A new start

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After my Ethiopian adventure, a chance to reset the Wembley program; we had reduced almost to nothing before I left.  As part of a new recruitment drive, I visited the Monday group; once a week, a group of volunteers with C4C (Care4Calais) meet up in a church in Wembley to offer a range of classes in English and offer somewhere warm for people to meet and perhaps access other services.  I had arranged to come in to offer a taster class in the sort of activities I provide – some games and improvisations, and possibly, if a regular enough group is formed, then to look at the possibilities of producing some theatre.  (In the end, that is always my objective; though I am appreciative of the benefits of drama as an activity, it is theatre that I love, in particular introducing others to its attractions, the way that it offers memories that can last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, because I had double-booked myself, and had to rush off immediately after what was a foreshortened session, it did go about as well as I could have hoped.  We had about twenty people there, and there was a good deal of laughter – always a good sign.  And though it was pretty standard stuff, the sort on introduction I tend to fall into, that I have done a hundred times or more.  And when I left, Hamed was able to carry on for a while, introducing them all to a game that he had learnt at a Drama session elsewhere.  Which is exactly what I would like to happen; Hamed has a great deal to offer, and could be both a great help to me (or even a replacement) as well as developing useful (and marketable) skills himself.

Unfortunately, there is a problem.  I had a low-key session at the Holiday In last wee, and Hamed was not allowed to come in; mas he is no longer an asylum-seeker, having attained the giddy heights of becoming a refugee) he is not allowed to join the class.  As it happened, he pretty much was the class last week, so we simply decamped to a local coffee house for a chat, but it is an issue.  We are looking into the possibility of him becoming a volunteer with C4C himself, so that he can then come in as my assistant, but this will require some hoops to be jumped through.

Anyway, he was still there for my session the day following my introductory session, exploiting a loophole which does allow him into the hotel if he is visiting someone, and simply slipping into the class.  And along with him were about ten others.  In fact, there were not so many from the session yesterday, and almost all of the newcomers were Iranian, so it appeared as though Hamed had been exploiting his own address book.  But the result, all the same, were very positive.  Not one of them had previously done anything of this kind before, but all of them appeared to enjoy things, and a couple of them were very good indeed.  There did seem to be a willingness to return, so maybe there are some possibilities.  Next week will be key.

A pause

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Apologies for this old picture; as ever, I managed not to take a photo of the class, so have had to resort to this happy memory.

With the trip to Ethiopia imminent, a pause in the activities of Zhvan Theatreand the Holiday Inn classes… hopefully only until I return at the beginning of November. Matilda and I have made some exploratory moves to finding some one to replace me on a temporary (or indeed not so temporary) basis, but in the short time frame we had, this was always going to prove difficult. So what is likely is that nothing will happen, and I just have to hope that we do not lose momentum entirely.

All the more so since, for the first time in ages, we decided for the final session to abandon work on the Journeys script, and just have some fun. It was a small class – with me going away, we decided to postpone the planned recruitment drive for the time being. All the same, we did have one new member, Nafas, a friend of Hamed. She claims to have weak English, but in fact she coped extraordinarily well, even with some pretty intense improv exercises (such as “Alternate Words”.)

We also had Carla. She is perpetually unreliable, but each time she comes she is great, picking up on ideas, characterisations, etc. And Shamym was there, and she has proved to be a consistently reliable presence, joining in as appropriate, but always being positive.

And so we had a most enjoyable session – lots of laughter, and an excellent atmosphere. I should add that the other people there were Hamed and Tulsi. Of course, Aisha was not with us, for one of the dew times ever. But this allows for an Aisha update. Val and I took her to Ruskin College (in the depths of Old Headington) for her to enrol, and we heard later that day that there had been an induction and lunch. The one real bugbear is that there is no provision for accommodation in her scholarship, so lots of people were suddenly engaged in looking for something for her. In fact, Val and I would offer somewhere if all else fails, but we are by no means ideal, so we are keeping this quiet for the time being; if people think the situation is solved, they stop looking.

