flute Theatre's Tempest
A couple of weeks ago, I'd arranged to go and hear my friend Jay Griffiths talk about Shakespeare and Manic Depression.  The day before, we had no fewer than three large funding applications turned down.  Had we got them all, the company would have been in very good shape for the next three years.  As it is - we are, as ever, looking for the next penny.  Usually I'm fairly sanguine about such things - we all know that the arts aren't at the top of many agendas these days, and that the few enlightened places with money to give are under siege from hopeful applicants.  But three in one day felt a bit personal.

I hadn't seen Jay for some time - certainly not since her new book came out.  Tristimania is subtitled A Diary of Manic Depression.  It's a tough read, though ultimately a very empowering one - especially tough if you know the author.  She is blindingly honest about a deeply traumatic year.  I knew that when I next saw her, I would have some sharing to do.  And, that night, I just didn't feel up to it.  I bottled out of an event about depression - because I was depressed.  Oh the irony.

Of course, what depressed me wasn't really to do with me.  It was to do with a wider social and political climate.  To begin with, I had wondered if Jay's book was going to subscribe to the view that depression is located in the depressed person - it is certainly very personal, and she does speak about a genetic predisposition (which I would not dispute as a factor).  But, as she's shown in her earlier books, Jay is a very perceptive critic of contemporary global cultures - and Tristimania is ultimately an indictment of a society that wastes its creative people in this way. "Illness" she writes "is the only category which our culture allows us in this age of literalism, of numbering and of unwonder."

Think about that when you next see somebody who is "mentally ill".  Think about it when somebody is depressed.  Think about it when you next meet an autistic person.

I went to a performance of The Tempest for autistic children, presented by Flute Theatre, under the direction of the extraordinary Kelly Hunter.  If the world is a disabling space for the creative spirit, then this was an enabling space for people perceived to be without creativity.  By generating an atmosphere of inclusive openness, based on the common heartbeat that runs through the text, this production opened the complex territories of language and expression to the excluded.  It invited them to share in moments that were ripe with meaning precisely because of who was sharing them.  Near the beginning, there was an assertion of their right to be present in social space - "This island's mine!"  The learning of language became a beautiful dialogue of balletic hand movement.   Social adjustment and personal space were questioned through the way Caliban's interaction with Miranda was perceived.  And so on. It was not only a joy to behold the children being freed into movement, language and liveliness - it also revealed new depths in the Shakespearean text - depths both of meaning and of music.

At the end, as aspects of Ariel, each child in turn held the hands of Prospero and was spun then released in the performing circle.  "Be free", he said.  "Be free".

Monday, August 01, 2016

Sellars on Brexit

Peter Sellars
In the wake of Brexit, the most important agenda that looms before the United Kingdom is to crawl back into its snail shell as quickly and completely as possible.  Links with the outside world are unnecessary and risk diluting the purity of British culture.  I am alarmed to note that for some inexplicable reason, Border Crossings continues to function as an organization with a mission to build bridges across cultures, theatrical traditions and contemporary problems.  They seem to be pursuing this mission with a single-minded devotion, developing work that is artistically sophisticated and potentially high-impact.  I am greatly distressed at the deluded ideals of these sorry people.  With a small shake of the head I can only wish them well on their hopeless quest.

— Peter Sellars

Monday, July 18, 2016

Needles and Opium

Needles and Opium - Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis
Back in 1992, as a young director just starting to make work that veered away from the standard British approach to text and performance, I saw Robert Lepage's Needles and Opium during its very brief, 16 performance run at the Cottesloe Theatre.  That night was a game changer.  I'd already been interested in the use of projection and the way imagery and music could generate new layers of meaning beyond mere realism - in fact I was just about to direct my first opera...  but what Robert achieved in Needles and Opium was so much more than an aesthetic shift or a display of technical wizardry.  This was the first production I had seen that used the full vocabulary of theatre to generate profound meaning that could not be achieved in any other way.  It made me understand how the British critical tradition, in which everything is a code for something you can explain in words, totally misses the great joy of performance, which is its lived immediacy - its ability to reach our spiritual heart through the combination of image, movement, tone, word and rhythm.  I searched out other work by this extraordinary artist - I saw The Dragon's Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota live; I watched Tectonic Plates on video - many times; I showed the documentary Who is this nobody from Québec to several years' worth of students at Rose Bruford.

