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Back after a three-week gap, and, as might have been expected, something of a two steps back move.  Aisha turned up first, Hamed drifted in a little later, then Sherwan and Rabar, and finally Ali, though he had the best excuse, just returning from college.  That seems to have been the biggest development, with most of them now being allocated places at college, but this seems very much to be a mixed blessing.  For the most part, all they are offered is a basic English course; this suits Ali, as it is what he needs (even though he is finding it hard!), but arrangements for Sherwan are in a mess – he registered, turned up, and was told he needed to register.  Aisha is the most ill-served, for the course is well below her level, and fails to address her most basic need, to improve her spoken English, as basically it seems to be focused on the written word.  My guess is that this makes it possible to teach larger numbers.  Her passionate desire is to go to university, and this is helping in no way to achieve that.

Hamed is the most active, but his learning is self-generated, as he is heavily involved in the protests against the Iranian government over its violent crackdown of protest, brought about by the death of Mahsa Amini.  He is at the Iranian embassy every day, has cut off his hair in solidarity, and is sporting the sweatshirt shown in the photo.  Ironic really, that he fled Iran because of the consequences of his work as a political activist, and is now continuing that line of work.

We spent some time discussing these things, and also trying to find out what direction to take the group, what project to look at next.  I did not really expect a clear purpose on which they could all agree, but in general Hamed would like more obvious comedy, and Aisha would like something more rooted in real life.  And the others either do not have a strong opinion or are unable to express it clearly.

In order to do some practical work, I ran through some work based on melodrama, leading to a short but not especially satisfactory story.  I do not feel I did a very good job, as I found it difficult to motivate myself, let alone them.  But I do have an idea – based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It –  so will give that some thought before next week.

The show

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The show must go on… and did!

Despite all of my doubt and despair about ever forming a consistent and committed group of people to be able to perform some theatre, we were there, waiting for the audience to arrive, about to perform.  Not that it had been plain sailing all the way.  Up until a week before the proposed date, it was not certain that we had the blessing of the hotel, without which we could not go ahead.  And there were the usual difficulties with communication with the cast; it took some time before I could confirm that all of them would be there… which was not good for my peace of mind.

But not only did we have our full complement, we had one extra.  I had persuaded Amjad, a young Syrian man, to join us.  He had been to several classes in the past, including last week’s, so he knew how one of the plays went.  He speaks excellent English, so was a most useful addition to the cast.  (If truth be told, he also provided back-up in the case of last minute absence.)

We had nearly two hours before the performance to prepare, and I had thought this would be plenty of time: to go through arrangements, to warm up, to practise various sections, especially those where we needed to include Amjad.  So when I looked at my watch, and discovered we no longer had time for a full dress rehearsal, we concentrated on the main play, the Story of Destiny, and managed that pretty well.

I had had no idea how many people would come to see it, but actually the numbers were a bit disappointing.  We had a few small children along with their generally heavily-masked mothers, but Matilda was there, and she gathered up a few more, and then some others wandered in.  And once I had encouraged them to come forward and occupy the best seats, it made for a reasonable number.

I am not really the one to give an objective judgment, because I had to focus on my own role of narrator, but the audience response was enough to tell me that it was going well.  There was plenty of laughter, and smiles throughout.  There was one interesting incident, when a young guy who had arrived late, joined in with a crowd scene.  I had to usher him gently away.  His name was Adam, and he had been to one of the classes, so presumably thought that this was what was expected.  The cast were professionalism itself, and did not allow this to throw them.  And in fact, their entire performance was pretty much flawless.  The audience clearly enjoyed it immensely, but even more important, I know that the cast did too, and that was the prime objective.

During the curtain call, I did a shout out for each actor and their origin, so I’ll do the same now:  Amjad from Syria, Hamed from Iran, Ali from Sudan, Sherwan from Kurdistan, Abdulaziz from Chad, Jaime from El Salvador, and Aisha from Baluchistan.  Well done to all, superstars every one.

And well done Adam.


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The village at work

Hoped to speak either with the manager or his assistant about arranging a performance in the hotel, but unfortunately neither of them were there.  But then, in case I had not properly understood where they were, I took a quick look in the dining room; I had been in there on a number of occasions, and there had never been a problem.  This time however, I was aware of a lady right at the other end of the hall, who had clearly registered my presence.  On my way out, I stopped to chat with a couple of the residents that I knew, when suddenly this lady – Head of Security, as I was to discover – alongside a large and somewhat intimidating security guard, was at my side, demanding to know what I was doing there.  She also summoned the guy on the door, and rather fiercely asked of him whether he had done his job properly.  Which made me feel rather bad.