In fact, we have subsequently heard that she does have somewhere for the time being, provided for her by Greenpeace. Since they were one of the organisation who forst invited her, then encouraged her to apply for asylum, I do feel they have a certain amount of responsibility.

But that is the situation at present, and for the time being Wembley will be hibernating. And I imagine that the daily blog will pretty much alternate between Ethiopia and Forty Years ago.

Aisha Aisha

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When I arrived at the class today, the first thing I wanted to know from Aisha was the result of her interview.  She had attended it over a week ago, and they had promised her an answer by Wednesday.  No, nothing, she said, for neither; not the Home Office (she is also awaiting the result of her asylum application interview), not the university.  So I urged her to email at least the university, Ruskin College in Oxford.

When the class finally assembled – Tulsi is pathologically late – I gave them the section of the play which followed on from where we had stopped with Saturday’s reading.  Some of it they had already seen, but there was also some new material; to my relief, this too was accepted as being a truthful enough summary of some very complicated sequences of events.  I then moved on to interview the three protagonists of the play about some incidents from the final sections of their journeys, which I wanted to clarify and find some new details, before writing the end of the play.  There will be one more session before I am away for four weeks, and I want to be able to give them a completed script before then.

Fortunately, I had interviewed Aisha first, and her recollections were done, when she received an email.  There was a sort of shocked little noise, we looked at her, and she handed me her phone.  There was a “You ought to have been contacted by the students services dept” (or somesuch) followed by the information that her application for a grant had been accepted, provided she enrolled on the course.  Enrolment was tomorrow morning; would she be able to attend in person?

Now I’m not trying to claim any real credit for giving her a nudge, but it does seem to have been a bit of luck that I did.  Fortunately, there was no real problem, for all the answers were at hand.  I was going back to Ickford, she could come with me, we could feed her and put her up, before delivering her to the college tomorrow morning.  And no I didn’t try to seek official permission for this course of action, not least because I wouldn’t know who to ask, and because in the end I was pretty sure that whoever it was would eventually agree that this plan would be the most sensible.  We did, of course, inform the hotel and provided them with my address etc.

The journey home was long and difficult, with a long wait for the final train, but at last it was done.  I asked Aisha if she liked fish, and she said very much, but that the hotel never served fish, and that she had not eaten it in England.  So fish was what we had for dinner.

Migrant Connections festival

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The good news was that between us, Hamed and I were able to persuade Carla to join us for our performance at the festival.  Including me, this meant a cast of five, which would be sufficient to tell the story.  (As it turned out, the performance space was so cramped that it was just as well that we did not turn up with more!)

I drove separately to the festival in Streatham, arriving good and early.  I had intended to be there in good time to see all there was to see, and maybe have the opportunity to talk to some people, but in fact I was far too early.  There was not so very much to see, and no-one to talk to; I made myself known to Tamara, the organiser, but she was clearly somewhat stressed by all the things she had to think about, so that was little more than a token hello.

It is not that the event itself was poorly conceived or executed.  There were a lot of people there, and on the whole they were fulfilling their aim, of giving everyone an event at which to meet, to let the children run, to meet friends if you knew them already.  Out front was a sort of market-place of charities and campaigning groups; the main building had various rooms devoted to exhibitions, craft-making (for children), and a performance space – two rooms with the dividing doors between them pulled back, but a difficult space to work, fine for a reading or lecture (or, indeed, some comedy, which went on just before us); not so much for theatre.  It was good that our piece was pretty static; even the limited movement we had included was difficult.

The others turned up during the day, except for Tulsi, who had arrived early, and looked magnificent in their make-up and costume – Tulsi, as well as appearing with us, was performing a solo Indian classical dance.  I had been a little concerned that they would want to keep their appearance in costume as a secret until the dance, but not a bit of it.  Tulsi was on display, and created quite a stir, the (joint) subject of many selfies.

