Monday, 14 July 2008

Wroclaw – Krzyżowa - Wroclaw, Poland, 01-15 April 2005; The Eugenio Barba Summer School

Wroclaw - Krzyżowa - Wroclaw, Poland, 01-15 April 2005


ISTA - International School of Theatre Anthropology

Director: Eugenio Barba 



Memory, Repetition, Discontinuity

Organised by 
The Centre for Study of Jerzy Grotowski's Work 
and for Cultural and Theatrical Research


As soon as we land at the Wroclaw airport we are collected by a waiting coach and transported to a residential enclosure in a rural location – the village of Krzyzowa. We are allocated beds in single sex dormitoria where each room is shared by three or four people. It feels like being on a school trip and the sense of constriction and repression is palpable from the word 'go'. Soon enough we are given a very strict time-table according to which we are to rise at 6AM every morning and attend a singing sunrise ritual. This is followed by breakfast and a full working day consisting of workshops, lectures and demonstrations. The morning workshops are usually a double block consisting of an Odin workshop and a workshop led by one of Euginio Barba’s friends - usually from a non-occidental performance tradition. These workshops include Indian, Japanese, Balinese and South American dances as well as Biomechanics and Mime. The workshops are followed by talks or sessions led by Barba and they eventually result in the participants being sent away in small groups to devise their own response to a given task. Because Barba is working on his version of Hamlet – based on the original Danish source – and he needs a scene representing death by the plague, we spend most of the week devising ways of dying. But we don’t know the reason until the very end of the summer school when Barba chooses some of the individual pieces, weaves them together into a scene and contextualises this by revealing his underlying aim. During our week in Krzyzowa, we also attend a couple of off-site events, including a singing performance at a local church, and we also get some extra-curricular input– most notably by the Polish voice coach Zygmunt Molik. Apart from a couple of truly amazing highlights of this kind - and the saving grace of having my friend George and our new friend Patrick to frolic with in the central courtyard during the afternoon siesta hours - I end up having a mostly miserable time at this summer school. Barba’s deliberate mystification of his work, his one-way master-student attitude, the accompanying ban on laughing or clapping in the class, his unwillingness to take questions or comments from the participants and the fact that most of the technical classes are designed for students to copy the teacher rather than really understand any of the underlying principles unleash my teenage angst and rebellion. My notes below are therefore a mixture of disillusioned observations and positive learning experiences that I manage to derive for myself.



01.04.05 – Arrival


Theatre is all about shared history. A theatre company can be just a party of friends. Like Eugenio Barba’s ISTA: A certain level of arrogance. A mystification of the craft. The master–student power dynamic. An intention to instil a sense of religious following… I would have been seduced by this some time ago. Suddenly I feel older and more cynical. However, I recognise other directors I’ve worked with in Eugenio. The way he introduces his collaborators and guests. The way it looks impressive and slightly exclusive to the rest of us. The way it makes us want to belong. The way hierarchies are created on the basis of the length of time people have known each other and been together. The way authority is created simply through personality traits, courage and attitude. The way it gives right to self-indulgence.




* Balinese Dance

The frustration I feel with this class teaches me:

-       the importance of breaking down the teaching point into smallest possible parts

-       the importance of learning a gesture or a series of gestures rather than a movement sequence

-       movement as a purely physical, external phenomenon is less effective than the learning of the mechanism of movement on an inner-outer, psychologically/internally motivated level

-       learning a technique is based on bodily strength or an assumption of bodily strength


* Odin’s Roberta Carreri

I like Roberta. She places an interesting emphasis on:

-       the use of the eyes

-       the difference between action and beautiful movement

-       the difference between intention and tension

-       sitting down without falling

-       getting up without jerking

-       stomach as the centre of energy


* Barba’s Lecture -       Organic Dramatrurgy:

-       Dramaturgy is a succession of events, suggesting rather than illustrating; influencing the audience’s nervous system

-       An error can become part of the score through the actor deliberately repeating the error twice more but changing it every time

-       Performance of an action in No changes in each instance – the way that different conductors may change the opening of a Beethoven symphony – interpretation in No is like musical improvisation


