Park bench

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The first person through the door today was Yasser, a young man from Yemen.  I thought at first he had happened upon us by chance, but Thomas arrived shortly after, and things became clearer; that Yasser was another resident of Best Western, another nearby hotel, and had been encouraged to come along by Thomas (taking over recruiting officer duties from Aisha.)  In fact, as people drifted in, it turned out that everyone knew Yasser (except me.)  He expressed the usual desire to watch from the sides, but I more or less joked with him that he would be expected to join in.

In fact, apart from Frishta, who told me last week that she would attending a sewing course, and Alem, the attendance was very good, so that we were able to rehearse a couple of scenes from the play: Godot, the opening “station” scene, and the Hokey-Cokey section, into which we inserted Tulsi, who has worked with us enough now to be a member of the full cast.

For the final part of the session, we used a spontaneous improvisation set-up called The Park Bench, in which characters come and go in turn, creating a series of duologues, or more often scenes with little actual dialogue.  Both Tulsi and Yasser joined in, showing themselves to be very comfortable as members of the group.  All in all, it was an encouraging and positive session.


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By recent standards, we had quite a respectable showing today; only Alem was missing, and he has to come all the way from Barbican, quite a trek, and with an attendant cost – no small matter.  We will look into what we can do to both help and encourage him.  Tulsi, the trans person from Malaysia who came last week, turned up again – it is generally something of a surprise when somebody makes a return visit, as there have been so many that we only see the once.  There was also a young man from Nigeria – I am not sure I got his name – who made a tentative appearance, and I hope he too will join the group.  His English is excellent, and he shows some promise, but there is no point in getting excited about him until he shows he is interested.

Abdulaziz was late as usual – he has college, so cannot come earlier, but he has otherwise been most reliable recently.  And (fanfare etc) for the first time since the performance, we had Ali join us.  He was much his usual self, and fairly typically had no knowledge of the additional performance; his lack of English does make it very hard to be able to communicate with him.

I have decided that for the time being we will mostly leave No Waiting, as I am worried that it will become counter-productive.  But we did spend some time looking at the new scene; having additional people made it run all the more smoothly.  But I am very pleased that I chose Thomas to play the lead in this one, as he has a natural ability to react to all that happens to him.

For the rest of the session, we played a game or two, tried out some improvisations based on the idea of slow-motion, and then finished with the improve game Freeze!  This was most successful, and led to some excellent and hugely entertaining scenes.  In all, it was a successful session today, but I do have to allow myself just to go with it, and not become too stressed and anxious about the coming performance.


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Arrived to find the room partially decorated – well, one big cluster of balloons – and then a group of ladies and small children arrived, hoping to continue blowing up balloons for a small child’s birthday party later today.  They were a little concerned to discover me, but we managed to  more or less share the room for the next hour or two (though eventually we Drama people moved out into the adjacent dining hall for the last part of the session.)  The room does host various activities – sometimes prayer, or an English class, or a meetings room, or a social area, or a dining room annexe…  Quite takes me back to Drama lessons in a school hall, working around dinner ladies sweeping up sandwich crusts.

No Ali today again, and no Alem, so a bit thin on the ground.  It means the rehearsal has no structure, just doing whatever we can with whomever is there, and very little focus.  For the rest of the time, we are as much a general social group as anything, chatting about their situation, their frustrations… 

But we did manage to do some work on the new scene – a group sketch which riffs on two competing queues, with one person (Thomas) always finding himself in the slowest and most frustrating.  We could do with having more people involved, as everyone except Tom plays more than one character, but they do seem to be enjoying it, and I think it more or less works.  We did have a new person join us for a while, a trans person called Tulsi, who lives in the Best Western.  He is a Tamil from Malaysia (another country to add to the list) and he was persuaded to play one small role in this scene, but there is little point on building him permanently into the performance until we see that he continues to turn up; there are still a lot of people who turn up just for the one session.

The class finished early, as first Dasha and then Aisha and Frishta had to leave early; increasingly, it is proving difficult to find a time when all of us can be focused on the class. 

But to bring the subject once more round to parties, we were able to confirm that all of them there today will be coming to my own celebration at the end of the month; just a case of working out the logistics of getting them to (and from) Ickford.

Waiting Blues

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Not the most satisfactory of sessions.  Hamed was there when I arrived, and a few others dribbled in, one by one.  Alem had texted to say he couldn’t come today – I hope we haven’t lost him already – while Dasha had a doctor’s appointment, so could only make the last twenty minutes or so.  And still no sign of Ali.  And pretty much the whole of the first hour was taken up by a general chat/complaint about the situation they are in.  Most of it was taken up with the intricacies of bureaucracy: what was allowed and what wasn’t; various funds, schemes etc to which they might or might not have access, the future.  Hamed no longer has the right to a hotel room, but for the time being is lodging with a retired couple who have offered accommodation under the Refugees at home scheme, but that is only temporary; Frishta has a part-time job (rather worryingly working at a funfair) as she needs money for art equipment – she is determined to mount an exhibition of her work; but it is clear that she is deteriorating, becoming worn down by the system (or lack of one.) Aisha is poorly.  As I know nothing of these matters (apart from Aisha’s cold) I could offer only sympathy.

