Rehearsals week 3

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A rollercoaster of a week.  We still had three big scenes to translate – hard, slow, tedious work, but necessary.  Deborah had sent me along a regular helper/interpreter – Isaq Ali, one of her more advanced students – but his English is a little shaky.  We struggled, therefore, with the text, and it did not help that Ali, my storyteller, decided he did not need to be there and left the rehearsal.  It was all a bit depressing, though did improve when we finished the wedding scene and were able to “stand it up”.

I woke feeling very worried about all aspects of the show, and very anxious.  It is a regular condition for me, but no less depressing for all that. We had two scenes to be translated, including the most difficult one of all, the final trial scene – long, complicated, but vital. And when Ali did not turn up, despite the fact that the storyteller becomes Azdak, at the heart of this scene, I whatsapped him, and he replied immediately, to say he was withdrawing from the production. Hm!

I turned to Isaq Ali – would he take it on?  “Of course.” And so we could get on with the rehearsal – translating, then putting it on its feet.  And suddenly things came to life.  Everyone was involved in the scene, and my new Azdak was a massive improvement on the old one.

The next day Isaq Ali and the two others involved in the final scene we had to work on came in early, and we were able to work on the text in the privacy of a classroom, without distractions.  The play is now complete – some lines in Farsi, some in English, enough, we hope for everyone to be able to follow the story.  A weight was lifted from my shoulders.

When everyone else arrived, I informed them that, as a reward for their patience and forbearance over the past two days, we would put the scripts away for the day and have fun.  They were predictably pleased.  And fun was what followed.  Some of you will know – a few from bitter experience – that I am a big fan of the game Zip Zap Boing, and I have now taught it on four continents.  But maybe this is the group who have embraced it with the greatest enthusiasm and sense of fun that I have ever met.  There was so much laughter that there were people curled up on the floor in hysterics.  And other games too.

Then we reminded ourselves of the joy of slow-motion, and how it allows time – time to use the face, for reactions, for slowly dawning realisation.  We finished with a popular improvisation structure: the Park Bench. Someone arrives, another person joins them, the first person leaves, another one comes, etc. A mini-scene with each encounter.  This was the first time I had ever used silence and slow-motion, and without a second of pre-planning there was the most fantastic theatre: funny, clever, imaginative.  As I told them afterwards, it was times like this that reminded me why I love my job so much.

Make ’em laugh

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After the disappointing – not to say non-existent – turnout to the comedy workshop last week, Syed, the wonderful, multi-lingual, ever-smiling receptionist at Mosaik, promised me that we would have a full contingent this time.  And so it proved.  At 2 pm, there were half a dozen waiting for me in Mosaik’s largest classroom, with all the chairs and tables put away.  At 2.05 we had about the right number, some 15 or so, including (but not counting) a baby and a small child.  I began the lesson, but still they kept coming, 30 or more (though this did mean a few were able to escape my attention and hide themselves.)

Mime was the subject of the first half of the workshop, the basic technique explained and practised, and then various objects created and used: a ball, something to drink out of, and then progressing onto their own ideas.  We tried the magic object, which changes as it passes from person to person.  It was hard going, of course – this was the first time they had encountered being asked such questions, and most of them had only the vaguest idea of what I was asking them to do.  All the same, there were flashes of imagination, and quite a bit of laughter.  I played the clown, of course I did, but they paid attention, and enjoyed watching each other; some of them were making rapid progress.

We had a break after the first hour, and I really did think I’d lost pretty much everyone; some had explained they had another class to attend.  But in fact the same pattern repeated, with the numbers swelling over the first few minutes, the numbers boosted by the arrival of a number of French visitors.

Slow motion was the theme this time.  Harder for everyone to be involved, because of the lack of space, so rather more demonstrating this time.  Some by me (try and stop me) though I did have one rather worrying moment, when, acting out a scene of a robbery, I found myself with my arm twisted up my back in an armlock.  Talk about a trust exercise – I had to rely on a total stranger deciding not to hurt me.  He didn’t, I hasten to add.

Handing out bus tickets at the end was surprisingly challenging, with various people I had not noticed in the workshop coming forward to claim their allocation, but it resolved itself amicably enough.  As someone said, better to be occasionally fooled than permanently suspicious.

Selling myself

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I have a confession to make.  You may know, if you have been following this blog, that I offered a class in physical comedy at Mosaik support centre.  The first session was last Friday, and one person turned up. Actually, as that person was Jaime, my friend and fellow teacher at Gekko, that really meant no-one came at all.  I was not upset by this; after all, nobody knew me, so it was hardly a personal rejection, but I was a little embarrassed.  All the more so since I have been asking for donations to cover the costs.