03.04.04 – Barba’s ‘Action-Reaction’ Principle

-       Barba’s teaching is based on the ‘action-reaction’ principle. In my understanding, this is a version of the Aristotelian dramaturgical system which Barba applies to movement, action and the dynamic of the piece or the process as a whole. He talks about the importance of ‘tension’ or ‘opposition’ (what I would interpret as Aristotelian ‘agon’ or ‘conflict’) and the notion of ‘finding the impulse’ within it. He is also aware of 'the rule of the three' even though he doesn’t use it explicitly. For example, he claims that:

“Improvisation [which is the overarching topic of this summer school] consists of three or four actions constituting opposition [tension] and featuring an impulse.”

He often advises to: ‘Do the opposite’


Barba claims that:


-       theatre is about taking away unmemorable moments from life

-       theatre is an art of: -

·      memory

·      seeing, making visible

·      giving life

-       biography happens in the discontinuity of memory – omitting the unmemorable

life: before – after

biography: after – before

-       ‘the first day’ doesn’t belong to life but to memory; it’s our job to be biographers

-       ‘the first day’ is a woodworm

-       body memory – remains (separation after the act of creation)

-       soul memory – is lost


How to achieve being continually in a creative condition?

- Stanislavski’s answer – ‘improvisation’


Barba understands and uses ‘improvisation’ in a Stanislavskian sense of the word and as a rehearsal methodology rather than something that can potentially be a performer’s tool in the process of performance. (In contemporary Western training I think that this particular understanding of ‘improvisation’ would simply be considered ‘creativity’.) I don’t get a chance to ask whether he is aware of the latter possibility and what his standpoint is in relation to it, and he never suggests that he might indeed be aware of it.


According to Barba:


Improvisation is a struggle against  1. spontaneity

                                                                2. time

                                                                3. pre-vision; foreseeing, predictability

                    (most important)


On a wider level, Barba also offers a pearl of wisdom, making a distinction between:

loyalty – ‘respecting the contract with another’

faithfulness – ‘respecting the contract with oneself’



(Grotowski’s actor and collaborator, now a voice coach and acting teacher)


Molik asks for someone with a pre-prepared speech to come onto the stage. A Greek Cypriot actor Apostolos volunteers. Molik asks Apostolos to kneel on the floor and close his eyes. He takes him through a visualisation where he asks him to imagine that he is a plant or a bush. He asks him to imagine the being of this plant all the way to its roots. His coming up has to involve a sense of struggle. To start off with there is only a vibration of the voice, then comes the text. Molik asks Apostolos to deliver his text, but Apostolos struggles.


Molik: What is your plant?


Apostolos whispers into Molik’s ear - to a general delight of the audience. They talk privately for a bit.


Molik sends Apostolos away warmly, and then informs us in a reassuring way that ‘this was not completely a plant as it had elements of the human being in it.’


Barba and Molik stand quietly and meditatively on the side of the stage for a bit and then Barba attempts to change the mood or just take the limelight again by expressing his joy and gratitude for Molik’s being here in a typically long and pompous way.


Molik: But we are not here so you can make me a confession of your gratitude, we are here to do things!




Barba: I am happy to give you the last bits of my authority that I’ve got left and make you the chieftan of this horde!


Molik: I’ll take you up on your invitation and do some work with them.


Molik asks the audience to make a low level murmur. Slowly and gradually, he orchestrates a choir of voices – a symphony of positive energy, an all enveloping good vibration which lasts for about 15 minutes. It’s almost as though he is performing a healing ritual on Barba’s loyal but exhausted and exasperated horde. Equally gradually he brings the choir to an end and walks slowly out of the lights to stand aside once again, in silence. We all sit in silence for a while.


Molik (to Barba): Is that all?




More silence.


Molik starts a tentative conversation with Barba - which might have been a chit chat – in French.


Silence. A Kind of comfortable silence.


Molik: Is that all? Shall I say something for the end? (To all): Have a good evening and good night.


Rapturous applause.


