Wolf!

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“Where’s the wolf?” “I don’t know.”

I am hoping that today marks something of a change with the group; more specifically, a step-up.  To some extent, it is because of chance.  Last Thursday, I was on my way to the session in London when I was caught up in dreadful traffic on the M40 – the road was completely closed, I was sat in stationary vehicles, and even when we did start moving again, all the cars were diverted onto the tiny roads of Buckinghamshire, with yet more delay and chaos.  So in the end, I gave up, emailed my apologies, and went home.

However, not wanting to miss the class altogether, I rearranged it for the following Monday, which also gave me the opportunity to arrive a little early, call in at the Advanced English class  – held in a Community Centre in Wembley – and give the class a bit of a plug.  Robin, the teacher there, knew I was coming, and was most welcoming – he even came to the class himself. Along with a good number of his students.  There was some mild administrative panic, arranging for those at the class who weren’t resident at the hotel still to be allowed to come, but with some frantic last-minute emailing, that was arranged.

And so, the class.  About 20 of us, in total.  Started with Grandma’s footsteps, to introduce the idea of tension involved in Dramatic irony (the audience knowing something the characters cannot see) and then inviting the class to work in pairs on variations of this idea.  Quite a subtle concept, and I was concerned that it might prove too sophisticated, but I need not have worried – just about every scene was varied and with terrific dramatic power.  The woman who spotted the man approaching her by seeing him in her make-up mirror.  The man who called softly to the office-worker from the doorway, but she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) respond, so he went away – almost tragic.  The couple reunited after a long wait.  The mother with her sleepy, grumpy child. The man making the audience complicit by holding his finger to his lips. And several others, each one with something to note and praise.

And then we went back to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  The few of us who had worked on it during the previous session first showed what we had done, and then we involved the rest of the class as villagers.  It was mildly chaotic, but hugely enjoyable.  And came to a conclusion with the Wolf (Luis from El Salvador) utilising the idea of approaching from behind to create tension.

I think that very nearly everyone had a good time; there was lots of laughter, as well as real appreciation of each other’s contributions.  All I have to hope now is that people keep coming.

First shoots?

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The office scene

Only a small group today, just the six of us.  And I had been cautioned that numbers might be down, because Ramadan had begun.  But, for the first time, all five were people who had been before.  This was partly down to the success of the WhatsApp group I have set up, in reminding people it was on, but they still don’t need to come if they don’t want.  Even more encouraging, from a personal point of view, is that I know everyone’s name.  Seeing it written down helps to fix it in my memory.

The stimulus for the class was “doors”.  We did a little bit of mime work on door opening, but then used that to springboard into them coming up with their own ideas.  We do an awful lot of the old drama lesson staple of: be given a starting point, discuss it, rehearse it, perform it, working in small groups, but actually it works very well.  They enjoy watching each other perform, and, rather than the potential vicious circle of a negative reaction to a performance leading to a loss of confidence, the opposite happens – they can see others appreciating their work, and their confidence grows.

What is starting to happen is that, rather than just going through acting exercises, they are starting to originate and create short scenes.  Which show real dramatic flair.  One of the reasons I love what I do is that, when it goes well, I spend so much of my time being enormously entertained.  And when the participants are just starting to see what is possible, and show a great sense of comedy, I get to laugh as well.

One incident in particular: we had been working on using a door to open a scene – somebody comes in, confronts the person who is in the room, about… whatever they like.  One group, Jaime and Aisha, were just about to start their performance when another young man, Amani, joined the class.  I was encouraging him to sit and watch the performance when Jaime took charge, had a quick word of explanation, and then instantly included him in the scene.  Which was, incidentally, about Jaime entering, berating Aisha for her sloppy work, comparing her with the model employee Amani (duly typing away in a suitably diligent manner) and then finally firing her.  All great.

Slightly awkward finish to the sessions when, coffee and cake being provided, I was reminded it was Ramadan, so only Jaime and I could participate (though Ali took some cake for later.)

Sl-o-o-ow motion

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Sam, Sherwan and Rabar

While the numbers do seem to be shrinking, week by week, it is also the case that there is starting to form something of a reliable group.  Though even in that respect, nothing is certain.  Eishe is the one reliable young woman, attending three of the sessions, but she came early to tell me she would not be able to be there today.  She is volunteering at some sort of community centre, and told me she was tired, and then gave some other excuses.  But it was nice that she felt the need to see me first.

Other regulars who came today were Ali, a large Sudanese man (though his story is rather more complicated than that; he seems to have spent a lot of time in Nigeria.)  He is quite the natural clown, with a real stage presence, but, like so many, his English is weak, which makes it difficult to communicate with him.  Jaime comes from El Salvador, and his grasp of English is a little better; he too has a good presence on stage.

As for the others, as is normal, I had a small group of people I had not seen before.  More often than not, such groups come from the same, or neighbouring, countries – a couple of weeks ago, there was a group of Eritreans; today, their counterparts were from Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan – not natural allies, but I suppose their circumstances have pushed them together.  They seemed to enjoy the lesson, and improved as it went on, but if they are the same as their predecessors, I probably won’t see them again.

