Thursday, December 14, 2017

European Culture Forum

Michael speaking at the Forum in Milan
I was delighted - and amazed - to be invited to the European Culture Forum in Milan as one of the platform speakers.  It's not just that Britain is a bit semi-detached from the EU at the moment - it's also that speaking at this event is normally the preserve of EU Presidents and Nobel Prize-winners...  Still - the invitation came and it would have been churlish to turn it down.  What a fantastic opportunity and privilege!

The first day of the forum was very upbeat.  Much of it was around the European Year of Cultural Heritage, which was kicked off at the event, and this clearly gave a lot of people much cause for celebration.  It is, of course, wonderful that Europe is going to be putting so much energy into cultural heritage in 2018 - though I would love to know what this is going to mean in practice, and how far "heritage" embraces the complex morality of our continent's past.  If it does, then perhaps there's space to take in the migrant crisis, the role of Islam, the inheritance of colonialism. There's a danger it could all turn into a festival of "aren't we marvellous?"  Towards the end of the first day, Ferdinand Richard from the Roberto Cimetta Fund sounded an appropriate warning note when he said that culture was in danger of being hi-jacked by nationalism.  This is the Europe we are actually living in, and Britain's current tragedy reflects that.  It seemed important to address this on day 2.

So - the plenary of which I was a part is available to watch here - it actually begins at 8hrs 18mins in, and lasts a healthy two hours, so if you can't stand the thought of that, here's a basic summary.  The Moderator, Hannah Conway, very kindly gave me the first word - so I was able to set a bit of a tone for the debate.  I was asked about the role of culture in promoting social cohesion - and my response was that the two things are essentially the same.  We shouldn't be taking an instrumental view of culture, calling it a "tool" or something to be "exploited" or "used".  Culture, I ventured to suggest, is the public generation of meaning - and so it's the base from which a healthy society can grow.  You don't know why you are doing anything else if you don't have meaning - so of course in order to have any form of social cohesion, you have to have culture.  What's more, for that cohesion to be sustainable, the culture has to be dynamic and fluid - this is where it begins to overlap with democracy.

The question of inclusivity had to be addressed - I think a lot of people were very pleased that I called out the Forum for the all-white panels.  The question of culture within policy matters - I used the example of our refugee work in Plymouth, but also called for something bigger, for a real engagement of art and culture in the political process, on the lines of Periclean Athens.  Of course that was described as hopelessly Utopian - but the truth is that "realism" hasn't done too well recently. The current situation - Trump, Brexit, Putin - is a list of things many people said "could never happen".  And then they did. I think that might be true of the Utopian alliance between culture and policy as well.

Monday, December 04, 2017

"I Was Asked to Help Sort Bread" - Guest Blog on The Calais Jungle by John Comino-James


A November weekend and another trip to Calais with Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity to deliver aid and support.   A van, two minibuses, a stack of aid, 32 volunteers and only one certainty: that every visit is different.  On the Saturday half of the group will go to help at the Refugees Community Kitchen, half will go to Care4Calais.  None of us knows exactly what will be needed or asked of us.  
*
I’ve never been to the Kitchen before and don’t know what to expect.  Can you imagine a workspace in an industrial building producing something like 2000 hot meals a day? A workspace with stainless steel preparation tables, sinks for washing vegetables,  deep sinks for washing up,  and a row of cauldrons bubbling over gas rings,  extraction equipment, loud music pumping away, volunteers all dressed in similar outfits?

When you enter you ask, ‘What do I do?’ and someone gives you a job.

I was asked to help sort bread.  Sort bread?  Sort bread.  Sort bread that supermarkets donate, bread that is past or on its ‘Display till’ date.   

Someone explains the task.  The drier bread is to be cut and set aside to be prepared as garlic bread; the packages of pre-wrapped rolls or bread are to be opened.  If the contents are still soft, only just out of date, they will be distributed alongside the hot meals.  Whole loaves are to be cut into manageable chunks.  Some will have to be discarded altogether.

Put bluntly the task was to sort through various kinds of bread because it was deemed no longer fresh enough for sale, no longer good enough for us, that is to say for regular shoppers like me who take a certain quality of freshness for granted or expect it as our right, and sort out what was still useable for them.  

Emotion sneaks in through a back door.  I feel myself near tears.  The word BREAD, on every level, carries associations far beyond the texture and flavour of risen and baked dough.  It suggests a universal notion of sustenance, of basic nourishment.  How unbearably invidious to be sorting such a basic food in this not good enough for us but good enough for them kind of way.  Of course, what my brimming feelings really meant was that I’d hit upon an unacknowledged fault-line in my complacency.

But something else, something positive happened as I worked, at first sorting bread, then scrubbing potatoes, then chopping salad.  Working alongside volunteers from France, Belgium, Germany and Canada was incredibly energising.  How wonderful that we were all there with out diversity -- and even our differences -- working alongside each other in an enterprise made necessary by the insistence on borders and destruction and division.  There was no glamour in most of the tasks we were doing:  what was paramount was the idea of service, of getting on with the job – and the need to support the preparation of the day’s meals for the refugees.   Refugees, migrants, people, most of whom we would never meet face to face.
*
Can you imagine a lake surrounded by grassy areas and thickets of bushes and trees, the sort of place you might go with your family on a summer’s evening or at the weekend?   A narrow concrete road that leads you to a car park?  You can’t see that one boundary is a motorway embankment, or that beyond another stretch of woodland are the backs of houses. Here the world falls away, it’s a place to relax.  My grandchildren could skateboard here or dash about on scooters. There’s a colourful sign of Do’s and Don’ts: no motorbikes in the woods, but horse-riding permitted, no swimming in the lake, no picking flowers, but windsurfing is allowed. Do not light fires. 

This is where we park the van, roll up the shutter, unfold tables. 

Perhaps I only imagine I smell smoke drifting out of the woods.

