The waiting room

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Tick tock

The most encouraging thing about the last two sessions has been the attendance, which was excellent – we really do seem to have a more committed group at the moment.  Ever since we began, I have been hoping to find a consistent group, so that we could make progress from week to week, and try to create something a little more sustained and complex.  And at last, maybe, we are there.

We are still exploring sketches which reflect somehow on the idea of waiting, and added an idea I have worked on before, “Tick tock.”  It is based on a simple clock motif, with four characters announcing Tick and Tock, until one, growing bored of the tedium, tries to inject some variety.  I think it could be effective, but it does require a certain subtlety, and could prove devilishly difficult to learn.  Still, they seem to be up for trying it.

There are eight performers, so I wanted another scripted piece for the other four to work on, so I have written (or stolen Beckett’s lines) for a sketch based on “Waiting for Godot”.  This group does contain Ali and Abdulaziz, who do struggle a little with English, but it also contains some clowning, which ought to suit them both very well.  Again, we shall have to see how it goes, and we can reject any idea if it proves too difficult.

The meat of the presentation, however, will need to be those sections which reflect the asylum-seekers’ own experiences and frustrations, particularly those which associate with the basic concept of Waiting.  To try and help , I did have a lunch meeting before the actual session with 3 of the participants – Hamed, Aisha, and Frishta.  For this, we met at the place where Aisha and Frishta are doing some volunteering, the Mormon church.  I was surprised to find the huge modern building almost empty, with just a couple of family groups taking advantage of the warmth and hot drinks,  but nobody challenged Hamed and I when we entered, which was somewhat surprising, but we were able to discuss the content of such scenes.  (Curiously, as we were leaving, we did run into two of the Church’s young elders, who very much conformed to all of the stereotypes one has encountered.

The session which followed was somewhat hampered by the absences of Hamed, who had an appointment with an advisor, and Frishta, who had a doctor’s appointment, but even so we made some progress with the scenes we are working on.  As well as those mentioned, we are exploring the tedium of hotel life, told through a repetitive movement sequence, and backed by Elly Stone’s “Carousel”, a song which starts slowly but gets faster + faster.

As for Godot, we made a start.  But the target has to be having at least two of the “refugee” scenes written – they are the heart of the show so cannot be left.  But I am very pleased with the group, who have come together to make a most positive and cohesive unit.

A new direction

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Ali + Frishta

This post conflates two sessions, I’m afraid, the fault of my own lack of self-discipline.  But the two classes were linked.  They were the first two after the break for the Christmas holiday, and in neither case were we able to continue work on the Hokey Cokey As You Like It.  For the first session in particular, we were very light in numbers, with Nada and Sama, the two Saudi girls, both having to attend college, and absences texted in by Fola and Sherwan.  With a relatively small group, we played Who Killed King John?, a getting the procedure right while maintaining a stony face game, and then some simple improvisation scenarios.  Which were entertaining enough, but it did feel as though we were marking time.  In order to accommodate Nada and Sama, as well as Aisha, who will also soon be attending college, I suggested a move to Tuesdays.  It did not cause a problem with anyone there, so it was agreed for the following week.

Inbetween the two classes, I had a zoom call with Leah, a young lady who works for Compass Theatre.  My daughter Lucy had found them while researching for Drama volunteering opportunities for me; they are a company who initiate projects, as well as holding regular Drama and English classes, especially for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers and refugees.  I had written to them about the Wembley group, and they were interested in talking with me about how we might be of use to each other.  It was a most productive meeting, and there are a number of positive possibilities, up to the chance of a joint performance in a couple of months.  Compass could also be of use to my students individually; they have been invited to register their names, with the opportunity then of classes, theatre trips, etc.  I think my group were excited by these opportunities, but sometimes it is difficult to judge, and in any case they are rightly wary of something which promises much, until they see what it delivers.  The good news was that we had good numbers, with eight of them there, and very nearly on time.  The bad was that we may have lost Sherwan, who cannot attend on Tuesdays.

I also broke the news about the change of theatrical direction.  I have decided to try to create a show out of something closer to sketches, linked by a common theme, which will not be so easily derailed by people being at rehearsals or not.  Based on a conversation I had listened in on the previous week, I have decided on the idea of waiting, and especially the way that they are stuck in limbo.  It went well, but I have had some doubts since, largely because of my concern that I can find enough theatrical variety in that theme.  We worked on two ideas.  The first relied on converting a scene in which people simply waited, to building up their waiting mannerisms, to an exploration of rhythm, developing into a Stomp-like dance scene.  Think it could make a dynamic opening.

The other idea was far more language-based, and was a first exploration of the Kafka-like situation in which the group find themselves, having to jump through bureaucratic hoops.  This was a far more complex idea, and needed language in order to bring it to life, but the seeds are there.  They worked in two groups, and the one with Hamed, Nada, Aisha and Abdulaziz had a particularly strong ending, which reduced the audience (alright, the other four) to silence.  It needs writing as a script, I think, but we need to keep that ending.

