Rehearsals week 6

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Rehearsing with a stand-in Michael

Three big developments this week.  The first you already know about – the dance which finishes the show.  Not exactly the cast’s favourite rehearsal activity, and I do know how they feel, having that same sense of utter helplessness myself, but it has to be done. In fact, we tried to squeeze in another short rehearsal at the end of Wednesday’s rehearsal, but them being tired made it even harder. We shall persevere. 

Wednesday brought the arrival of young Michael, the boy playing the human Christmas cracker which concludes the story.  His name is Sajad, and he is the younger brother of one of the cast.  He had learnt his lines, which was very sweet, but at first he was as wooden as Pinocchio.  Hardly surprising when, like the rest of the cast, he had never acted before, but after a fair bit of coaching, he was getting the hang of it – “I’m a real boy!”

Even more important in lots of ways, it seems as though I have got a good stage manager.  Zarifeh speaks excellent English, and also appears to be very well organised; immediately, she proved to be a great help.  Like the other capable and talented students at Gekko, she is much in demand, but I think she could prove to be the final – and vital – piece in the puzzle.

On Thursday it took a while for people to arrive – and, worryingly, one boy is missing quite a few rehearsals – but once we were there (and the cast discovered there was no dance today) things started to come together promisingly.  We went from the very beginning, and, while there have been some strong individual moments already, they were now starting to tie them together.  I know that my belief in the production swings wildly, depending upon how the last rehearsal went, but it is good to end the week with some real optimism.

Every little thing…

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This post is all about props, and why they are more important than you might think. (And because, in its own way, a post is a prop.  Boom boom.)

In order for a production to have some quality, props (and costumes) need to be given some thought.  Of course, in the professional theatre, responsibility for both those elements are delegated, but the director still needs to make them fit with the overall approach.  At one end of the spectrum (say, the RSC) there is total geographical and historical accuracy.  And the opposite of that is not, as you might think, actors all in black miming everything (say, Steven Berkoff) for that too displays a consistent vision (and requires enormous skill).  The opposite is the actors or wardrobe person just cobbling together stuff, with props a mixture of just stuff lying around with bits of mime when nothing suitable comes to hand.

So what idea ties together The Chalk Circle (and which end of the spectrum are we closer to?)  For a start, I am responsible for both wardrobe and props, so it’s all down to me.  And the production as a whole, story and cast, reflects the refugee experience.  Recycled, scavenged, acquired, bought when necessary.  Which is not as random as it might sound.  And is not to do with saving money (except where that fits in with the refugee experience as well.)

The soldiers’ weapons and the Prime Minister’s staff are cardboard tubes rescued from the rubbish binson the corner of every street, tarted up with some electrical tape.  The chair too was destined for the bin, having been chewed to near-death by some cat. The cloth bag of diamonds used as a bribe I found lying on the street; I washed it and filled it with stones.  The Queen’s jewellery box was a discarded shoe-box I picked up on the street, prettied up in Yiola’s workshop; the feather for a quill, and the two walking-sticks (both from broken umbrellas) came from the same place.  I borrowed the rope for the bridge from Tassos, my landlord, and the trunk was lying in the cupboard at Gekko X.  I drew the architect’s plan for the King’s new palace; Shukira wrote out the two official proclamations in Farsi.  I did shell out good money for the lemons (from the local veg stall), the basket (from a Roma street-trader) and the brush (from the corner-store.)

And then there’s the baby. A couple of different people offered me a baby doll, and I hope they were puzzled rather than offended when I turned them down, and tried to explain that actually I preferred a small pillow wrapped in an old sheet.

Dancing queen

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 I have always enjoyed performances which end with something more than just a formal curtain call, so wanted to end our production with a dance; the fact that Brecht’s original play leads towards a joyful celebration made this both easy and appropriate.  Not all the cast were entirely in favour of this: Isaq, who plays both the Storyteller and the character of Azdak, was adamant that he was not a dancer.  I was equally adamant that he had no choice; Isaq might not be keen on dancing, but Azdak was positively enthusiastic.

I asked Eirene, the school receptionist, but also a keen dancer, to be our choreographer.  At the beginning, she taught some basic steps… though like most dancers she did find it difficult to keep it slow and simple, and was soon whirling round the dance floor, which had our cast dropping out in droves, as the music sped up.  As, inevitably, it did – we were using the famous soundtrack from Zorba the Greek, probably the most famous piece of Greek music ever.  But then she took a more measured approach, teaching some manageable steps and establishing a basic structure.  By and large, the actors stayed with it, and could be seen to be making progress.  I was pleased with their perseverance.