There are five of us, two experienced long-term volunteers from Refugee Community Kitchen who will co-ordinate and organise the distribution, and three of us to serve the food: rice, a spicy curry, and salad.  I’m to serve the salad.  There are chopped onions, seasonings, bread.

There’s a sail visible on the lake, the waters dark and ruffled by the breeze.

In two’s and three’s figures appear.  Dark anoraks. Scuffed trainers.  Men in worn clothes, huddled against the cold.  We hand out rectangular polystyrene dishes.  Cheerful greetings.  Rice first.  Some ask for more, some ask for the curry to be on top of the rice, some want it separate.  Some don’t want the curry.   Some decline the offer of salad.  Respect the dignity of choice.  I do my best to serve the salad tidily while trying at the same time to make eye contact.  How are you?  Good, thank you.  No no, no  salad thank you.  Plastic spoons.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  The sun settles, dusk comes.  Would you like more?  For many this is the first food since this time yesterday.  In little groups a stream of people.  A mix of nationalities: Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans.   I am humbled by their thanks, by the generosity of their response.  What does it do to them, this hiding in the woods, avoiding the police, this reliance on donations of food, of clothing? What does it do to them, seeing their tents or other makeshift shelters destroyed by police or having sleeping bags or clothes contaminated with pepper spray?  What does it do to them?

The wind bites deeper.  

As we drove in I saw a rig on which there were four taps and a long trough at waist level.  There was a man there stripped to the waist, his hair frothy with shampoo, soaping his upper body for the cold water.  They have come to this, somehow, and through what unimaginable dangers.  They have come, following a dream of a better life, a life that they believed must surely be better than existing in a familiar homeland shattered by war.  They have come to this.  We met a man who had twice made the journey from Afghanistan.  He crossed illegally into the UK, was deported and set out again.  Politicians speak about not creating a pull factor, but what kind of ‘pull factor’ was that?  Those same politicians rarely acknowledge courage, initiative or persistence, qualities that should surely be valued.  To see these qualities, to see this potential would be to risk seeing these people as we are trying to do, as human beings in need, as individual human beings, each with hopes and pain, with dreams and loss.  Politicians urge us to look at the bigger picture, but perhaps that way lies not reassurance but madness or despair: the temporary tented camps gradually taking on the social mechanisms of permanence, the fences and razor wire, the infrastructures shattered by war, the disrupted governance, the rival militias, the estimated 65 million displaced persons across the world…

There’s not an exact count but we’ve served somewhere between 150 and 200 meals.  What distresses me almost more than anything is not that the distribution process is so practised, so well-drilled, so efficient, so generous, but that it seems so terrifyingly normal.  

It’s getting dark, the wind is really cutting through our clothes as we stand waiting for the last few men to come.  I feel myself impatient to get out of the cold.  It’s about 5 or 6 degrees, and the wind-chill drops that right down towards freezing.  What a relief it will be to slam the door of the van against this cold.  We pack up.  What’s left of the food is loaded back into the van.  We fold the tables and just as we are about to pull down the shutter two or three latecomers arrive.  They too will be served. 
*
Bright lights in Calais, a convivial restaurant and illuminations for the Christian Festival. God rest you merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.   Joyeux Noel.  The winter solstice is barely a month away, the turning of the year, the shortest day … and for the men in the woods, trying to get a little warmth from forbidden fires, the longest night.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Great Experiment - Guest Blog on the Devising Process by Rosanna Lowe

How can theatre bring history to life? Who writes the history? Who is written about?  Who is it written for? In re-telling stories from history, can we truthfully embody figures of the past or can we really only narrate them? Who are we entitled to represent? How much liberty can we take? How much can we invent? How authentic can we be?

These were the questions that arose, as we began the month-long research period for Border Crossings’ current theatre piece, an exploration of the indenture system in Mauritius. Previously I knew nothing about ‘The Great Experiment’, the attempt to see whether the British Empire’s economic interests could be preserved by replacing newly abolished slavery with a system of ‘free’ labour, bound by a contract called an indenture. This experiment was first trialled in the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, primarily to prop up sugar plantations, and saw one of the largest migrations in history - almost half a million indentured labourers, mainly from India, crossed the Kala Pani, the Black Water, to Mauritius. As a company, we set out on our own journey across unfamiliar waters –  devising a piece with no pre-established characters or storyline.

What we did have, however, were delicate fragments of historical narrative, a bewildering jigsaw puzzle of facts, figures, faces and stories.  Quickly the rehearsal room transformed into a kind of exhibition space, with mounds of related reading and articles on everything from Gandhi’s campaign against indenture in the early 20th century to contemporary Mauritian poet Khal Torabully’s concept of ‘the coral imaginary’ and of ‘coolitude’, reclaiming the identity and dignity of the ‘coolie’, a formerly derogatory word for the indentured labourer.

Often the absence or distortion of information was poignant and powerful – reading out the ship records of the names and ages of the migrants felt like a moving litany to ghosts of the past whose stories we could only imagine. Probably the most challenging and gaping absences were the stories of people of African origin in Mauritius – we had none, apart from the compelling story of the mixed race journalist Remy Ollier, who founded a newspaper, campaigned for the rights and political involvement of people of colour in the early nineteenth century and who was poisoned at a relatively young age.

The most powerful aspect of our rehearsal-room-come-exhibition space was the sea of faces that began to people the wall. These photographic portraits, required by indentured labourers for their identity documents, were amazingly diverse - whiskered or shaven headed, wizened or youthful, bejewelled or naked, sometimes with a story or information attached and sometimes not. We were of course examining these people and their stories, but with the watchful eyes of these extraordinarily striking portraits overlooking us, it felt there was a kind of additional duty to honour these people’s stories and their presence.