She did ask to see my ID, and apparently a driving licence would not do – she wanted something which identified what organisation I was representing.  And of course I have nothing; my link to Care4Calais is very loose.  But in the end, when I explained who I was and what I was doing, and everyone there assured her I had been coming every week for months, she relaxed somewhat, and was even supportive of the positive idea of the residents having something to get them out of their rooms.  So all was well.

A misunderstanding with Abdulaziz, who turned up early and explained that he was going outside, but I thought he was coming back for the class.  But he didn’t.  Which is awkward, all the more so if we are going to have a performance ready soon.  But on the other hand, it is not as though this is a new experience for me.

We focused on the Boy Who Cried Wolf story, as this is the least rehearsed.  Slightly perverse, as Abdul is the boy, so rather important in the story, but I played him, so that everyone else was able to rehearse their reactions and movement in relation to him.  A pity, from a purely personal point of view, that the boy spends so much time sitting on the ground, as this meant I had to as well.  Still, I managed.


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Youssef is dreaming

In order to practise with the real thing, I cut some laurel branches from the hedge conveniently running between our house and our neighbours’, and took them in with me; I attracted a few surprised looks, presumably thinking I was on my way to Dunsinane.  Of course, I should explain: the laurel woods are where our hero Youssef is directed by his dream, and the four actors have two branches each to represent such.

Full attendance today – six of them, and me – so after working a little on the sound and Youssef’s trust in his fellow actors – we were able to run through the whole play.  It is improving, bit by bit, though I feel there is still work to do before presenting it to an audience.  On the other hand, just a few weeks ago I was despairing of ever even approaching this state.

Which led us on to discussing possibilities for performance.  I had emailed Young Roots, an arts organisation for young refugees, as they already have a connection with both Matilda and the Holiday Inn, and as it happened I ran into Shona, one of its group.  Somewhat to my surprise, she had seen the email, so already knew of our hope to find both a venue and a (small) audience, to provide my very inexperienced actors with the opportunity for performance.  She suggested the nearby centre, which I have visited before, which is where the senior English class is taught.  I have to say, I am a little uncertain – even just for the English class, it was difficult to hear over the loud background noise; the place is simultaneously a youth club.  I would find it a very hard gig to cope with such circumstances, and I am wary of my group’s rather fragile confidence being shattered.  Still, I told Shona I would discuss it with the group, who know the space well.  Like me, they were a little apprehensive; we shall have to see.

Partly as a rest from “Destiny” – rehearsals can get a bit tedious – as well as generating some more material, we went back to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  With a regular group, maybe we can come up with a complete story, rather than just using it as an exercise in class.  Previously, Fatima had provided us with a wonderful folk song, which we use to introduce the villagers, but without her input, and with no-one else able to supply a song, I taught them “Frere Jacques”, only with different words, more applicable to the needs of our play.

                We are working, we are working,

                More and more, more and more,

                Just to keep the wolf out, just to keep the wolf out,

                From the door, from the door.

It is something of a struggle for them, coping with the words, singing a round, and accompanying the song with actions, but actually its very raggedness had a certain charm. And they will get better.


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The famous five (lacking Abdulaziz today)

Being under the impression that Sherwan would be at the dentist today, I planned something a little different, to focus on the words of the play and their pronunciation.  It is clear that, if we are to present the play to any sort of audience, we need to make the words clearer and easier to understand.  All of the group have accents which affect other people’s ability to understand them, and the fact that all of their accents are different adds to the problem.  As it happened, Sherwan was there – his dentist appointment had been moved – but this meant that we could look at very nearly the whole play.

I began by introducing them to some simple, and not so simple, tongue-twisters, with Susie sitting by the sea-shore, and a lot of hot coffee from a proper copper coffee pot, amongst others.  And then we worked our way steadily through the script, taking time to clarify some pronunciations, to simplify some of the harder to say words.