Finally – the real master. Stripped from all ego but imbued with a reverence which is earned and comes easily from the others. By comparison, all the rest of this summer school seems facile – pure vanity, surface and ego. In an embarrassing kind of way. Deeply embarrassing. It strikes me that everything Barba does is potentially a result of deep seated insecurity. Perhaps everybody in theatre is deeply insecure? Perhaps the whole point is to achieve a liberation from insecurity and a very simple focus on what is essential.




Some Thoughts on Pedagogy: Advice from the Student to the Teacher


  1. First decide why you are here and why I am here; what do you want to teach me?
  2. Break down your instruction into units so that I know what I am meant to learn.
  3. If you are teaching me how to walk, it is not fair for you to correct me on how I hold my hands (to point out my mistakes in an unrelated area).
  4. Don’t use my getting something wrong so you can show off your power, superiority or knowledge – that goes without saying.
  5. Don’t bore me.
  6. Don’t patronise me.
  7. Don’t take me for granted.
  8. I am prepared to suffer in order to gain knowledge, but I am not prepared to suffer your incompetence or your ego.
  9. I am not here because of you, I am here because of the knowledge.


Some Thoughts on Belief


Belief is an emotional state. In order to believe something I need to be guided emotionally. The same applies to the process of learning and to the process of watching theatre.


Believability is the ability to maintain suspension of disbelief.


Some Thoughts on Barba’s System and Improvisation


Barba’s Aristotelian-inspired system of ‘action-reaction’ works both macro- and microcosmically, both in terms of a narrative and in terms of action: each individual action, each movement, each step. Individual actions are montaged on the basis of counterpoint.


Improvisation is explored through fixed forms, within the controlled circumstances of rehearsal. I think that in this way creativity is hindered. In such a case the creativity of the actor(s) is exploited by the director rather than being facilitated by him. The improvisation is not being used to foster a creative collective ownership of the piece. The work is in a way taken away from the actor-creator and does not necessarily serve his process and creative journey through the piece.


I would say that there are three kinds of improvisation:

1. improvisation - in a Stanislavskian sense - that serves to generate material (from a theme, situation, task)

2. improvisation that helps the actor’s process

3. improvisation that is necessitated in the process of performance as a result of an unforeseen obstacle


Members of Odin on Improvisation


Individual members of Odin theatre demonstrate their techniques of sequencing actions-reactions on a given topic to generate material. They take it in turns to give particular examples. 

The most interesting one is given by Roberta Carreri. She relates an occasion on which she was given a nursery rhyme on the basis of which to improvise a scene – a sequence of movement – around. Her response was to begin by enacting the nursery rhyme. However, in order to avoid illustration she decided to change the scale of objects in the narrative (so stirring a pot could become really big, or very, very small). She also tried responding personally to particular aspects of the narrative. So in response to the line ‘the fog rises over the sharp hills’, she would try seeing the fog, being the fog, remembering that her brother had a car accident and died in the fog, or she would try walking on the sharp hills, imagining them round and sharp like the breasts of a woman, rain over the hills, being able to feel it, taste it, etc. In other words her strategies would be:

  1. association
  2. changing the subject/the character of the narrative
  3. not following the linearity of time – going backwards and forwards in the narrative
  4. concentrating on the verbs rather than adjectives
  5. changing the physical pattern – the dynamics: slow-fast
  6. changing direction
  7. thinking in terms of details (not in general), clear images, precision

They warn also against the danger of over-improvising, becoming too technical, and the importance of editing.


This riveting account again seems to me to be a very interesting and useful take on devising and the actor’s creative process, rather than improvisation per se.





Following a talk by one of Barba’s dramaturges – the Italian academic Franco Ruffini who chose to deliver his paper on improvisation via an interpreter, I am sitting with him outside of the lecture hall having a cigarette. I didn’t really understand much of his paper and I am eager to get an answer to my question: ‘What about improvisation as an actor’s tool in the process of performance in Barba’s theatre’? Ruffini, probably on a high from having just delivered his paper, suddenly starts speaking to me in beautiful English:


“The working space is like a church to Barba. That’s why he doesn’t like people laughing or clapping. He wants to make theatre because it allows him to ‘scream’ – which real life doesn’t allow. To scream about the insufferable, the pain.


He doesn’t really have much to teach a young director because he works with a mysterious kind of energy, and with instinct. You can’t teach that. Organic dramaturgy.