It was fascinating to see how our own lens on the world, on our own identity and on history shaped the way we saw the material. Even the seemingly static faces on the wall could change, as we looked at them with different eyes. One morning Nisha, our Mauritian actress, looked at our wall of faces and exclaimed with typical exuberant warmth ‘Look! They’re smiling!’ For me, something of a miserabilist, the faces had always seemed grave – perhaps because of the lives they’d lived or because of the enforced formality and stillness of photography at the time. But as soon as Nisha had said this, the faces changed in front of my eyes – suddenly smiles, life, liveliness seemed to be hovering at the corners of their mouths.

Our other incredible resource and one of the most unique parts of the process was the involvement of three eminent historians, creators of the academic research project ‘Becoming Coolies’, which aimed to break down some of the stereotypes of Indian indentured labourers, examining their diversity and their personal agency in migration. Initially I think we were curious and a little concerned about how an interaction between performers and historians might work, as was Professor Crispin Bates, when he declared to us over Skype: ‘My fear is that this could end up as a Mauritian Les Miserables…’ But once in the room together, there was a great generosity in the sharing process, with the performers benefitting from the historians’ extraordinary expertise and the historians delighting in the performers’ ability to bring history to life in unexpected ways.

Very quickly in the rehearsal process the issues of theatrical representation arose – as a group of 5 performers, two Mauritian, one Rwandan, one Irish and one British, what would or could we play? We began by playing roughly to ‘type’, in terms of gender or race. But it quickly became apparent that this was not only limiting, but also potentially problematic. Does a black actor playing a slave perpetuate a disempowering narrative? Does playing someone from a different race or culture represent a type of appropriation? Eventually, we decided that anyone could play anything and experimented with a range of modes of representation. Sometimes the jarring of the performer and the character threw up something interesting and sometimes the dividing line disappeared – whenever Ery played any character, something truthful and authentic shone through. For me, an amazing moment of alchemical transformation was when Tony took a photograph of an indentured labourer who had died of malaria and spoke from behind, using the face as a mask – suddenly the face became voiced, embodied, dignified.

Another wonderful resource for us was the presence of the three Mauritians in the room - David and Nisha as performers and Shiraz as visual artist. We heard the sound of the ravane, the goatskin drum and various variants of sega, traditional Mauritian music, from Bhojpuri sega to seggae (sega and reggae’s lovechild). We heard personal stories of the continuing difficulties of cross-cultural relationships, competing narratives of pride and shame in ones origins, of both togethernesses and tensions between the many Mauritian cultures. Shiraz’s video images showed the beauty of the island – an exquisite moonrise over lush green mountains – but they also whispered with ghosts of the past, as faces of those who had actually worked the land hovered superimposed over the sweeping miles of sugar plantation.


Rehearsals consisted of a series of games and exercises, but also an incredible amount of discussion of the material. Our director Michael often sat scribbling in a corner – and a mosaic of post-its emerged on which we heard (sometimes to our own surprise) the comments we had made, which were then rewoven into improvisation. One fantastic exercise had us creating an enormous map of nineteenth century global capitalism, drawn on the floor in chalk, tea leaves, sugar and loose change, showing the movement of goods and capital under empire. While the English craved sugar, the British Empire fostered the Chinese craving for opium, which contributed to the devastating famines that factored in many migrations from India. Rehearsal breaks subsequently took on a peculiar significance, as we all scuttled off to indulge our own personal cravings for caffeine, nicotine or sugar.

Unbeknown to us, our director Michael had envisioned from the start that the piece itself would slide between the contemporary rehearsal room and the historical scenes. A beautiful theatrical moment we created was the literal sliding between worlds – as we sat round the rehearsal table discussing the space allocated per person on the indenture ships, our own space became destabilised, our minds and stomachs began to lurch, our tabletop books began to slide and we slipped into the destabilising world of the ship itself, making its epic and hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean.

We had started rehearsing not long after events at Charlottesville – a powerful reminder of what can happen as a result of an attempt to redress racist historical narrative by removing a controversial statue. As the devising process continued, the echoes of the history we were examining seemed to ripple everywhere in the world around us. Halfway through the rehearsal process, the Evening Standard launched its campaign against ‘modern slavery’ in present day London. We were rehearsing in London Bridge, at the edge of the Thames, not so far from the docklands area that had sailed so many of the ill-gotten gains of Empire in and out. At one point in the process David realised that the building where we were rehearsing, in Exchange Theatre’s performance space, had a very old industrial chimney and a hook for hoisting goods – what was processed there? Could it have been sugar? A quick google revealed that a South African sugar company are currently housed in part of the building.

A stone’s throw from the rehearsal space was Becket House, one of the UK Border Agency’s immigration main reporting centres, also housing two ‘secure cells’ for those arrested while signing on or brought in by snatch squads operating from the centre. As I walked past to rehearsals in the morning, there was always a huge queue of people snaking round the block, holding paperwork and ID, waiting to sign on. It was a modern day reminder of the huge wave of arrivals at the Aapravasi Ghat, the immigration depot in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, where the identity papers of new arrivals were processed by the supposed ‘Protector of Immigrants’.

One morning on the way to rehearsals, I saw a gardener moving in and around the immigration queue. He was wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Putting Down Roots’, which reminded me of Shiraz’s extraordinary photography of the gnarled roots of the banyan, a resourceful tree which begins life as an epiphyte, seeding itself in a crevice of a host tree or building. We kept returning to this theme of roots, to the physical and emotional relationship to the new land and the old, to the rootedness and uprootedness that comes with the experience of migration and which continues through subsequent generations, as the family tree grows and branches out.

Our ongoing rehearsal room discussions of race, privilege, identity, economic injustice and migration in the contemporary world became a kind of framing device for the historical scenes, which were often stark and simple, sometimes wordless, sometimes abstract, leaving space for the audience and for the complexity of interpretation. In the contemporary scenes we ended up playing slightly heightened versions of ourselves, exaggerating the tensions between us to create the conflicts and revelations of the piece. As a middle class white person, who has never reflected much about identity, origin, ancestry or white privilege, working on The Great Experiment was a powerful wake up call. I’ve always been very interested in history – my father was a history teacher who told us historical tales as bedtime stories and I’ve worked as a writer on history projects, including the TV series Horrible Histories. But it shocked me to discover how little I knew about British imperial history and how little consideration I had given to the links between Britain’s current wealth and Britain’s colonial exploitation. For all of us, finding our personal relationship to the material by examining our own identities was sometimes humbling or challenging, but ultimately eye-opening.

