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I made my way to the Ecohub garden today, armed with two scrubbing brushes (on the basis that someone might lend a hand – ha!) and a retractable knife, in order to make a start on cleaning and cutting the dinghy rubber, so that it can be used as a backcloth for the production. If I’m honest, that “make a start “ phrase is with the benefit of hindsight – I had fully expected to finish the job in one fell swoop.

The raw material was heaped up under the shade of an olive tree, but it did not help that the workers from the garden had used the same spot to chain their bikes, so the first task was to drag the stuff out, piece by piece, from underneath them.  Fortunately, there was a convenient stand-pipe nearby, with some shade – yes, another olive tree – so I had a good place to sit and scrub.  It was, however, a communal facility, so I had to break off regularly to allow people to soak their heads, wash their feet or, in two cases, go for the full hair wash, shampoo and all.  But it was all very good-natured, and allowed me some natural breaks.

The rubber material was pretty unwieldy, and did give me pause for thought that it had been  the only thing to keep 50 or 60 refugees from drowning in the dark.  Scrubbing it clean was hard work, but slicing each tube even harder; I had made the mistake of buying a cheap knife from the Euro shop.  It was sharp enough – dangerously so –  but the handle kept breaking, so eventually I taped the blade to a piece of wood.

Eventually, I decided I would not be able to complete the task – the sun was blazing, my back was aching, and the crocs I had chosen as suitable footwear gave me a raw blister.  I packed up, and hobbled down the hill to the bus stop.  When I finally made it home, I showered and then collapsed on my bed, exhausted.  Still, I’d made a start.

“I’m not a rubber scrubber, I’m a rubber scrubber’s chum; I’m only scrubbing rubber till the rubber scrubber comes.”

Not by bread alone

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I first met Julia Imbriaco in Lebanon.  She too was a volunteer with Jusoor, and Val and I hit it off straight away with  both her and her friend Conor McGuire.  They were part of a group of grad students at Columbia University in New York, and upon their return they set up a symposium on Migration, which I attended.  It was at that event that I met Joel Garcia, then part of the staff at Better Days, and through him I am now at Lesvos.  (Keeping up?)  Julia wrote to me recently to say she was currently involved with an American news website called Franknews.  Their June edition was also focused  on Migration, and she asked if I would like to contribute an article.  I was, of course, both flattered and delighted.

It was while staying at Tassos’s beach house that I set to work on putting together some ideas.  Because of all the stuff buzzing around in my head, I was far too agitated to sleep, and eventually, at about four o’clock I gave in, got up, and started writing.  By six, it was pretty much done.

I suppose to some extent it is a justification for my presence in Mytilini (and before that in Lebanon.)  I am sensitive to the view that migrants, and in particular migrant children, do have a right to safety, to food and shelter, and to education.  Some might think that, with such pressing needs, for someone to offer additional activities might prove a distraction from these core requirements.  When there are children who are starving, who fear for their very lives, is it not a distraction to spend precious time and money on the arts, even more so on the frivolous activity of theatre, which devotes itself to pretending, to playing games.  So I wanted to tackle this, to explain just why I thought it important that such things should be a part of their lives.

The dinner I describe at the beginning of the article did happen, and the conversation within it was real.  That acknowledgment of the vital, life-saving aspect of helping refugees and migrants is the preamble to what I believe is a vital next step.  Man (and woman, and child) cannot live by bread alone.

Barber shop quartet

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I needed a haircut, so took myself to Vintage Cuts, a modern salon right next to the Mousiko café.  I had spotted another barbers’ in town, but it was small, dark and unprepossessing, tucked away down a side street, and I wasn’t sure I could even find it again.  Vintage Cuts, in comparison, was bright, modern, airy and stylish.  When I arrived, the barber was at work on another customer, so I waited and watched.

He was obviously both skilled and meticulous, taking great care and plenty of time to create a look that was too extreme for my taste, shaven at the sides and back, and a diminishing top-knot.  Meanwhile, a slim and very pretty young woman was working on another customer, a huge, overly muscled guy covered in tattoos.  She had put a rubber cap like a swimming cap on his head, and was teasing tufts of his hair through holes in it with something like a crochet hook.  He looked ridiculous, but I daren’t show my amusement.  Besides, I was getting rather nervous at what I had let myself in for. 

A motorbike roared up to immediately outside the shop, and another man came in; evidently another barber, for he was a slightly taller version of his colleague – same cut-off jeans and t-shirt, same stylish hair and beard.  Once he had deposited his helmet, washed his hands, and checked I was there for a haircut, he indicated that I should sit in a low chair next to a sink.  “Oh no,” I replied, “I’m not here to have my hair washed, just a haircut.”  “It is the system,” he replied, but by now I was in total panic, stammered my apologies, and fled.  I felt a complete fool, realised how ridiculous I must have appeared, even thought of seeking out the other barbers’. But once I had calmed myself, I resolved to return the next morning – I still needed a haircut.