There are three kinds of  improvisation:

1. towards the actor

2. towards the spectator

and then

(Ruffini gets closer to me and lowers the tone of his voice significantly)

3. towards God – 

but we mustn’t speak about that!”


Ruffini explains that this last kind of improvisation cannot really be taught because the notion itself can easily be misinterpreted. He claims that he only ever saw this kind of ‘improvisation’ in Grotowski’s own work – ‘an improvisation towards God, towards the sacred, towards the ‘not known’ – ‘that which cannot be named’. Not everybody can do that (although what Molik did the other night could perhaps be seen as coming close to it).


“An actor might think that  they can improvise for God, but when they strip the layers – they get to the banal – a man and woman having sex.”


My conversation with Ruffini reminds me once again about that aspect of theatre which is to do with ‘mystification’ which I don’t seem to like. I am guessing this is why I prefer reflexivity in theatre, metatheatricality – it’s more honest. I am reminded again that the unspoken contract between theatre-makers and the audience involves communication and belief, and I guess I am more in favour of a flat, trusting, equal relationship between the two parties than a vertical one. This is in keeping with my conviction that there are many truths, rather than a single absolute one – which is not to deny the importance of a higher consciousness, a higher spiritual value we are all trying to tap into. Even this whole experience points to the fact that God can be celebrated in many different ways. And theatre must accommodate a plurality of views.


The last few days before I left Newcastle for Poland had been spent working towards the premiere of Julia Darling’s musical Manifesto for a New City in Hexham. It was based on a series of poems Julia had written for us the previous year for an event called Flying Homages which I created with four poets and three Northern Stage actors-musicians to accompany the run of Homage to Catalonia. Actor Jim Kitson wrote the music for it and Alan Lyddiard directed it as his last piece for Northern Stage (as he had just resigned as the Artistic Director of the company). Julia and I had spent a lot of time together over the last few months – which was made even easier by the fact that our offices were on the same corridor at Newcastle University. However, her condition had been deteriorating rapidly over and she would often be lying down on her sofa when I went to her for a working session. Julia was pretty much bedbound the last few weeks before the opening but she managed to pay us a visit for a dress rehearsal.


Since coming here, I have been thinking of Julia intensely, texting her and reading her blog. In it she said that her trip to the dress rehearsal of the Manifesto was probably the last time she ever got out of bed. I was panicking, but trying not to show it – calling Julia to arrange to see her on my return, calling our friend Margaret to share my anxieties…


But I was feeling very inarticulate, afraid and increasingly sad. I was remembering times I’d shared with her, how I met her in a book first, ages before we actually set eyes upon each other, then I met her by word of mouth, just weeks before we actually met. Her complete smile. When she came round for a cup of tea and told me she made lists of things she wanted to do or wanted to come true. Sometimes they did or did not, but at least she kept finding these notes to herself months later… I’ll take that with me.


Margaret said: This is not about us, it’s about her. This time is for her…


Driving with Julia through snow, one evening after rehearsal, sharing stories of falling in public places. I must remember her caps and hats….





Some Thoughts on Theatre


Dramaturgy is about conceptualising.

Acting is about instinct.

Directing is about power.


Barba’s principle of action-direction is really about returning to the laws of physics. A see-saw.


This inspires me to think of the whole of theatre-making practice in terms of the paradigm of a children’s playground:

- a see-saw – as the principle of ‘action-direction'

- the swings – as ‘communication’ with the audience

- a walking bridge – as a dramatic arc


A flourish of today:

An ‘improvisation’ in which life is represented through a metaphor of eating an orange, and death arrives when eating finishes.






Having spent about a week in Krzyżowa we  are finally back in Wroclaw for a theatre festival organized by the Grotowski Institute. However, the return to Wroclaw is marked by the downbeat feeling surrounding the recent death of Pope Paul II who was of course Polish. Ever since the Pope’s death on 2 April, there has been a palpable sense of anxiety among the Polish people as to how this will reflect on their political situation. Our arrival into Wroclaw coincides with the TV broadcast of the Pope’s funeral so the entire city is quiet... Nevertheless, over the next few days we get to see some really interesting theatre (including Odin’s Andersen’s Dream) and this at least goes some way in redressing the balance of the entire experience which has been less than ecstatic for me so far. Even though we get a terrible cold in our last few days in Poland, I am still much happier having the freedom of being in a city...