As Carla had never seen the parts she was to play, we held an impromptu rehearsal out front by the bins, and all went well.  The performance itself I was a little less pleased with, partly because of my own contribution.  I was flustered – the comedy acts before us had over-run – and so was not as calm as I ought to have been.  The atmosphere was noisy, with other sounds of children and others filtering in.  And we were very cramped.

Nonetheless, we managed it fine, and got a good reaction from the audience, with one or two saying very positive things to me.  But there was not a great deal of room, and we did not always hold people’s attention as well as I would have liked.  But still, we had performed the first half of our play, and so I suppose that was useful, demonstrating that there are the seeds there of a strong play.

Finally, we stayed for a little while in order to watch Tulsi’s performance, after which I fought my way through the Saturday evening traffic to get back on to the motorway and home.

Panic measures

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Shamym and Hamed

Which is not quite right, as there was no actual panic.  But we do have the performance at the Migrant Connections Festival in two days’ time, and even though I have made it clear to the organisers that this will very much be a work in progress, and will inevitably be a reading, performance brings its own pressures.  I had turned up to the rehearsal with some remaining feelings of hope, if some of the increasingly desperate moves we have made to increase our numbers come off, then maybe…

But actually, those hopes faded.  Sherwan came through the door, and I thought for one moment that he had been able to join us after all!  But then it appeared he had no good news, was there to tell us that his application for asylum had been denied.  Inevitably, he was a little down, but there are still some avenues left for him to explore – appeals and the like – so his situation is not yet desperate.  (And actually, even if those attempts fail, where will he be sent?  He did aske me to see if I could contact the Red Cross to see if they have any news of his parents in Iraq, and I will do my best, but really I suspect there is little hope on that front.

After which, other news rather paled.  Abdulaziz and Ali did not make an appearance, and I did not really expect them to, and their limited English makes it difficult to integrate them into such a wordy piece of theatre.  Another previous member of the group had told us several times (including today) that they wanted to be involved in the production, but no show once again today.

Hamed jad brought along a friend, Fariq from Morrocco, with the possibility that he might be able to step in, and he did stay for the rehearsal, and was actually very good, but when he learned what was involved, travelling to Streatham all the way from where he lives, he was forced to withdraw whatever participation we had hoped for.  And finally Shamym, the lady who stepped in for me the other week, will almost certainly not be able to attend the performance.  Which leaves just four of us.

With Fariq and Shamym joining in, we did run through the material we intend to perform on Saturday, and in the circumstances, it could have gone a lot worse.  But what is clear is that we have a challenging period coming up.  Numbers are very low, so we need to recruit, but also to integrate people into an existing show.  And I am going to be away for four weeks, so we really do not want that to be completely blank.  And there is politics, of course; what will happen to the asylum-seekers if the hotel scheme closes.

But there are also possibilities, with the Food Bank keen on us to provide some material for a gala they are holding later this year.  And next year, there is interest from a Migrants’ Theatre Festival being held at the Cockpit Theatre.  So we need to remain positive and optimistic.

Making progress

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Apologies for my lack of recent activity on t6his blog.  In truth, it has all been rather low-key, with just the core of Hamed, Aisha and Tulsi turning up regularly – just as well, since it was these three whose stories formed the play – with occasional appearances by Abdulaziz and Ali.  Fereshte has been busy trying to sort out a new school form her son, who has been going through a pretty torrid time, and I discovered today that she has now enrolled on a college course herself, which will mean she is unable to attend our classes (or, indeed, the performance.)  A pity from our point of view, for although she is neither an experienced or confident performer as yet, she is intelligent, and would have fitted in well to the Narrator’s role.  But I have to remind myself at times that the most important thing is the fact that they are making progress in putting their lives back again, and not the play.  Our numbers are low at present, but the fact that Dasha and Frishta, for example,  are both starting college courses is absolutely what ought to be happening.

On the other hand, we do feel there is a need to re-energise the class, and to attract new members; quite a lot of people have arrived at the hotel, and so we ought to be reaching out to them… or at least putting up some new posters.