The next day I tried to explain that at home, I went in, sat down, had my hair cut, paid, and left – five minutes.  They were all charming, and if they thought me a silly old fool (and they must) they didn’t show it.  I had my hair washed – “is better for me” he explained – by the young woman, which was extraordinarily pleasant, and once it had been dried, I was in the chair.  “A grade 4 all over,” I said.  He understood, but looked doubtful.  “I think, on top, yes, but here, and here…”  I decided to go with it; in for a cent, in for a euro.  “You’re the professional.”

And professional he undoubtedly was: careful, thorough, meticulous. He told me I was shaving my sideboards too short, snipped and clipped with dexterity.  Eventually I was ushered back to the sink, where the girl washed my hair – again! – and then he applied various gels and powders.  It was quite an experience, and cost me eight euros.

But when I left, I realised that though I had enjoyed the experience, I didn’t appreciate the result.  My hair was hard and stiff, my neck exposed.  It occurred to me that I had been given the haircut of my childhood, fifty years before: a short back and sides.  My dad would have approved…  but I am not my dad.

Rehearsals week 2

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I began the week with some roles still unfilled, and options for doubling restricted, so it was heartening to have a couple of new recruits.  The fact that they were both called Ali was slightly disconcerting, all the more so since we already have one in the cast.  No room for confusion, however, since one is very small (Little Ali) and one very tall (Big Ali.)

Little Ali is just about able to play the role of young Michael, the baby who grows up, and who is at the centre of the tug of love which ends the play (and gives it its most iconic image.) Big Ali speaks excellent English, so is more than valuable for that alone.

So excited was I by this that I was able to announce to Magda, the headteacher at Gekko, that we now had a complete cast.  This was despite the fact that we had lost our one Arabic-speaking boy, who had just stopped coming.  And then we lost Little Ali as well.  Having rehearsed his key moments, and him showing real enthusiasm, I met him the next day in reception and asked whether he was coming to rehearsal. He shrugged, and Irene the receptionist told him he needed to decide, as he had to attend every rehearsal. Put on the spot, he then (apparently) said he did not want to be in the play.  Irene is right, of course, in that commitment and reliability are important, but if I threw out everyone who missed a rehearsal, I wouldn’t have a play.

Two issues continue to be difficult. One is the inevitable need to translate each scene as we go, which is slow and difficult, especially when we don’t have a fluent English speaker there. But the end of that part of the process is in sight. The other is finding a time which does not clash with other subjects; I still have people walking out part way through because of swimming, or German, or whatever.

We do now have dates fixed (up to a point) for the production: June 29, 30, and July 1.  I told the cast we had five weeks left.  Normally, the shock of this is enough to provoke a burst of energy because there is so little time.  They were also shocked, but for the opposite reason; whatever would we do with all that time?  We are nearly ready, they said.  Well, I’m glad they’re confident.

Commedia dell’arte

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In terms of seeing live theatre, Val and I went from the feast of South Africa, where we saw lots of wonderful productions, to the famine of Lebanon, where we saw nothing.  So when I saw a poster advertising a commedia dell’arte performance, I was very interested.  The poster was entirely written in Greek, except for just two words in English – Hope Project – so I knew where to discover further information.

I went with Jaime, a newly arrived volunteer from Madrid, here to teach English, and arriving at the Hope Project we discovered a stage set up in front of the warehouse.  Since we were punctual, and the cast and audience were operating under Greek time, it was easy to claim a prime spot, and we took our seats in the second row.

For the benefit of those who do not know anything about commedia dell’arte, it is a theatrical style and tradition which began in Italy, played by companies of travelling players, and has been an important influence upon theatre since the 16th century.  It has a number of characteristic aspects – largely based upon improvisation, it features traditional costumes and distinctive, caricatured half-masks, and includes music and acrobatic movement.  It also includes famous stock characters, such as Punchinello and Arlecchino, which are the originals of Mr Punch and Harlequin.  Despite knowing all of this in theory, it was the first time I had ever seen it in action.

I loved the beginning, a mimed prologue which involved a pair of bumbling fools stealing some sacred bones from a church, and I laughed lots.  From then on, I did not enjoy it anything like as much as I thought I would.  It is hard to pin down why.  The live band was excellent; the costumes and masks were authentic, colourful and most effective; the players were skilled, acrobatic, energetic, and with all of the required exaggeration.  I think the real problem was that there was also a great deal of language, and apart from some occasional (and welcome) modern references in English, it was all in Greek and really quite hard going.  Of course, I am not suggesting that the performance should have been tailored to the very small number of English speakers in the audience, but although there was some laughter from the audience at some of the references, I think there ought to have been more.  There was much to enjoy, but the scenes did seem to go on more than they needed to.