For me ISTA has been a culture shock in reverse. Everything that constitutes Barba’s theatre practice is intensely familiar to me as a conservative, hierarchical, vertical system of values that characterises both the notion of theatre practice and of education in Eastern Europe.


Having settled in Western Europe more than ten years ago, I was forced to unlearn and leave behind such elitist ways of thinking about knowledge and theatre in favour of more democratic, empowering and inclusive processes. As a result I have grown to resent those ways I’d left behind.


At the end of this ISTA I find that in many ways adaptation sums up my state of being. But that having moved away from one context and having left one way of being behind for another - diametrically opposed - one, it is impossible to continue to appreciate or return to the original condition.


Maybe one decides to stay faithful to something on the basis of the level of difficulty it took to get there.



A Post Scriptum on 

Memory, Repetition, Discontinuity

For Julia


Julia died on 13 April 2005. I returned to Newcastle two days later and placed this under In Memoriam on her website:



I returned from Poland yesterday with a jar of raspberry confiture. I was going to call round with it. In amongst other things, Julia asked for home-grown raspberries in the Manifesto. She also asked for imaginary travel, and I hoped this was going to be an imaginary postcard in a jar.


I also met Julia through a story first – a story called Bloodlines which I found in a small publisher’s collection many years ago. All I remembered about it was its beauty, a nameless city with the metro and references to Spain. Then in 2002 a friend of mine urged me to catch Personal Belongings at that year’s Fringe. When I moved to Newcastle the following month, one of the first people I met was Julia Darling. And when you met Julia it was impossible not to become an instant friend. She was also one of my first visitors in my new home, one Sunday afternoon when she was on a research trip to that part of town. In retrospect I realised, that visit was my small casual initiation ritual. Julia had also been a newcomer once and she loved making people feel welcome in this place that she made her home.


Everything about Julia always seemed so effortless – her boundless generosity of spirit, her radiant smile, her literature. She always responded to every call, to every cause, to every occasion – she loved people and she loved writing and those two loves always went hand in hand. And those two loves never asked for anything in return.  


I think it was at the time when we were rehearsing Valentine Verses that I learnt about Julia’s illness. We were in the lift in the School of English and just before she got out on the second floor she joked about how her cancer was part of her literary reputation. I stayed behind shell-shocked. I could never have imagined that cancer could co-exist with so much beauty and love, and I tried to reassure myself that the latter would surely triumph.


On occasions like this, when recollection is a means of coping, every memory inevitably seems magnified. In this particular place, where Julia revealed her innermost feelings and thoughts, it is impossible to ignore the cancer. Yet on a daily basis, the strength of Julia’s personality was such that it always overshadowed her actual state of health. Yes, she would casually mention the nurses, her acupuncture sessions and her afternoon naps on her new sofa, but always with her beaming smile.


Almost a year to the date after our theatrical celebration of poetry and love, we were planning another staged poetry event. This time the idea was to link the event with Northern Stage’s co-production of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. We would send Julia, Bill Herbert, Linda France and Colin Teevan on Easyjet flights to Barcelona and get them to write their own homages to Catalonia. Julia returned from Barcelona with a Manifesto for a New City. In it she famously called for the artists and makers to take over the city and for the property developers to cut up their suits and make them again. Soon after her return, Julia found that her cancer had started spreading…  


As a result of the success of Flying Homages – the evening of poetry and music performed by the writers together with Northern Stage’s actors – Julia was commissioned to write a full scale musical for the company. We started working on it intensively last autumn and Julia seemed to be bursting with ideas. Occasionally she’d say: “I have to go and have my blood changed, but maybe you could come with me and we can work in the hospital”. Such was her attitude to her work in relation to the demands of her body.


