Monthly Archives: June 2010

Farewell South Africa, keep waving that flag

It’s our last show of Extra-Ordinary tomorrow morning and then we leave Grahamstown. It has won an award, receiving glowing reviews and made audience scream with laughter and quietly cry.

Kids are still running up to Dave in the street and shouting- I know you I know you, where is your bottom half?

The show has made a huge impact on this national festival, its artists and to the people of the town. Glorious thing.


Extra-Ordinary is going on to Cape Town to play the Baxter Theatre for a performance on Tuesday but I am away to the UK because I’ve got rehearsals coming up.

I love South Africa. Partly because of the associations it has for and of my wife but also because it is constantly astounding, vainglorious in its ambition and always generous.

I have had the time of my life travelling to India and South Africa, seen things I never could have imagined and had a chance to think afresh about some things I’ve been looking at for quite some time.

I go back to the UK for a busy month; I’ve got a new version of The Wind in the Willows by James Phillips to rehearse for the NSDF to be performed at the Latitude Festival first and then The Knowledge Emporium- a new Slung Low project with the Gate Theatre, London.

Nestled somewhere in there is giving a speech at Shift Happens. I’ve been thinking a lot about that during my travels and thinking a lot about how these experiences might influence my understanding of my own world.

Some things have continued to resonate, presented themselves repeatedly in the most unexpected of places. It seems to me that those things point the way to that understanding, and more immediately to the content of my speech.

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Wherever I have gone, no matter how different every aspect might be from anything I understand or known, story has been present. More than that, the communal need for story has been present and clear to me even when I could not communicate with anyone else beyond smiling like a loon. This desire people have- no matter how far removed their lives from anything I might term comfortable- to perform stories for each other has been clear in every community I have been welcomed in to.

And the other thing that has become increasingly clear to me as I have wandered and wondered around the place is that whilst you would struggle to find a sensible person in UK theatre who believes that Shift isn’t needed, there can be so little freedom in the terms of engagement. I think the clarity in this realisation has come from often being far from anything I could recognise from my own industry structure (funding, theatres, partners, audience, box office, marketing et al).

The discussions I have been having over the last couple of years about new ways of thinking, new ways of working have been a little like sitting down with a production budget with a bad producer- it’s all been promised, carved up, is not negotiable the first time you get to see it. We have so many sacred cows, so many things that we KNOW have to be the case, so many things that I don’t examine but accept, assuming there has to be a reason for why they are there.

Do something new but so it fits in the hole the old left.

I met Marcus who runs Shift Happens just before I came away a month ago. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the best way to make a shift happen is outside of the existing structures, it forces it’s way in from the outside.

I’ve been to a number of places where a supportive structure (in my terms of buildings, funding, local government, ACE) simply doesn’t exist. I am not sure I am willing to surrender our system- I don’t like the look of how hard it looks to work without one.

In any case I am not quite there yet with clarity. But somehow all these things are connected; through Kolkata, Bengal, Grahamstown and home.

Thanks for keeping me company as I crawl towards a conclusion. Miles to go.

So to pack. There’s a bunch of weasels somewhere that need telling what to do.

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Giant French Puppets and Miscellaneous

The images are from The Giant Match: a collaboration between the festival and the French Institute of South Africa. It took place in a township, but a different one from the elephant show earlier in the week- a rough place of angry men on crutches, goats in skips, old people driven mad by something and tiny hands creeping at your pockets.

It was an excellent show- skilful and riotous in the right combination. The puppets led different parts of the audience on three separate routes. Ours was reality TV style piece where the family being introduced had a ghost living with them. Then all three routes combined again for a giant football match and a wedding (I might have lost bits of the plot around the wedding section). Excellent thing.

The following are just little things that interested me or happened over the last ten days.

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On the way to Port Elizabeth the other day a radio advert played a number of times. It’s backed by the sort of apocalyptic music Ridley Scott uses whenever Russell Crowe gets on a horse. “The water in our Municipality is running out. Our reserves are nearly finished. We are facing crisis. If we all use water sensible and monitor our usage then we will have enough for the World Cup and our visitors. Call our free toll number to report abuse of our water supply.”

A Vetkoek is basically a doughnut with chicken curry in it. Sweet God what an excellent idea! A bunny chow is where they take a loaf of bread, scoop out the middle and fill it with curry. I daren’t even look at it. But in time I will grow braver.

