The promised land

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 1
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!

Boat people

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I suppose it is a mark of my own stupidity that it has taken a while for the reality to sink in that Lesvos is an island.  Of course it is.  It has also been at least a temporary home for getting on for a million refugees, first from Syria and Iraq, more recently from Afghanistan, and now increasing numbers from various parts of Africa.  None of them did what I did, which was to fly in; none took the ferry.  Every one has arrived in Lesvos by climbing aboard a big rubber boat, 60, 70, 90 at a time, and made the six mile or so trip across from Turkey.  Short enough, but terrifying enough at the same time, packed in like sardines, often in the dark, over half women and children.

So every refugee I have met here – the people in my comedy class at Mosaik, the kids in the Gekko school and the School for Peace, those from the “Safe Zone” at Moria, the people in the Olive Grove – came here that way, scrambling out onto the rocky shore of northern Lesvos.  Not all of them made it of course, not so very many in percentage terms, but hundreds, thousands.  Men, women, children.

Why has it taken so long for me to realise this?  Partly because, I guess, on the outside at least, you wouldn’t know.  They are ordinary people – friendly, funny, nice, ordinary people, not obviously suffering from the trauma they endured.  But it must still be with them.  It must be.

For the most part, they couldn’t swim.  The smugglers sold them life jackets, it’s true.  If they were lucky, these were real.  Or real enough.  If they were unlucky, they were sold fakes, which became water-logged, and sank.  And like a particularly nasty form of Russian roulette, there was no way of knowing in advance which was which.  One European manufacturer became concerned by the large number of fake jackets with their branding on them, because of the damage to their reputation.  Like fake Rolexes, or fake Lacoste t-shirts.  Except nobody dies because they are wearing a dodgy watch.

For some, there were no life jackets at all.  They were given a pair of empty two-litre juice containers.  To save their lives.  In the dark.  When they couldn’t swim.

But like I say, mostly you wouldn’t know; people are resilient.  The cast of my play are minors.  One sixteen year old has a baby, so was pregnant when she climbed aboard.  Two of them have two-year olds, so they each climbed in, children themselves, a small baby in their arms.  You can see for yourselves: there are plenty of videos on You Tube.  But be careful, you could end up like me, with tears streaming down my face.  But this isn’t about stupid old me.


posted in: Life in Lesvos | 0

First of all, it is just such a terrific poster, an exuberant mish-mash of what is good about Africa. I know that One Happy Family, which was where it was taking place, are not blessed with resources – the predominant style feature is the wooden pallet – so it is even more remarkable that someone should have come up with such a quality design, and that it had been produced so well, in four different prime languages – English, French, Farsi and Arabic – and with the details in English, French or Greek, which makes for mind-boggling possible configurations.

I was teaching at Mosaik during the afternoon, so headed out as soon as I could. Problem number one was that I had, as usual, forgotten to bring water. A blazingly, blindingly, blisteringly hot day made it worse – a long wait for a ride in a hot bus, followed by a trudge up the hill to OHF, and I was simultaneously drenched and parched, so not in the best frame of mind. I was hoping for something to drink and a mellow vibe, but instead found just a water fountain and a pounding, head-banging beat from a sound system. In front of the stage was a gang of jumping, screaming young men; around them was a cheering crowd holding up phones to take pictures; and around that a second ring of mostly European volunteers with cameras.

This was not my scene, so I headed over to the Ecohub, to see if anyone was there, but that was all shut up, so I decided to cut my losses. I trudged back down the hill, rather wearily, and after waiting in the heat for a bus that didn’t come, I was offered a ride back into town by an air-con minibus that was ferrying volunteers from one of the NGOs.

It turned out that there had been some cool live music earlier in the day, when I had been teaching. And it was clear that it had been a success, injecting some welcome excitement and vitality into what must be pretty tedious, difficult lives; the fact that I hadn’t had a good time was neither here nor there.

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…

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 0

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

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 0

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

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 1

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.