Eventually, we roused ourselves to do some work.  A bit tricky, as there were only 4 of them, but I took them through the game/exercise of “Yes”, which was, as intended, challenging at first, but which they soon got the hang of and enjoyed.  Abdulaziz arrived at this point – he has college, so always arrives late – and we moved on to a naturalistic exercise: discovering, and reacting to, receiving a letter, trying to make the reaction real and believable.

We now had just about enough people to block the “missing” scene from No Waiting, with one person (Thomas) trying to decide (and always making the wrong decision) between 2 queues.  And I think it works well, though such ideas are always a little shaky at first.  This scene involves each actor (apart from Thomas) play several characters, so we finished the session with a quick look at creating characters, simply based on their movement.

After which I ran to catch my train.  For the past two weeks my journey home has been a real challenge; one week I missed the train, and last week, though I was on time, the trains were cancelled, and I ended up on a slow bus from Ruislip to Wycombe.  This time it was only a slight delay, with a suicidal trespasser on the line; luckily he was persuaded to abandon his attempt.

Kensal Rise library

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A number of parallel forces came into play to suggest Kensal Rise library as a potential venue for another performance of No Waiting.  Matilda (the volunteer with C4C who had first introduced me to the Holiday Inn) already had a strong presence there; Sue (another volunteer with C4C), had seen the Beck performance and recommended us to the library; and Robin, an English teacher with the ESU, who already teaches many of our members, had suggested it as a possible venue both for his own classes and as a potential venue for us.  So it was that a meeting had been arranged with Stephanie Ess, the manager of the library, with Matilda and me, form me to see the place, and to discuss a possible date.

The library is quite a force in the area.  It has a historical background, having first been opened by Mark Twain in 1900, and then having to battle several attempts to close it by Brent council.  Some of the original building had indeed been lost to the developers (creating expensive apartments), but a local action group had forced some backtracking, so that there is a community-run library still operating, and which is now at the heart of a variety of community projects.  It also runs a number of arts events, generally of a small-scale – author readings and the like – but is also a strong supporter of refugee-based projects – Stephanie herself is the daughter of a Kindertransport child.

The space is small, with wheeled trolleys containing a lot of the books able to be wheeled into a side-room, to leave a bare space, though there is some theatre lighting.  It is not a theatre – there is no stage as such, no wings, no fixed auditorium, has room for about 60 chairs to face a relatively small performance area.  Nonetheless, it would suit our production well enough, once we had accustomed the actors to being on display throughout.  Most important, the library serves a lively local community, with strong support, so there should be no problem in attracting an audience.

The date suggested was during Refugee Week, the third week of June, with the performance taking place on a Sunday afternoon – June 25th.  This seems about right.  It is far enough away to enable us to rehearse and sharpen the play, and give the library time to organise some publicity, but not so far that there is a serious danger of the membership of the group disintegrating… not that there are any real hedges against this, whenever we perform, for these are volatile times, with the hotel accommodation likely to be brought to an end, one way or another, before too long.

I then travelled back to Wembley for our class.  Alem, our newest member, was the first to arrive – he travels across from the Barbican, so has a fair journey.  Disappointingly, the attendance otherwise was weak, with various people either unable to come for various reasons, or simply not turning up.  However, we were able to rehearse a couple of specific scenes, chiefly the Job Centre scenes between Hamed and Aisha, which showed immediate signs of improvement.

And also Godot, with me taking the fourth role – in the absence of Ali – alongside Hamed, Aziz, and Alem.  In an attempt to make us more adaptable to change, I see the Godot “company” as being five actors – the four who did it before plus Alem, with one person thus able either to drop out or to remove themselves.  It is all a little uncertain, so it is a little nerve-wracking to commit to a performance two months away… but that has been the nature of the project from the very start.


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Our first meeting since the show, so first of all a chance to reflect on what we thought about it.  We had a new member too, Alem from Afghanistan, who had seen the show and so wanted to join the group.  Everyone was (pretty much as expected) very positive about the experience, Aisha in particular amazed at the response we had received from those who had seen it.  Fairly predictably, Hamed was the only one who had any negative comments, since he felt that, good as it was, it could have been even better – he is very much the perfectionist.  But since this accords with my own opinion, I cannot be critical of him.

