Friday, 30 March 2012

Tuscany/Rome 22 March -29 March 2012 (THE FENCE 16)

What a week! Probably worth two or three weeks rolled into one - and that's only on the food front...

Facts first: I am here with the Fence - an 'international network of playwrights and people who make playwriting happen'. The network exists largely thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of its members who find ways to keep it going by facilitating meetings around interesting occasions. The Fence 16 is facilitated by Claudia Della Setta, an actress and theatre director based in Rome and Tel Aviv and a founder member of Afrodita Compagnia. The Fence 16 consists of two phases - 1) a retreat in Claudia's house in Tuscany and 2) a residency with Afrodita Compagnia at Teatro Valle - or more precisely Teatro Velle Occupato - in Rome. Since its occupation began in June 2011, in protest against planned privatisation of the theatre, theatre workers who inhabit the building have made opportunities available for companies to take artistic directorship of the theatre on a week by week basis. Afrodita Compagnia's week is 26th March - 2 April. Afrodita have chosen a theme for their week: 'Masculine, Feminine, Love, Resistance'. A play called Non written in English and French by two Fence members Sara Clifford and Denis Baronnett will be translated by Claudia into Italian and read as part of the residency. There will also be a presentation from the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa.

Phase 1: Tuscany

Beautiful sunny mornings. The smell of freshly brewed coffee. Distant horizons lined by Italian Umbrella Pine trees. Claudia's family holiday home is a proper Italian family home anticipating several generations of the same family around dinner tables and under the same roof. Around a dozen of us are comfortably accommodated here, and several are staying in an agriturismo up the road. The talk of theatre and playwriting is interlaced with occasional table-football playing, sunbathing and cooking - a single internet dongle doing the rounds between individual computers. Because The World Theatre Day is due on 27th March, Fence member Doug Howe is making a film which will also be screened at Teatro Valle. He splits up John Malkovich's official message for that day and asks us to deliver individual lines one by one in our own languages - in addition to English, French, Spanish and Italian, we also have Swedish, Bulgarian, Serbian and Hebrew in the mix. Doug picks interesting locations for us in and around the house - I end up squinting into the sun, my incidental anxiety-generated spikiness underlined by massive cacti behind me. Our Spaniard Beatriz Cabur, meanwhile, gets to compete with a smouldering flame in her frame.

Sarah G. and I had been tasked with making sure the work part of the meeting gets done - so we at first try to subtly keep things on track, make sure everyone gets a go at speaking about themselves and their work, schedule in some works in progress among members and allow space and time for Claudia, Sara C., Denis, Hilary and Sofia to work towards their presentation of Non. Very few of the people present have actually met each other before, even though the work on Non is a continuation of two previous Fence meetings. Sara C. is only able to join us two days after we have arrived, so she has to be brought up to date with what the group has been up to. At times it is very hard keeping things the British side of chaotic. Both Sarah G. and I do our best, though at times I realise the only option I have is to play the bad cop...

We get two readings out on Saturday afternoon: 1) An extract from Hotel Project which was written and directed by Beatriz and Doug in New York as an interactive performance and is now being re-written as a musical. They test it on us as they try and decide on the form of the piece and its revised ending. 2) Sarah G.'s monologue Red Shoes was originally presented last month at Theatre 503 as part of an Agent 160 showcase. Sarah is on the lookout for other fairytales to adapt and suggestions come in thick and fast especially since everyone is bowled over by the monologue (featuring a South London single mother caught up in the whirlwind of consumerist desire as it erupted rather violently last summer during the London riots and led her to a fatal pair of red Louboutin shoes).

Every evening we manage to also get in some heated discussions on our set topics of love, resistance and gender politics (though these are often quite spontaneous), and also on cultural difference - as this is quite a prominent feature of our group. But we also end up cooking some fantastic food for each other. Kazem's Iranian potato galettes (with whisky) prompted Beatriz to add a recipe section to a library she has been building during our Tuscany meeting so that all the references we invoked in our discussions could be subsequently accessed at our leisure.

On the morning of the last day we finally hear the complete reading of Non - a rare privilege as the Roman audience will only get extracts. The play concerns a fifty year old working class English woman N. who is about to commit suicide at the beginning of the play, but is interrupted in the act by the ghost of Sid Vicious who draws her attention to a TV ad which is playing a number N. had written with her French punk band in the 1970s. This prompts her to make a journey back to France and down the memory lane... There are moments of great wit and fantastic writing in the play, and the whole thing is all the more impressive being done as a joint project between two writers whose knowledge of each other's languages is limited.

