didi and gogo march on

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Apologies for the absence of a post last week – it was as simple a matter as not having taken a photo.  But actually, both weeks can easily be fitted together.  In both cases, we have reached the stage of running sections of the play.  And encouragingly, the words do seem to be sticking; no small achievement when this is quite a wordy play, and is, of course, in a foreign language, so far as our actors are concerned, so all the more credit to them.

We have had a bit of a problem with technology, finding the right clip of music to accompany a short movement sequence in the play.  I wanted to use some Laurel and Hardy music – their theme tune – but though I have this on CD, moving it across to digital, so that it can be played from a phone, seems to be problematic.  But we do seem to have solved the problem, using the good offices of Spotify and/or You Tube.  Not that we have yet tied music and action together.  Next week, perhaps.

Learning lines

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Mr Big?

All three of the cast present, back in our old space… all positive.  But now the task is to persuade the actors that they both can and must learn their lines.  We have had enough rehearsals now when the actors are reading to me; in order to make progress, we need to experiencer, and repeat, the process of acting… and that cannot happen when you are holding a book, occupying your hands, your eyes, your focus.

But having said that, we did manage to cover a couple of scenes, which covers five or so pages.  We ran the opening of the play a few times, and eventually we were able to do this off-script, and it really came to life.  We also looked at the Pozzo scene, which is becoming one of my favourite scenes, as Sasha brings a new dynamic.

And finally we made a start with the movement scene, indicating the increasing crowdedness of their daily life.  It does have a piece of music that can accompany it, the Laurel and Hardy theme tune (also tying in with the clown aspect of the portrayal), but we have met a technological obstacle.  I have the piece of music on a much-used CD, but transferring that to a format which can be played on a phone is proving surprisingly tricky.  Most PCs no longer have a disc drive, which was the most straightforward method.  So I have passed the CD tp Roji, and he is going to consult some of his more technologically-minded friends.

But it was a good session overall, and in my more optimistic moments, I allow myself to become excited by it.

“I’m hungry…”

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No Sasha today, as he was involved in some sort of preparations for the Iranian New Year, but no real concerns either, as he texted in advance to say he would be missing, and he has always seemed very positive.  I very much hope he stays on board, as he makes a huge difference to the play, acting as a sort of on-stage, mostly silent but very expressive, commentator.

But it did mean we could concentrate on Didi and Gogo, Vladimir and Estragon, Hamed and Roji.  We were back in our old room, the Home Office having apparently moved on, but it was also serving as a general recreation area, so no more privacy than before.  We picked up from where we left off last week, and blocked this out until the end of the play.  Which means there is now only one scene – a movement section that will be played out over a silent movie-type backing – that we have not yet tackled.  So I am pleased with the progress we have made, my one concern being the fact that they stil have made virtually no progress on learning their lines, and there is very little that I can do about that, beyond exhortations.

But much of what they are doing is very funny, and I am optimistic that it will make for a good show.  I have been in contact with Compass Collective, the group with which we shared a stage at the Beck Theatre last year, and they are keen to collaborate again with us, offering us a slot in Refugee Week, at a brand new venue that they are opening in Hammersmith – very exciting.

“Prisoners? No, you’re not prisoners.”

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My train being a bit late, all three of my actors were there waiting for me.  Not a great deal to report, however.  It was a good rehearsal, even managing a page or so off-book, which is always encouraging.  After which, we moved on through the script, blocking, adding detail.

I am particularly pleased with Sasha.  His main role is as the tree, and one might think this a pretty thankless part, but he imbues it with wit and understanding.  And most of the time, he does not require much in the way of direction.  And since he is wonderfully expressive, he really brings the play alive.  He also takes on Pozzo, who we have turned into a sort of immigration official, and he gives this a real sense of menace.