The second floor at the School of English has always been a lively place – a home to writers and creative individuals who would call in on each other with ideas or just wave joyously across the corridor filled with the smell of incense coming from Julia’s office. I loved going into her office for meetings. Not only did it smell nice, but it was a real writer’s den furnished with simple luxuries – beautiful lighting, intriguing pictures and carefully chosen words and notes to herself. And of course – there was the sofa. When Jim Kitson came in on the Manifesto meetings, the second floor was also filled with catchy tunes and beautiful music.


Manifesto the musical had several incarnations. At first it was a proper play with songs and jokes and a character called Maureen who would bring Maureenism into the City. Around Christmas-time, however, the director Alan Lyddiard became really keen on the idea of Julia being in the show herself. For a moment it seemed like Julia was also up for it, but then she confessed that she could not be relied on and just continued writing furiously, bringing up new possible versions of the musical.


I don’t know where she found the time, but she was also keeping at least another fifteen projects on the go – poetry readings, masterclasses, radio plays, interviews – and she was also travelling or planning travels. In January we staged another reading as part of the Holocaust Memorial Day exploring the theme of survival. At this point Julia was very much into knitting and we built this newly-discovered means of survival into the show. I later thought – what a wonderful metaphor for poetry! I often think of playwriting as weaving anyway – maybe the entire literary activity can be reclaimed by women on the grounds of their inherent handcrafting inclinations.


I would have liked to have shared this thought with Julia. In the last two weeks, stuck at a symposium in Poland, I kept thinking of all the things I would have liked to have shared with Julia but never got the chance to. Then I realised that we shared wonderful moments working together, and work was exactly what kept Julia going. There was never any time for sentiments – only pure feelings, pure enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. 


The last time I saw Julia at the dress rehearsal of the Manifesto, we parted with the words “See you!” The last time I spoke to her a week ago, we almost made an appointment. I came back with a jar of raspberry confiture hoping to call round with it as a token of imaginary travel. And it is this set of circumstances which made it impossible for me to see Julia once again that brings out the sentiments in me, and the memories: the times she smiled, the time when I realised I had met her first all those years ago through her story, the time when she came into my office with a radio and two cappuccinos and we listened to the Appointments while watching the snow through the window, the way in which I was swept off the beach while reading The Taxi Driver’s Daughter in Nice and then continued turning the soaked pages till the end.


In a way, knowing Julia was like experiencing that wave in Nice and I am deeply honoured to have had the opportunity.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Copenhagen - 05.11.2004

(On Bonfire Night, Jane Arnfeld - my friend and Northern Stage actress - and I  shared a taxi from the rehearsal rooms at St Luke's to Newcastle airport. We met Jane's partner Tony at the airport and then flew together to Copenhagen. I remember Tony saying he wondered what it would be like to cartwheel down the airport corridors, and I'm sure it might have been something to do with the fact that it was a Friday afternoon. It was a coincidence that we all travelled together and that it was Bonfire Night.  Jane and Tony were on a weekend away and I was going to meet Alan wh0 had already been working in Copenhagen for a while at the Betty Nansen Theatre. We were to start conversations about the UK version of a show Alan had made there in 2002 - 1001 Nights Now... A plane take off on Bonfire Night is truly magical, and so is Copenhagen, lit with candles... All four of us ended up having a supper together. It was a brief visit packed with meetings and there was very little to convey about that particular trip, but the paper below came about soon afterwards, and was in a way tinged with the memory of Copenhagen.)

 1001 Nights Now.jpg 

1001 Nights Now


A Dramaturgical Rationale



“To erect the palace of The Thousand and One Nights, it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis.” Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights  (1980)


“It seems however that this politic damsel (who had been reading Machiavelli, beyond doubt) had a very ingenious little plot in her mind.”  Edgar Allan Poe, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade



Several years ago, when the London-based Middle-Eastern Broadcasting Network (MBC) undertook the making of a Middle Eastern version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, one of their first top-prize winners was a housewife. She explained that she owed her success to the fact that she spent a lot of her time reading encyclopaedias while looking after her children.


The charm of this little anecdote is contained in the fact that it defies two stereotypes – the stereotype of a housewife and the stereotype of a Muslim woman. Yet this quiz show queen is not very far removed from her distant ancestress Sheherazade – another bookworm whose love of a good story and readiness to take on a challenge eventually saved her head as well as the heads of many maidens of Baghdad.


