Doctor doctor

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 2

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

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 2

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

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 1

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.


posted in: Life in Lesvos | 1

…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

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 1
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.

Greek myths

posted in: Life in Lesvos | 2
Inside the Stage 2 transit centre for refugees in north Lesvos

Generally speaking, I tend to avoid politics in these posts for the same reasons one was always urged to avoid politics and religion at the dinner table, because it causes arguments.  Except, of course, my very presence here is its own kind of political statement: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that young people forced out of their war-torn homeland have a right to the same liberal educational opportunities as everyone else.

I do understand that people have fears of “the other”, that many people are worried about the preservation of their own culture.  But I also believe that a strong culture is able to absorb other influences and grow as a result.  Britain has always done so, from the Normans and Huguenots down to West Indians and the peoples of south Asia, who have enriched and renewed the Britain we know today.  Especially as climate change takes its toll, the pressures caused by people forced to flee their land for very survival can only increase.  Building ever higher and stronger walls is no answer.  Where they have been constructed – in Berlin, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and maybe yet on the southern border of Trump’s America, the result has not been peace and security, but ever-growing human misery.  Groups of people who were themselves migrants now decide it is time to pull up the ladder on future generations, amid claims that their country is now full are demonstrably false, such as in Britain when we do not have the people to run our NHS, pick our fruit, care for our elderly.

I have been reading a very coherent and well-argued book – Persistent Myths About Migration in Greece, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which backs up its arguments with well-sourced statistics.  I know, of course, that people read material which already chimes with their own opinions, and it is difficult to counter this, since it is something we all do to a greater or lesser degree.  However, I find that the arguments in the book correspond with my own learnt experience.  The young people that I have met and taught here would be a tremendous asset to any society; their religion is irrelevant, for they are kind, funny and intelligent, and I am proud to call them my friends as well as my students.

One particular myth that the book addresses is the “pull” factor, the notion that by offering common humanity (let alone warmth), we are somehow encouraging people to come.  In my own case, the idea that young people are risking their lives in order to be directed by me in a production is sort of flattering but also idiotic.  Instead, people who do good are demonised, even criminalised. Instead of lauding people who leave water in the Mexican desert, or who rescue the drowning at sea, they are cast as criminals.  What would Jesus do?


posted in: Life in Lesvos | 0

I had already recruited James, a Better Days volunteer at the Ecohub garden, as musical director for the production, and he invited me to see him and a friend of his from One Happy Family perform at an informal concert.  This was to be held at Pikpa, another of Lesvos’s network of refugee camps.  I was joined by Jaime (who was more interested in seeing Pikpa than attending the concert) as well as Laura and Ciara, newly arrived volunteers from Ireland.

Pikpa is indeed an interesting place.  It is a former holiday camp, situated close to the airport, which had first been occupied and squatted by refugees and volunteers in 2015.  It now has semi-official status, and is run by Lesvos Solidarity, an umbrella NGO, also responsible for Mosaik.  A holiday camp in many ways provides the ideal infrastructure for a refugee camp, having chalets, administrative offices, communal areas and facilities (including a modern, well-equipped kitchen.)  We only got the most superficial view of the site, as to wander and gawk would have been intrusive, but it appeared to be a very civilised environment.  The chalets have often been extended with canvas awnings, and I am guessing that this is to provide individual cooking facilities.  But I don’t know for sure that these housed families; James told me that the site is for the most vulnerable of the refugee population.  I can’t be certain what this means exactly, but presumably includes disabled people.

Our timing was excellent, as we arrived just as the concert was about to begin.  It was informally arranged: some benches in what appeared to be the camp reception area.  James’ friend Iman is a guitar teacher at One Happy Family, and it was him and his students, about a dozen young men and women with acoustic guitars, who were the main act, though they were supported by James on a keyboard, a bass guitarist, and a refugee man with a home-made harmonium.  Various of the group contributed vocals, my favourite being two beautiful Afghan girls with equally beautiful voices.

However, there were also a number of other acts contributing to the entertainment: some break dancers, a very talented juggler, the harmonium player performing some solos, a Farsi rapper, an African man singing a pop song.  Best of all to my mind was one of the guitar group who revealed himself as a magnificent Spanish/classical style guitarist, playing two beautiful pieces that would have graced any concert anywhere.

The evening was completed by everyone sharing a huge pot of Afghan stew, which was delicious.  In all, a splendid way to pass an evening.