And then we had a run-through, which went surprisingly well.  Sherwan was off-book, which was a most impressive achievement, and actually some sections, such as the fortune-telling scene, were really pretty good, with life and energy.  We will have to start thinking about some sort of low-key performance, but probably it makes sense to have a little more material – Destiny lasts about 15 minutes, which is not really long enough to fill a slot.  Besides, as Hamed has pointed out, it is a little serious, so it would be nice to balance it with something lighter, with better opportunity for comedy.  So, to make something of a double-bill, we shall probably revive The Boy Who Cried Wolf, aka The Lying Shepherd.  When we worked on this before, Fatima was able to introduce us to a Farsi folk song, but no-one could recall this properly, or suggest an alternative, so we had a go at singing Frere Jacques in a round.  And if I can come up with some different words, to make it into a work song, then it might fit the bill.

To finish, we acted out a series of improvisations with a more physical and comic heart, based on the idea of The Magic Glove, a glove which takes over its owners hand.  They are getting better and better at creating their own ideas, their own scenes, so these are always entertaining.  More importantly, it demonstrates how much progress they have made as performers.


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Youssef encounters a priest

Back to Wembley this week, and the resumption of the same old routine.  Intrigued to see if attendance would be any better, and though they drifted in rather, in fact we had everyone except Rabar (who is in any case rather nervous about  performance.)  And instead of him, we had Awen, the Afghan girl who had been too young to come on the trip last week.  So, in a way, the full complement.

And so we set about working our way through the play, The Story of Destiny, a Syrian folk tale.  It is essentially the same play as the one performed by the Syrian children in Lebanon (then called The Story of Luck and Fate.)  I have adapted it somewhat, cutting down on the Narrator, and giving a little more emphasis to those aspects which reference the refugee experience more closely.  It tells the story of Youssef, who leaves his home land – well, there you go for a start – to seek a better life.

It is a short play, lasting about fifteen minutes, so we were able to work our way through it all.  And bits of it worked well – there is a scene in which Youssef hears four fortune-tellers, all at the same time, all trying to tell him what a wonderful future he will have, and this was effective.  Such stylised scenes work well, but there are problems when it comes to simpler confrontations and meetings, when their limitations in expressing themselves clearly in English are exposed.  On the other hand, I have done this enough times to realise that such things take time and practice, and that this was the first time for some of the scenes.

In order to break things up a little, we also took time with some improvisations in which people put on a mask… or rather form their faces into a fixed position as though they were wearing a mask.  And then we developed this into short scenes in which someone buys a mask… but cannot remove it from their face.  Quite a difficult and sophisticated idea, and one which they rose to wonderfully.  Especially when language does not get in the way, their progress is obvious.

Playing away

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The group at Ickford

I had wanted for some time to invite the Drama group to my home, first of all because I like them a lot, and secondly because I wanted to show them a slice of England that was removed from London, and urban life.  I resisted their expressed desire, when first I suggested the trip, to go to Oxford.  Oxford is not London, of course, and has much to offer, but it is still a city, with all the negatives that come with that – the bustle, the way that much is behind protective walls, how much it costs to breach them.  Besides, I wanted to show them a real contrast, and to offer them some hospitality.

The organisation of such a trip caused me some concern: for a while I was sure I needed a minibus, but when that proved impractical, and I had to think it through using mostly public transport, it all became much simpler.  A train direct from Wembley to Haddenham, the bus into Thame, a walk around there, and then by car back to my house.

Somewhat surprisingly, all went very well, with everyone on time, the one hiccup being the bus driver at Haddenham, who waited for the train to arrive, and then drove off before we could get to him.  So a bit of a wait.  They all liked Thame, and I took them all down to St Mary’s, which was open.  For the six Muslims out of the seven, it was their first time in a church, and they liked it very much.

We then met up with my golf friend Geoff, who was going to help me drive them to Ickford.  He also happens to be a guide around Thame, and though mostly this involves references  to Midsomer Murders (largely filmed there) he knew quite a few snippets about the area just around the Town Hall (as well as telling me I’d missed Robin Gibb’s grave at St Mary’s.)

Lunch was somewhat haphazard, as I was trying to host, prepare food, get the barbecue lit… and therefore doing none of them well.  But in the end it was all a success – alongside games of tennis and bar billiards.  The final section of the day was a walk, longer than I had anticipated, partly because, on the way back from Worminghall, I tried to find a different route, and we got lost.  We also encountered a huge number of cows, but fortunately both groups, bovine and human, maintained a respectful distance. 

A slight hiccup on their return train journey made it rather longer than it ought to have been.  I had wanted to go with them as far as Wycombe, but they had insisted they would be able to negotiate the change of trains themselves.  Which they did, but probably not quite quickly enough.

