Points of view

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Shafiqha: “Last night we had a performance at Gekko X.  We performed The Chalk Circle at 8.00 p.m.  It was perfect!!

In the beginning we were nervous, but when we started, everything was great.  The actors spoke loudly clearly and with feeling.  When the old man Salman said lies everybody laughed.  In the play two old people wanted a divorce and the judge granted them one.

My favourite part of the play was when I reserved a room in the hotel.  I spoke loudly and angrily because the innkeeper told me and my friend, “we don’t have any rooms.”  Then we had to go to the dirty stable where the animals lived.  I held my nose and I waved my hand.  I liked this part because I got to be a long time on the stage.”

Chris: Arriving at the venue as usual, with just over an hour to go to curtain-up, I noticed a problem: the lid of the trunk – in our production, the Queen’s trunk, which she rummages through to choose the best dresses to take with her and then the ‘baby’ gets left behind in – had come adrift.  This was an old, rickety thing, the first prop I had noticed in the Gekko X store room (and actually belonging to the Flying Seagulls, a travelling theatre group, famous throughout the refugee hotspots.)  Luckily, we had the right person there to fix it: Andrew, a director of Better Days, who had first cut his teeth in refugee assistance being a dab hand at fixing tent-zips – a truly wonderful skill, and vital in that world.

It took him some time to find the required bits and pieces from the chaos that the store-room had degenerated into, but after that, he said the job was easy enough.  I would not agree, seeing as he had to work in a narrow corridor, with performers constantly stepping over and around him.  Many a man would have exploded at such a point; he carried on, until the job was done.

Val: I was on duty backstage. Which you can see from the video clips doesn’t appear like any backstage I’ve ever come across before. Standing there, you can clearly see and hear everything happening on stage, but the audience can’t see you!

My job – to help make sure everyone had the right props and cue entrances. But I was redundant, if anything I was in the way, because the kids have got it all sewn up. Ali in particular, stands in the middle of backstage, orchestrating everything; not that the performers need telling, but he adds just that extra crispness that keeps each scene flowing from one to another. In the many, many productions I’ve helped with, I have never known such an organised, focused and professional bunch – no messing around, no whispering or giggling, no showing-off. Magnificent.

Andrew had been worried when he put the curtain up, that it would be too flimsy (and admittedly, it might not stand the test of a day-time performance), but last night, from my point of view I agree with Shafiqha, it was perfect!

Tonight’s the night

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 3
Azdak and Prime Minister

The final rehearsal this afternoon was focused on the most difficult scene in the play, and the one that had caused most problems during last night’s dress rehearsal: the trial scene.  Partly we needed to try hard for a rigorous adherence to the text, which seems obvious but is not as easy as it sounds, all the more so since much of it is delivered in Farsi; I have to take it on trust that they are saying what is written on the page.  But that was largely a mechanical exercise in collective memory.  Far more important is the business of ensuring that each and every person on stage – and that is the whole cast – is reacting and responding physically at every moment.  And by the end they got it, they really did.  All they had to do now was reproduce that in the glare and pressure of performance.

And that was a performance in front of, as it turned out, a packed house (though, in typically Greek fashion, it didn’t look like that would happen with five minutes to spare.)  I introduced the play with Zerefiah, stage manager turned Azdak, who ten days before had not even been in the company, at my side.  She had had five days to learn the role, and it was she who had the task of keeping that final trial scene on track.  I was proud to be standing next to her, while we explained in English and Farsi that photos were forbidden, that we should use our ears, eyes and memory instead, and that Isaq Ali had been sent to Athens five days previously.  I wished her luck, and we began.

It was great.  The cast did themselves proud, remembering nearly everything we had worked on, talked about.  The trial scene was terrific, the dance exuberant, and the audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering.  

But almost as wonderful was the post-performance.  After they took their final bow, rather than have the cast do the traditional thing of retreating backstage, they stepped forward and fell into the arms of their teachers, friends, supporters, children(!).  Even a parent or two, though I remain unsure how that squares with the idea of unaccompanied minors.  The whole room was full of joy, and it was twenty minutes before we could get people to leave.  And yes, I allowed myself the pleasure and indulgence of bathing in all that love.

Run and run through

I flew in late on Saturday night, already acclimatised to the hot weather after the recent UK heatwave. My role this week in Mytilini is to organise costumes for the performance. In theory, it should have been just ‘organising’ as Chris had pulled together most of them from the local Chinese shop, the Women’s Centre and a local tailor. Plus I arrived (bizarrely distinct from my fellow Thomas Cook package holiday-makers) with a suitcase of shawls, scarves and old shirts (a few quick snips to cut off the collar produces a peasant shirt, remove the sleeves and you have a country jerkin). Oh and also (how many times have I seen it on stage as teacher or preacher?) Chris’s black graduation gown.