I am pleased to have had such a unique opportunity, but it did remind me of the advice that it is better to leave the audience wanting more, rather than hoping it had been just a little bit shorter.

Cafe culture

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Alea cafe

Neither Val nor I have ever been much for the lazy, take it easy sort of holiday, where one spends the morning relaxing over a leisurely breakfast, and the rest of the day strolling, reading, lazing in the sun  and plotting where to go for dinner.  We are both too driven, with too low a boredom threshold, for any of that. (And I still recall the look of incredulity on my sister-in-law’s face when, joining her for a few day’s holiday in Spain, I told her that this was the first time I had ever spent time lounging on one of those pool inflatables with a holder for your beer.)  But having said all that, I am rather enjoying that sort of lifestyle here… though only on the condition that, for the rest of the time, I have plenty of work to do.

And there are plenty of places to sample such a way of life.  I have never seen a town with so many places to sit and while away the time, all of them spilling out onto the street, and most of them with plenty of customers.  If Mytilini is overstocked with taxis (and bakeries, butchers, fishmongers…) that goes ten times over for cafes and bars.  I am something of a creature of habit, but do now spread my custom over a wider range of establishments – morning coffee at Alea in the nearby park, refreshing iced lemonade with mint at Frames in the middle of town, Diavolos for beer and backgammon on the fashionable side of the harbour, the unnamed bar on the unfashionable side where I have beer and nuts while watching the football.

Everywhere has free wifi (and a stronger signal than I get at my apartment, so I often take advantage of it to write something, read the Guardian, catch up on correspondence.)  Because, provided you buy something when you arrive, you can pretty much stay for as long as you want.  You know, I could get used to this sort of life… though I am also looking forward to getting back to the very different attractions of home.

Grand designs

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One of the tubes being used in rehearsal

The date(s) for the productions have not yet been set, though they have to be before Aug 4th, when Val and I leave for Lebanon, and that does not leave a huge amount of time.  I have started to think about aspects of design, as these things cannot be left until the last minute.

My expectation is that we will be performing in Gekko X.  In terms of creating a set, that would keep things relatively simple, as the only item will be a backcloth, which can be hung from the balcony, thus providing a backstage area.  My initial thought was to find some cloth, maybe just a couple of bedsheets, but while chatting to Rachel, a member of the Better Days team, she suggested using strips of dinghy rubber, reclaimed from the inflatable boats which carry refugees from Turkey to the island.  This would be free, and also fits in with the recycled theme.  The only possible disadvantage is the possible reminder of trauma; we are taking advice from the professionals.

The props are also recycled.  Lying next to the wheelie bins at the bottom of our road – this communal provision is part of the landscape here, rather than have dustbin lorries trying to negotiate the narrow streets – I found an old chair.  There were also a number of those strong cardboard tubes that are found on the inside of bolts of fabric, and I grabbed these as well.  They seem to me very useful as soldiers’ weapons and symbolic staffs of office.  They could prove useful in the crowd scene at the beginning of the play, when they are used to control the crowd.  Nothing too graphic – more a slow-motion piece of choreography.

I do need to find something to represent the baby at the centre of the story.  As mentioned, when I directed the full version of the play, nearly thirty years ago, I used my own four month old baby, but that did not end well.  I don’t mean for Lucy – she has turned out great – but for the production.  I have learnt my lesson, and want something less unpredictable, but a baby doll is not right.  I have in mind something more like a shaped pillow; as it remains swaddled throughout, it doesn’t even need a face.  I will explore getting something made.

In some ways, costume is the biggest issue.  I spotted a lot of plain black t-shirts in the local supermarket for two euros each, so snapped them up, and they will serve as a base, especially if we can have them printed with a common design.  On top of that, I would like to go for a sort of fairy-tale aesthetic, so even the soldiers are not too graphically significant.  Rachel (again) has suggested approaching the women’s centre at One Happy Family, who might be able to help with making cloaks, sashes, tabards… All the more so if we can pay them for their labour.

Not only does it all seem do-able, but it all fits together. Coherent, and at very little cost.  Perfect.

When you’re laughing…

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After the discussion with Julian at Mosaik, we decided to offer a short course (it has to be short; I’m running out of time) in physical comedy: mime, clowning, bits of physical theatre… Julian was keen on it leading towards a performance, and since that’s always been my preferred approach, that’ll be the offer.  Just how popular it turns out to be will be put to the test this Friday, when I run an open workshop.  It will give people a chance to get to know me, to find out a bit about what the course will offer, and also might act as a bit of an audition, since it will need to be a manageable number if we are working towards a show.