Not that I was alone in this.  If you look at world theatre from the mid-90s onwards, it won't take long  to find the influence of Lepage.  Think of how Complicite moved away from their clowning roots.  Think of Ariane Mnouchkine's embrace of projection in Le Dernier Caravansérail.

So - when I heard that, 25 years after its creation, Needles and Opium was coming back, I was actually rather nervous; and this grew worse when I heard that this was a new staging of the play, one that brought it more "up to date" in the use of technology.  I will confess that, in some of Lepage's recent work, I've found the technology a bit overwhelming.   It's as if the game-playing that is possible with the machine of theatre and all the new developments in the digital world has at times eclipsed the simple desire to tell a story.  Medium becoming message.  I dreaded that the emotional purity of the play's three intertwining storylines might be swamped by technological showmanship.  So I decided not to see it.  And then lots of friends whom I totally trust, including Tony Guilfoyle (an actor who works regularly with both Border Crossings and Lepage) told me I had to.  And I did.

It's clear from his programme note that Robert shared an element of my trepidation.  And that's exactly why the new production is such an extraordinary success: because it reinvents the play for 2016 (and in work of this kind play and production are the same thing).  It makes next to no attempt to recreate what was so beautiful before, because what was beautiful in a live setting in 1992 is mere nostalgia today.  Instead it searches for the beating heart of the piece, and transplants it into a healthy new body.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bits of the new version that are least successful are those that come closest to the original that I (still) recall with such passion.  In the original, a key element was an overhead projector, located behind a single lycra screen, which was used for amazingly creative shadow play.  In one astonishing moment, Robert, silhouetted as Miles Davis, was injected by a vast syringe - the liquid spilling around him.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 1992
Like most theatrical magic, it was really clear how it was done.  It was also terrifying and beautiful at the same time.  In 2016, there is a second performer to play Davis, and so the character is seen fully on stage.  The projections all come from the front, onto an extraordinarily versatile revolving half cube.  And this means that the injection now becomes absorbed in the busier world around it, less clear, less intense.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 2016
Most of the time, the imagery is fresh and energised - finding a contemporary way to bring 1949, the year of Cocteau's visit to New York and Miles Davis's to Paris, into clear view for an audience today. We know that we are looking at these men and their time from the perspective of now.  And so we find ourselves asking what their stories might mean for today.  And Robert's own story too.  At the centre of the piece is his autobiographical story: his own journey to Paris when dealing with the end of a love affair, and his reaching in to his cultural antecedents, French thought and imagery, American jazz, to find the consolations of creativity.  In the new version of the play, the central character has aged, like his creator, and has acquired a longer view of his emotional turmoil.

In what I'm pretty sure is a new section of text, he tells an unseen therapist about his problems in terms of his Québecois identity.  Central to love, and central to art, is always the question of identity.  As a Québecois, Robert finds himself part of a cultural identity that is not quite European, not quite North American, that can be, and often is, rejected by both and that therefore tends to reject both in turn - but which must ultimately embrace its own inherent diversity in order to reach a psychological equilibrium.

At this moment of extreme identity crisis in Britain, the play felt incredibly immediate and potent.  And consoling too.

Needles and Opium - the cube

Friday, July 15, 2016

LIFT 2016

I've been meaning to write about LIFT for a few weeks.  Brexit rather took my attention elsewhere.  Or rather, it made me write in a more direct way about some of the things that constantly preoccupy us as an organisation and as artists working around international exchange.  As in previous years, LIFT was full of work generated through the meetings of artists from different countries, different cultures, different spaces.  It enabled this diverse country to be galvanised and inspired by encountering the results - a ripple effect of "things could be different".  And, of course, all of that is now under threat.  The first piece I want to talk about was funded directly out of the European Union.  The second was itself European.  The third drew powerful resonance when I sent some guests on our European Playmaking Laboratory to experience it.  Their visits were, of course, funded by the European Union.