Perfect. Well not quite perfect, as unfortunately, the costumes from the Women’s Centre were far from production ready, so together with two volunteer English teachers, Pam and Ciara, we set about hand-sewing the soldier’s tabards. I am no seamstress (as my school needlework teacher regularly reminded me), but I am quite good at pulling together easily donned/shed character costumes that will stand the test of a week’s production run.

The costumes are relatively simple – black trousers/skirts and t-shirt (the latter showing Jaime’s fist/circle logo) as a base. Each character then dons a shawl, shirt, scarf, apron, jerkin, tabard or whatever to signify their character. It’s amazing how costumes lift not only the audience’s perception of a play, but also give the performer confidence and the finishing touch to their characterisation. An old peasant man comes to life in a raggedy jerkin, a servant girl is easily recognisable in an apron. With the production mostly spoken in Farsi interspersed with bits of English, it will be important the (predominantly?) English/Greek speaking audience understand who’s who. Predictably, the kids pushed back strongly on wearing the unfashionable trousers (‘no, you can’t wear your designer ripped jeans onstage’), but they soon acquiesced. I’m impressed with the professional attitude they have taken towards the performance – it was a good dress rehearsal run through.

The second run is of a completely different nature. I’m training, along with our eldest Lucy, for the Great North Run (half-marathon) in just over a months’ time. This is a crucial time, building up distance week-by-week, my current target being 14km. Which just happens to be the return distance to the airport along the shore of the Med from the apartment.

Greece wakes up quite late, so early morning in Mytilini is a very different experience to the usual hustle of Ermou or the harbour front. Heading out of town, I spent the first 2km passing a multitude of street cleaners (mostly well-dressed young women, in ordinary day clothes), plus a couple of men strimming weeds growing out of the pavement cracks. Past the marina, taking care over kerbs, around and under trees, I felt the heat as I climbed over the hill to the road along the coast. At regular intervals, there were small groups of people in sleeping bags on the beach or in the back of their cars, hatch-back open for air, their children already up playing on the stony beach or riding their bicycles (I’m guessing possibly Roma people). Plus a handful of fellow joggers, all enjoying the view over the perfectly calm sea.

Both run and run through have provided a very satisfying start to my week in Lesvos. A feeling of achievement and anticipation for myself (running) and for the kids (performing).

He who would valiant be

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 0

Ever since I arrived in Mytilini, there has been a prominent presence in the harbour – HMS Valiant, a Royal Navy warship (apologies if I am misusing a technical description) with Border Force painted on the hull. When I mentioned this some time ago, a friend commented that it was a long way from the border, but of course, while we remain a member of the EU, this is our European border.  And if/when we leave, HMS Valiant will return to the UK.

Every time I walk past the ship, I have been hoping that there might be someone on deck to whom I might put a few questions.  And today, as Val and I were on our way to Mytilini’s Statue of Liberty to go for a swim, there was.  I called across, and asked him if he was allowed to talk to me.  “Of course,” he said, and came over to the side.

He told us that HMS Valiant had been based there for two years, and when I asked him its purpose, he was unequivocal: search and rescue.  Did they ever send boats back?  No.  What happened in Turkish territorial waters might be another matter, but they didn’t go there.  They do night patrols, two weeks on, two weeks off, and when they came across a rubber boat, they invited the occupants aboard, and brought them to shore, to a reception centre at the harbour entrance.  He had been in Mytilini, on and off, throughout its deployment.  Was it regarded as an easy gig?  No, a tough one, because of the other aspect of the job, fishing bodies out of the water.  It was necessary, he said, to harden his heart to such things, so far as he could, when it came to adults, for the sake of his mental well-being, but that was impossible when it came to children. 

I have to say I was impressed with his relatively well-balanced view.  He acknowledged that in many cases the boats might not be in immediate danger, but even so liked to think that he and his colleagues were saving lives.  For my part, I assured him that this was undoubtedly true, what with leaky boats, inadequate life-jackets, and a dangerous landing to come.

He concluded, however, with an unsettling anecdote.  The previous night they had picked up two boats, one filled with Afghans, the other with Syrians, but when they were both on board, a fight broke out between them.  He expressed his disappointment that two groups who were literally and metaphorically in the same boat should still find conflict between them.  It is dangerous to draw a general conclusion from a specific example – who knows what provoked it – but it was depressing all the same.  Dangerous too to rely too much on a single testimony, but I’ve always been a credulous soul, and I liked him.