Nor did it help that I had to be away for a week (about which more in a separate blog.)  But even this had its positive aspect, as Matilda, out long-term support, has found someone to take my place.  Or if not exactly that, since she is not Drama trained, then to give the class some official supervision.  Her name is Shamym, and I have to say I know almost nothing about her, having only communicated by email and WhatsApp.  But my impression is that she is very nice, and managed to deal with the constrained circumstances of the group at present, while also enjoyi9ng herself.  And she has promised to come along again next week, which will give me the chance to meet her, as well as providing a most welcome extra body (and voice.)

As for the play itself, it is still in the process of being created, with me adding a few pages each time, as well as taking onboard necessary changes to bring it closer to the truth.  But I am pleased with the way it is developing.  It does mean that our performance at the Migrants’ Festival in a week or two will necessarily be more a reading than anything else, but actually, to some extent, that takes some of the pressure off – having a script in their hands to keep everyone on track will make it easier, while still, I believe, telling an interesting story in an interesting enough way to maintain people’s interest.  At least, I hope so.

There are certainly some effective scenes, such as Aisha’s confrontation with a soldier, or Hamed’s childhood story – in both cases, important in what they revealed about the two of them.

The journey begins

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I had managed to type out four pages of script, based on the interviews I have had with Hamed, Aisha and Tulsi, and I am quite pleased with it.  It is much wordier than most plays I write; one of the aspects of having a small cast is that it leaves less room for the physical theatre that often brings theatre alive.  But their stories are compelling, and in adopting a Brechtian, story-telling approach, it means we can cope with huge changes of setting, mood, atmosphere.

Our style of presentation will inevitably be quite stark and simple, with nothing in the way of scenery or costume.  But if possible, it would be good to recruit someone with the technical ability to create a rich soundtrack, as this could be a way to give our play edge and vibrancy, as well as being entirely portable.

Nonetheless, the script so far is just a draft.  I am quite comfortable creating dialogue for characters to speak, but on this occasion I am putting words into people’s own mouths, so I have to give them the right to challenge or change this.  There were also one or two occasions when my interview notes did not provide enough detail, and rather than rely entirely on my own imagination, I wanted to grab some more detailed account of what was said.

But I was pleased on two fronts.  First of all, they had no serious disagreement with the words I had chosen for them to say (though Aisha did suggest that he words be simpler, which is something I will look at.)  And secondly, it does seem to be holding together, with the three stories weaving in and out of each other.  I am used to creating plays, and so trust my ability to create something which carries dramatic weight.  However, it is already turning into quite a lengthy script, and that is without adding a fourth voice, for Abdulaziz is also keen to tell his story.

Which is how I spent the last half-hour of the session.  Abdulaziz’s English is improving, but is not sufficiently good to manage the retelling of his story, so I had recruited Yasser (who had briefly been a part of the group) as interpreter.  And the story which emerged was similarly harrowing.  In a way,it is good to have too much material; if one of the participants drops out (there are hopeful signs for Aisha) there should still be sufficient material.

But we have begun, the cast seem excited (as well as a little daunted) by the new play, and we will see where this take us.


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Apologies that there has been an absence of posts just recently.  I have, in truth, been quite busy with various events, not least my daughter’s wedding, and then appearing for two weeks in Romeo and Juliet in Oxford.  But actually, though the classes have continued to run, it has all been remarkably low-key.  We have lost some of our strongest performers, either because they have moved on in their lives, such as Dasha and Frishta, who have both been accepted for and scholarships for their college courses, or because they have somehow lost interest, such as Thomas and Ali.  However, while there is still enough of a demand for what I do, I will keep the class running. 

We have started to look at creating a new performance, and both Aisha and Hamed are keen for the work to be about their experience as asylum-seekers, so we are starting to look at the idea of Journeys, focusing specifically on their journey to England – why it came about, and then how.  And since to some extent this physical journey also mirrors the story of their lives, we have begun by looking at some of their stories from their childhood.  It is most interesting that, so far, both the stories we have been told, and have looked at in a theatrical sense, also reflect the motivations and ethos of that person.  Not a particularly inspired observation – the child is father to the man, after all (and mother to the woman), but still it is remarkable to have that demonstrated so clearly.

