Archive for July, 2014

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship, Part 1

July 9, 2014

I know we shouldn’t play favourites at work, but nonetheless I have to admit that two of the best bits of my job as Producer of Oxford Playhouse entail looking after artist development and producing new shows under our Playhouse Plays Out strand of work which respond to the idea of place, and which connect and resonate with local communities in a way which is special to that place – be that the city, the county, or the particular venue, environment or community within which we’re making each show. Recent highlights on that front have been STAND, made with the brilliant Chris Goode and 6 brave residents of Oxfordshire; Soapbox City, which saw 200 people have their say during 12 hours of continuous public address on May Day 2014; and The Story of the Four Minute Mile, which took place on the very same running track where Sir Roger Bannister made history 60-odd years ago.

So it’s something of a dream that I now find myself in Bolivia on the first leg of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship during which I get to spend an extended period of time with some artists I particularly admire, thinking about how theatre making and ideas of place go hand in hand. I’m hoping that the time spent with these extraordinary international artists will feed in to our Playhouse Plays Out ambitions back in Oxford and inform or encourage the work I’ve recently started to have a go at making on a more modest scale all on my ownsome!

I write this in the middle of Week 2 of 3 that I’m spending with Teatro de los Andes, a wonderful company I first saw perform in New York, at the 2006 Under The Radar festival. In fact, anyone eagle-eyed will notice that I’ve been banging on about them on here for quite some while.  (They don’t yet have the profile in the UK which I think they deserve, but the folks at CASA festival are on a mission to change that, having succeeded in getting them over to London for the first time in 2013; fingers crossed they’ll be returning to UK stages before too long.)

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” 
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

The WCMT’s mission is to support travel which enables you to learn best practice and to make a difference – quite a thing to live up to – although thankfully the learning part of it is, it seems, inevitable. There is definitely something about being elsewhere which makes you think about your own somewhere: the place you started your journey from, the place to which you’ll return at the end of the adventure, and the place which is in your blood and your instincts; the place which is the formative reason why you are how you are. The philosophical argument that the self is best defined through the other is well-trodden ground (I believe the likes of Rimbaud, Hegel, de Beauvoir and Sartre have had a lot to say on the subject), and I doubt I’m the first person to think that the same approach can be applied to ideas of place: we can best get to know the place we’re from by better understanding places where we’re a stranger. And of course I’m particularly interested in how theatre from different places can speak both of and across cultures.

On arrival in Bolivia’s second city, Santa Cruz, just over a week ago, after a long flight from Madrid and with time to kill on an overnight pit-stop before my final flight up to the Andes, it was wandering around the main plaza in a haze of jet-lag that these overly grand thoughts lodged in my head. Because of the benches. Not long before I left home, there were reports in the press about recent aggressive developments in the UK’s architecture of street furniture, which is increasingly being designed to dissuade people, in particular people who find themselves homeless, from making full and free use of our public spaces. In Santa Cruz’s 24 de Septiembre plaza there are at least 150 benches and a dozen free public chess tables (at which I was soundly thrashed all afternoon long by the old masters of the game).  The plaza was of course swarming all day and evening with people from all walks of life and all generations. It felt very much like the architecture of that space made an open invitation to its citizens to spend time there, however they chose, and, without wishing overly to romanticise a difference which I expect is accounted for by respective land and property values, I was saddened on the UK’s account at what our contrasting discouragement of residents’ use of our public spaces says about us. (Vancouver’s response to the UK approach also offers us pause for thought.)

So, the connection to theatre? For me it’s about how we make an invitation. All theatre is an invitation, of course, to share in stories and ideas, but the way in which we make that invitation – in particular the openness and the generosity with which theatre makers are able to make that invitation to audiences – has a profound effect on the audience experience. With Playhouse Plays Out, we talk about trying to open up a city which to many people can seem closed off by both literal and conceptual barriers; the audience experience I know we hope to foster has more akin with the thrumming metaphor of Santa Cruz’s plaza than the hostility of London’s spiked benches.

And so, 24 hours later, I found myself in the mountain village of Yotala, 20km south of the historic city of Sucre (the Bolivian constitution was signed here after Simon Bolivar and General Sucre finally defeated Spanish rule), at Teatro de los Andes’ base, observing rehearsals for their new show (working title, El Cuaderno de las OlasThe Book of the Waves).

Teatro de los Andes' base in Yotala, Bolivia

Teatro de los Andes’ base in Yotala, Bolivia

Appropriately enough, this new show is all about place, or rather, about a country’s understanding of its identity and capacity through its concept of place and territory. More than concept actually: through its ownership of and entitlement to place and territory. 135 years ago in the War of the Pacific, Bolivia lost its access to the sea to Chile. The loss of its coast – from Antofagasta north – is something Bolivia still feels keenly: it manifests itself both as a live political hot potato and in more trivial, though still heartfelt, ways, such as serving as the main reason why most Bolivianos have been ferociously supporting any South American country bar Chile in the current World Cup. The show takes the form of a metaphorical fable of an old woman (Bolivia) whose final wish, which her three children are committed to fulfilling, is to see the horizon and be plunged into the sea before her death.

Over the years I’ve seen three other Teatro de los Andes productions: En Un Sol Amarillo, about the aftermath of a 1998 earthquake in a small altiplano town; El Cyclope, inspired by the ancient Greek myth but recalibrated to modern day Bolivia and often performed for free in barrios on the edges of a city; and La Odisea, in which Odysseus is cast as an eternal global immigrant seeking asylum in the world. El Cuaderno de las Olas seems to pick up the baton of this repertoire very naturally, being deeply, intricately, emotionally connected to and informed by its place of creation. The specificity of its metaphor runs throughout the piece, including precise and detailed references to, for example, the violence which erupted in Sucre in May 2008. And yet, the reason I love this company’s work isn’t because it speaks to me in the way it clearly speaks to local audiences; despite the specificity of place which filters through it unapologetically, it speaks to me as a stranger from another world – a stranger who doesn’t know what it feels like to live in a landlocked country with only your great-grandparents’ memories of the sea for solace and who doesn’t know what inter-community violence on your doorstep feels like, but who does know about the sense of home, of belonging, of loss, of wasted potential, and of hope.

Theatre which is truly embedded in its place and authentically connected to its community can, this experience reminds me, also be universal. As a producer I’m often thinking about how best to contextualise a new piece of work: who is it for, where is it best presented, what context would give it its best life? And while I don’t for one second question the importance of that process or doubt the care I should continue to give to it, the last week has been an inspiring reminder that the universality of the best-made theatre will always speak far beyond its given context too.