And so, once again, we are off and running; the class finished on a very positive note.  Let’s hope we can make it continue.

Christmas

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With last week’s class cancelled, because of strikes, the cold, etc, this was our last session of the year, and so was inevitably devoted to Christmas.  There was an excellent turnout too, with most arriving on time.  I had hoped to make the session educational as well as entertaining, pointing out the two Christmases which run side by side, the religious and the secular, and the culture, music, etc appropriate to each.  But I hadn’t really worked out a lesson plan, and so it was all a bit random.

But it was a jolly enough occasion.  We played games – zip zap boing of course – but also pass the parcel.  (It would have been better if I had had some jolly music, but I failed miserably on that side of things.)  We had some Christmas food – I had brought in some home-made mince pies, which went down very well indeed.  We sand, and danced, the Hokey Cokey.  And of course there was a bit of Drama.  I gave a very quick and what must have been a most confusing introduction to pantomime, and then broke them into two groups, to prepare, rehearse, and perform to each other.  And hugely entertaining they were too, with Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.  I think my favourite moment was when Hamid (as Granny) opened the door to Aisha’s wolf – pure panto.

The final section was a very rough version of A Christmas Carol, in which I appropriated the tole of Scrooge, and everyone else played… well, everyone else.  Not sure that it was the most wonderful of versions of the story, but I think we got the story across.

In some ways, a slightly bittersweet end to the year.  The production is very doubtful, and I told them of my departure at the beginning of March.  But on the whole, it has been a success.  Many of them, especially the regulars, have blossomed, and we have laughed a lot… which counts for quite a lot.

Statues

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Statues – in the gallery

The friendly assistant manager told me at the start that there would be two new members of the group joining today. This was good news, of course, but also meant that I had to re-think my ideas for the day. I had thought to start working our way through the script, as there are several new-ish people, who have only seen the odd bit, but I wasn’t sure that it was a good idea to throw complete newcomers into the confusion of following a script. All the more so since Mikhael, one of the newcomers, spoke very little English. So I decided upon another improvisation lesson, but starting with, as ever, a game and some mime. As it happened, Mikhael did not stay long, and the other newcomer, who arrived later, lasted even less time, though both seemed to get on well with the work and seemed to enjoy themselves. Both said they would return, and Mikhael did near the end, then left again. Ah well.

Tried some improvisations based on using a rope, which were all clever and imaginative (especially Nada as a monkey with a banana, and Ali swinging in as Tarzan), while Hamid and Sherwn tried something far more serious – a hanging (especially relevant with current events in Iran.)

But at that point, I had a (small) crisis, as I had not a single idea where to go next, leading to an embarrassing pause. It was because I had changed my plans, and knowing of one alternative idea, but nothing more. Luckily, I was just putting them into pairs, when the idea of statues came to me; a relatively common idea to use with inexperienced actors. And then I was fine, with them moulding each other into dramatic shapes, then a scene where a statue comes alive, and finally, as pictured, a gallery of statues with one human visitor.

That still left me with a little time, so I tried “Freeze!”, the improvisation game. This proved a mistake, however, as they were confused by the previous work, and I had not explained it clearly enough. But they were intrigued all the same, and asked me to try it again next week. Which I shall.

The other really good news is that Hamid has been granted leave to stay, and is now a refugee, not just an asylum-seeker. Azi too, I believe. Luckily, Aisha seems to be unaware at present; she has been waiting a long time, and is keenly aware of the injustice of such a random system.

On the bus

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Azi was not able to be with us today, as she had an appointment with a solicitor, so I had already almost decided that, once again, we would not be working on the script.  In fact, I was feeling pessimistic about putting it on at all, in particular because of the absence of Ali.  There was no other obvious candidate to play Charles the wrestler, and though this is not a big part, it is an important one in terms of setting the scene.

So we began with some of the usual warm-ups and games, moving on to some improvisation.  At which point Ali came through the door!  Quite a result; it seems that he had been worried about the lines involved in his other role, that of William.  I had tried hard to make it manageable for him, so that effectively he just said “Oh Phebe” quite a lot, but actually this just made the whole thing even more confusing.  So when I had passed on the message that he would not need to play that role, that seemed to make the difference.

I still continued with the lesson, which started off with quite a lot of work to do with doors, demonstrating the mime involved, and then using this idea as a starting point for some short scenes.  And then, reprising an old idea from 6th form lessons on Stanislavski, we used a real door, each person making some sort of entrance into the room (or exit from the world outside the door), but keeping it as real as possible.

Next was to use the doors of a car, and, working in a bigger group, tell the story of a journey.  Except one group chose a bus instead – the inspiration for the picture above.