The other good news is that we may be on the way towards securing a performance space, as I had a zoom call with Dijana Rakovic from Counterpoint Arts, and they are developing a performance space for Refugee Week; I got the impression that one of these is ours if we want it.  I am also in touch with Compass Collective (though with some communication issues at present) so there are some positive signs.  All we need to do is make sure we have a show!

didi and gogo are waiting

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The best news is that we now have a play.  I had been puzzling over how to combine the work we had already done on scenes from Godot, with aspects of their own life and situation, to create something that is both learnable and performable.  It occurred to me that I could do something like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, the Stoppard play, which takes two minor characters from Hamlet and explores their life while waiting for the rest of Hamlet to play out.  Of course, this could not be exactly the same; these are the dominating characters from the play.  It is also the case that Godot is, I think, still in copyright, so I do have to take care about not simply lifting huge chunks.  But our play, which I have called didi and gogo are waiting (as a sort of tribute to the Stoppard idea) is only about 30 minutes in total, so though we do still perform short sections of the original, in the end they are not really extensive.  And I shall just have to see whether any problems arise.

But we do now have a completed play to work on, and one that I am pleased with, which does take the original characters, but also says something about the life the actors are leading.

The other very good news is that Sasha was there again today; a relief, as I have written him in.  He sort of plays Pozzo (one of the people Estragon and Vladimir meet) but he is also the tree, as well as an immigration official… sort of.

The rehearsal went very well.  Sasha makes a real difference to things, in all of the characters he plays, but he was particularly pleased to have been given some lines.

There are also some possibilities regarding a venue etc, so good news there too.  More detailed information on that front as it arises.

Didi, Gogo… and a tree

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Two major, and very positive, developments today.  First of all, I think I have finally come up with an idea for the play that solves some of the problems we have been wrestling with: using the idea of Godot without coming up with copyright problems, a concept that is short enough for the actors to be able to learn and perform, and incorporating some of their lived experiences within the script.  Some of you will know of a play called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, which takes the idea of taking two of Hamlet’s minor characters, and having them pass the time while waiting for their part in the play.  This is something of a riff on that, using two characters in Waiting for Godot, and having them break off from running the play to comment on, or act out, aspects of the refugee situation.  It means we can make the play as long (or short) as we like, yet still use the material we have been working on.

The other development did at first give me pause for thought, as Roji (who has taken over from Aisha as recruiter in chief) brought along a friend of his, someone he met in the dining room just minutes before the class began.  His name is Sasha, another Iranian (of course, they are the only nationality I am meeting at present) and some one who has studied acting.  Since I was not prepared for him to come, I did not have anything for him to do, but it did allow me to re-introduce an idea I had considered before, but had then abandoned because of a lack of people, which is to have a human tree, who can observe the action and, in a physical way, comment upon it.  Not much of a role, true, but it did mean he was involved from the very start, and actually was all that I wanted from the idea, and more.  And, provided he comes again next week, I will have more for him to do, such as the character of Pozzo; my idea is for him to also be an Immigration officer.

And the rehearsal of our new play, Didi and Gogo are waiting, went very well indeed, introducing some additional comedy, both physical and verbal.  I certainly found it very funny at times, though it is true that I am not exactly unbiased.  But I do, at last, feel very positive about the possibilities.  We do need to look for an opportunity to perform, but now that we have a concept to work with, I am very optimistic.

Double acts

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I met up with Hamed and Roji (and were later joined by Aisha) in Oxford.  Major focus was to catch a production being put on at the Old Fire Station, Oxford’s arts centre, of a play called Mohan and Peter, recommended to us by Matilda.  There were various connections with our own work – the fact that it has a cast of two, that it deals with the experience of being a refugee, that it makes a lot of using physical theatre.

But this was also an opportunity for Roji to visit Oxford.  We did not have a lot of money, but had time to kill before the performance, and at least something of Oxford to see.  It was cold – this was February, after all, so we went to the Pitt Rivers (which was very warm) and spent a while there, haphazardly looking at some of the exhibits.  And then, venturing outside once more, we took an extended walk around the city centre, admiring buildings from the outside.  We did almost visit the Bear pub (with its collection of ties), but it was too busy and crowded, so ventured instead into part of Christ Church meadows.

Eventually, we killed enough time to decide it was time to go to eat, so went to the the Swan and Castle, in the old prison complex, a Wetherspoons pub, and therefore pretty cheap.  Roji particularly enjoyed thius, watching the people, soaking up the culture, enjoying a beer or two, as well as a (pretty insubstantial burger.)