It was a hugely successful day.  They were appreciative of everything, and actively charmed most people we met.  And I had a ball.

Looking forward, looking back

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After an enforced break – Val and I were away on holiday – I was a little uncertain as to how many would turn up, but in fact most of the usual crew were there, with only Jaime missing because he was not feeling well.  This did mean we were able to confirm arrangements for next week’s trip – I have invited them to my house for lunch, and then to visit Thame, hopefully to give them a more personal, less metropolitan view of England.

There were some organisational difficulties.  Hamed in particular has problems to deal with; he was understandably upset having just received a text message informing him he had to wait outside his hotel with two bags, in order to be moved somewhere else – he has no idea where.  And the phone number given was not answered.  So he has ignored it, not seeing it as an official document.  But who knows what will happen next?

That done, we warmed up with some silly exercise – they are quite happy to throw themselves into such things now – and then we split into three to work on some scenes based on reminiscence.  Sherwan and Aisha were great as a pair of old people jabbering away in some language or other (Aisha was amazed to discover how similar Baluchi was to Kurdish) and Aisha was great, really looking and sounding like an old grandmother.

Aisha and Sherwan

And I was with Ali.  He is a natural clown, but his control is so much better now, and we were able to devise really quite a sophisticated scene which jumped around in time.  If you are interested, there is a photo story version below.

Two old friends meet
…reminisce about the past
…about a robbery that went wrong…


…when one of them was arrested…
…and spent years in prison…
…and now never wants to see his old friend again



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Fortune-teller’s tools

In the hope that there might be enough people there to require their use, I put together a few simple props to rehearse with.  A small glass ball, a pack of cards, and a teacup – to represent three of the objects used by the fortune tellers in the story – as well as a blanket.  The fact that two key characters in the particular scene were missing meant we couldn’t actually use them, but still, it wasn’t a waste of time bringing them.  The ones who were there – Hamid, Sherwan, and Jaime – were intrigued to see them, and they also provoked a short English lesson, when I told them they were called props in the language of theatre, and of course they used their phones to check, and there was a brief discussion on the difference props in the theatre and props, or supports, in real life.  Not that theatre isn’t real life, but you know what I mean.  Anyway.

We warmed up with some physical work on characterisation, changing body shapes and the like, using animal ideas, all of which they took to well.

It did mean we could concentrate on the second half of the story, when Youssef, the traveller in the story, meets a succession of people all offering him wonderful opportunities.  Youssef (Sherwan) was there,  and so we spent some time on his encounters with the Old man (Hamid), and the Priest (Jaime), both of which came along nicely.  Sherwan, who lacked confidence at first, is really starting to grow as an actor (though he can still get dreadful giggles.)

And towards the end, we had a new arrival.  My apologies, for I cannot remember her name, but she is a young Iranian girl, here with her mother; inevitably, contacts of Hamid.  She has been here just one month, and speaks very little English, but she watched what little there was remaining with interest.  And so that she would be involved, we played Zip Zap Boing at the end, which she picked up fast.  And said (via Hamid) that she was keen to return, though she spoke no English.  Which was, of course, of no consequence at all, or so I reassured her.

Follow the leader

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After the excitement of the Day of Action, it was back to normal: the regular class at the hotel.  A respectable showing of five regulars – Ali, Hamed, Aisha, Sherwan, and Abdulaziz, plus Diana, a Russian lady who had been once before.  Jaime did make an appearance, but only outside the window, strolling along with his headphones on, oblivious to the world.

I played some copying games as a warm-up, leading onto guess who the leader is.  A family of games, which I had completely forgotten about; I have been teaching Drama for most of my life, but some of the exercises come and go.  Something to do with my aging memory, I suppose.  We then took a quick look at the idea of dislocation, playing about with space, so that, for example, two people having an argument are both turned towards the audience.  It is a relatively sophisticated technique, but they seemed to grasp it quickly.

Hamed and Sherwan demonstrating the technique

We then took another look at the opening section of The Story of Destiny, rehearsing it in greater detail, and making improvements as a result.  I have been somewhat despairing of ever moving the piece on… or any piece, for that matter, but there did seem to be a genuine desire to make some progress.  Two sessions a week are not going to work, I feel, but they do seem to want longer rehearsals, so that we can make greater progress, and there is something in that.