At LIFT 2014, I'd loved Lola Arias' piece The Year I was Born.  For this year, LIFT had joined forces with other European organisations to commission her new production, Minefield - a meeting between British and Argentine veterans of the Falklands conflict.  In some ways, the idea behind this is close to our own model - bring together performers from different cultures, and see what results.  Except that Lola's actors were not performers - or they had not been before this show.  They had a range of professions: I particularly remember one of them being a Special Needs teacher.  What brought them together was their status as veterans of a war I remember from my late teens...  and it was very striking for me personally that the Argentine men were about my age.  One English soldier said how, when they finally arrived in Port Stanley, they noticed how young the Argentine soldiers were.  One of them told how he survived the sinking of the General Belgrano.

Minefield was defined by honesty.  I was about to say it didn't take sides, but that's not entirely true.  Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri both came in for some pretty hefty and totally justified satire.  The point is rather that there was no sense of right and wrong in the warfare itself, although the men on stage continued to disagree about the issues behind it.  What mattered was that these former "enemies", men who had been in a position where they could easily have killed one another, were able to come together in art, and to find out more about themselves by understanding the common experience they shared.  It was a perfect example of theatre's capacity to place you in another person's shoes.  To see things through another person's eyes.

The Hamilton Complex
I don't know if Mark planned it this way - but that sense of looking through the eyes of an Other felt central to this year's festival.  Perhaps it was just Brexit making me feel that way...  In The Hamilton Complex, a group of 13 year old girls helped us to see the world as they did - with an anarchic humour, a healthy lack of respect, and a deep, touching sweetness.  Matt Trueman has written superbly about this play, and I won't repeat him: I'll just point out how the production not only provoked the audience to see the world through the eyes of these girls, but also to question our own eyes - to think about why we look at young girls and mature women in the way we do, to recognise the political structures underlying these preconceptions.

It's all about empathy.  And my other highlight of this year's LIFT was Clare Patey's extraordinary Empathy Museum on the Greenwich Peninsula.  It sounds the simplest thing in the world to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes, while listening to their recorded voice on headphones.  For everyone who did it - it was profoundly moving.  Almost everyone felt that there was some strange coincidence to their choice - that the experience of the person whose shoes they wore was particularly close to their own, particularly specific to them.  One of our European guests had suffered a recent bereavement similar to that of the person whose shoes she wore.  Another felt the migration story he heard reflected his own.  A young German found herself in dialogue with a survivor of the Holocaust.  The truth, I suppose, is that all of these specifics are part of our common humanity, that is too often suppressed and enclosed.  The job of art is to find the connections.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Revolt of the Provinces

Ludmilla Euler and
Mateusz Ochal at our European workshop
Can it really only be eleven days?  On the morning of Friday 24th June, I woke up very suddenly to the radio alarm, and the shock news of "Brexit".  Every morning since, the process of waking has felt like times of bereavement: for a moment or two feeling the way into light, and then the terrible reality comes crashing in.  On the evening of the 24th, Lucy and I welcomed guests from Denmark, Germany, Greece and Sweden to take part in our week-long European Playmaking Laboratory.  They were funded by the EU, under the Erasmus + programme for educational exchanges.  It was difficult to welcome them - and more difficult still to keep a sense of balance as the workshop explored themes of migration, the horrors of the refugee crisis, the shifting sands of European and national identities.  All around us, fallout tumbling like toxic snow.

On Tuesday 28th, I had dinner with Coll Thrush - the historian from Vancouver whose work on indigenous travellers to London was so important to our Hidden Histories film.  We found ourselves searching the past to find any analogy with what was occurring - and landed in 1642, at the outbreak of the Civil War - dubbed The Revolt of the Provinces by John Morrill.  Then as now, a London-based elite with strong links to the continent was perceived to be arbitrary and arrogant in its attitude to the country more widely, leading to a conservative revolution.  Then as now, Scotland and Ireland were serious flash points.   Then, there was a rapid descent into violent anarchy, halted only by the imposition of a military dictatorship.  I realise this probably sounds sensationalist - I hope it is.  Coll's response was: "We tend to think of ourselves - Europeans, North Americans - as being immune from that kind of history.  But it has happened before and it could again."  Of course it could.  Think of Ireland.  Think of Yugoslavia.  Think of the 500% increase in racially motivated hate crimes in the week following the referendum.  Think of the way the extreme right steps in when economies fall apart. Think of what Yanis Varoufakis has been arguing about European disintegration leading to a return to the 1930s.