We briefly vote for our favourite scenes and then disperse on our individual last minute missions. Doug, Beatriz, Sarah G., and I are taken to the beach by Fred, who then drives back for Mia and Sara C. Fred is our hero in every respect! Sarah G. and I do a beach version of her Ashtanga routine - which my body is extremely grateful for for a few days to come. Doug and Beatriz disappear in a long walk. Mia eventually disappears to Sienna (thanks to Fred who drives her to the station) and six of us are neatly packed into Sofia's four-seater car and taken back just in time before she has to drive back to Rome.

And then it rains.

Phase 2: Rome

'Che casino!' - I believe is the right phrase in Italian for how our day started on Monday morning. The bus driver who is taking us ten minutes down the road to the local train station at 15 Euro a head is too early - not everyone's even arrived from their agriturismo bedrooms, let alone had coffee or breakfast. There's commotion about some male abuse of female toiletries. And then, when we are all finally together, our luggage on the bus and our bums on the seats, Fred and Denis are frantically climbing over the gates back into the house to retrieve Denis's computer he had left behind.

At the station, Sarah G. has her credit card stuck in a ticket vending machine, Beatriz has her money swallowed up and some of our travellers don't even manage to get a ticket at all. Once on the train, the conductor has to spend so much time with us solving our individual ticket issues he eventually lets Denis travel without one. As we draw nearer to Rome, conversations about gelato ensue.

Rome is hot, summery almost. Sarah G. takes us expertly around the streets of Rome, walks us all the way from Termini station to our destination Teatro Valle Occupato. Almost immediately, Fred procures and supplies us with the theatre wi fi password. We are back in the civilisation. Claudia and Sofia turn up and take us for lunch to a local restaurant which has a deal with the occupiers. After lunch, I have my very first coffee of this year! We are in a cafe which does the best coffee in Rome - and I can now vouch that this is indeed the case.

In Rome we are joined by Saskia from Holland and later in the evening by Jonathan Meth.

In the days that follow we try and work out exactly what is going on in Teatro Valle on the level of pragmatic detail. This is the story I manage to infer from all the information I have gathered:

In June 2011, theatre workers at Teatro Valle staged a three day protest against the decision to make the previously state owned theatre a private enterprise of the city of Rome. Built in 1727, this was a theatre with a rich history - its current occupiers characterise it as a 'house of revolution': this was the first theatre where women performed on stage in Italy, political prisoners were hiding here during the Second World War, a fight broke out around the premiere of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author here and - 'most importantly' as they say jokingly - this was the theatre where Mozart fucked in the boxes! The boxes are a distinct feature of the theatre whose auditorium consists entirely of boxed up spaces accommodating four chairs each. There are three tiers of boxes with 27 boxes in each tier, and a fourth additional one with 54 individual seats (without divisions between them). These became our red velvet bedrooms during our stay - just big enough for a single blow up mattress, a book and a bottle of water.

The occupation of the theatre has continued since June last year till the present day. Though the occupiers look tired - big black bags under there eyes - they keep going and are tireless in their attempts to explain to us what they are doing and make us feel comfortable in their midst. So, 'occupare', they tell us, has two meanings in Italian - 'to occupy' and 'to take care'. For them the notion of 'taking care' is a defining principle of their occupation, and interestingly the occupiers have predominantly been women. There is apparently a Valle Occupato baby on the way too... Politically, they are keen to develop a model of governance that is entirely from the bottom up rather than top down. This means that they do not vote in order to make decisions, they discuss issues until they all reach a consensus on what to do. This is taking time but they seem comfortable with the idea. Currently they are writing their Statute, although they have defined five principles which they all feel passionate about: Agora (forum), Training, Vocation, Common Good and Eco-Sustainability. They have had messages of support from Ostermeier and Mnouchkine, and they have also included major Italian figures in their workshops and forum discussions. One of their first invited speakers was the Italian philosopher Federica Giardini and the playwright Fausto Paravidino. Currently, the occupiers have one clear aim - to raise the 250,000 Euro they need in order to become a foundation and therefore acquire a legal status. So far, they have collected 80,000.