Border Crossings always creates work that crosses cultural, geographical and linguistic borders, as does Exchange Theatre, co-producer of The Great Experiment. The piece that we created felt like it also crossed the borders of the historical and the contemporary, the academic and the performative, as well as crossing some personal boundaries. It was about the possibilities and challenges of communicating across centuries, cultures, continents and worlds. In some modest way we went on a journey together as ‘jihaji-bai’, as ship-mates, in what felt like a fantastic theatrical experiment.

- Rosanna Lowe
Rosanna Lowe is an actor and writer.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Great Experiment begins!

For the last four weeks, we’ve been locked in Exchange Theatre’s rehearsal space at London Bridge, developing our next devised production.  THE GREAT EXPERIMENT will reach the stage next year, and is already looking like one of the most exciting pieces we’ve ever done.  It’s part of our SEASON OF MIGRATIONS, and is rooted in the history of indentured labour – the huge movement of Indian workers through the British Empire in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.  One of the best aspects of the month has been having no less than three expert historians visit us for several days each to help us get a stronger, more nuanced sense of the history.  Working together on the Research project “Becoming Coolies”, Crispin Bates is an expert on Indian history, Andrea Major on imperial history, and Marina Carter on the indentured labourers themselves, particularly in relation to the island of Mauritius, where the whole process really began.  Having them in the room took us way beyond the usual process of reading a few books and watching YouTube videos: they took us right to the archival sources – to the real words of people who had made the perilous journey across what they called the Kala Pani – the Black Water.

The creative team encountering this material included several of our regular collaborators, which also helped to make the process so rich – there wasn’t any need for introductions to ways of working or for overcoming trust issues.   Tony Guilfoyle (who was in both DIS-ORIENTATIONS and RE-ORIENTATIONS, as well as helping us devise CONSUMED) was back, as was Rosanna Lowe (Assistant Director on DOUBLE TONGUE), Nisha Dassyne (our Mauritian performer in MAPPA MUNDI and the translator of TOUFANN), David Furlong (another Mauritian performer and director at Exchange, who has been part of our recent training workshops).  They were joined by Mauritian visual artist Shiraz Bayjoo; and by the wonderful Rwandan actor Ery Nzaramba, who I first saw in Peter Brook’s extraordinary piece BATTLEFIELD.  The key was that all these performers work as writers, directors and visual artists as well as actors – something key to the whole process.

Amazingly, by the Friday of the fourth week there was enough material readily shaped to be shown to a small invited audience.  The response was astonishing.  This isn’t just a show about the history – it’s a show about how we relate to the history, how it reflects our contemporary realities, how it has made us who we are.  These aren’t easy subjects, but the company has been very brave in the level of personal encounter.  The resulting piece is going to be very delicate, very fragile, and, as a result, profoundly moving.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gauri Lankesh


Some twenty years ago - in what now seems a more innocent, humane, compassionate time - I spent several months in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore, directing THE TEMPEST for Mahesh Dattani's Playpen company.  It was a life-changing experience for me, leading to the creation of Border Crossings as a company committed to intercultural work; and I believe it was also an important production for the cultural environment in which it took place.  One of the great pleasures of that time was to be surrounded by an extraordinary group of creative, committed and questioning young Indians - actors, writers, artists, film-makers and journalists. Young people who cared about what was happening in the world, who understood the historical forces that had shaped and were shaping their country, who longed for justice and who believed they could make a difference.  For a short time, I felt as if I was one of them - and that sense of hope has remained with me ever since.  From time to time I have seen or exchanged emails with many of them.  I still do. We have all retained some sense of the young people we once were and have clung to the dreams we once dreamed.

Central to that inspiring group of people was the journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered last week.  The three men who shot her as she arrived home from work have not been traced, and there is no definite proof of who they may have been - but those who knew her well are convinced that her death must have been related to her fierce and honest journalism; and to her activist stance against the power of Hindu nationalism, against the racist ideology of the BJP and its vigilante offshoots, in support of equal rights for the Dalits and the Muslims.  Mari Marcel Thekaekara's Guardian piece deals with the politics very well.  The Hindu right has been given free rein to enact its own idea of justice, and Narendra Modi preserves an ominous, acquiescent silence.  In what claims to be the world's largest democracy, mob rule is permitted.  Have we any idea of just how dangerous our world is becoming?  We stand on the edge of an abyss.

I remember Gauri as a young woman - energetic, attractive, full of wicked humour.  She liked to be in the thick of controversy: the piece she wrote about me in the magazine SUNDAY responded to the way that THE TEMPEST had divided opinion so deeply, with some people embracing its Indian setting and the post-colonial resonances, while others steadfastly refused the connections.  It wasn't a pre-publicity piece: Gauri sought me out after she had seen the piece, precisely because she wanted to engage with the anger it had provoked from conservative voices.  I don't think any of us realised that this cultural controversy was symptomatic of something so much more dangerous, so much more vindictive, something that would become so bloody and so tragic.

Gauri was killed because she dared to speak the truth, and her death makes it all the more incumbent on the survivors to continue that moral quest.  The voice of justice must not be silenced.  It must not.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Festivals and Healing

Remembering Pocahontas
It was very sad that we had to cancel PASIFIKA.  It would have been the second ORIGINS event to be held at Emslie Horniman's Pleasance, after the amazing Voladores da Papantla and Grupo Sotz'il in 2015.  Those performances and ceremonies had created a real bond between the Festival and the very vibrant communities of North Kensington - a bond that we were building on in this year's celebration of Pacific cultures.  But then Grenfell Tower happened - and the Council, I suppose rightly, felt that they couldn't do anything "fun" in the area.  It might look like fiddling as Rome burned.