Aisha’s story, of a small girl playing in a muddy pool, also marks her out as a rebel, one who is reluctant to accept society’s strictures; while Hamed, telling how as a small boy he stole from a local shop, yet went back the following day to pay for what he had taken, reflects his strong sewnse of right and wrong.

I interviewed both of them about their escape from their home country, (and subsequently, have done the same thing with Tulsi), and it was, as you can imagine, harrowing and tense – the challenge will be to bring those stories to some sort of theatrical life in as simple as way as possible, yet which still reflects the tension, the fear, the despair.  We have been contacted by an organisation organising a migrant festival in September, so that might provide an opportunity to share our ideas, at whatever stage they have reached by then.


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A small group today, though it was good to see Abdulaziz there, from the very beginning for once, with no college commitments.  Frishta was, as she had explained, absent, so we had just the five, the ones who had been to Oxford, with just one replacement.  This did mean we were able to discuss the production to some extent; this is not a Theatre Studies class, so the analysis was fairly basic.  (Though I was intrigued that they had a serious criticism of the Juliet they saw, whom they identified as switching off when not actually speaking, a particular point I had made to them recently.

We also had a bit of a discussion as to where we should take to group from now on.  It had always proved something of a challenge to get the group moving again after a production, with numbers tending to drop rather than grow, meaning it takes something of both an effort and an act of faith to kick things off again.

As a warm-up, I took them through most of the warm-up games and exercises that the R + J cast use, most of which they seemed to enjoy.  And then, with me thinking on my feet, we tried out some improvisational ideas: one was of using various words for walking, then having each character illustrating one of them.  Another idea was to draw on childhood memories, which first each person shared with the group, and then were turned into an improvisation by having the main character switching between narrating the story and performing within it.

It was a short session, necessitated by me having to be back in Oxford in time for the show tonight.  But now that I have a clearer idea of the people involved, I can start to put together ideas for a show which fits both the people and their capabilities.  We have been given notice of a Migrants’ festival in September, so that might provide us with the opportunity and incentive that we need.

Romeo and Juliet in Oxford

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Today was the big day, the expedition to Oxford to see me in action as Capulet in the Wild Goose production of Romeo and Juliet.  It had been intended for some time, but it did look very much like the group would largely have to organise themselves, in the absence of anyone else able to do that.  In particular, it meant them laying out what was for them a considerable sum to pay for their transport.  Fortunately, the tickets for the show were free, and I had also arranged for them to eat vat Damascus Rose, the vegetarian café run set up by Syrian refugee women (and incidentally the same people who had catered for my birthday party.)  But this financial outlay did have the effect of meaning Tulsi was not able to join the group, as he is very short of money )and existing on something like £9 a week.)

So it was quite an exercise in practical democracy and administration for them to research the bus fare etc (at one point, they even considered Uber, which they did think was comparable, but I suspect their research had left something or other out.)  But it was done, with me monitoring their progress via the WhatsApp group we had established for the trip.  I also met them for lunch, to make sure all was well, and so far the trip had been most successful.  First of all they had all met up, they had got to Oxford, and now seemed to be enjoying themselves.  There was a certain confusion about the food, as Neha, vthe lady I had been in contact with, was not there, but all was arranged successfully, and the food was, once again, excellent.

I then left them to renew their exploration, and arranged to meet them for the performance; once again, all was well, and they were early to claim their seats.  Of course, today would be a day when the weather intervened, so we had to relocate to the nearby church just after the start of the second half.  But actually, I quite enjoy performing in the church, and it did mean my guests were able to experience both styles of performance.  And they thoroughly enjoyed the performance, so in that sense too the outing was a success.  Fortunately, I did not mess up in front of them.

It did mean a long and late evening, with a return journey on the bus.  Not without some problems, I believe, but best of all they all got on as a group – Hamed, Aisha, Frishta, Carla and Fereshte – and had apparently had a wonderful time.  Result!