The proof of the pudding…

posted in: Lebanon | 0

The proof of the pudding is in the eating; getting the school multi-purpose hall project through from initial idea to completion within a year was a remarkable achievement, but it would all be to naught if the room was not used. It was as well that the room was finished before summer school began, as this gave the school the opportunity to try it out.  Throughout, it has been used for martial arts lessons, delivered in rotation to each class.  Martial arts was what it said on the door, at any rate, but the lessons were more varied.  They were delivered by Courtney, a bubbly and energetic Australian volunteer, with a local teacher helping with translation, and consisted of a mix of physical activities.  There were some basic karate moves taught, some fitness and flexibility work, some fun games, some self defence moves, and finally a slow wind-down.  And none of it could have been done in the classroom.

Two days previously, the school had been visited by the Pop-up Penguins, a music and clowning theatre group from the UK, who gave a performance and a workshop, while the day after the opening it was the venue for the school talent competition.  Again, valuable activities which needed the sort of space the hall provided.

The real test will come when the new school year begins, however, and we can see whether the school fulfils a need in the curriculum, as well as encouraging a child-centred, active approach.  I know that the senior teachers are talking about how best to use it, so this is very encouraging.  I will try to report back on this later in the year.

Hall of glory

posted in: Lebanon | 0
The hall – before and after

There are two reasons we delayed our return home from Greece and instead visited Lebanon for a a few days.  The first: to visit our friends Suha and Nagi in Beirut; Suha is the Academic Director of Refugee Education for Jusoor Syria, the NGO with which we volunteered last summer.  The second, closely connected: to visit the school for Syrian refugee children in Jeb Jannine, Bekaa valleyr.  This is the cause for which many of you donated money, to convert a large room at the top of the building – previously a store for all sorts of redundant material – creating a multi-purpose hall; our thanks to you for your generosity.  This was our opportunity to see the result.

At 9.20 am we were standing outside the double entrance doors, under strict instructions not to enter until all was ready. The moment arrived, the doors were opened, and we stepped in, to be greeted by a huge cheer from what appeared to be the entire school.  Even more impressive was a miraculous transformation. What had been a dirty, dusty pile of (mostly) junk – boxes of this and that, broken furniture, a peeling ceiling – was a huge (or at least far bigger than I had remembered) light and airy room that any school would be pleased to have and use.  Of course, the two central pillars were still there, but they had their lower section covered with a padded foam material with a brick pattern – very elegant.  At one end was a small stage, which can be dismantled when not required.  It makes a strong, well-built focus for assemblies, concerts, presentations, meetings, and, of course, theatre.

I was presented with a pair of ceremonial scissors, and cut the ribbon strung between the pillars.  There followed immediately a charming series of dances and songs, with which everyone – pupils, teachers, Val and I – joined in.  It was a joyous and moving occasion.

The hall is, I think, perfect, with all of the elements I envisaged brought into being, only better than I imagined them.  The cupboards, floor to ceiling and built in, are well-made, more stylish and elegant than the functional ones I had imagined, and already well-used.  The floor is coated with an epoxy flooring; clean and functional.  The stage is, as I said, strong and well-made – it easily coped with the large number of children dancing energetically on it.  And the whole room is clean, light, airy.

The speed with which the whole process has been completed has been most impressive. A year ago, this was just an idea, but in twelve months the concept was agreed, the money raised, negotiations with local tradesmen completed, building work and decoration completed, and the new hall already in daily use throughout the summer school. Tomorrow, we will describe that use, and later hope to report on the hall’s use as part of the school curriculum. If you would like to receive notification by email when these posts occur, there is a handy box on the site (bottom right of the homepage) which allows you to do so.

Bowing out

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 3

Director’s notes from the programme for “The Chalk Circle”, written in English, Greek and Farsi:

When I first arrived at Gekko Kids, my project being to put on a stage production, I was introduced to a couple of the students as a teacher of theatre.  “Please,” one of them said, “what is theatre?”  I realised then that there was quite a journey ahead for all of us.

For the first few weeks, we played games, learned some physical theatre techniques, and had fun.  The students got to know me, and I got to know them.  More students came, and some left – not everyone had space on their timetable, not all could commit to regular rehearsals.  But gradually, we built a team.  And then we began to rehearse.