When you’re smiling…

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Walking back and forth between my apartment and Gekko – something I do with monotonous regularity, sometimes three times a day – is a challenge.  It does not help that generally I am going at twice the speed of my fellow travellers.  The narrow pavement bordered by railings on Kavetsou, the first part of my journey, presents its own difficulties.  As I have somewhere to get to, I need to overtake, and this is not easy when the person in front ambles diagonally, or decides to stop, or is with a friend or two.  A muttered paloniko or excuse me generally gets zero response.

When I reach Ermou, the main shopping street (though the width of a country lane) there are other difficulties.  For much of the day (though not all) it is “pedestrianised”, but only if you count bicycles, motor-bikes, delivery vans, even occasional rubbish lorries, as pedestrians.  But the people are just as difficult to navigate past.  At home, my experience is that people have an awareness of each other, will look to see if they are in someone else’s way, might apologise if they inadvertently block someone’s path.  Here, there appears a total absence of such awareness.  If someone suddenly turns and walks across you, it is as though you did not exist.

I am determined to retain my English politeness in such matters: giving way, holding back, watching out.  And I am, by and large, ignored.  Occasionally, if I am sufficiently theatrical in my gesture, I can provoke a reaction, the ghost of a smile, but mostly their faces are stony.  It is not as though they are unfriendly in all their relationships; friends across the street are acknowledged with demonstrative affability.  But I had not registered before how used I am to people registering each other with a smile, a nod, a gesture (and not a rude one.)  And I really do believe that such things are important, that human interaction, even (or even especially) with strangers, is the glue that holds society together.

“When you’re smiling, keep on smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

Bring me laughter

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 1

As I have not mentioned it for some weeks, I may have left the impression that the Comedy workshops at Mosaik have ground to a halt.  Far from it: the lesson has run each Friday afternoon, even though there were occasions when it did not seem likely.  Afghan time is much like Greek time in its lack of punctuality, but people drifted in, and each week I ended up with at least a dozen, most of them being regulars, including a couple from Gekko.

Today I had even more than average, fifteen or so, including four or five kids who wandered in and out, taking part as and when they felt like it.  As there were quite a few new faces, I felt entitled to recycle some old material, mostly involving some mime.  We started with a ball, and they all got a lot of fun throwing the one invisible ball around among ourselves, especially when it grew larger and larger with every throw.

Miming a door, and showing the room beyond, was the next stage, and that in turn led on to the physical theatre notion of people acting as things: doors again at first, but then a shower, a TV, and then a group acting out a person using various things in a room (with my usual twist of the things coming alive to intimidate their owner.)  There was plenty of laughter, even though we never got close to my initial idea of working towards a performance.

We finished the session with a little bit of gentle satire, all based around mobile phones, but with the twist (© A Marsden-Smedley, Stowe School A-level Drama class, 2016) of using real apples instead of phones (geddit?)  We had people comparing types of apple-phone, social occasions where everyone was staring at their apple, people colliding because they were checking their apple and not looking where they were going.  For comparison, we even had an old-fashioned landline, ie a banana.

I am pretty sure they have gained something from the class, beyond having a good laugh (though that is an end in itself.)  We even had quite a discussion (in Farsi, so the finer points escaped me) about how drama is all about building confidence, no matter what the situation.  Though I am not so naïve as to ignore the fact that the offer of a pair of bus tickets for each participant also played its part.

Cinema Paradiso

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One of the more extraordinary cultural events that takes place in Mytilini is a programme of old. Classic movies, put on by an elderly Greek fan, in the grounds of one of the many old ruined mansions here, just outside town.  There is a large screen, and rows of chairs, and it is free.  It really is like a step into another time, another place.

I went to the opening night on Monday: Once Upon A Time In The West – a 62 western, very corny, but still a classic, with a remarkable cast:  James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, and cameos from John Wayne, Slim Pickens, etc, etc., and some amazing action sequences.  But it was not the movie so much as the atmosphere: sitting within a stone’s throw of the Med, a balmy breeze, a crackly soundtrack, a large audience.  And all for free.

Last night, as soon as the evening rehearsal was done, I raced down there again – probably my last opportunity, what with the show next week.  This time it was Great Expectations – as some of you will know, a story that has particular resonance for me.  Even more so, as it was the David Lean version, with Felix Hayes’ grandfather playing the “other” convict.  And the fact that we were sitting in the shadow of a building that could have been Satis House was an additional bonus.

It has been a long, but surprising and rewarding summer.  And this was just one more cherry on the cake.