Even before the vote took place, we had already seen the first political murder of the Brexit era.  I have been criticised on social media for calling the death of Jo Cox a direct result of the Leave campaign's xenophobic rhetoric: Thomas Mair was mentally ill, the apologists say.  Of course he was.  So were Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, but that did not prevent anyone locating their murder of Lee Rigby within a discourse of Islamist terrorism.  Disturbed individuals are open to suggestion, volatile and unstable: of course an atmosphere that breeds hatred will carry them into acts of violence, as it serves to identify their targets.  And make no mistake - the Leave campaign deliberately, cynically, sought to breed hatred and racism.  There has been much discussion of the poster Nigel Farage unveiled on the very day Jo Cox was killed - its image of Middle Eastern refugees (who, of course, have nothing to do with European freedom of movement) directly derived from a Nazi propaganda film.  

Less remarked upon has been the leaflet delivered to many households - including mine - by the Leave campaign, which featured a map of "Countries set to join the EU", in which Iraq and Syria were prominently named.  This propaganda was produced in cold calculation by intelligent people with the deliberate purpose of misleading the less informed, stoking prejudice, and firing up hatred.

There was poor campaigning on the Remain side too, of course, as one Project Fear competed with another - and this did nothing to assuage the revolt of the provinces - but at least it was not blatantly misleading, manipulative and incendiary.

We are in a terrible position.  Terrible in the sense of morally abhorrent, and terrible in the sense of deeply frightening.

So - what can we do?  On a long term basis, those of us who work in culture, education, the media and other aspects of public discourse have to reclaim public space for intelligent, nuanced and morally acceptable debate.  The referendum result, hard on the heels of cuts in public spending, is making the work of organisations like Border Crossings infinitely more challenging - and more necessary than ever.  We have to carve out spaces in which we can meet Other human beings AS human beings - overturning the insidious language of labelling and recognising our common humanity.  We have to make emotional connections with the refugees on Farage's poster, with Poles and Romanians, and with the people across the country who voted Leave in protest against their exclusion from political and social processes.  As the great Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker said in 1986: "If ever there was a time and place that called out for the solace and rigour and passionate rejoinder of great drama, it is here and now. There is a whole culture to be achieved. The politicians, visionless almost to a man, are withdrawing into their sectarian stockades. It falls to the artists to construct a working model of wholeness by means of which this society can hold up its head in the world."

But there is a short term need as well.  We have to fight tooth and claw to remain a part of the European Union, and to assert our identity as an outward-looking, engaged, international and - yes - democratic people.  I recognise that it may sound deeply anti-democratic to suggest that the referendum result should be overturned - but consider this:

  1. The Brexit vote was the result of manipulative and hate-inducing propaganda worthy of Goebbels.  If the campaign is not based on truth but on lies, how can it be considered a democratic process?  Many people who were misled into voting Leave have stated that they now regret this: a second vote would almost certainly show a strong majority for Remain.
  2. The vote is not binding.  We have a representative democracy in this country, not a delegated one, as Edmund Burke explained in his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol.  There are very good reasons for this: a simple yes or no question put to plebiscite is inevitably simplified, while the processes of lawmaking in Parliament are complex and nuanced, allowing for detail and a full exploration of the real issues.  We would not choose to make (say) health policy or education policy by simplified yes or no questions put to the popular vote - and we must not allow something massively bigger to be decided in this debased way.  Our membership of the EU is enshrined in Act of Parliament, and Parliament is sovereign.  It is not therefore up to the next Prime Minister, whoever that may be, to use Royal Prerogative powers to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in response to the popular vote - that would in fact be the arbitrary and tyrannical option.  Not democracy but ochlocracy.  The referendum is - as its name suggests - a referral.  It is advisory, but it does not carry the force of statute.  David Cameron was quite wrong to call the referendum in the first place - there was no significant popular demand, and it was, like all his decisions, purely tactical -  but it would be far more wrong to treat it as a binding expression of the will of the people.
  3. Given the advisory nature of the referendum, and the malign nature of the victorious campaign, the margin of victory has to be considered.  In any other global polity, major constitutional change requires a substantial majority - at least 66% in many cases (for example Germany and the USA).  It would be wildly irresponsible of the government to take irrevocable action that totally changes the nature of the country and its status in the world on the basis of a 3.8% margin.    
  4. Any democracy, in responding to the will of the majority, also has to take into account the position of substantial minorities.  The positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland are crucial here.  Enacting Brexit would lead to the break-up of the very polity it seeks to preserve and celebrate, namely the United Kingdom.  This is clearly untenable.  Switzerland, the only complex democracy that makes regular use of referendums, requires a double majority of both the electorate and the cantons for precisely this reason.
So - the avoidance of Brexit would not be an overturning of democracy but its assertion, and this is what we must call on Parliament to do.  It would, I am sure, lead to huge dissent, probably to some violence.  But it would not be so dangerous as the alternative.  If we remain in the European Union, and we still can, then we have the opportunity to work with our neighbours to establish genuinely democratic processes and institutions that are fit for purpose in the globalised world of the 21st century. To leave would be to retreat into the shallow rhetoric of the nation state - a notion of sovereignty outmoded since the time of Wilberforce.  