Borges is probably not being sexist when he praises the men who left us the heritage of The Thousand and One Nights, for even if men compiled, conveyed and recorded the tales, they also bestowed great power to their female protagonist – the power of wisdom, the power of ennobling action and the power of survival. Sheherazade and the tales of the Arabian Nights have survived centuries in fact and continue to inspire great works of art including among others, the music of Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, the paintings of Chagall and Matisse, the films of Pasolini, the poetry of Wordsworth, Tennyson and Poe and the prose of Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie.    



A word about the nature and history of the Nights


The origins of the stories can be traced back to the 9th century Persia. This Persian layer also includes stories that can be recognised as belonging to a variety of storytelling traditions, from the Greek to the Chinese. In addition, the frame story of Sheherazade is believed to be of Indian origin. Further records of the stories’ journeys are found a century later in Baghdad and then from the 12th century onwards in Cairo. A 16th century Syrian version of The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah) was the source text for the first European translation by the French explorer Antoine Galland. The first volume of Galland’s translation was published in 1704 and although this volume featured some 200 nights, further volumes abandoned the notion of counting. The actual number of stories was always a contentious point as the stories and their numbers changed from every individual version to the next. And even though some scholars have argued that the phrases ‘one thousand nights’ or ‘the thousand and one nights’ were simply meant to suggest ‘many nights’ in Arabic, this was not necessarily clear to European readers who were hungry for more and continued to demand the exact number of stories. The European demand caused a stir and more stories were added to various editions, sometimes based on oral renditions of stories which were then recorded and translated. By 19th century The Thousand and One Nights had been translated, retranslated, canonised  – and basically colonialised – in most European languages. The most famous initial English translations include the so called ‘Grub Street version’ of Galland’s translation  published in 1708, Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of the so-called ‘Calcutta II’ edition (which features 1001 re-collected stories) in 1885 and Edward W. Lane’s annotated translation in several volumes published from 1838-1841.




Also important to note is the fact that The Thousand and One Nights acquired the status of a classic in Europe faster than in the Arab world. Several factors are cited as reasons why the Arab world has been reluctant to embrace the Nights. Some of these factors are linked to the diminished literary value of the text which was recorded in various colloquial versions of Arabic rather than the standard literary language. In addition, partly due to religious constraints, the Arabic canon is based on the kind of literature which is truth-seeking in its essence (i.e. poetry), rather than being explicitly ‘fictional’ or ‘fantastic’. Finally, of course, the actual content of the stories is often so bacchanalian and licentious, that it would have probably evaded cononisation even by Western standards had it not withstood the test of time.  


The text remains a constant subject of debate, especially in the context of such literary theories as feminism and postcolonialism. The debate, needless to say, is as complex as the text itself, and the oriental scholars in particular are torn between either acclaiming the text (at the expense of their feminist or post-colonialist position) or denouncing it and thus involuntarily upholding the position of chauvinist, fundamentalist and nationalist ideologies.


However, the inherent complexity and resilience of the text itself is only a testament to its own main theme: the passion for survival.



So what does 1001 Nights means to us now?


At the time and place where anything Islamic is increasingly treated with great suspicion, anxiety and paranoia – I write in the immediate aftermath of the murders of Van Gogh in Amsterdam and Kenneth Bigley in the hands of masked Muslim terrorists in Iraq – it would be easy to consider a theatre production entitled 1001 Nights Now as potentially controversial.


By commissioning eight contemporary, predominantly Muslim, writers to tell us about their experience – are we inadvertently championing the Muslim cause? Are we being flippant in actually saying: ‘Muslim terrorism and killing aside, what about sex, hashish and Arabic oud’? Are we running the risk of naivity and myopia? Or are we, on the other hand, likely to offend the Muslim sentiment itself, by shamelessly appropriating and ransacking one of their most famous legends of all time?


The answer is – no, we’re considering precisely these questions themselves.  This project is not about politics or taking sides but about the human condition and the need to tell stories in order to survive. Some of those stories are politically conditioned, and some of them will take one side or the other. Our task is to let them be told and let them be heard in a way that is most relevant to our reality now.