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Grahamstown has had one fatal shooting in 12 months. It was an Englishman who came home unexpectedly during his lunch break and surprised the burglars.
On average two laptops get stolen every day in Grahamstown. The surprising part of that statistic is that there are that many laptops in this town.
We’re staying with two policemen whilst we are here in Grahamstown.

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Grahamstown suffered a power cut at night whilst we were on our way home from the match. The lights were out for an hour or so. Personally I think it’s because all the power in the world was being used to keep the massive flood lights working at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Outside the World Cup and the festival it’s a relatively common occurrence but the Government seem to have put the power companies’ and unions’ feet to the fire so they don’t embarrass anyone whilst the world is here watching.

This is Grahamstown at night. It is not very big.

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On the streets there are car guards. They stand there all day in old high visibility vests. They don’t work for anyone- they aren’t a security company. They are just people who have a hi-vis vest.
Each car guard has a patch (10 car spaces maybe, more car spaces on the less busy roads). When you get out of your car they rush over to you, standing in front of you so that you have registered they are there. On your way back to the car you give them between 2-7 rand (15-65 pence). You do not as this utterly incompetent traveller did on his first night give them a 50 rand note because you haven’t got anything smaller. This is not seen as an act of generosity but more as an act of insanity (the same was said in India about tipping more than 100 rupees (£1) for anything beyond restaurant service no matter what the service): you don’t get thanked you just get classified as stupid.
Half the time when you get out of your car the car guard will say “I look after your car for you Boss”. I prefer it when they don’t- firstly because the word Boss fills me with a strong left liberal elite urge to scrub myself with a post colonial nail brush- but mostly because the sentence just makes it massively obvious that what you are paying for is in fact the service of them NOT to break in to your car, rather than any true sense of guarding. It’s like an Alan Bleasdale sketch gone systematic.
I saw a South African not pay the car guard yesterday. I am not worried about the car being damaged (damage waiver!) but I will happily pay a great deal more than 65 pence to avoid the humiliation of having a 50 something woman in a high visibility vest chase your car down the street, hollering and banging on the window. I’d rather give them a fiver and be thought an idiot.

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Afrikaans for ‘skunk’ is ‘stinky mouse dog’. A Meercat is thus called because it’s ‘more cat than dog’ It’s a very literal language like that it would seem. A Giraffe is called ‘Camel Horse’. I don’t think you should be able to do that to language, or logic. Really you shouldn’t be allowed.

As I sit writing this outside the drama department Richard Antrobus (he of the stilt performance) has popped by to chat about working again in the UK. He’s having a shit morning. Alongside his show he runs a project to train young, disadvantaged kids in stilt and so on. He’s turned his best 4 performers in to a little company to do corporate work and such. They take care of his marketing here at the Festival- stilting around with flyers in costumes. One of his lads got stabbed last night, set upon by a gang of four. He’s in hospital on a drip, but will be okay. It’s the fourth time this has happened recently. Not so long ago the brother of the lad who got stabbed last night was killed for his mobile phone. Richard looks beat. “He was going home in his costume,” he says. “So that’s something to sort out today. It would be good to come over and work again with you. Get out of South Africa for a bit.” I remember I had a picture of Richard’s lads I hadn’t used. Here it is.

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When we parked up outsid
e the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium on a little piece of grass by the main entrance I remember distinctly opening the front door. The next thing I remember is lying flat out, face up, staring into the sun with Lucy above me “Are you okay Al?”. There was blood in my mouth. I swear in that moment I thought I had been car jacked- some fucker had shot me in the back.
Piecing it together what became obvious was that in actual fact- some distance away from what I stupidly initially assumed- in trying to get the wheel chair out of the boot my hand had slipped, I had punched myself in the mouth, hit my head on the boot on the way back and knocked myself spark out. I spent the rest of the day with a thick lip, a pounding headache and the overriding sense- one that must be becoming clear even to you patient reader- that even in the most dangerous of places I remain the greatest threat to myself.