There is a small, unexpected hiccup.  It is Mosaik’s policy to offer a free return bus ticket to every refugee who takes one of their classes.  It is clearly quite an incentive, for it might otherwise put people off coming, if they had to spend some of their meagre resources on travelling to and from the camp at Moria (especially, perhaps, for something as non-essential as a comedy class.)  The problem is that Mosaik is in dire financial straits, and cannot afford to budget for it.  If I will offer to pay for them, however…  I must say, it is the first time I have ever had to pay people to attend one of my classes, but if needs  must…

I have decided, however, to appeal to some of the readers of the blog (i.e. you) to see whether they might be willing to support this venture (and should we manage to raise more than we need, that will go to pay for other classes that they run, such as in Greek, English, some arts activities…)  Mosaik have fallen victim to that capricious funding of NGOs that I referred to elsewhere.  They had been generously supported, and were open until late in the evening every day, but when the news agenda moved elsewhere, so did the funding, and for a time they had to close.  Julian (and his fellow director Chloe) had been two of the founders of the centre, but have returned, as volunteers, to keep the place ticking over.  But times are tough.

I hope both the fund-raising and the open class are successful, for I am excited about the possibilities.  And I don’t think that comedy is a trivial subject, that laughter is unimportant.  After all, when you’re laughing, the sun comes shining through.

Country comfort

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Because of a booking hiccup, there are these three days in the middle of my stay when my apartment has been rented out to someone else.  However, Tassos offered me the use of his summer retreat, some 10 kms up the coast.  Apart from the hassle of having to empty the place, it seemed a good opportunity to get away from town for a long weekend. (Not that I had any choice.)

 In many ways, I have fallen on my feet.  The house is in Tassos’s own vineyard; just fifty yards away is his own private beach, on the shore of the Mediterranean.  Though beach is overstating it.  It’s a narrow strip of land covered in dried seaweed, but it does mean I can walk through the garden in my swimming  trunks and go straight in to the water.

Which I did on my first morning, having arrived the evening before.  Warm water, easy access… and very dull.  Within ten minutes I was done.  The narrow shore does also give access to the local resort and café-bar, however, and later I strolled along there for lunch.  About a ten minute walk on the same springy seaweed, but with a distressing amount of plastic debris, a couple of dead seagulls, and a nasty rusting wire fence to negotiate right at the end.

The house is perfectly comfortable, but it is a throwback to another time.  It is full of stuff: shells and plastic fruit and painted stones and old cassette players and little model houses and things made of pine cones and acorns and model cars made of wood and every sort of tourist knick-knack.  There is a modern(ish) kitchen, and when we arrived Tassos had to unload masses of plates from the dishwasher, as he had hosted a dozen of his friends the day before.  He tells me he comes here every day, and in the summer stays for weeks at a time, which must be a wrench for him when it is rented out.  Like now.

There are wide terraces on all sides, each with its own comfortable seating area: cane furniture with big cushions, big tables for outdoor meals, perfect for sitting and eating and drinking and enjoying the company of your friends. For me, who is actually an indoors person, it is a little claustrophobic, and also a little lonely.  I shall not be sorry to get back to Mytilini, get back to my cosy little apartment, get back to work.

Greek time

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I have always been a bit of a stickler for punctuality.  It is one of the things I have inherited from my mother (nurture not nature; I don’t suppose there is a punctuality gene).  She would always want to be at anything with a declared start time with plenty of time to spare, and would declare that she was quite happy to “sit and wait”.  This has occasionally caused a slight strain in my relationship with Val, for she takes after her mother.  I still remember the frantic rushing about in their family home on a Sunday morning, desperate to fit in one more chore before rushing to church.  And Val is still the same, squeezing every second out of the time before leaving, while I stand by the door, tapping my foot and looking anxiously at my watch.

So, as you can imagine, I am not at all relaxed with what is called Greek time, a laid-back (to the point of horizontal) approach to time-keeping.  The Psarantonis concert, advertised to start at 10.30, began at 11.30 (and needless to say I was there at 10.)  The dance performance was half an hour late.  And I have never yet attended a social event here that began even close to its announced start.

This affects even something as precise as a school timetable.  My lesson supposedly runs from 2 till 4, but then I have to wait for the Safe Zone kids to arrive, and others roll in some time after them.  So when I am asked what time my own lesson begins, I don’t know how to answer, which truth to tell.  So I shrug my shoulders, and offer a range of times with a questioning tone of voice.  Which means I too contribute to the idea that it doesn’t really matter.

I know, I know.  I am just an uptight Englishman who wants the world to run to a timetable.  And if I lived here long enough, I daresay I would become more relaxed about the whole thing, would know just how late to turn up so as not to miss the beginning, would automatically build in just the right amount of leeway.  But still…!

Punctuality: the politeness of kings.  Just not Greek kings, obviously.