At the same time, the Festival's presence might have helped build some bridges and heal some wounds.  It may, of course, be too soon - we should probably be content to wait for 2019 before we return to the area, at which time we can work with the community to do something affirmative.  There were many who felt the Ariana Grande commemorative concert in Manchester came too soon after the event - and that was in a place where the community had been united by the tragedy.  In North Kensington, there is great anger.

For all that - there is a genuine role for Festivals in healing wounds and building bridges.  On Monday, Marcia Langton talked about this aspect of indigenous festivals in Australia as part of her ORIGINS Lecture - and last week we saw it in action at our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House.  The visit of Pocahontas to the London home of the Percy family was a full 400 years ago, of course, and was a diplomatic mission, not a catastrophic inferno.  But the arrival of three Native American women to commemorate a Native American woman was still a highly significant moment, precisely because they have been so shut out from history. As Graham Harvey said at our AFTERNOON OF TALKS, the Pocahontas 400 events so far have concentrated not on where she lived but where she died, not on her indigenous but her Christian identity.  A ceremony of smudge, drum and dance felt like a redressing of the balance, an invitation to bring previously excluded voices to the centre.

I hope we will be able to go back to North Kensington soon, and to offer a contribution to that community's healing.

Sierra Tasi Baker, Gabe Hughes, Stephanie Pratt

Monday, June 05, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 4: Indigenous Women

Sierra Tasi Baker
Since ORIGINS was first established a decade ago, it's been really striking how many of the most important indigenous artists and thinkers we have featured have been women - and this year's Festival is no exception.  There has always been an energy and a power in indigenous women: and the challenges of the contemporary world are focussing that energy into creative and artistic responses, political activism, and a particular kind of feminist thought.
Prof. Marcia Langton
As with all indigenous ideas, indigenous feminism stands outside the mainstream, and offers balances and correctives to more "established" approaches.  This year's ORIGINS LECTURE is being given by Prof. Marcia Langton, the newly appointed Vice-Provost of Melbourne University, and probably the world's most distinguished indigenous academic.  A few years ago, Marcia famously took on the white Australian feminist icon Germaine Greer, in a widely publicised spat over Greer's essay Whitefella Jump Up.  So don't expect Greer-style feminism from her.  As well as her lecture, Marcia will be taking part in the TALKS programme over the first weekend, including a panel on INDIGENOUS WOMEN TODAY.
The 7 Stages of Grieving
Also from Australia comes the "Indigenous Everywoman" play THE SEVEN STAGES OF GRIEVING, in a powerhouse performance from Chenoa Deemal.  Here's an interview Chenoa did about the production, shortly before performing it at Sydney Opera House last month.  We're also delighted to be welcoming visual artist JULIE GOUGH, whose powerful re-readings of Australian colonial history have recently been acclaimed at the National Gallery of Australia's remarkable exhibition Defying Empire: the Legacy of 1967, which marks the 50th anniversary of the referendum making indigenous Australians citizens in their own country.
Tanya Tagaq
From the opposite side of the globe, but sharing many of the same colonial experiences, Inuk throat singer TANYA TAGAQ is our last-night star at ORIGINS.  Her music often deals with directly feminist themes, including all forms of rape — of women, of the land — while demanding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as Indigenous peoples who’ve had their land and rights removed over centuries of abuse.  Her approach to feminism embraces the indigenous movement and its allies across the world.  "The act of feminism, it's not a female thing, it's a human thing," she says.  Tanya's feminism and activism are complemented by her friend Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of ANGRY INUK - an activist film par excellence, dealing with the seal hunt controversy, in which Tanya has been a very vocal participant.  When Alethea was nominated as Samara's Everyday Political Citizen, Juror Margaret Atwood said: "I nominate Alethea Arnaquq-Baril for bravely opening the door to a conversation that needs to happen."
White Lies
New Zealand and Pacific women aren't neglected either, with the UK premiere of WHITE LIES - a Māori film built around three very different women, and featuring a great performance from Whirimako Black.  The screening is followed by a Q&A with Dr. Ian Conrich, an expert in New Zealand film.
The New World
Behind it all lurks the elusive, semi-mythic figure of Pocahontas, who visited London a full 400 years ago.  ORIGINS marks the anniversary with a screening of Terrence Malick's visionary film about her life, THE NEW WORLD at Picturehouse Central.  The screening is followed by a Q&A with Stephanie Pratt, an art historian whose Dakota Sioux name approximates to Pocahontas, and whose life in some ways reflects her Powhatan predecessor's.  Stephanie will also be present at Syon House, the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland, where Pocahontas lived for a time, for our special commemoration REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS.  In the grounds where she once walked, three Native American women will commemorate and celebrate her.  Accompanying Stephanie will be Sierra Tasi Baker, of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, and our Indigenous Associate, Wampanoag scholar Gabe Hughes.

How wonderful to meet such an extraordinary group of modern indigenous women!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Environment

Are We Stronger Than Winston?
"Where is the Environment?" asked Caroline Lucas yesterday.  She's quite right to challenge the major parties - neither of whom have said anything about this most crucial of issues during the current election campaign.  Across the Atlantic, it now seems that Donald Trump aims to withdraw from the Paris deal on climate change.  It's a scary moment, and no mistake.