As some of the Fence members sit around in the foyer on our last day together informally reading Trevor Griffiths's play The Party chosen by Jonathan Meth as our present to the Valle, the occupiers spontaneously gather around us. They tell us that they wish to foreground playwriting and to change the system by which the Italian playwrights have had their work commissioned up until now through contests, judged by independent panels. We were told of an informal survey which highlighted that, among 122 playwrights, the only thing they had in common was the experience of solitude - clearly a far cry from the kind of work being done in the UK and elsewhere to integrate the playwright into the rehearsal process, or indeed even from the Fence whose raison d'ĂȘtre is networking between writers... Another one of their concerns, inspired by Giardini, is to address the notion of language and its decolonisation from recent history. Terms such as 'meritocracy', 'populo', 'liberta', they tell us, have been completely contaminated by Berlusconi's government...

It is interesting that my journey through Europe started with the conference in Ghent where I spoke about the power of theatre to create a community - and to resurrect and rehabilitate that term after its post-communist demise. At the end of my trip I was confronted with three more models of community-building and reinvention of governance models:

1) There's Valle Occupato, genuinely doing things differently. Reinventing ways of relating with each other, with their culture, with their audience. Allowing things to grow organically. Believing in the possibility of genuine consensus - whatever it takes.

2) There is the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa. 'An island of sanity' as they call themselves. A group of artists braving some serious storms in order to bring together the communities otherwise divided by history and politics. They introduced themselves to us as people who sometimes violently disagree with each other but who still love and respect each other. They agree to disagree, and they believe in the importance of being together.

3) And then there's the Fencee, which Beatriz, on her first encounter with it, summarised as an 'elephant'. Its constituent parts are different, it looks different from different angles, its members don't even all have a language in common, and yet it is an entity.

All three would suggest that we are moving towards a modus operandi which is closer to an improvisation than a tightly directed show. Or in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, we are moving towards 'being together' rather than essentialised 'togetherness'.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Paris -17-22 March 2012

Lisbeth Gruwez who I thought I left in Belgium, funnily enough, popped up again in Paris. This time it was a screen performance - but a very, very striking one - of a drenched naked dance choreographed by Fabre under the title 'Quando l'uomo principale e la donna'. The film of the dance was exhibited as part of the exhibition Danser sa vie at Georges Pompidou centre 23 November - 2 April, which has included art, film and live performance. From Matisse's dancers, via the archive footage of Dunkan, Wigman, Fuller and Graham to dance in pop culture - this exhibition really has it all, and could comfortably fill the best part of your afternoon. Especially if, in between exhibits, you stop in to take the breathtaking views of Paris available form the top floor of this building.

My other theatrical highlights of the visit have included two takes on J.M.Coetzee. This was by no means deliberate, but the fact that one of these productions was by the Dutch director Luk Perceval and the other by the Polish Warlikowski just goes to show that wherever one goes, one is likely to stumble upon this South African author these days.

Perceval's adaptation of Disgrace takes the simple route of simply displaying the text within the installation of its set design - a chorus of African figures dotted around the stage (courtesy of designer Katrin Brack). The production opens with the disciplinary hearing of Professor David Lurie for having had an affair with a student - under house lights and with members of the disciplinary panel addressing him dotted around the auditorium. All of the seemingly private affairs of the characters are clearly brought out into the public domain - and this remains the main thesis of Perceval's reading of Coetzee's novel - skilfully condensed here for performance purposes; apartheid was not simply a political issue, it manifested itself on a personal level, and vice versa. I missed an additional interpretative level to the story however. What kept me going in reading the novel was the fact that the characters constantly seem to lack the possibility of understanding each other - Lucy keeps telling her father that he doesn't understand; Melanie's father too seems to be unbending in his own perspective on things - I wanted to know whether some meaningful communication would ever become possible in the world of this story. In addition, there was endless mirroring of characters between themselves - Lucy acts on moral principle just as her father does, just as Melanie's father does - and yet, their moral principles remain entirely unrelated to each other. I expected the adaptation to communicate a little bit of this nauseaus sense of destruction and self-destruction that afflicts the characters, but Perceval's thesis possibly had no space for it. But perhaps a difficulty in understanding was partly my own - watching a production in Dutch with French subtitles - languages which, like a true Brit, I do not understand.