We finished with some spontaneous improvisation, and my old favourite, crossing the circle (one person having to invent, on the spot, a reason to prevent someone walking past them), and they were surprisingly good, all the more so since they were having to improvise in a second language.

It had been a good lesson, but I am encouraged now that we have sufficient numbers to re-start rehearsals next week.  Always a challenge, working on a script, but if you want to work towards a performance, you need to rehearse.  And as Hamid says, “We need to have a purpose.”

Persia in Oxford

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Hamed, Frishta, Aisha and Chris outside Wycombe station

I had spotted that the Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford’s oldest cinema, was showing an Iranian film, “No Bears”, and had offered a tri to see it to the Iranian students in the class.  In the end, however, Azi either could not or did not want to go, but Aisha was desperate to go, so she was included with Hamid and Frishta.  As it was on very late in Oxford, this would mean an overnight stay, so I asked Aisha and Frishta to arrange this with the hotel.

The travel arrangements all worked fine, but we found ourselves in Oxford just after dark.  We took a short walk as far as Magdalen College, but then turned back – it was so dark that we could barely see anything.  Instead, we wandered a little along the Cowley Road; in retrospect, despite the dark, we should have seen more of the High Street, as we soon found ourselves having exhausted what there was to see.

One of the aims had been to find a Persian restaurant.  Hamed was convinced Oxford would not have such a thing, so it was a particular triumph when it was one of the first restaurants we came across.  And eventually, like I say after a short walk, that was where we went for a meal.  We had rather too much time before the film began, but in fact it turned out well.

One of my aims had been for Hamed and Frishta to choose the food, and this they did splendidly – a yogurt drink for all, a shared platter of dips, and then four separate dishes.  I had selected a Persian stew, but it was a bit too rich for me.  One of the highlights of the meal was the pot of tea, along with sugar lollies, that finished the meal.

Val joined us for the cinema trip.  At first, I thought we would be the only people there, but actually quite a few turned up just before it began.  I had trouble, I must confess, staying awake, and the fact that the film was rather strange did not help.  It was all rather self-referential, with the director playing a major part, as a dire4ctor trying to direct a film.  But most important of all, Hamid and Frishta were obviously deeply affected, as they could identify very closely with the setting, the events, the heartache.

We returned to Ickford, and spent a little time chatting, drinking tea (builders’, on this occasion) and taking a little air in the dark.  Hamed was a little nervous of this; he told Val that, on his journey across Europe, he had once spent three days, alone, in a Bosnian forest.

Women

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Fola, Nada, Sama and Frishta

When we performed our first production, Aisha was the only female in the group.  Since then, it almost seems as though she has been on a one-woman mission to improve the ratio, introducing a variety of young women from various parts of the world.  It is true that mostly, while they have appeared to enjoy the class, for the most part they have not become regular members of the group.  However, this week she excelled herself, with not only Frishta from Iran returning, but three newcomers: Nada and Sama, sisters from Saudi, and Fola from Nigeria.  Since we also had Mary, a young Eritrean who had been once before, many weeks ago, suddenly we had an overabundance. 

There was no Ali again – we remain hopeful that he can be tempted back – and Azi was poorly today, it seemed sensible to abandon the play for today, and go back to a general Drama class.  And as usual, I reverted to mime… though in fact the whole class had very good English.  We went through the basics, using a ball and a glass (both mimed), and then developed both of these ideas into short improvisations.  Like their (slightly) more experienced colleagues, none of the newcomers had ever done anything like this before, but they all took to it like ducks to water, immediately creating interesting and entertaining short scenes.

Then I used an old favourite (when do I not?) of the story of two strangers meeting on a bench, and then a small annoying habit developing into a violent confrontation… while being careful to remind them that this was cartoon violence.  The overarching idea is to show the possibility of mime, starting with a realistic situation, which then develops into the absurd and surreal.

There were some great scenes, all of which were enjoyed by both performers and audience.  Sherwan and Aisha acted out a great scenario in which a guy stabs a girl, and then asks for her number, which all of the girls found hilarious, but could relate to – “Men!”  And there was a moment of triumph when Mary, who had struggled to contain her giggles in the first exercise, produced a great scene with Hamed, eventually shooting him when he wouldn’t stop blowing smoke in her face, and retaining her focus throughout.

So it was a most enjoyable class.  Where that leaves us in terms of the play, we shall have to wait until I see who turns up next week, and go from there.  As I explained to them, it is entirely their choice whether they decide to come each week, but that there are more possibilities if we have a more consistent group.  And I can manage either way.

Oh Phebe

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Last week, the room we always use had been a temporary mosque; this time, it seems to have been a staff rest area.  At least, there was a small group of hotel employees who came in and made themselves at home, (though mostly this involved them looking at their phones.)  But once some of my actors had arrived, I went over and asked if they had to be here – Drama does require a certain amount of privacy, which seems perverse, seeing as it is an art form which eventually relies upon an audience – and they then left, though with very little grace.