This is the time when, more than ever, we need to be listening to the voices of indigenous people, who experience climate change at the front line on a daily basis.  Not only do they feel its effects particularly acutely - they also have long cultural traditions of living in close harmony with nature.  In indigenous cultures, you do not own the land but care for it - passing it on as a healthy inheritance to the future.  Now, more than ever, we need to be engaging with indigenous people as we try to find a way forward in our relationship with a damaged planet.
Reports from Standing Rock
ORIGINS 2017 has a range of inspiring and provocative events about indigenous ideas on the environment, beginning with REPORTS FROM STANDING ROCK on June 11 - a series of short films that show the realities of the protest and explore the depth of the Native American activists' passion to save their land and waters.  Trump's refusal to engage with indigenous protestors may yet prove to be his political undoing - his failure to engage with environmental issues is certainly very dangerous for us all.
Are We Stronger than Winston?
Just how dangerous is shown in ARE WE STRONGER THAN WINSTON? by VOU Dance Company from Fiji, performing at The Place on June 23 and 24.  Winston was the cyclone that hit Fiji in February 2016: the worst recorded tropical storm in the history of the South Pacific, killing 42 people and causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. In the words of the choreographer, Navitalai Waqavotuwale: "Soon the house that once sheltered us, now threatened our very lives as it collapsed in shreds around us. Soon the ocean that once fed us came pounding at our doors demanding our breath. Soon the wind that once rippled through our children's hair and carried their voices homeward, snatched them from our very arms and hauled them beyond the horizon where their voices were heard no more. And soon, mothers were burying their children, and children were burying their mothers."
Melissa Veszi as Poluknalai
A lighter but equally important take on climate change in the Pacific is offered in  Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new musical for family audiences, BABA THE BAD BABOON.  In this version of a Polynesian folk tale, Baba is an experienced leader who assures the goddess Poluknalai, the supreme protector of animals and nature, that all will be well under his watch - leading to a dire loss of animals and ecology.
Angry Inuk
It's in the Arctic that the effects of climate change are probably most glaringly obvious, as the ice melts at astonishing speed.  Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's remarkable film ANGRY INUK, which has been winning audience awards at film festivals across the planet, is powered by fury at the world's failure to engage with the people who actually live in the Arctic - the Inuit themselves.  Their environmentally sustainable approach to seal hunting - using every part of a non-endangered species for food and clothing, and to give them traction in the global marketplace - is set in sharp contrast with the insanely wasteful approach of western interests in the Artic region.
Tanya Tagaq
So it seems only fitting that the last voice you will hear at ORIGINS this year is an Inuk voice - TANYA TAGAQ.  More than a traditional throat singer, Tanya seems to embody and to vocalise the Arctic landscape itself.  Her extraordinary improvised soundtrack to the silent "documentary" NANOOK OF THE NORTH is a staggering evocation of the beautiful and bare lands that sustain the planet - and that we are all too close to destroying.





Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Youth

Three Wise Cousins
Everyone knows the importance of Elders in indigenous cultures - but related to this is the huge emphasis placed on young people, and the passing on of culture to future generations.  ORIGINS 2017 has a whole string of stories to tell about young people growing to maturity in First Nations cultures, and what they learn along the way.  THREE WISE COUSINS is a coming of age comedy, about a young Samoan man living in New Zealand, who hears his potential love interest say that she wants a "Real Island Guy".  Cue the cultural education trip to Samoa...  

Johogoi Aiyy
Other films that treat the same sort of process in less comic way are SPEAR, which follows a young man's attempts to reconcile Aboriginal traditions with a contemporary urban world; and the extraordinary JOHOGOI AIYY (Johogoi God) from the Yakut people of Sakha in the Russian Arctic.  In this remarkable film, like no other, a young man travels to the annual midsummer festival — the Tuymada Ysekh - and we travel with him, learning as he learns about his culture, his spirituality and his destiny.
Huff
Youth is also central to our theatre programme, with Cliff Cardinal's HUFF casting an unflinching eye on some of the more horrific aspects of young lives on Native Reservations, where solvent abuse if rife and where the suicide rate is five times that in the rest of Canada.  Oddly enough, it manages to be very funny in the process.  There's light relief to follow with Joshua Warrior's Aboriginal stand-up ABORIGINAL GIGOLO, or hip-hop with the fabulous MAU POWER at the ORIGINS CONCERT.
Island Poké
Younger youth also have lots to look forward to - not least because of our Education programme, which will be taking over two primary schools through the festival, immersing over a thousand children in indigenous culture.  Some of them will be performing at PASIFIKA in Kensington, and that's going to be a great Family Day out on every level, with song and dance from a whole range of Pacific cultures, Maori martial arts, and Hawaiian food from our fabulous partners Island Poké.
Man of the Andes
On Sunday 25 June, there are two shows at Rich Mix aimed especially at young audiences.  MAN OF THE ANDES is José Navarro's puppet extravaganza, introducing children to Andean animals, Quechua music and the Scissor Dance, all without any language to get in the way!  BABA THE BAD BABOON is Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new family musical, drawn from Samoan mythology, and taking in a few thoughts on climate change.

ORIGINS is a great place to be young....


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pathways through the Festival 1: History and Representation

The New World
As ORIGINS 2017 approaches, and people are getting keen to book their tickets, we thought it might be useful to outline a few possible Pathways Through the Festival - giving you the chance to work out what events sit together well by theme or "feel".  Our First Pathway is about History and Representation.

At the heart of these ideas sits the contested figure of Pocahontas.  2017 is the 400th anniversary of her time in England and untimely death at Gravesend, aged only 21.  Celebrations can be complex: and this anniversary hasn't been without its controversy. Writing in Indian Country Today, Lisa J. Ellwood attacks the way in which the commemorations have seemed to appropriate Pocahontas (or Matoaka, as she was properly known) as a "Great and Powerful English Feminist".  Ellwood cites the alternative oral traditions of the Powhatan, which we also explored in our HIDDEN HISTORIES film.  According to this tradition, Pocahontas was abducted, raped and eventually murdered: a very different tale.   [You can see HIDDEN HISTORIES as part of our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House on June 15, or in a pre-festival screening at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham on May 27]  Our friend Graham Harvey (part of our TALKS programme) wrote a blog piece on the commemoration at Gravesend, which also problematises it in the light of colonial histories and post-colonial tensions.  As a Festival celebrating indigenous culture, ORIGINS can't enter this territory without an overt awareness of its being contested space.  So our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS night will be a Native American ritual, not a Christian one, at a site where she lived, not where she died.  It will involve contemporary Native American women who have travelled to England locating their own stories in relation to hers - or what hers might have been.  And the film we are screening about her, THE NEW WORLD, is an attempt to move beyond contested histories and into the realm of the mythological - the imaginative space where the real potential for healing can be found.