It was slow going at first, changing the script written in English into Farsi, so that everyone understood what they had to say.  But slowly the play was cast, the lines learnt, and we began to act, to put movement and meaning to the words.

In my years of teaching, I have directed hundreds of productions.  I have always – nearly always – been proud of my actors.  But this time it is different.  I am very proud of them as actors, but more than that I am proud of them as people.  Each one of them is braver than I could ever be, has lived through more than I could ever imagine.  They are strong; they will thrive.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with them, and I am proud to call them my friends.

One more time

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 0
James and Iman

One of the aspects which has contributed greatly to the success of the production, but which I have not given sufficient credit to until now, is the music.  There has been a pair of musicians for the performances, playing live on the gallery overlooking the playing area: James, the musical director, accordion player, and occasional trumpeter for the fanfares (and also senior gardener at the Ecohub) and his friend Iman, the guitar teacher from the School of Peace.  Live music is such an important component of live theatre, and many have commented on how much they have added to the whole experience.

First of all, the theme of journey has been a major way in which the play has echoed the actors’ own experience, and this has been enhanced by the theme James has used each time Grusha has continued her walk, a haunting theme that I now find difficult to get out of my head.  Secondly, (though it has taken some time to get this right) the tension at key moments – Grusha defending Michael by attacking the soldier, crossing the bridge, and the two occasions at the plays’ climax when the child is pulled from the circle – all have the drama heightened by the rising low chords of the accordion.  Finally, the play ends with a dance, with the iconic Zorba tune accompanying the initial traditional Greek circle steps, which, as it becomes faster and faster, transforms into an exuberant Afghan celebration, which has the whole audience clapping along.  Originally, of course, this was picked out on a bouzouki, but I think I now prefer the accordion version.

This was our final performance, the extra one brought about by, as they say, public demand. As is so often the case, it did not reach the near perfection of the penultimate show – I will have to stop predicting this in my final pep talk, for maybe my warning against it is the very thing which brings it about.  It was, nonetheless, a strong performance and much appreciated by its audience.  I think that each audience has “got” the story, and enjoyed both the theatricality of the telling, and the real skill of the people telling it, while there is no doubt that the cast have been infected by the magic of theatre.  I just have to hope that the school can find some way for it to continue.  Whether or not that happens, all of the participants will have what I promised them at the start,  a memory which will last them all their lives.

A hit! A palpable hit!

posted in: Production | 0
Pre-show pep talk

Two performances today, though they could scarcely have been more different.  In the afternoon, we performed to the Safe Zone kids, unaccompanied minors who have recently arrived on Lesvos, housed at Moria Camp in the first instance, in the hope that they will soon be moved on, either to Athens or to supervised housing in Mytilini.  Gekko has provided afternoon lessons for these young people for some time.

Being a matinee performance, there were a couple of necessary alterations.  Most notably, no live music, as James and Iman were otherwise engaged.  We also had no young Michael, as Bashir was away on a trip, but Hossein Ali slipped seamlessly into the role, a remarkable achievement for a previously shy and reserved young man.  More positively, as the audience was almost exclusively Afghan, I encouraged the cast to use Farsi as much as possible, and I very much enjoyed this new perspective.

Far less positive was the response of the audience.  I should have anticipated this, as young people everywhere are far keener on seeing their peers mess up, and these young Afghans were no different.  They did all they could do, in a fairly surreptitious way, to disrupt the performance – even trying to trip the dancers – and it is to the cast’s great credit that they were consummately professional.  When they came off, however, most of them were black with anger – “Animals!!”

It was a totally different story in the evening, with an absolutely packed house, and people queuing up an hour in advance in order to get to see it; somehow, we squeezed everyone in.  The cast responded with absolutely their best performance yet, virtually faultless, and rightly provoking a standing ovation at the end.

This was to be the final performance, but because of the demand, we are putting on an extra performance tomorrow.  I don’t think I have ever had such a hit, which is nice for me, but even better for the cast.  They deserve every cheer.

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.

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…

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 0

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

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 0

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.