Rehearsals week 4

posted in: Teaching in Lesvos | 1

Of course, it would be nice if I were to get the full cast for every rehearsal, but that’s not going to happen.  In fact, if this is anything like the vast majority of productions I have directed, anywhere, I will be lucky to see them all together in one place before the opening night (and maybe not then.)

Even so, there are clear signs of real progress, as the books start to be put down and we see some real acting.  The one point I have to keep hammering at them is that they have to use their hands to illustrate whatever it is they are saying.  Maybe it is a cultural thing, this lack of digital demonstrativeness – they’re not Italians, after all – but it is very likely that a good proportion of their audience will not understand a word that is coming out of their mouths.  This means they have to convey what they mean using their hands (and their faces and their bodies.)

The most gratifying thing is that they all seem to have been bitten by the theatre bug, and all are growing in confidence.  Hossein was one of the shyest and quietest people in the group, but he was clamouring for an actual role, and at the time I happened to need the main bad guy, the Duke, brother to the King (or the Fat Prince in Brecht’s version), so he got the role.  And after a diffident start, he has just got better and better; I am as proud of him as any of them.

Hikmat, who plays Simon, the love interest, was hanging around in Gekko Kids after today’s rehearsal, waiting for an English tutorial.  George, the Greek maths and computer teacher, asked him if he liked theatre.  “No,” he said,  “I love it.”

Dinner for twelve

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Cecilia Wambach is a retired professor of Mathematics from San Francisco who is a regular volunteer on Lesvos, and the co-founder of REAL (Refugee Education and Learning) one of the multitude of small NGOs who operate on the island.  More specifically, they provide volunteers at Gekko.  She and the majority of the rest of her team camp out at Thermi, some ten miles up the coast from Mytilini – though camp out does not do it justice, as they stay at Votsala, a very comfortable and well-appointed motel.  At one time, I had considered staying there too, but decided it would be too remote and difficult to organise transport back and forth.  For me, I am sure that was the right choice; I enjoy being at the heart of things, able to come and go from both Gekko and Mosaik at my leisure.

Last night she arranged a dinner at Votsala for all of her REAL team, and somehow I was also invited – largely, I suspect, because I am of a similar age.  Nor was being un-REAL my only distinctive quality; I was the only male in the party.  The meal itself was excellent, quite the most haute cuisine I have encountered in Greece.

Cecilia herself, despite being 75 or so, has a bubbly, effusive personality.  Each one of us was invited to say something about ourselves, what had brought us to Lesvos, and a little about the work we are doing here.  This might have been awkward and twee, but in fact was interesting.  The largest group there were all from the swim program, working with the Gekko girls, as well as some young women from Moria, to teach them to swim and be confident in water.  It also went a little way to redress the balance of opportunity between the genders, whereby the boys in the school have free rein to wander Mytilini in the evenings, while the girls are confined to their houses.

Football crazy

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Is she as annoyed as she looks? Probably…

…though crazy is no longer the word, so far as I am concerned.  I’ve become a bit take it or leave it about the beautiful game nowadays, which in some ways is a shame.  I miss both sides of the coin: the elation of victory, as well as its flip side, the abject misery of defeat.  Nonetheless, it was England v USA in the semi-final of the Women’s World Cup, so, having made sure that the match would be shown in one of the bars down by the waterfront, I put out an invitation to join me there on WhatsApp.  It did provoke a minor squall of banter between various assorted Brits and Yanks, as well as others stirring the pot, but actually there was hardly a big attendance: Deborah and another newly arrived US volunteer, me and Jaime (who didn’t care either way.)

It was as well that I had checked it would be shown, as when I arrived with twenty minutes to spare, they were showing a basketball match, but I was assured the channel would be switched at the appropriate time.  As you probably know, England lost, but, like I say… meh!  I do think my lack of excitement is as much about what has happened to the modern game as it is me getting older, sadder, wiser and less emotionally committed.  There aren’t goals any more, but potential goals, which need to be checked on VAR.  I know that such technology is inevitable, when there are multiple cameras allowing millimetre measurement, but football should not be about such precision.  Call me an old fogey (“You’re an old fogey!”) but I do regret the passing of the day when the opinion of the referee was paramount.

At the end, even the two Americans weren’t especially excited, and I, of course, took the defeat graciously, like the good loser I am.  But as some American once said, show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.