Observance by Julie Gough 
You might want to compare THE NEW WORLD with Julie Gough's THE LOST WORLD.  Julie's art constantly questions the way in which Aboriginal lands and artefacts are owned or represented by the dominant culture.  Like many of the voices in ORIGINS, hers is raised to debate the continuing dispossession of indigenous peoples, not only from their lands but also from their histories.  The same issues are tackled in very different ways in the theatre piece THE 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, in which Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman trace the indigenous Australian experience from first contact to the present day.  It's a great example of theatre and performance re-claiming history for the people on the receiving end of its more malign forces, superbly performed by the young Thitharr Warra woman Chenoa Deemal.  It's director, Jason Klarwein writes: "The language you hear in our version of this play is Chenoa’s language. The design elements of the show are based on the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where Chenoa grew up, the artworks of the people there, and the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland. We have taken the structure of this marvellously robust work and given it our experience. Our childhood and our pain. As well as the pain of generations of displaced First Peoples."
Tanya Tagaq
The question of History - who owns it, who controls it, who has the right to claim it - is perhaps most powerfully addressed by working with Museums.  ORIGINS first worked with the British Museum in 2015, and this year we're returning there, complementing their exhibition WHERE THE THUNDERBIRD LIVES with a screening of the extraordinary 1914 archive film IN THE LAND OF THE HEADHUNTERS, which opens the Festival on June 10.  A second archive film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, marks our Closing Night at the National Maritime Museum on June 25 - but this time the film is gloriously re-appropriated by the culture on which it casts its colonial gaze.  The great Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq improvises a live soundtrack to the film - embodying its representation
of the Arctic landscape and undercutting its construction of the Inuit as primitive "Others".  In many ways, this performance is an answer to the colonial writings of history that have continually dogged indigenous peoples - an issue also presented at our other NMM screening, PASSAGE, which sees the slandering of the Inuit by Victorian moralists like Charles Dickens, and the beginnings of reconciliation in the present day.  That whole history of mis-representation, leading to self-representation on film is traced in the wonderful (and very funny) documentary REEL INJUN, and countered by the re-invention of indigenous language itself in Christian Thompson's video installation BERCEUSE.
Spirit of the Ancestors
Talking about Museums and indigenous peoples often leads to the discussion of re-patriation.  It's a complex issue, but one which has to be dealt with.  TE KUHANE O TE TUPUNA (The Spirit of the Ancestors), which screens at Arthouse Crouch End on June 14, does just that.  It's a film from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, about the search for the the lost Moai Hoa Haka Nanaia, a statue of significant cultural importance.  That statue currently sits in pride of place in the British Museum.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Brexit the Stage

Intercultural Laboratory - participants from UK, Romania and Greece
Last time we ran our Intercultural Play-Making Laboratory, I had the impossible task of welcoming visitors from Europe on the day of the referendum result.  This time there wasn't quite such an element of shock - but Brexit inevitably hung over the week's work, as we dialogued with participants from Greece, Romania, Estonia, Portugal, Germany and the UK.  We actually started by inviting everybody to the V&A's symposium Brexit the Stage: if there's an elephant in the room, it's best to take notice.

The symposium was characterised by a tone of resignation.  Even David Lan, whose speech struck a more powerful moral tone than most, didn't dare to suggest that Brexit could possibly be resisted.  What seemed to me most striking and most disturbing about the day was the sense that Britain really was different from the rest of Europe, and that the difference consisted of a more mercenary approach, even to culture.  Mark Ball talked about British participants in the international theatre circuit being more transactional in their approach than Europeans (or anybody else, except Americans).  Christopher Balme, who has always had a global view of such things, looked at the UK's gradual policy shift away from an integral to an instrumental view of the value of culture; and suggested that the corresponding move in European cultural policy, from Culture 2000's belief in the inherent worth of intercultural dialogue to Creative Europe's emphasis on culture as a means to economic and social regeneration, was a reflection of British influence.  So at least we managed to mess Europe up before leaving it....

I retain a few little strands of hope as to what may happen in the negotiating process.  If, as seems virtually certain, Theresa May is re-elected with an enhanced majority, she will take that same transactional, indeed confrontational approach to the negotiation.  Her recent run-in with Jean-Claude Juncker shows just how alien this is to the European approach to policy: on the continent there is far less adversarial politics, far more consensus and coalition building.  The thought that the Brexit talks might be about "the best deal we can get" is itself anathema to the Commission.  The British government cares not a jot for culture or education - the most recent instructions from the DCMS to the Arts Council suggest that the latter should be transformed into a business development agency, a bit like UKTI.  But culture and education do still matter to the European Union, and they value the contributions that British educators, researchers and (yes) artists can make to their projects. It may just be that the EU manages to salvage our involvement in the programmes as a trade-off for some concession on tariffs or the like.  I'm inclined to direct the lobbying efforts towards Brussels rather than Westminster.

Turbulent times produce good art, though - and, fully aware of the irony, I can report that this Laboratory was the best we have done.  At our Evaluation session, and since, participants spoke about the freedom they had found in our approach, the way the workshop had enabled them to follow their creativity and emotional paths, to overcome fear, to re-frame their own roles as artists or educators.  One young man from Romania, who may or may not have known that he was arguing the case for Europe, said:  "It made me feel how travelling and communicating can help you grow...  If you put people together, it's better for everyone".