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Disability and a little politics in Grahamstown

Last year I made 3 theatre pieces and a couple of video bits with Dave Toole; two shows at the Lowry and one at the Barbican. We were lucky enough to get our fair share of press- 20 odd reviews of the shows and the same of preview pieces I would estimate. With the exception of one review in a North West regional (I am away from home and on dial up so can’t find the name of the paper, I’m not being snotty about regional press) not a single piece of press mentioned that Dave has no legs.

Extra-Ordinary has got its fair share of press too. Every single piece of press has mentioned Dave’s lack of legs. Most of them in a sort of punning headline.

This isn’t a snide comment of my part. I’ve been talking to Dave over the last few days about whether the press not engaging with his physicality last year is a sign of progress in the UK, a sign of political correctness, professional disrespect or a combination of all of those. I still don’t know. The punning South Africans haven’t made my mind up either way.
I do know that the one UK piece who did mention his lack of legs last year took offence at my use of Dave as grotesque freak. I still firmly believe that says more about the journalist than it says about Dave, myself or the show. But beyond that I still cant quite get any clarity on the issue.

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To that end I went along to a discussion event organised by the festival here about disability. Dave was speaking as was Gary Robson, Artistic Director of DaDaFest based in Liverpool. He immediately amused me by using the phrase “Freak Fucker” which silenced the room. It sounds an amazing festival. It made me laugh that you often find out about what is right under your nose when you are a thousand miles away from it. The Festival plays the same time as Slung Low’s pieces at the Everyman in the Autumn so I’ll be able to catch bits of it this year which is very exciting.

Also speaking was a woman who ran a disability youth theatre based in poorer areas of South Africa. Her heart was in the right place but her complaints of having to fill in forms for funding and the declaration that her mission in life was to get her “poor, sweet boys to soar like eagles through showing them love” made me bristle. Dave said it was like going back 20 years.

Which may well explain some of the above if not all.

For those that cried foul yesterday that I was being critical of the UK and looking at this festival through an optimistic condescension I note for you people that the Festival newspaper advertised the discussion event the day after it happened; only the participants, myself and one other person turned up; and they ironically didn’t signpost the access ramp to the venue so Dave and I traipsed down 3 flights of stairs. There you go- everywhere is shit.

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I caught a show tonight called Without Blood by a company called Seity.

It was a piece of multi media physical story telling- lots of third person narration, live feed video and jumping about a metal cage.
It was the story of a young white girl who is hiding in the cellar when three black men come to murder her father. Her father carried out medical experiments on black people during Apartheid. They kill him, and in sort of an accident her brother too. They torch the house. Not before one of them sees her hiding.
She survives and is passed between men (at one point won and lost at a poker game) before she tracks down the two killers of her father and murders them.
We are there when she meets the third man who saw her in the cellar 50 years before.
He thinks she has come to kill him, he is ready and accepting of his fate. But instead they make love and she finally gets the peace she wants. Returning to her original state of peace before the fire somehow as a result of lying beside him.

I am not going to pretend I understood all of this. It was in 4 languages, 3 of which I don’t speak.

But something really hit a chord that bears sharing. When the two are talking at the end of the play she asks him why he did it. He responds “We did it because we wanted a better world. We needed to have a better world. You cannot sow without first tilling the ground. This was a struggle and we had to break the ground. Thousands of children were waiting, needing us to break the ground so they could have a better world. A world where man can live and die with dignity. Without the boot of oppression on his head. You wouldn’t understand. We had to break the ground in order to sow. You wouldn’t understand.”
It was an extraordinary speech and spoke well beyond the confines of this story. Logic for the unjustifiable.
But the genuinely moving moment came seconds later when the woman asked him, “And did you get your better world. Is this it?” And an old man shook his head, put his hat on and said,”I never thought to ask myself.”
That moment was worth all the rest.

Without Blood had a whole heap of structural problems but in a strange way the muddled narrative seemed to echo eloquently the muddled nature of the whole situation and what little I understand of the transition and immediate post apartheid era. This was happening alongside the Reconciliation trials- “a part of the old struggle not the new” they called it.

This seems an infinitely better theatrical approach to history than I have seen elsewhere. This festival is almost as obsessed with the Nazis as Edinburgh is. It’s Goering a go go here for reasons that I can’t quite fathom. I shall report back if I ever do.

Stilted performance and theatrical DNA

Caught a show today called Stilted starring Richard Antrobus. Richard is a Rhodes Uni graduate. Some will remember him from the original Bradford version of They Only Come at Night. He’s a fierce physical performer, skillful, determined and seemingly impossible to destroy.