We are part of a continent, we are part of a world.  We have to embrace the other, not separate ourselves from them.  We are interdependent, and so our politics and culture must express our common humanity.  As Jo Cox said in her maiden Parliamentary speech: "We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."  

This blog was written by Artistic Director Michael Walling in a private capacity and does not represent an official view of Border Crossings as an organisation or its board of trustees.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Destroying the bridge

The Bridge at Mostar - after destruction

I have been reading my friend David Wilson’s autobiographical book Left Field.  For some years David, who founded the charity War Child, was Director of the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar – and a significant portion of the book revolves around his extraordinary work in the war-torn city.  During the conflict, the ancient bridge at Mostar became a symbol of all that went wrong – it had been built by the Ottoman Turks, and was destroyed by Croat forces. Andras Riedlmayer has termed the destruction an act of "killing memory", in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence were deliberately destroyed.

It’s a timely moment to recall the terror that resulted from the break-up of the Yugoslavian Federation in the 1990s.  Massacres, ethnic cleansing, a land laid waste, a refugee crisis that gave a foretaste of today’s. Neighbour turning on neighbour and friend on friend because of perceived differences in ethnicity, religion or culture.  No-one would call Tito’s Yugoslavia an ideal polity – but the nationalist mayhem that resulted from its dissolution showed humanity at its worst. Refugees from that time tell us that things started to go wrong when people began to say “Let’s segregate all the Muslims”.  Right here - in modern Europe. 

I am, of course, offering all this as a warning against June 23rd.  If, as now appears very possible, Britain votes to leave the EU, that will signal the triumph of a dangerous fiction, called the nation state, over the undeniable truth of common humanity.  Britain’s retreat into splendid isolation would almost certainly spell the end of the European project: Marine Le Pen would demand a copycat referendum in France, and all across the continent the forces of the radical right, already roused in their paranoid, xenophobic response to the refugee crisis, would continue to assert “national” identities and to close their borders against perceived “outsiders” – desperate people who have already fled violence, persecution and the devastation of their lands.   I don’t believe Donald Tusk was exaggerating when he said that this thing called Brexit could lead in time to the collapse of Western civilization. 

Much of the rhetoric of the Leave campaign has been about how “we” need to assert control over “our” borders.  Setting aside the fact that recent visits to airports and stations suggest the UK borders are now more tightly controlled than they have ever been – allow me to pose a more basic question here.  Who are “we”?  Just what group of people is it that is supposed to be asserting some fundamental right to deny others access to a particular territory and the cultural and social life that takes place within it?  Just what is the identity that the curb on immigration is supposed to protect?  What is the Britishness that will somehow be rejuvenated by the abandonment of Europe, the retreat into splendid isolation?