I told the group about the possibility of doing the show again, and once I had cleared up any misconceptions – they thought at first I meant doing another show – they were pretty positive.  As I would hope.  But Ali, Frishta and Sherwan were not there, so we also need to ensure they are on board.  It will mean extra rehearsal – as I say, there are aspects that can be tightened up – and of course they lead volatile, unpredictable and for some surprisingly busy lives, so all of this needs to be addressed.

Eventually, we got down to some practical work.  Mostly games today: zip zap boing and “Who killed King John?” proving particular favourites.  But then back to basics with some mime work – the old favourites – and then developing and performing a scene.  There were just the six of them, so three scenes.  Aziz and Dasha fell apart, probably because of communication problems, but both the other two were great.  This took us right to the wire, time-wise, since I was keen to see their scenes… but did mean I missed my train.

Since then, there have been developments, with a possible invitation from Kensal Rise library (quite the local institution) to perform there.  Which is enormously exciting.  For me too, by the way; it’s given me quite a bounce.

A day to remember

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It was a very long day, made longer by the fact that I couldn’t sleep last night, being so on edge, and knowing that I had to be up at 6 to get to Wembley.  And arriving early at the Holiday Inn meant I had an interesting time with the Security team; as it was a different time to normal, there was a different shift on, and none of them knew me, wanted to know what I was doing hanging around the place.  All amicable in the end, however.

My team were, more or less, on time, and we walked to Wembley Park, then the train to Uxbridge and a bus to the theatre in Hayes.  And then, since we were all there but the Compass performers were not all there yet, we switched again and had our tech and dress run first.  Which meant I was rather more on edge than I wanted to be, far more so than my cast, who were remarkably lacking in obvious nerves, and did not seem at all overawed by being in a real theatre, with everything that that entails – a proper foyer, a proper auditorium, a real stage, lights, wings everything.

The run went pretty well, but I was concerned (as ever) about audibility, and that was my main message to them during notes afterwards.  And actually, I was glad that we had got our run done first, as I was able to go through all the stuff that I wanted to put across to them, without feeling under pressure that we were about to go on stage.

And so to the performance.  Compass went first – a play devised in four intensive days with a large cast of young asylum-seekers and refugees.  There was masses of energy, a great dance sequence, and some excellent comic moments.  We watched from the auditorium, and I think it was good that my cast could see and hear how important it was to be heard… just to re-inforce the message.  There was a short intervening piece – an incredible monologue from one of the Compass cast, about his experiences in England – and then it was us.

And they were terrific.  The whole show ran smooth and slick, flowing almost seamlessly (I am always critical about such things) from scene to scene, with no mistakes to cover up.  I know I am focusing on lack of things going wrong rather than things going right, but I am naturally too involved in it to bring a fresh judgment and appreciation.  But others told me how much they had enjoyed it (I know – they would scarcely seek me out to tell me it was rubbish) and then today, the next day, we received a glowing email from the theatre.

Time after for lots of photos, and then a difficult but joyous return to Wembley, enduring train cancellations, running for a train about to depart, walking to another bus, a hailstorm along the way, and none of it mattering.

Performance eve

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Back from my lightning – as in foreshortened – trip to Spain (Alhambra no less) to make my way to London for our final Holiday Inn rehearsal.  So much so uneventful, apart from the train ride from Wycombe to Wembley, which was the most crowded train I have ever travelled on in this country,  The doors opened to reveal a solid mass of bodies, but I had to be at Wembley, so I somehow squeezed on (as did, miraculously, two or three more.)

While I had been away, they had organised an additional rehearsal on their own, which had apparently gone very well, but I was not at all surprised that our first stagger-through was a bit shabby.  Necessary to buck them up a bit, I’d say.  We were without Sherwan, of course, and did have to deal with the cramped nature of our space, but they were too quiet (as expected), and the entrances + exits were all haphazard (likewise.)  But they got through it, and we managed without Naomi, who seems to have disappeared.  I was not surprised that she had withdrawn, as it was always a tall ask to enter a production so late, but mildly disappointed that she had not told us.

After some notes, we prepared for another performance/rehearsal, with the possibility of a small audience to make it seem more like the real thing.  A very small audience; when we began, there was no-one, but three people turned up a bit late, and through the wrong door – all part of the magic of theatre.  But the performance this time was a lot sharper, and our small audience was most appreciative.

We concluded with admin; topping up their Oyster cards, making sure everyone knew what time we were meeting tomorrow.  It was when I was on my way home that I noticed two emails, from the Beck Theatre tech team and from Leah at Compass, telling me that we were expected at the theatre at 9, with our tech and run-through starting at 9.30.  I let them know of our problems with this – me coming from Oxford, having to get across London, etc, and then tried to get in touch with my guys via email.  Which I managed, almost, with everyone agreeing to meet at 8.  And then heard from Beck that our rehearsal was put back to 10.30.  But just as well, really, that we were leaving earlier, as it would take a little of the stress out of the day.  Even if I would have to leave at 6.20.