But at least this week I did not have people leaving the session; most weeks, one or two (or more) leave at some point.  I try not to allow this to de-rail me.  They have every right to leave if they choose; nor do I know the reason.  It might be because they are not enjoying what we are doing, but it might also be for something entirely unrelated.

As for the subject matter, I am less and less concerned about creating some sort of progressive syllabus.  The people are always random, some having been before, others not, but all at different stages, and having encountered different ideas and skills.  We had a look at tableaux, also some work on slow motion, which is always entertaining (and always creates the spectacle of people walking with left arm and leg in sync, same for right – more like a clumsy puppet.)

But I have managed to obtain a list of names and phone numbers, so a WhatsApp group is the next aim.

Mime and more

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Our group today (missing one)

And so, for the first time, I was able to run a session just one week on (as promised) from the one before.  Now came the time to discover whether there could be any continuity.  And on that basis, it did at first seem like a complete failure. For at 2.00 I was entirely on my own.  I can be patient in such circumstances (if I am brutally honest, there is even a hint of relief that I will not be called upon) so waited, but at 2.30, when there was still no-one else there, I was just packing my stuff and departing to leave when Ali, one of the stars of last week’s session, breezed in.  I was mildly huffy at what I saw as his unpunctuality, but then others drifted in too.  It would appear there had been some confusion about the time, with a large board advertising the class at… 2.30.

In fact, there were nine of us altogether: three from last week, two I had met before at other sessions, and four complete newcomers.  There was the usual haphazard start as people arrived, but this is something I am getting more used to.  And we had our first cross-cultural issue with a game of “zip, zap, boing”, with a Syrian married couple somewhat unnerved by using the word “zip” (similar to a Syrian swear word.)  I had met the same issue in Lebanon, but we were able to move past this relatively smoothly.

The pattern has become to demonstrate (or refresh) a particular Drama technique, and then to get the various pairs to use that in a scene.  Or not, if my powers of communication are not sufficient to get the point across.  We introduced using the idea of a rope, and all seemed happy, but when we shared the results of their own devisings, there were very few ropes in evidence.  Not that it mattered.

It is tricky.  I use mime a good deal in such work, for it moves away from the inevitable problems of expressing themselves in English, but mime has its own particular difficulties, and is scarcely intuitive.  But it does mean that we can all watch, and appreciate, each other’s efforts.  And we have some natural performers.  And others whose confidence builds even during one session.  When one considers (as I am sure is the case) that their exposure to this sort of creative work is so limited, it is very heartening.  And if it means they get out of their rooms for a while, so much the better.

Our final scene was to use an old device of mine (aren’t they all?!): two people annoying each other on a bench, and using increasingly violent – and absurd – means to attack each other.  I demonstrated the approach with Ali, much to the amusement of all present. 

And so, onwards.  Sorted out the time issue with hotel management – they were most apologetic – so hope we can move on smoothly next week.  Onwards and upwards.

…and again

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My space in the Holiday Inn

And we start again, only this time with a four-week gap since the last session.  Impossible on that basis to build any sort of continuity, but I live in hope that things will soon improve, provided I get the chance to have two lessons on consecutive weeks… that would be nice.

Quite the UN this time around, with nine nationalities spread over about fifteen people – Iran, Libya, Eritre, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, El Salvador and Baluchistan (Aisha the only young woman there, assured me that it was indeed a separate country, even though illegally occupied by Pakistan.)  The time-keeping was also a little better, presumably because the new poster makes a pount of emphasising this, in several languages.

With an almost entirely new group, I was able to re-cycle some material I’d used before.  Correction – just about all my material I have used before, many times, but in this case it means from the last two sessions.  So we played zip zap boing once again, and they all got it pretty quickly, seemed to enjoy it too.  And then on to mime, demonstrating and practising various techniques, and then using each one in a scene of their own devising.  Encouragingly, there was much laughter – they seemed to enjoy watching each other perform, and there were some natural clowns.  I did need to re-inforce the self-discipline involved in watching without interfering, but that happens with every group – the convention of paying attention to the performers is neither natural nor obvious, and there are many examples when a boisterous interaction between performer and audience is absolutely the norm.  But in this case I am trying to build confidence – that they have understood what is required of them, that they have their own contribution, when for many theatre is a largely unfamiliar art-form, that they can survive the scrutiny of their fellow-residents – and so giving them time and space, without interruption or distraction, is important.

But, as with the other two sessions, it was clear that definite progress was being made.  Let us have hope that, this time, it can be built on.  Roll on next week.

But apologies for the photo, once again devoid of people.  It is my own fault; I took my camera, but did not think to use it until everyone had gone.  Mind you, there is a clear distrust of cameras; when one appeared during the first session, half the class hid.

We begin… again

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Holiday Inn, Wembley

Lesson number two took place three weeks after the first, two separate outbreaks of Covid causing its cancellation in the intervening weeks.  Though actually the word “outbreak” is to overstate the situation; from what I understand, if any of the refugees housed in the hotel test positive, they are confined to their rooms.  Which is, of course, fair enough.  However, although the rest of the residents are allowed to come and go as normal, the Home Office has decreed that no-one else is allowed in to the hotel.  Which includes Care 4 Calais.  And me.  And, presumably, anyone else who would normally be there to provide guidance, assistance, etc.  It may be the result of an over-abundance of caution, but does seem to indicate a less than positive relationship.