His show is the tale of a stilted performer spirit visiting an actor preparing for a performance off As You Like It. The stilted Antrobus terrorises the inept actor before blowing his mind with an enforced dance duet and by turning the closed circuit video camera on the audience thereby destroying the comforting fourth wall.

The theatrical arguments contained are the stuff of Pirandello and those meta theatre shows you see at the end of MA courses in performance. It’s not that they are wrong, or uninteresting- just well travelled roads.

However what made the show so very entertaining and exciting was the sheer level of physical skill. They train them like that at Rhodes- full of inventiveness and what appears to be a complete disregard for physical well being. Stilted Richard leaps over tables, turning full circle around a raised bed before leaping on to a full size trampoline. In a studio theatre.

There seems to be some sort of silk route between Rhodes and West Yorkshire- we’ve had a few of the guys from here over there at different points the last few years. I’m by no means saying that they have all been head and shoulders better than the UK performers but it has to be said that, whatever their other attributes, they have all to a man been incredibly well trained clowns and physical performers- and certainly mime skills that you just don’t see in the UK often enough given how many mime and clown shows we see in our venues.

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(These chaps were insistent I took their photo- it’s a disturbing image)

It was interesting to see Stilted alongside Extra- Ordinary (they share a venue). Not simply because of the contrasting images of legless Dave Toole and stilted Richard Antrobus. The two shows mine the same material- why perform? for whom? and how much of yourself do you take on stage, and how much do you leave behind.
One of the things becoming clearer from the reception of Extra-Ordinary is that one of the elements marking it out as so very different and strange is ‘honesty’. The idea of the mask falling away and seeing the performer just standing there- or even not wearing one in the first place. Whilst Stilted recognised the reality of the audience and the venue they did so from firmly within a theatrical conceit; they removed the fourth wall. Extra-Ordinary doesn’t bother having one in the first place; Lucy running out to greet the audience, stopping the introductory video within the first few moments.

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There are a couple of moments that never fail to stop the audience dead in Extra-Ordinary. When Dave turns to Lucy and asks, “aren’t you a bit hefty to be a dancer.” And when Lucy later, in tears with half a ridiculous costume on, turns to the audience and sobs “I’m sorry I wanted this to be perfect”. In both those moments I swear if you could stop the show and ask the audience honestly they would tell you they thought the show has gone off the tracks.

I was thinking a lot about how this element of biography- of a style performance owing more to Live Art than theatre- has so confused and delighted the audience here. These are a theatrical literate, creative community of people and yet I have seem no signs of more live art style performances. God in Edinburgh you can’t move for a Le Coq graduate standing in a studio writing the names of every person he has ever slept with on his naked body.

At Development Lab in Bradford the programme endeavours to meet the full range of performance. From a painfully personal Chris Goode installation to a new four hander by Mark Catley. Extra-Ordinary sits within this spectrum almost centrally.

And I wonder whether- whilst undoubtedly Lucy brought her physical skills over to West Yorkshire to the betterment of all she works for- that on this home coming here to Grahamstown, her theatrical genetics haven’t been inexorably altered by all those long nights in university studios whilst we tried to work out how on earth you make a show out of 300 photos, a box of chalk, 1 digital projector, a polaroid camera, 4 candles and 21 performers. Only 1 of whom can dance.

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This puppet is from a show called Giant Match. We’re off to see it later in the week. Stupidly excited about that!

Standing still for money and a South African theatre dynasty

Wherever you go in Grahamstown on the corners of the streets are little township lads frozen still. A few years ago apparently it was gum boot dancing but last year they got a look at a decent statue artist and so this year they’ve found what costumes they can and they’re standing as still as they can manage.
My favourite was a dude who had borrowed a donkey and was sitting on him. The donkey was excellent. I was laughing too hard to take a picture but here is my second favourite. A karate scream.

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There’s a family in South African theatre called the Bucklands. There’s the mother, Janet, who runs U-Boum (a graduate, community combined company- more of these later); the son Daniel a director and actor fast making his name for exceptional physical performances; and the father, Andrew- head of acting at the Drama course at Rhodes University and a celebrated actor of 30 years.
Daniel and Andrew spent all of last year playing the story tellers for Cirque du Soleil in Los Angeles. So they play at that level. Which is pretty impressive wherever you come from.
Anyway I mention all this because last night I went to see Breed, the latest show from U-Boum.