And so we have reached our first real performance, something I have been hoping would happen when I started working with the group.  Are we ready?  Well, both yes and no.  They are as ready as they could be, given their total inexperience, their varied ability with English, the uncertainty of any performance and what it might throw at people.  And I do think there is a good chance the audience will like it.  It’s short (25 mins), punchy and has the potential to produce some good moments.

Fingers crossed (which I have explained to them is the secular version of Inshallah.)

Awaiting home

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Which is the name of the joint production we are putting on with Compass, the poster for which is shown above.  The blurb for our half of the show is not at all a bad summary, all the more so since it was gleaned from the very few words I gave to Leah at Compass.  There are a couple of minor errors – not all live in the Holiday Inn (the others are at Best Western), and more importantly the name of the company is wrong, since I gave them the wrong name, mis-remembering or mis-reading the name Frishta had given me, which should be Zhvan, Farsi for “a happy place”… or at least I very much hope so.  Frishta was understandably a little annoyed with me, but I think we have it sorted now.

Seeing as the performance is one week and two days away, it was a little disappointing that we had only two-thirds of our cast there, with Abdulaziz having to attend a meeting with his lawyer, Naomi somewhere in London, and Sherwan unable to attend until the actual day (at least I knew about this one.)  But actually, I was relatively reassured.  They have all made an effort with their lines, and though they are struggling and stumbling, I was (for me) relatively strict, insisting they did not rely on their books – it is only storing up trouble for later, and more crucial, times.

We rehearsed what we could, in an ad hoc sort of way, running through all the paired scenes which reflect their encounters with officialdom, as well as, crucially, Godot – we had Ali, and this is his major contribution.  Admittedly, we did have me standing in for Abdulaziz, and I am a little more reliable, but in general, it went well.  With one definite hiccup.  They all wear clown noses for this scene, sponge ones which just sit on the nose.  Except that there was no way that Ali’s would stay on – his nose is too broad and flat.  But that will be sorted – I did think of Copydex (a sort of adhesive), but Val is going to fix elastic on to his.  (The remaining issue is whether I need to do the same for Abdulaziz, as he was not there to try his on, but am concerned that I am now wandering into unconscious racism.)

But then we decided to run the opening scene, and somehow stumbled into a run-through of sorts, which had some gaps, but also proved to everyone that we could do the whole play.  Like I say – encouraging.  My one major concern (other than the logistics of getting them all there on time) is that they will not be loud enough.  Hard enough for most performers (just listen to Anthony Hopkins going on about it) but especially so for desperately inexperienced actors dealing with talking in another language.

Red Nose

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Two weeks and two days to go before the performance!  So it wasn’t the best news to hear that neither Ali nor Abdulaziz would be able to be with us today, Abdulaziz because he had some family visiting, Ali for some unspecified appointment.  Rather more permanent, was the news that Fola would be leaving on Friday to go to Luton, where she has some family.  She was a little upset at having to miss the performance, but clearly delighted that hr long wait was coming to an end.  Her situation is particularly complicated, and I have to say I don’t fully understand it, but she has been waiting three years for a decision on her asylum application.

As for us, our emotions were similar.  We were all delighted for Fola, but a little concerned about the effect on the performance.  We discussed the matter, as we really could do with a replacement, and discussed various possibilities, and then Naomi entered.  Like Fola, she is from Nigeria, but she had heard of the Drama group and had popped in to see what was happening.  And suddenly she was being invited to join the cast for a performance in two weeks (and two days.)

Luckily, from our point of view, she did not run screaming from the room, though she was understandably reluctant to commit herself immediately.  However, by the end of the session, she was pretty much signed up, had already rehearsed a couple of Fola’s roles, and we were back to our full contingent.  Indeed, there was briefly the possibility of recruiting an extra member, when Jakob, a young man from Bahrein whom the others had mentioned several times, also came in to see what was going on, and participated in a couple of our group scenes.  He drifted away again before the end, however, so I suspect we will not see him again.

Other than these distractions, it was a reasonably productive rehearsal, though, somewhat worryingly, some of the cast are a long way from being “off-book”.  And we could not even touch our Godot extract, with two actors missing (and what is more, the two most in need of rehearsal.)  But several scenes are looking good, and we had time to look at the red noses, which round off the show, being used first by the Godot characters, and then everyone else.

So, still much to do in our remaining time, but I am reasonably confident, provided I can get them to speak up sufficiently to be heard.

And one other piece of excellent news.  Aisha has been accepted for a place at Cardiff Uni in September, to study Bio/Medical Science, provided she passes her English proficiency exam.