Isolationist positions tend to be the prerogative of imperial nations.  Spain was a closed society from the time of Philip II onwards, even though it also ruled vast swathes of the globe.  China didn’t just become an isolated state under Mao Zedong – it had another five centuries of it prior to that.  Today, an isolationist stance is also key to Donald Trump’s idea of foreign policy: build a wall at your border, ban all Muslims, and make America great again.  Of course, such isolation only goes in one direction – imperial powers isolate their “homelands” from immigrants and foreign influences, at the same time as they regard other territories as theirs to plunder for natural resources, cheap labour, and holidays in the sun.  Perhaps this is why Boris Johnson and his coterie are so fond of evoking the spirits of Churchill and Thatcher: what they are in fact attempting to do is to place themselves in Britain’s imperialist tradition. Perhaps this is also why, astonishingly, so many Black and Asian Britons, the descendants of immigrants, appear to be flirting with a Leave vote: in a Fanonian style, they have taken on the perceived identity of what was once the imperial ruler of their ancestral homelands.  They don’t seem to have noticed that the age of Empire is long over. 

Or is it?  There are, after all, territories within the United Kingdom that retain their links to Westminster because of the imperial project.  There’s been much speculation about the direction Scotland might take in the event of a Leave vote: if Scotland votes overwhelmingly Remain and England votes Leave, that will be yet further proof that these are now two distinct countries.  But the bigger question is probably Northern Ireland.  For some time now, the uneasy peace of the province has been secured by an easing of the border with the Republic – a “United Kingdom” outside the EU would not be able to sustain this.  I remember very clearly John Hume, the great, unsung architect of the current peace process, comparing his vision for the future of the whole island of Ireland to the European model: a space in which it was still perfectly possible for the French still to be French and the Germans German – but impossible for them to be at war.  He was emphatically right: no state of war has every existed between EU members.  Brexit is a sure-fire way to overturn the comparative stability that has been achieved in the Irish question.  Who are “we” – defending our “Britishness” – if the result of “our” action is to set in motion a violent conflict on what is still legally “our” territory?

It could be like Bosnia.  It really could.

I write this at the end of two intense, stimulating and energising days in Brussels, where I have been part of the EU’s Structured Dialogue process around the role of Culture in the Refugee Crisis.  People who have read this blog in the past may recall that Border Crossings has also worked on EU policy before, as part of the Platform for Intercultural Europe.  The EU is often accused of being undemocratic – but never in Britain have I encountered processes of consultation like these.  In Britain, policy is made on the hoof to suit the needs of the next sound-bite.  And this has to stop.  It is turning our democracy into an idiot’s circus.  The referendum itself was a knee-jerk response to a few electoral successes for UKIP – and what a sorry mess it has turned our to be. 

The EU is not perfect – of course it isn’t.  I have, in my time, sat in a Brussels office with a German accountant attempting to make sense of invoices in Chinese, as a result of onerous accounting processes around EU funding.  But Britain seems to have decided that how well or badly something is managed is all that matters – to the point where it matters more than the thing itself.  For some time now, Arts Council England has privileged the cult of management over artistic vision – and a similar myopia is now filtering the gaze we cast upon the EU.  If something has management failings, those can be sorted out – what we should be judging is the idea itself.  And the idea of the EU is something humanitarian, welcoming, enabling, and peace-making.  It is one of the hopes of humanity.  We would be insane to throw it away. 

Insane, insane, insane.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Two days in Karlsruhe

Refugees in performance at Karlsruhe's Volkstheater
I've been in South Germany for the last couple of days, at the invitation of the Karlsruhe Staatstheater.  It's an incredible institution to run up against if you are part of the British theatre scene.  Karlsruhe isn't a huge city by any means - but the theatre (typically for the main theatre in any fair-sized German town) is on the scale of our national companies.  It has three auditoria, and employs over 800 people in its full-time theatre, opera and ballet companies.  It also has a thriving community theatre programme, the Volkstheater, whose participants perform on the main stages in the building, under the guidance of professional creative teams.  It was this part of the organisation that put together a three-day conference on how theatre can respond to the refugee crisis, and I was asked to speak as part of a series of presentations on "International Positions".

It's interesting to see just how sudden the shift to a multicultural or intercultural mode of being has had to be in Germany.  I'd been in Berlin a couple of times in the last few years and thought it very cosmopolitan - but that's not been the case in much of the rest of the country.  Angela Merkel's decision to open the borders to refugees has had far-reaching effects.  Some of the people I met said that it was unprecedented, uncharacteristic of this most pragmatic politician, and morally essential.  Others wondered whether there might not be a different agenda: Germany's population is ageing rapidly, and needs an influx of younger workers to sustain it.  Either way, the demographics of the country are changing very quickly.  Much of the the work we have been doing in Britain for decades, slowly and meticulously with many a setback, they are trying to do very quickly indeed.