Having undertaken the journey already, I was far more comfortable about that side of things, and I even arrived an hour later than on the previous occasion… while still giving myself plenty of time to spare.  I was invited to sit in the admin office, where I was able to observe the staff in something of a state of flux, with Ali, the manager who had been so supportive, being replaced by a new man – I have no idea if there is anything behind this.  But I was introduced to his successor, and he was polite and friendly, saying thank you to me (though heaven knows, I have done little as yet.)  He told me he was also called Mohammed – presumably his predecessor was Mohammed Ali.  Hm.

Partly because the management team was busy, I was pretty much ignored, but at ten to two, I suggested I should go to the room I had taught in before, and arriving there, discovered it completely empty, meaning I had to spend some time bringing in chairs from the vast dining room next door.  And then I waited for people to arrive.

At 2 0’clock, no-one had turned up, and I was beginning to resign myself to a complete no-show.  But then, ten minutes late or so, three Eritrean guys turned up.  And then Balan, the Sri Lankan gentleman I had met before.  And then, gradually, a few more trickled in as the session progressed.  And some of them trickled out again, presumably deciding that what I was offering was not for them.  Or because they had other things to do.  Or were receiving a phone call.  Who knows?

The lesson itself was based on basic mime techniques, involving an imaginary ball, and then a variety of drinking vessels, which lead on to creating very basic story-lines around this.  I even tried out something a little more complex: the magic object, in which the (mimed) object changes as it passes from person to person.  And, with a few minutes still available, I tried out a first go at “zip, zap, boing”, my favourite Drama game, which they picked up remarkably quickly.

Of course, they struggled, but this was hardly surprising.  Only two had been before: Balan, and an elderly lady from Pakistan, who spoke only Urdu, whose sole contribution was to wave her hand in front of her face and say “No English.”  And pretty much everyone was trying to get to terms with an alien concept, delivered in a language of which they had limited understanding.  These are, however, early days, and there were three in particular of whom I have high hopes… unsurprisingly, the ones with the best English.  They are Balan, a young Syrian man called Ibrahim, and a Turkish lady called (I think) Mahaini, who is, she tells me, a Drama and English teacher.  If they can be persuaded to keep coming, we might get somewhere.

We begin!

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The first task, even before turning up for my first session, was to try to drum up some enthusiasm.  I sent Matilda some suitably enthusiastic text, and a couple of photos, and she created a poster, which would then be distributed throughout the hotel.  I recall that that approach had not proved particularly successful when we had attempted to offer a similar course at Mosaik, in Lesbos, but there did not appear to be an alternative.

As our opening approached, I was a little nervous, not having taught any Drama for quite a while (even two years ago in Ioannina, I had never really had the chance to do any practical work.)  But actually, I tend to be like that before every lesson; it is only when I begin that all of that drops away.  And in fact, my initial concern was more about the logistics of getting to the right place at the right time that worried me…   Looking back, once again, at my blog for Ioannina, there it was the mechanics of making my way to Thessalonika that concerned me most; comparatively speaking, Wembley ought to be a doddle.

I gave myself plenty of time, and arrived at Wembley ridiculously early, even with the problem of making my way to the Holiday Inn – easily seen, less easily approached.  It is an enormous hotel, and given over entirely to housing refugees – I suppose, on reflection, that it would not really be possible to operate for both refugees and regular guests at the same time.  The main entrance was blocked off, with just a small door to enter, manned by a security guard. 

Being early caused me no problems; I made myself known to the management, was shown the space where the class would take place, asked for the chairs to be arranged in a circle, and then sat down and read.

The lesson itself went much as I had anticipated.  People drifted in for about 20 minutes at the start, meaning I had to start over a couple of times.   I had begun with some name games, to warm people up, and for me to grab a name or two, but actually these were less than successful, in either respect.  Things were much improved when we moved on to some actual drama activities, though of the most basic kind.  We worked on various uses of stillness: learning to freeze, creating statues, and then more elaborate tableaux.

Observation one: language is more of a problem than I thought it might be.  Despite many of the participants having been in the UK for a while, their English is weak.  I have encountered this before, in Lebanon and Lesbos, but in both those cases all the participants spoke the same language, and it was possible to have an interpreter, or at least the weaker helping the stronger.  Here, there were several languages, and some people had no-one who could help them.

Two: there was quite an interruption when one of the hotel employees arrived to take a couple of photos, presumably as a record of one of the activities on offer.  This caused chaos, with half the class more or less hiding around the corner.  One imagines they have concerns that such a photo, if published, would have unpleasant consequences.  It seems a little unlikely to me, but what do I know.

I was not expecting too much.  But we had begun, and for virtually everyone there, it was their first experience of anything of this kind, and as they were adults, they were rather more wary.  And by the end, those that were left – we did lose a few, as some wandered away – seemed to have enjoyed it.  That, at least, is my hope.