We are far from having a complete dance after this first rehearsal, but I never imagined we would.  We established a shape, and a sense of progression, and something that the musicians would be able to work with (though whether James and Iman can recreate a bouzouki on accordion and guitar, let alone one that builds in pace and intensity, is another matter.)  Eirene was keen to continue the next day, but I told her I needed to rehearse.  The compromise was that she would return the following day at the end of the rehearsal, and try to move us forward, once she had had the time to plan the dance more thoroughly.

Street life

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Pictured above is the most regular of the buskers who plies his trade on Ermou, Mytilini’s main shopping street.  He varies his location from time to time (though not by much), and his music is a pleasant and welcome addition to my regular walk to work.  There are also other musicians who appear for a short while.  When I first arrived, there was a trio – accordion, guitar, and middle-eastern drum – whom I would swear used to follow me about.  I would walk past them on the harbour front and make my way to some obscure tavern within the old town, and within five minutes there they were again.  They were competent enough, though their repertoire was limited (though I never had to put up with it for long, as they moved on quickly.)  But they have now disappeared, so I assume they have moved on to islands new.  More recently, a young guitarist appeared on Ermou, strumming his stuff inconsequentially, and largely ignored, so far as I could tell, and he too has now disappeared.  (This sounds far more sinister that it actually is, I suspect.  And hope.)

There are more actual beggars here than I had expected.  There are various elderly women who sit on the pavement, some waving a plastic cup at people passing, others remaining stoically silent.  There is one old gentleman who occupies one particular spot, who tugs at his forelock as one passes; I do tend to acknowledge his presence with a nod, but don’t give him any money (and I don’t know whether this makes me more or less irritating, from his point of view.) 

Then there are the numerous children.  I at first made the lazy assumption that they were refugee children, but actually they are roma.  They spend all of their time approaching people sitting in cafes for money, using the international symbol of hunger by raising their hands to their mouths, using a hangdog expression which presumably looks for sympathy.  They usually operate in a group, and are the most persistent, sometimes borderline aggressive, beggars.  There is no doubt that they are in need, for they are filthy, and undoubtedly hungry, for they will accept food when it is offered, either by customers or waitresses clearing tables.  But while I am sympathetic to their situation, I never give them money.  If they are ever to escape the lives they lead, they need to find a role (or have a role found for them) that offers them something else.

Festival time

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This evening, a small group of us volunteers trudged up the hill to the Castle to attend a music concert, arranged by Connect By Music, an NGO which provides music education for refugee children on Lesvos.  It was impressively organised, with a large stage, sound and lighting equipment, and (to my relief) a seated auditorium, all within the outer grounds of the castle.

There was a huge number of young people involved, mostly guitarists, strumming and gently picking, about fifty at a time, though it was a pity that they were effectively drowned out by the adult leaders, all amplified – a couple of violins, a clarinet, a guitar. Notably, the quality of the guitar-playing improved as the evening progressed; sensible programming.    Other acts were interspersed: a children’s choir, a flamenco dancer and singer, one or two vocalists coming forward from the other musicians.  The highlight of the evening was a group of drummers and an Afghan man playing a traditional instrument – something like a long-necked lute – which really got the crowd jumping.  A gang of Afghan young men, including the male half of my cast, had a sort of mosh pit in front of the stage, and they clearly enjoyed themselves hugely.

Afterwards, Jaime and a Dutch/Singapore volunteer called Sin joined me in a pizza and some pleasant conversation, before I made my way home. But en route I encountered the Lesvos Ouzo festival in a park near the theatre on the waterfront.  I was attracted by the lights and live music, but quickly discovered that the purchase of a two euro glass entitled one to as much ouzo as you wanted, from about a dozen stalls, all operated by different distilleries. My amazement was why everyone was not completely legless, and said as much to a group of three guys who were sitting down at my table, just as they promptly fell of their chairs.  They were pleasant, if inebriated, company, and pointed out the best ouzos (as ever with such things, they all tasted the same to me.)  We also shared a couple of rounds of shots of pomegranate liqueur.

Lesvos Ouzo festival

I then fell into conversation with a couple of ladies next to me; appropriately enough, they were lesbians (though not Lesbians – they came from Athens.)  We chatted about Brexit, Grexit, the state of the world.  I headed home as things began to pack up at about 1.30, drunk but not too drunk, at the end of a pleasant evening.