The promised land

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The statue of liberty at the harbour entrance in Mytilini

I had been wondering what topic to focus upon for today’s post, and then the answer popped straight into my lap… though not really in a good way. I was conducting a rather chaotic rehearsal, guided by who happened to be there, and called upon Isaq, playing the part of Azdak, to give a cue.  He is normally the most attentive and reliable of actors, but on this occasion was on his phone.  And clearly he was not to be disturbed, waving away any attempt to gain his attention.  When the call finished he was in a state of manic excitement – “I have to go!” – and rushed around the room shaking hands.  I assumed it was some temporary emergency; it was only when he thrust his script into my hands that the reality dawned, swiftly confirmed by others: Isaq was off to Athens, leaving within the hour.  Azdak was gone.  The storyteller was gone.

It did call for a rapid re-think. Zarifeh, my newly-acquired stage manager, offered to step into the breach, but this was a big ask.  The alternative was me, but this would torpedo my desire to have the play acted in Farsi and English.  The solution struck: Zarifeh would take over Azdak – an important role, but only appearing in the final scenes.  And I would be the storyteller, who only speaks in English. 

Iqbal, who plays the soldier in the play, was unexpectedly at the rehearsal, as his interview about his future had taken place that morning.  He too was receiving a series of phone calls, and after each one I was expecting that he would tell me that he too was on his way.  Luckily (for me) and unluckily (for him) no such news came.  Not yet, at any rate: it does seem that people are on the move, so nothing is certain.

Isaq had clearly been very excited about his move to Athens, a place he saw as the promised land, but it is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it is another step in his journey, and moving forward off the island makes it less likely that he will be sent back.  On the other, there will be less support; there is nothing like Gekko available for him there, much less chance to continue his education.  But it is an important step.  In many ways, the person I feel most sorry for is Pam, one of the American volunteers, who has spent hour after hour helping him with his lines, coaching, coaxing, encouraging, listening; she had so looked forward to seeing him on stage.  He won’t have anyone like her in Athens.

Oh, and a new Michael turned up today, the best yet.  Yippee!

Drawing to a close

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The drawing at the heart of the poster for the play is by Matin, who plays a number of roles in the play.  He is one of a number of capable artists in the school, and though there is no art as part of the regular curriculum, it is offered whenever there is a volunteer with the requisite skills (Jaime is one such at present).  In addition, those who show a particular aptitude are sent for lessons at a local school for art in the town, with a scholarship.

With just one week to go, some cracks are starting to appear.  As well as a certain fading of energy (perfectly normal in the rehearsal process at this stage), there are particular problems appearing which are specific to working with refugee children.  One of the cast has apparently left to go to Athens.  I have heard such rumours before, but this time it does appear to be accurate.  She only has a couple of small roles, so they can be covered, but she is also the sister of our most recent Michael, and he has gone with her.  We spent about half an hour coaching him through his part last week, coaxing some life out of his initial woodenness, and now that has to be done again with another young and inexperienced actor.  Never mind; I knew that was a potential problem, and moving to Athens is a positive step for both of them.

But today three others told me of news which will prevent them from rehearsing tomorrow.  Iqbal, my soldier, has an interview in connection with his status, and he seems more worried that he might be sent back than excited about the possibility of moving on; one can only hope for the best for him.  Only in the case of Fatima and Amina, two sisters who play the Queen and a couple of villains, is the news an unqualified blessing, as their mother is coming from Germany to see them, the first time in five years apart.  I have been telling them all that the play will be a positive, memorable experience for them, but it pales into insignificance in comparison.

The Circle game

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 1

It was just as well that I bought a packet of coloured chalks ahead of time, rather than as a last minute purchase.  As the title of the play suggests, chalk is quite important for the iconic final scene, so it came as quite a shock, when I tried it out, to discover that the polished floor tiles of GekkoX would not take chalk at all.  The Permanent Black Marker Circle did not have quite the same ring (no pun intended) and might in any case have ended up as just a bit too permanent.  But a circle of some kind there had to be.

But constraint is the mother of creativity, as they say (I’m not sure they do, actually, but I think I’ve heard something of the kind.)  I needed something that would show up well, but which could be dropped onto the floor.  It occurred to me that the day-glo orange material of a life jacket might be just the thing, as well as having some symbolic resonance.  What was more, there was likely to be a ready-made supply very close: Mosaik operated a workshop, called Safe Passage, which turned old life-jackets into bags and purses of all kinds – surely they would have scraps of material.

And they did, bags and bags of the stuff, as well as plenty just lying about on the workshop floor.  I was quite prepared to pay for it, but they would have none of it, waving me away in a devil-may-care fashion.  All I had to do was cut the small scraps into even smaller scraps, and the problem was solved.  I just need to make sure the air-con in Gekko X doesn’t blow it around and I have a symbolically relevant solution.  Better than chalk!