Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

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.

IberoAmericano Festival de Teatro de Bogota

March 31, 2010

Something of a dream came true for me last week when I was able to attend the bi-ennial theatre festival in Bogota, Columbia. I had heard excited rumours about this festival for a while: South America’s Edinburgh, host to theatre companies from all over the Latin continent, started somewhat improbably in 1998 by the aging but much beloved Columbian soap star Fanny Mikey. This was the place I needed to be to continue pursuing the marriage of my personal passion for South America with my professional interest in theatre producing.

The 2010 festival was the first since the sad passing of its charismatic founder Fanny Mikey, and tributes to her larger-than-life presence were everywhere: theatres were named in her honour, her orange curls and wicked grin were plastered across billboards, and ebullient quotes from her life adorned theatre foyers, the most bullish of which read: “Everything in life is possible; the only thing impossible is war.”

Fanny Mikey, founder of the Bogota Theatre Festival

Clearly the international theatre world is beginning to take notice of this festival: about 50 international delegates from the professional theatre world attended the 2008 edition of the festival; this year, there were 100 of us, including 6 Brits – myself and 5 representatives of the newly established International Theatre Consortium. Bogota is an extraordinary and challenging place for a festival of this scale: at 2,640 metres above sea level, the city’s air is thinner than usual, and heavily polluted by the smog of traffic fumes that permanently clog the highways, enforcing strenuous aerobic exercise on us in our dashing from venue to venue. The city is immense, and the geographical layout of the grid system is frustratingly deceptive: streets called ‘carreras’ run in one direction and cross streets called ‘calles’ run at right angles. All are supposedly numbered, but given that absolutely no roadsigns exist, very few people, including taxi drivers, seem to know which street is which, with odd diagonal streets and occasional avenues adding to the confusion. Maps seemed to vary wildly in their accuracy, and taxis are almost always 40 minutes late, their passage constantly blocked by bumper-to-bumper traffic. Given that the festival included plenty of events at obscure venues – residential apartments, old crumbling theatres tucked away in courtyards up pedestrian sidestreets, school halls, parks, etc. – most delegates missed at least one show per day from their intended agenda, despite Columbian timekeeping meaning that most shows went up 30 minutes late, and waiting on the busy pavements of Bogota soon became a significant part of the experience.

Despite having to do battle with the city each day, it was an inspiring adventure, and on the occasions when we weren’t in a rush, a wander through the back streets offered up all sorts of surreal delights, from brightly coloured murals, to mountains of fresh strawberries sold by the scoop from a barrow, to dozens of tiny theatres hidden away between shops and houses.

I was of course delighted and secretly rather proud that Teatro de Los Andes’ new show – a South American version of The Odyssey – went down so well (rousing standing ovation from an almost full house) and am hoping that its warm reception might add momentum to my campaign to get this fabulous Bolivian company’s work to the UK (see my first ever blog post on the subject). Other highlights for me included work by Chilean company Teatro En El Blanco: they presented two shows in Bogota – Diciembre, which I didn’t manage to get to see but which is coming our way in the summer care of the Edinburgh International Festival, and Neva, a weirdly comic piece about the death of Anton Chekov. Los Santos Innocentes by Mapa Teatro was a powerful piece of work (using fantastic documentary film footage, two venerable marimba players and a team of actors) about the surreal annual festival in an isolated Columbian town in which King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children is commemorated by drag queens running through the streets whipping passing victims. The site-specific piece El Autor Intelectual from Colombian company La Maldita Vanidad was also worth a watch: we peered voyeuristically from an external courtyard through a living room window into an apartment where three siblings argued over whose turn it was to look after their ailing mother, with tragicomedy inevitably turning to tragedy as the stakes got higher and higher. And an honourable mention must be made of the enjoyably bonkers show A Dentro La Casa A Fuera from Colectivo Inedita: no one seemed to have much of an idea of what was going on in this piece but it certainly ticked the ‘memorable and delightfully bizarre’ box, and what attendance at a Latin American arts festival would be complete without just that?

I could have stayed twice as long and was sad to miss the Cien Dias trilogy in particular, in which three separate directors tackle the dystopian subject matter of a world in which no murders take place, except for the one assassination prescribed each 100 day period by the state, with the murderer and victim selected by public ballot. I have heard good things about part one of the trilogy from those lucky enough to have stayed a day or so longer than my schedule allowed.

As ever, I had to sit through my fair share of the bad during the week in return for the reward of the good – only a few theatrical frogs ever turn obligingly into princes upon kissing, I find – but I quite enjoy the gamble in pursuit of discovering something new and wonderful. I do admit, however, to being grateful for the occasional interval at which I could slip out discreetly in pursuit of a glass of Malbec when it all got too taxing.

So all in all, a stimulating, invigorating, delightful week; put it in your 2012 diaries now.