Doctor doctor

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I was chatting online with an old friend from Oxford, Jackie Keirs.  Many years ago, she had directed me in several productions, including some by Brecht, and she reminded me that in one of them she had used puppets for certain characters, mainly because she did not have enough actors.  That’s a co-incidence, I thought – I don’t have enough actors either, and that got me thinking.

There is a brief scene early on in The Chalk Circle when two doctors argue over the health of the baby Michael, and it occurred to me that having just one actor with a glove puppet on each hand, bickering with each other, might be an effective idea.  First, it would save me an actor.  Second, it has a Brechtian feel, appropriate for a play by Brecht; he advocated a non-naturalistic style, in which the audience is reminded of the fact that they are watching theatre, not real life, and puppets do that brilliantly.  Third, it makes a satirical point, literally portraying the “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” that is a bit of a medical cliché.  And finally – and this beats the rest put together – it is funny.

So much for the rationale; the practicalities took a little more time.  As it happens, my papier-mache skills are up to the task of creating a couple of glove puppet heads.  One was based on a balloon mounted on the neck of a plastic Perrier bottle; the other was formed from the square lid of an egg carton, with cereal-box card wrapped round to create the front (and with an egg-box section for a nose.)  I also had a place to work, for there is an upcycling workshop at the back of the courtyard in Mosaik, with work tables outside.  As I had the materials I needed – brown paper from bread bags, card, an egg-box and wallpaper paste – I was able to start on my own (with the assistance of a small girl called Fatima who tore paper for me.)

But then Yola arrived.  She is a Greek artist who presides over the upcycle empire there.  She was complimentary about the progress I had made, and gave me extra bits and pieces from her store.  That was an amazing Aladdin’s cave: stacks and stacks of every imaginable resource, all of it scavenged from somewhere, all carefully stored.  There were also examples of her magnificent creations – sculptures, picture frames, jewellery, etc, etc – all made from discarded stuff (which is what upcycling means.)  She helped me with the finishing touches that I wasn’t sure about – the hair, eyes, clothes – and eventually we were done.

All of this was about three days’ work, but at the end we had not only made two puppets, but friends as well.

Rehearsals week 5

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I suppose I ought to be used to this by now, after close on forty years of doing theatre with young people.  I used the roller-coaster metaphor last week, so let’s see: highs and lows, peaks and troughs, elation and despair.  To clarify, when you are preparing a production with the young, one minute you see glimpses of wonder, the next you are convinced you have an absolute disaster on your hands.

On Tuesday, half my cast – the girls – were missing from the rehearsal.  The swim program had begun, so they were 10 kms up the coast, and I had had no warning so had to re-think on the spot.  I do understand the problem: with volunteers arriving all the time, introducing their own enthusiasms (which inevitably disrupt whatever schedule existed before), and then leaving again, leaving a hole to be filled, this is bound to happen.  I am just another one of those disruptive influences, so can hardly complain.  But it did make for a difficult rehearsal.  There are just two short scenes which have only boys, and once we had rehearsed them… we played zip zap boing.

On Wednesday, things turned around 180 degrees.  I had already been told that Cecilia and Carol, from the REAL group, would be there, but when they were absent at the beginni9ng, I carried on with my original plan of working through the difficult final trial scene.  So by the time they arrived – parking problems – we had that scene ready to be seen (after a fashion).  They were suitably impressed, and told the cast so, which was good for morale (mine too.)

Next day, we returned to the beginning of the play, and the cast appeared to have forgotten everything we had done.  They were late, which made me fractious, and we also had Michele and Michelle from the swim team to watch.  Humph.  Still, we had another rehearsal in the evening – our first such venture, held to allow James and Iman, who would be adding accordion and guitar to the show, a chance to see it and try out some ideas.  The cast were all there, they were on time, and the rehearsal ideas we had worked on had stuck.

So, at the end of another yo-yo week (another metaphor!) I am reasonably positive.  Enough went wrong (and then some) for no-one to feel complacent; but enough went right (including the music!) to show that maybe, just maybe, it will be all right on the night.

Fists of fury

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I had always intended for the cast of the production to have a base costume, and when I spotted black t-shirts on special offer in the local supermarket – Eu.1.99 each – I grabbed them.  The next stage was to have some sort of simple logo on the front, but I was not sure how I was going to manage this, as it is outside my skill-set.  I did think at one stage that I might have a go at creating a very basic stencil out of dinghy rubber (of course!) – maybe just a circle, maybe with even a pair of C’s (for Chalk Circle) pained on with fabric paint.  Have to say I was nervous, having little to no confidence in my technical and artistic skill.  But then I met Jaime, a volunteer from Madrid, and I was able to up the game.