The key word, in every respect, is ‘now’. What do the Arabian nights mean to us now? And what is the urgency with which these stories have to be told and heard?



The Format 


Eight stories commissioned from contemporary Middle Eastern writers are told by eight performers. Four of the stories have survived from the Danish production of 1001 Nights Now directed by Alan Lyddiard as part of The Thoughts of The Other project, in turn conceived by Kitte Wagner. These stories are written by Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan), Muarthan Mungan (Turkey), Maziar Bahari (Iran) and Reza Parsa (Iran/Sweden).


Another four stories are commissioned from Fadia Faqir (Jordan/Durham), Abas Amini (Iran/ Nottingham), Shazia Mirza (Iran/London) and one more London-based writer. 


The stories vary in subject matter and genre, ranging possibly from a stand-up comedy routine to a contemporary adaptation of the Sheherazade story to a psychological thriller about rape and revenge.


The piece is set in a Christmas decorations factory, featuring immigrant workers from the Middle East. In a ritualised manner, each night they use their fifteen minute break to tell each other stories, to keep each other going.


The piece opens with Atiq Rahimi’s ‘The Ninth Night’. The nights are counted for as long as it takes.



The Aesthetics


Set in a factory, the piece will be contextualised by an industrial setting which is however enhanced by the nature of the manufactured products – i.e. Christmas decorations and glitter balls.


The workers listen to the music via a tannoy – it’s the music from home. It is possible that more contemporary kinds of Arabic music will be used as well.


The piece uses storytelling, but is also physical in nature and will have a choreographer (hopefully with the Middle Eastern background).


The Kargoz Shadow Puppetry is also used for at least one of the stories. It is possible that other indigenous forms of theatre or performing arts will be explored for inclusion in the piece (such as Sufi dancing etc.)



What does 1001 Nights Now have to do with The Thousand and One Nights


“At all events, Scheherazade, who, being lineally descended from Eve, fell heir, perhaps, to the whole seven baskets of talk, which the latter lady, we all know, picked up from under the trees in the garden of Eden – Scheherazade, I say, finally triumphed, and the tariff upon beauty was repealed.”


In his satirical story The Thousand and Second Tale of Ssheherazade, Edgar Allan Poe imagines what might have happened the night after Sharyar granted life to Sheherazade. (Poe was not alone in this quest of the imagination, a lot of contemporary writers from all over the world have attempted a similar exercise with particular angles of their own.) So, Sheherazade decides to tell one more tale concerning the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor whereby he describes places he has visited and things he has seen. All of these places and objects are taken directly from Poe’s own experience and/or knowledge of the world, including both the natural wonders and the manifestations of technological advancement. Ironically, Sharyar’s scepticism is awakened and despite having marvelled at Sheherazade’s fantastic plots up until then, he is so enraged by her ‘lying’ that he decides to have her beheaded after all. And Poe concludes: “She derived however, great consolation, (during the tightening of the bowstring,) from the reflection that much of the history remained still untold, and that the petulance of her brute of a husband had reaped for him a most righteous reward, depriving him of many inconceivable adventures.”


There are two things to be learnt from Poe’s endeavour: the first concerns the nature of ‘the truth being stranger than fiction’ and the second – the importance of fiction as an educational device. Here we also return to the truth-seeking nature of Islamic fiction itself.


Our contemporary writers’ stories, though often fictional, are informed and shaped by their own personal experience. These experiences concern gender or exile or simply life in its different guises in different parts of the world.


The archetypal character of Sheherazade is in this instance metaphorically shared by eight storytellers from distinct backgrounds and with distinct voices. They are however unified in their quest with the Arabian Princess, sharing with her the passion for survival and the ability to make a difference.


The value of archetypal material is such that we carry it with us, without having to be consciously aware of it. If this knowledge is suppressed, rejected or denied, as in the case of Poe’s Sharyar – we deprive ourselves of ‘many inconceivable adventures’. If it is perpetuated, underlined and enriched, we can’t have much to lose; and just like the housewife who won the million without even knowing that Sheherazade might have had anything to do with it, we may emerge from 1001 Nights Now inspired to make a difference too.



Duska Radosavljevic