Simple really, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pocahontas 400

The real Pocahontas 
It's rare for me to blog twice in one day - but we can't let March 21st 2017 pass without commemorating Pocahontas.  It's 400 years ago today that she died, at Gravesend, where she was subsequently buried.  The grave itself was lost when the church burned down in the 18th century - but there's a statue in the churchyard, and today there's a service being held.

After all, the adult Pocahontas was a Christian.  She and John Rolfe had the first recorded intercultural marriage in North America, and she had to convert in order for that to happen, particularly as Rolfe was one of "the godly", or Puritans.  Whether, like other indigenous people, she thought of Christ as another deity to add to an existing pantheon, we do not know.  In fact, we know very little of what she thought at all.  The thoughts of indigenous people and women from the 17th century are rarely recorded, and Pocahontas happened to be both.

What we do know is that she had great symbolic value as a cultural ambassador.  Received by James I and Anne of Denmark as visiting royalty, she represented a PR coup for the Virginia Company and its tobacco trade.  Her manners and her religion served to demonstrate that the English Empire could "civilise" the "savage".  Or so it suited them to say.  It may well have been as a result of this convenient narrative and celebrity status that Captain John Smith decided to invent the famous story of the child Pocahontas saving his life - it certainly seems unlikely to have happened in quite the way he described it, and we know she was decidedly cold towards him when they met on her visit to London.  Although Pocahontas died here, her Powhatan companions made the journey home, and seem to have been among the leaders of the Powhatan rising against the colonists in 1622.  The visit may have been a PR success with the British public, but it wasn't one with the indigenous people.

On Saturday, we showed our film HIDDEN HISTORIES at the British Library, as part of their Pocahontas celebrations - and in June's ORIGINS Festival there will be a number of events to mark the anniversary.  We'll be holding a special evening at Syon House, where she stayed for a time, and screening the great, if slightly fictionalised, film about her life, Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD - a film characterised by the spiritual energy of indigenous cultures.  Perhaps that is where we should be looking for her real legacy.


The Roman Tragedies - The Illusion of Participation

The Roman Tragedies
This photo is unusual for a theatre blog - I took it myself.  In Ivo van Hove's production of The Roman Tragedies, many of the rules about theatre and spectatorship seem to be thrown out of the window.  You can take photos.  You can tweet about the show as it unfolds through its six-hour span, and the tweets are flashed across the stage during set changes.  You can move between seats, and onto the stage, where you sit in close proximity to the actors.  You watch the performance both live (at various distances) and on live filmed relays, both on the large screen above the stage and on the many TV monitors around the space (including, if you like, in the foyers).  Given that the Shakespeare text is spoken in a contemporary, prosaic Dutch, an eye on the screen is essential as that's also where the subtitles are.  In one of the most thrilling scenes, Hans Kesting  as Mark Antony delivered his eulogy to Caesar very close to me, and once or twice locked eyes with me (the spectator as crowd member) - but I also had to keep looking away from him to the broadcast version, so as to check what he was actually saying (the spectator as receiver of the mediated).  You can buy food and drink on stage, and eat it during the show.  You can check out the make-up area, where the performers are prepared to go on camera.  There's an info desk about the company's work, from where the set changes are announced, complete with musak.

The Roman Tragedies - the onstage make-up area.
It could all be incredibly gimmicky, I suppose - and it is certainly fun - but it seems to me that this is much more than an experiment with audience participation.  And that the participation is not actually participatory at all.  I saw the production when it first came to the Barbican in 2009, and then I wrote that "there's an element of real democracy about the whole thing. It raises endless questions about theatre and politics - not least whether politics might be turning into nothing but performance."   Reading that blog today, it feels like a memory of a more innocent time, as well as recognising the production as prophetic.  In its current manifestation, the production opens with the Trump inauguration being broadcast on TV, while Volumnia and Virgilia discuss the absent Martius, their private conversation also being broadcast.  There seems to be no boundary between the public and the private.
The Roman Tragedies - spectators and TVs
On one level, this reflects our current "politics as show-biz" - the desire to feel intimate with public figures, to be aware of their private lives, to have them live out those lives as a public display (Antony and Cleopatra is particularly strong in this way).  On another level, it suggests the privatisation of public space - the way in which reckless magnates like Trump, Farage and (the most immediate example) George Osborne have come to treat politics as just another part of their self-aggrandising, self-enriching projects.  And this is crucial to the way the performance works - or, at least, it felt so in the charged atmosphere of 2017, far more so than it had in 2009.  Because the apparent agency this production gives to the audience is not agency at all: we remain as passive recipients of the play.  If, as I said in 2009, the production is "democratic" (and at heart I believe theatre to be a fundamentally democratic form), then it is through the exposure of what is so profoundly undemocratic in the current moment.  We have ceased to be participants, and become mere consumers.

Van Hove cuts all the scenes where Shakespeare has the common people speak.  The actors address the audience as "Friends, Romans, countrymen" - partly live but more tellingly through the medium of broadcast.  We feel as if we could be part of the story, as if our role contains the potential for action - but in fact we spectate.  The performance provides us with basic needs - we can work out when to take a loo break and the food is pretty good.  But we retain our role as spectators even as we are offered the illusion of participation.  For the last section of the performance, we are ordered back to our original seats, facing the conventional proscenium stage in a conventional hierarchical relationship - and of course, we unquestioningly obey.  Even the final ovation, leaping to our feet as one, is somehow disturbing in this most uneasy of performances.

In June 2016, the people of Britain responded to a marketing campaign based on lies, misinformation and the manipulation of prejudice, conveyed through broadcast and social media.  This led to the shocking referendum result, which has since been exploited as an expression of "the will of the people" to chilling effect - the Brexit process is being rushed through without consultation or democratic process.  Trump's antics are only an Americanised manifestation of the same basic thing.  Last week I was grateful to the Dutch for an election that stemmed the tide of populism, and for a piece of theatre that clarified just what is going on.