It turned out that. As well as being an English teacher back in Spain, he was also an artist, and I asked if he might be interested in creating a design.  It did take us a little while to come up with a design we could agree upon.  He was keen to avoid the obvious image of two women pulling a child between them, and I did not like his initial idea of a distressed child.  In the end, we settled upon the image you can see above (modelled by Jaime): two clenched fists within a chalk circle, as a symbol of struggle and conflict (though I did have a last minute crisis of confidence that it might come across as a fascist logo.)  The idea of a group of refugee children as members of a fascist cell was not attractive.

It was easy enough to find a t-shirt printing shop to do the job, and that is another production task ticked off the list.  And the kids will get a free t-shirt at the end, so that’s a win win.


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…also known as backgammon, and ubiquitous throughout the middle-east.  It is also immensely popular here, and just one more example of how Greece, despite being European, Christian, etc, is closer to its near neighbours than it cares to admit.  The food here has many equivalents in Turkey, and both are very fond of their national spirit, Ouzo/Raki.  The game is largely a male preserve, though there are isolated examples in the hipper bars of couples asking for one of the sets which is kept behind the bar.  Far more common are the bars which have many tables outside, occupied by men playing, watching, offering advice.

I am currently engaged in an ongoing series of games against Andrew, which he is winning 5-3, though he does have a distinct advantage, having introduced me to two radical variations of the standard game.  I am struggling to get a handle upon the tactics; actually I barely understand the rules.

This evening I met up with Iman, the Drama teacher from the School for Peace, for a few games.  We met at Pi’s, the café I had had such difficulty locating back in February, half a year away, and the polar opposite of conditions today.  Then it had offered a cosy sanctuary; now we are outside, sweltering in the summer heat, enjoying frozen lemonade.  I managed to hold my own respectably, though it was clear Iman was far more at home.  He knew almost automatically what moves to make, while I had to give mine a lot of thought.

When we finished – an honourable draw – we chatted for a while about his life in Iran.  He had been a keen footballer, but had been prevented by his father from pursuing the sport, and had more recently fallen out of love with the game there because women were banned from even attending matches. It seemed that he was that rarest of creatures, an Iranian feminist. He did make me realise how fortunate I am to be able to be able to follow my love for theatre.  He had been an actor, but had had limited opportunities to perform.  Despite this, and a certain regret at the hand he had been dealt, he considered himself fortunate to be living and working in Mytilini. A splendid, humbling man.

Living in a material world

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Clothes sorting at Attika

Costumes for the play are going to be pretty representational and tokenistic.  That is an ideological decision in relation to the sort of theatre we are trying to create – storytelling brought to life – but also a practical one, as we have only the budget which I can raise.  People sometimes accuse Brechtian theatre of being merely a justification for being cheap, but I don’t have a problem with that; theatre ought to be cheap, or at least not just something you throw money at to solve your problems, or because someone has given you a big budget.

So.  The cast will wear a base costume of black t-shirt (of which more at a later date) and black long skirts for the girls (provided by Gekko) and trousers for the boys (provided by themselves.)  On top of that will be symbolic items to indicate the characters.  But even those have to be sourced from somewhere; it’s not as though the cast can raid their parents’ wardrobes, for they have neither. Nor is there an abundance of charity shops to go to.

There is, however, Attika, a warehouse a few miles outside Mytilini which recycles donated clothes on an industrial scale.  Andrew, one of the directors of Better Days, drove me out there, and we were able to solve some of our problems, chiefly some blankets which are going to be turned into cloaks for the royal family in the play.  There were a couple of long shirts and overalls which, with the sleeves and collars removed, will serve as peasant jerkins.  It was a little depressing, however, to see how much modern clothing simply does not survive very long, and has to be thrown away.

Other items – tabards for the soldiers, aprons for the servants – would have to be made from scratch.  With the help of Maro, owner and landlady of the volunteers’ house just around the corner, as well as finance officer for Better Days, I was able to negotiate a good deal for some offcuts and end of roll pieces of fabric from the nearby drapers’ shop.  Then it was a trip out to One Happy Family and the Women’s Centre there to hand it all over to Zahra and her friend.  They were going to turn our dross into costume gold, in exchange for a reasonable hourly wage and a donation to the centre.  If the costume question is not yet completely done, it can at least be parked for the time being.