Things got more difficult in this respect as I ventured to Trocadero's Theatre National de Chaillot to see Warlikowski's African Tales by Shakespeare, made as part of the Europe-wide Prospero project. This was a five hour event which constituted an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, Othello and King Lear as well as Coetzee's Summertime. In addition, the production used texts by Wajdi Mouawad, music by Schubert and references to Art Spigelman - and lots and lots more. Somehow, Warlikowski managed to tie this together into a largely meaningful and eminently watchable whole. There were memorable performances in the piece: a strong and by her circumstances (of marrying a gay man) destroyed Portia (actor's name?); a similarly ill-fated nymphomaniac Desdemona (name?).  Shylock, Othello and Lear are all played by the same actor (name?) - the latter two even seemingly fused into one character, and there are some resonant motifs between the three stories - the notion of an outsider being the main one. Summertime appears to provide a backdrop for Cordelia's own life, if I understood correctly. I didn't have a chance to confer about this with a lovely Polish librarian sitting next to me after the curtain call, as I had to rush out and get my metro back. But she had been most helpful throughout the piece in filling some of my semantic gaps. I was particularly interested in the fact that she considered Warlikowski to be faithful to Shakespeare because he does not change the actions of his characters even if they may appear out of sync with our time; he simply suggests a different feeling about the worlds they inhabit. And the words they speak of course. I was heartened by this.

Now it remains to see what Italy brings...

Monday, 19 March 2012

Ghent, Belgium 14-17th March 2012

Though this is my third time in Ghent in two years - sorry I omitted to write about those previous ones - I keep discovering new things about it. On the first night I go out with some MA students from Kent. One of them who is currently on an exchange in Ghent, takes us to a tiny little bar where she introduces us to a local drink jenever - it's a version of gin that comes in a variety of flavours, we drink it in apple and it does taste like juice, mostly. Having spent a few months in writing purdah, I let my hair down and have, wait for it - two of those!

I'm here for the conference on Play: Relational Aspects of Dramaturgy, where I speak about the work of Tim Crouch, Ontroerend Goed and Shadow Casters. My paper is a 3,000 word distilling of a 15,000 word book chapter I just drafted. My basic thesis is that this work is motivated by an impulse to return us to certain values we have lost as a result of the end of communism (namely, loss of community) and that, incidentally, the work often draws on some of Brechtian theatre-making methodologies in order to generate reflection rather than passive consumption. It therefore goes some way in recovering the baby that might have got thrown out with the bathwater in 1989. I am not sure that I managed to get this across as succinctly as this; my performance was largely tarnished by the fact that I was racing against the clock trying to finish before a minute of silence we were due to observe at a set time as part of national mourning for the deaths of 22 children and six adults who lost their lives in an accident returning from a skiing holiday.

This made me reflect on the whole business of conferencing and what it is for. It is actually very hard to communicate one's thoughts in 20 or even 30 minutes in such a coherent and interesting way that others are able to respond to them in an equally coherent and interesting way. Very often it is not even possible for the listeners to take in everything being said, which leads to misunderstandings in later discussions of the paper, or questions being asked about things that the presenter might think they have already explained in the course of their delivery. It probably takes a lifetime to become as engaging, entertaining and erudite as Zizek, for example. I particularly enjoyed the papers of Synne Behrndt and Christel Stalpaert for their ability to communicate with their audience. However, I was struck that it wasn't only coherence and interesting content that made these presentations effective, but the fact that both speakers had a very calm and warm demeanour, concerned with connection with their audience (rather suitably reflecting the conference title) - they were literally 'giving' their paper. It is so easy to know this in theory and to forget it in practice. Many other papers were interesting and memorable too, and the conference as a whole did make for a very enriching couple of days. However, meaningful discussion ended up happening in small, informal splinter groups which formed spontaneously among conference participants. A particularly interesting feature of this conference was that it had a large contingent of international dramaturgy students who travelled, with or without their tutors, from Antwerp, Stockholm and Kent.

I had a lovely, uplifting and stimulating time with my splinter group consisting of Synne, Cathy and Sodja, and we were lucky too that Sodja's string-pulling took us into a dance performance by Lisbeth Gruwez at Campo - It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. Gruwez is a former collaborator of Jan Fabre's, a dancer who could be described as remarkably precise. I was never sure whether her timing was indeed impeccable or whether she was somehow generating elements of pre-recorded speech through motion capture. Her etude on the effects of oratory - using fragments of a speech by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart - was inspired and inspiring. However, all the way through, for some reason, I kept thinking of Thomas Mann. The smell of this theatre, its composite atmosphere created by its audience, made it feel distinctly European. Or, at least, conformed with the idea of Europeanness I had formed in my head while reading Thomas Mann at the age of 17.

To end with, of course, we washed it down with jenever.