The Story
Breed is the heart wrenching story of a white man whose daughter was murdered in township violence where she taught the violin to kids. He’s losing his marbles, still talking to his daughter, retreating into racism and the comfort of his vicious dog who is called Meat. A homeless mother and daughter have secretly moved in to his barn and he discovers, whilst catching them stealing his water, that the mother was a cleaner at the school his daughter taught at (the reveal being when the mother hums the piece of Bach his daughter used to teach her more talented kids). In the excitement of wanting his daughter to come and see this extraordinary piece of serendipity, the reality of her death reveals itself to him and destroyed by grief, he throws the mother out in to the yard. Forgetting he left the dog out there, Meat kills the mother before the man can shoot it. Leaving- in the most depressing of cycles- the daughter to beat the tied up dog to death with a stick. The story ends with the homeless daughter taking up residence with the man and learning the violin. But in such a way as to make it clear that this is not a resolution, just the start of another revolution.
In the end it reminded me of Bond’s Saved.

U-Boum is a company that takes graduates of Rhodes Uni, combines them with members of township programmes and experienced perfomers that then creates professional (and crucially paid) performance. Breed was an example of this process raising the bar and creating practical- and possible- opportunities for experience.

Breed is one of the very best pieces of theatre I have seen in quite some time. In the style of what is called here the Buckland’s unique ‘action theatre’- inherently physical but with a grounding in mime and character rather than dance (a little like Gecko I suppose in UK terms, with a bit of Frantic too, but then nothing like that really)- I can’t remember the last time I was so gripped by a story, genuinely desperate to find out what happens.
Andrew Buckland (the Dad of this South African Attenborough-esque clan) was the lead. It has been some time since I have seen a performance like it. An absolute master class in physical skill combined with making a character that is utterly on the wrong side of the argument not necessarily sympathetic but completely human.

I’ve been thinking alot about the fact that Andrew is a pretty big star, he’s known, he’s spent a year with the Circus in LA for goodness sake. And to see him in this show with the young performers around him- learning, practising and crucially holding their own- it made me think a great deal about the equivalent in the UK. It’s basically the likes of Adrian Lester doing a show with a youth company from Oldham- not for a gala night- but for a fortnight- and in a 215 seater venue. In Edinburgh. On the Fringe.
I’ve avoided on my travels making comparisons between the UK industry and elsewhere- it’s too easy to set up a cheap slap against marketing managers of rep houses or the like- but in this instance I sat at the end of the show, heart broken by the play and rather in awe of this extraordinary performer: not just for his performance but for his commitment to it all.

There’s a scheme here at the Festival called ArtReach where groups who have signed up (certain youth theatres, township programmes, qualifying schools) can get free tickets. The companies have to agree to participate too and being as we came here for the audience, Extra-Ordinary has signed up. It’s a bit like A Night Less Ordinary but without the need to spend time as referee between 19 year old students and box office supervisors.
So far Extra-Ordinary’s audience has been roughly 50% comped in on this scheme.
It’s working.
This isn’t lost revenue. These people were never going to find the £5 for a ticket. This is the argument that art changes lives in practice. It’s a pretty impressive ratio. It’s a pretty inspiring thing. And it’s a bunch of seats that were going to sit empty otherwise. And I’ve had my fill of those this year.

I was thinking about this because I just got the show report from Slung Low’s show Small Worlds which is over at the Liverpool Playhouse this week. A large pre-booked group didn’t show which for a piece like Small Worlds means that the gang performed to 3 people and shut up shop for the night. It isn’t anyone’s fault and these two things aren’t connected in reality. But in my head they are. Somehow. If I can work out how. In a productive manner.

There’s a lot of inspiring things around at the moment, the Bucklands are just what I was thinking about today. I’m off to see Daniel Buckland later in the week in a show called Wombtide. I first saw him 5 or 6 years ago at Edinburgh in a fringe first winning show directed by his dad called Fuse. It was immense. I have great hopes for Wombtide. I’m glad they came back from the circus.

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This is a picture of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium from tonight. This is another inspiring thing.