But this week we decided upon a different approach, and I have been visiting the classes at Mosaik in order to promote the class.  I have now performed my little advertisement half a dozen times, and know it well.  What follows is pretty much a transcript.  I have included the movement, but you will have to picture for yourself the gestures and gurning which accompany it.

“Good morning. My name is Chris, and I am from England.  I am a teacher of theatre.  You may be wondering, What has theatre got to do with me?  I am not an actor, not Tom Cruise, or Julia Roberts. But actually, we are all actors, all of the time.  Your teachers are actors, performers.  They do not just read to you. (I MIME READING A BOOK.)  They move, they gesture (I DO BOTH.)  They use their hands, their faces, their bodies (I INDICATE ALL THREE.) If you work in a shop, you perform.  Come here!  Buy this, buy that!  Suits you!  A waiter in a restaurant is an actor. (I MIME HOLDING A TRAY, DISTRIBUTING GLASSES TO THE STUDENTS NEAREST ME.) There you go, sir; there you go, madam, hope you enjoy.

These things, using your face, your hands, your body, help you to communicate.  Theatre helps you to work together with other people, it helps you to co-operate.  Above all, it helps you to be more confident.  Maybe you are a little shy. (I MIME BEING SHY.) I will tell you the truth.  Me, (POINTING TO MYSELF) I am a little shy.  But that is on the inside. On the outside, I hope, I appear confident.

Of course, there is a problem with language.  I speak English, un petit peu de Francais, and no Farsi at all – I am sorry.  So, in my class, we do not work so much with speech; we use our hands, our faces, our bodies.  But there are things we can do to communicate. (I MIME PICKING UP A BALL, THROW IT UP IN THE AIR, CATCH IT, THROW IT FROM HAND TO HAND, BOUNCE IT, THROW IT AWAY.)  Or maybe a rope.  (I MIME PULLING A ROPE, PATTING A HORSE.)

We can also use our imagination.  This… (I TAKE A FRYING PAN FROM MY BAG) …is a frying pan. (I MAKE A SIZZLING SOUND.) But maybe… (I USE IT AS A MIRROR, POUTING INTO IT)  Or maybe… (I USE IT AS A TABLE TENNIS BAT, PLAY SOME STROKES WITH FOUR TONGUE CLICKS FOR EACH SHOT.)  Or even… (IT IS A SHOWER, AND I STAND BENEATH IT.)  I see you smile.  And laugh.  In my class, we laugh a lot.

Perhaps you are thinking, maybe, maybe not.  So why not try?  If you like it, you can come again.  And if not, thank you, bye, bye.”

All of this with simultaneous translation in Farsi and French.  The signs are good, I think we might have a class.

Moving on up

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Working on the new fountain in the park

The only thing I know about the political situation in Greece is that economically they have been (and may remain) in a pretty bad way, and that the EU in general, and Germany in particular, have imposed a pretty austere budget in an attempt to get their economy under control.  My apologies if that is an oversimplification;  as I say, my knowledge is patchy at best.  I do know that Grexit was a thing before Brexit was.  Not that Grexit happened (but then, as yet, neither has Brexit.)

There is physical evidence of decline.  There are some areas of town with clusters of derelict shops, and plenty of abandoned factories in the industrial estates outside town.  On the other hand, the main shopping street looks pretty healthy, better than its British equivalent, though it probably isn’t fair to use a tourist town as an example; if there is one time people put aside their laptops and shop in actual shops, it is when they are on holiday.

There are also lots of large houses which at one time must have been magnificent, but which are now empty, derelict, and “beyond economic repair.”  But Mytilini is actually better off in this respect than other places I have seen which once had a proud history: Havana, Myanmar, Johannesburg.  The specific causes of decline are different in each case, but in each case it is sad to see the sorry state to which they have been reduced.

But there are also positive signs in Mytilini.  Modern shops on Ermou are undergoing rapid refurbishment, even in the short time I have been here.  And one particular project is the nearby park.  An elaborate guided pathway for the blind has just been laid, new decorative walls and flower-beds built, and a large central fountain is under construction.  The children’s playground is as yet in a sorry state, with broken slides and roundabouts, and for now it is surrounded by a high security fence (though I was amused to see one father helping his young children to scramble over.) A contractor told me the whole project would be complete in two months.  The cost? Nearly half a million euros.  Paid for by the EU.



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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.