I thought at first that we would be almost alone in the theatre – we were a little early, true, but there was almost no-one about.  But actually, when at last the doors were opened, there was a fair attendance.

The play featured just two characters, a Sudanese refugee and his friend from Newcastle, on an imaginary trip to Sudan, to explore life and culture there through a variety of means – lots of mime, some well-chosen props out of a box, some inventive characterisation of other people they met, especially a variety of women.

I think the others enjoyed it more than I did; ultimately, I found it a little thin; I am not sure what they were trying to achieve.  But they were both talented, and it showed what could be achieved with, actually, very little.

And it gave us pause for thought when it came to the Tuesday class, and our own rehearsal.  There are difficulties associated with our staging of Godot.  We certainly cannot manage the whole play, as the task of memorising a full-length play in a foreign language is considerable.  Nor do we have any other actors, so the other characters have to be cut out.  And in any case, I have serious doubts that we would be granted permission to perform it, in any official way.  We have had some thoughts about combining it in some way with the experience of the asylum-seeker, and a recent news story about people making their way across the ocean from Sweden to Canada did provoke some ideas, but there is no easy answer.

And in the meantime, we rehearsed another two pages of the script – we have reached page 8.  We followed our usual pattern, of reading through the latest addition to the script, and then adding it to the rest.  And we tried out a couple of developments – a section of the script in Farsi, an attempt to act out the first page or so off the book (ie without the script.)  As ever, it was funny, there were some good moments, and we all felt we had made some progress… but there is still something missing, some over-riding idea.

Godot time

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Just Hamed and Roji today.  Actually, this is a circumstance I have long been hoping for.  Good though it would be to have a larger crowd, when people suddenly appear without warning, sometimes with pretty limited English, I do have to come up with something on the spur of the moment, sometimes entirely mime-based, in order to accommodate them.  Whereas today, we were able to focus entirely on Godot, and make some real progress.

I have been producing two A4 sides of the text each week, which I type out, and somewhat edit, as I go, hoping this way not to overwhelm them, yet make steady progress.  And I am enjoying their performances very much.  They make a great contrast physically, but both have most expressive faces.  We worked on the section where they discuss hanging themselves, which leads to a debate, within the text, as to which is the heavier, finally coming to the conclusion that it’s probably fifty-fifty… more or less.

We continue to work in the dining-room foyer, there being no alternative, but actually, I quite like it, once we get over the distractions of small children running around kicking a ball, people strolling through on their way to eat, small groups sitting and chatting.  For the most part, they ignore us (as we do them) but just occasionally someone stops to watch, and sometimes laugh.  Hamed and Roji are also both very popular, Hamed as a sort of unofficial adviser, Roji to supply certain goods, so that too causes an interruption at times.  But neither of them seems at all bothered by rehearsing in such a public space, so I don’t either.

As to where this might be leading, the real answer is that I have no idea.  It would be good to perform it as a part of Refugee Week, but that would inevitably require getting official permission.  But an informal performance just to the Iranian community, for example (and in Farsi – why not?) might be manageable.

Kafka, Beckett, etc

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It appears that the Home Office have taken up permanent residence in the room we have been using since I started working here, the only room suitable for activities – English classes, and the like, as well as our Drama class.  (Though as I have mentioned before, it also serves as a prayer room for the security staff, an overflow dining room, a repository for returned laundry, and sundry other functions, so I don’t know where they have now been moved to either.)  For ourselves, we sort of took over a part of a large open area which serves both as a social area and the only way in to the cafeteria.  So not exactly private.

Though this does have its entertaining side.  During this week’s session, Hamed was in the middle of performing a short improvised scene which involved him peering over a wall, and calling out, in English.  A group of three young women went past, and one of them said, “Let’s kick him off the wall!” to her friends in Farsi, not knowing that Hamed was Iranian and so understood what they were saying.  Roji thought this was hilarious.

I thought for a moment that our Kuwaiti friend from last week was going to join us, but he was just coming to say hello when his phone rang and he had to go.  Just like last week.  Only quicker.  But sort of unsettling, lie our own little piece of Kafka.