Partly for this reason, and partly because of the better funded, more institutionalised  nature of German theatre, the bulk of this cultural work is emanating from large public organisations like the Staatstheater.  This has many plus points - for a start, the salaries of the professional people involved are there as a given, and they have solid and experienced administrative back-up in place.  But there are negative sides to it too: the work feels very top-down, with the projects (many of which are very engaging on their own terms) fitting a pre-conceived agenda.  You can see it in the conference plan: Day 1 discussion of policy, day 2 presentations of theatre projects, day 3 seminar on how to get refugees into the German jobs market.  Of course there's much about this that is practical and positive - but the role of theatre as a democratic space to re-imagine the city and the nation in dialogue with its "new citizens" (as they are pleasingly known) doesn't get much of a look-in.

The most exciting conversations are with two men from refugee backgrounds.  One of them, Ali Kareem, is another of the international presenters.  The organisation he represents, Teatro di Nascoto (Hidden Theatre) is a Boalean organisation from Italy, with a long track record of refugee work and a very direct engagement with political institutions.  He shows us images of performances in front of the Commission building in Brussels.  And he tells us a little of his own life - about his childhood in Iraq and the loss of his best friend in a car bomb attack.  This is what he does in performance, and it is deeply affecting.

The other refugee is Ahmed Shah, originally from Iran, who has founded both the Jugendtheaterbüro (JTB) and the Refugee Club Impluse in Berlin.  He's very excited that we have been working in Palestine.  In Germany, he tells me, everyone is very frightened to approach the Palestinian question, because the paranoia over being thought in any way anti-Semitic is (for obvious reasons) even more extreme than in Britain.  "While you were talking" he says, "I wanted to say: 'Can you hear this?  Can you hear this?'"

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Voices of Culture - Statement on the EU-Turkey deal

Border Crossings strongly supports the following statement:

“We the undersigned join the Council of Europe and other international human rights NGOs in denouncing the EU/Turkey Agreement of 18 March 2016, as illegal under European and international law.   We call on the EU, the EP but especially our own Member State governments to make the strongest active efforts in the shortest possible time frame to honour the values that the EU upholds and to construct a policy and programme that can make Europeans proud rather than ashamed.”

The following members of the Voices of Culture Platform have co-signed this statement:

- ArtReach Consultants Ltd, ArtReach Events Ltd
- Border Crossings
- Cirkor/Cirkus Sweden
- Culture Action Europe
- European Music Council
- Teatro dell’Argine
- Vooruit Arts Center in Ghent
- Arts Rights Justice, represented by the following members:
Arterial Network
European Off Networks EON
Siyah Bant
ITI Action Committee for Artists Rights
Center for Art and Politics
LA Network for Social Transformation
Herwig Lewy
Thanasis Bagatzounis
Sabine Kock
Ann Mari Engel
MaryAnn DeVlieg

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hidden Histories - the first screening

Hidden Histories

Wednesday night saw the first screening of our film - Hidden Histories, Discovering Indigenous London.  There's a lot more to come on this - but I thought I'd just share a few audience reactions to whet the appetite.

I think it was brave and extremely thought provoking. Asking us to acknowledge and play with difference in our work rather than ignore it and hold the "other" far away - masterful. I think the film says more about where we are not rather than where we are in our relations with Indigenous peoples. A lot of charity and not enough justice as one of the panel members so aptly said. (Email from audience member)

“Excellent film… moving, cogent and necessary.” (Audience Feedback form)

“Incredibly thoughtful well put together and insightful programme. I learned a lot and think this will influence my perspective for a long time to come. Thank you!” (Audience Feedback form)

“It moved me as a person with indigenous heritage.  I would like to be even more involved.  Fantastic film.  I would love to show the film.” (Audience feedback form)

“Well shot, beautifully edited, strong interviews, and with a great narrative (the Rylance voice was just perfect).”  (Email from audience member)

More screenings soon....