There were some absentees from the usual crew; Sherwan had told me he would have to miss the class because of a dental appointment, for which he had already been waiting months.  More worryingly, there was no sign of Ali, who had been so upset at the end of last week’s class, and there were indications that he was quitting the group, largely, so far as I could understand, because of his insecurity about English.  I hope we can persuade him to return, as he is one of our strongest actors.

However, I also had two newcomers today, both young women, both persuaded to come by Aisha, my best recruitment officer.  Frishta was Kurdish, from Iran, and had recently fled Iran after being involved in the protests there, and then had spent ten days in Manston, the holding camp in Kent.  And Ju came from Saudi Arabia.  I knew we needed another woman, as we needed to fill the role of Phebe in the play.  And now I had two.

Hamed was also late, but this did give me a pause to think about what to do.  Going straight in to the script seemed out of the question, as only Hamed, Azi and Aisha would have any idea what it was all about.  So we began with some stretching, swimming (on land) exercises, and then a game of Zip zap boing, at which our newcomers were surprisingly good.  And then we did some characterisation work, creating characters through body shape, and then using those characters in a Park Bench improvisation.  Reading a couple of pages of the script followed, so that I could make a decision about who would play Phebe, then a quick intro to the Hokey Cokey.

Finally, we looked at the third element of the play, in which their own stories are used, in a theatre machine, (repeating some lines and movements in a fixed sequence) which once again produced some magical moments.

And so, by the end of the rehearsal, I was very buoyed up.  Both the newcomers had seemed to very much enjoy the class, though I have learnt not to place too much store in that, as it does not guarantee anything.  But the other parts are now cast, just so long as we manage to persuade Ali to return.

Fingers crossed.

“I take thee…”

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Orlando “marries” Rosalind playing Ganymede playing Rosalind (that’s Shakespeare for you)

Something of a surprise today, when I arrived to find the room we use being used for prayer, first by one of the security guards, then another.  Still, they did not take long – I was not sure how I could ask them to leave, so that was a relief.

Aisha and Azi were there before the others, so we chatted for a bit about how things were going.  Aisha had attended some sort of Higher Education fair, and though most places were not able to help, she did find three that offered scholarships to asylum seekers (or asylum getters, I suppose) and one, Hull, had sent her two emails, about which she was very excited.  I also explained the concept of “fingers crossed”, as a sort of secular Inshallah

When the others arrived we had a reasonable attendance, with just Abdulaziz and Kerira missing – that is Oliver and Phebe in terms of the play.  It looks like we will have to give up on Kerira, which is a pity, since she seemed to enjoy the one session she attended (though she had also promised to come last week, when I had to cancel the session because of my own illness.)  It does mean we are short of a couple of characters still, but that is more or less normal, and my regulars do have one or two ideas.

Played the “use an object as something else” game today, using a frying pan I had brought in for the purpose.  I had tried the same idea – and the same frying pan – months ago, with a different group of people, and they had all used it for cooking, but my current group really get (and like) the idea, so we had all sorts of imaginative solutions.

And then on to the play.  We focused on the second half, which  has more of the As You Like It storyline, and is dominated by the characters we had available:  Rosalind, Celia, Orlando, the Duke, and William (who did have to act with Hamed playing Phebe.)  I was very pleased with them, for it was clear that they understood very well the storyline.  And there were no cultural difficulties with physicality, Azi was fine with holding hands with her lover and hugging her father.  Not that we couldn’t have dealt with that issue if we had to, but there was no need.

One slight disappointment was that Ali was upset at the end; he struggles with English, and can become frustrated, but he is a wonderful natural actor, and we really need him.

As You Like It

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Last week, I was full of positive thoughts about the production; this week, it was a return to the reality of this sort of work, as I was missing two important people from the cast.  One was Azi, playing Rosalind, but actually I was less worried about her.  She had an appointment to see a solicitor (I think) but had warned me of this.  Even then, she was hopeful of arriving at the rehearsal before the end, only finally to concede defeat when she found herself still waiting, and on the other side of London.

More worrying was the absence of Kerira, who had joined us last week, had done very well, and had been very positive about coming again this week.  But no show, even after getting a call from Aisha.  Which puts the play back into jeopardy.  Also missing Rabar, the young Kurdish man, but he has always been uncertain, so no great shock there.  But still, a problem to be resolved.  We thought to solve it by moving Abdulaziz, but my impression was that he was unhappy about the change… and that could mean losing another actor.  Ah well.

In the circumstances, the rehearsal went well.  I had actual copies of the full script to distribute, and we were able to focus on certain scenes for which we had all the important people, such as the wrestling scene.  So, all a bit uncertain again, but I shall just have to remain calm, and see what happens.