It looked as though it was just going to be Hamed and Roji today, with none of the Iranian women coming along this time – I don’t know why.  This would not have been the worst thing in the world, since it would have given us the chance to concentrate on the Godot script.  But as it happened, we were also joined by our old friends Ali and Abdulaziz.  Since I needed to include them, and since their English is pretty basic, I switched first to old favourite zip, zap, boing, just to give me time to think, and then we did some basic mime stuff.  The old wall technique was first (it was this which led to Hamed’s scene), and enabled Roji and I to come up with a magnificently surreal and gory scene in which he chops off my hand and starts to eat it. We then moved on to some rope improvs, and here Ali and Abdulaziz excelled themselves with a series of clever and funny scenes.  One of them, Ali got Hamed to film and he has posted it on Tik-Tok.  I’ll see if I can give you a link.

I did want to move on to the next couple of pages of Godot – I am adding two sides of A4 each week, editing it as I go, so want to continue making progress.  Ali and Abdulaziz were happy enough to sit and watch, as we first read through the new script, then ran through the four pages we now have, blocking it for movement, and adding some basic direction, as regards the underlying emotions at various moments.  I am really pleased with them both, and they work very well together, as a pair of natural clowns.  It was also most encouraging that our small audience also seemed to appreciate the comedy. 

Whether we are able to do anything with this, I have no idea.  The Beckett estate is notoriously picky about what you are allowed to do with the play, but if we were to perform it for Refugee Week. which is what I would like to do, then I will need to get permission.  Still, that bridge is a long way off, and the road to it full of pitfalls, so no crossing required just yet

A drum, some Beckett, some machines and a bit of slow-motion mayhem

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I had brought a drum back from Lebanon, from the summer my wife Val and I volunteered at a school for Syrian refugees there, with the intention that I would learn, or be taught, how to play it.  But it has remained, unused, gathering dust in a corner of our bedroom since then.  So when I discovered that Roji was a percussionist, I brought it in so that it could be put to use. 

But before there were enough people to make it so, I decided to use the time while Roji and Hamed were the only ones there to give them the first page or two of Godot, a little edited, for them to work on.  Their English is very good, and they are both natural performers, natural clowns even, so this is perhaps a good vehicle for them.  And if the experience of the asylum-seeker is anything, it is waiting, so there could scarcely be a more relevant play.  And they made an excellent start.  We read through it, I explained those words they did not know, gave them an idea of the tone of voice implied by the text, and we blocked it out.  And at the end of the session they ran through it again, this time with a bit of an audience.

But between their two run-throughs, we had acquired some more participants, so I used an idea I have kept in reserve for a week or two, especially since it was much enhanced by the use of the drum.  It was “machine” type work, building up rhythms, first with sounds , then a word in their own language, then in English, then a sentence in English, in each case running through a repeating cycle.  And in the final attempt, an accelerating rhythm, which was really effective.

I should explain that, with the Home Office once again taking over our usual space, we were in the dining room entrance, a space which acts as a sort of informal lounge.  It does mean that we have to share it with children rampaging around on scooters, people passing through on their way to eat, and others sitting around, whiling away the time, staring at phones.  It does allow us to impact a wider group, and on this occasion we attracted the attention of a Kuwaiti man and his daughter, who happened to be sitting near us, and was persuaded to join us.  He spoke virtually no English, only Arabic, so this did pose some challenges, but he was cheerful enough, and both of them joined in with the machine idea (though, as is common here, when a phone call came through, he had to leave the group to take it.)

In addition, we had the return pf Fahime, who has been missing for a week or two, plus Bahar, the girl who came last week, plus another Iranian young woman, another newcomer (sorry, can’t recall the name) who seemed to enjoy the work.

We tried out some slow-motion ideas at this point, in my attempt to do some work that is purely physical.  There is no real method to my choice of work.  I usually have an idea or two that I might use, but it very much depends on who turns up (and at what stage) so I am forced to be flexible (or, more often, to draw on my limited repertoire of ideas.)  Nonetheless, it was a good class; we made some progress, and there was lots of laughter. 

Some moves too, towards finding an alternative space, more open to a wider range of participants, less dependent on the whims of the Home Office.