Bowing out

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Director’s notes from the programme for “The Chalk Circle”, written in English, Greek and Farsi:

When I first arrived at Gekko Kids, my project being to put on a stage production, I was introduced to a couple of the students as a teacher of theatre.  “Please,” one of them said, “what is theatre?”  I realised then that there was quite a journey ahead for all of us.

For the first few weeks, we played games, learned some physical theatre techniques, and had fun.  The students got to know me, and I got to know them.  More students came, and some left – not everyone had space on their timetable, not all could commit to regular rehearsals.  But gradually, we built a team.  And then we began to rehearse.

It was slow going at first, changing the script written in English into Farsi, so that everyone understood what they had to say.  But slowly the play was cast, the lines learnt, and we began to act, to put movement and meaning to the words.

In my years of teaching, I have directed hundreds of productions.  I have always – nearly always – been proud of my actors.  But this time it is different.  I am very proud of them as actors, but more than that I am proud of them as people.  Each one of them is braver than I could ever be, has lived through more than I could ever imagine.  They are strong; they will thrive.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with them, and I am proud to call them my friends.

One more time

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James and Iman

One of the aspects which has contributed greatly to the success of the production, but which I have not given sufficient credit to until now, is the music.  There has been a pair of musicians for the performances, playing live on the gallery overlooking the playing area: James, the musical director, accordion player, and occasional trumpeter for the fanfares (and also senior gardener at the Ecohub) and his friend Iman, the guitar teacher from the School of Peace.  Live music is such an important component of live theatre, and many have commented on how much they have added to the whole experience.

First of all, the theme of journey has been a major way in which the play has echoed the actors’ own experience, and this has been enhanced by the theme James has used each time Grusha has continued her walk, a haunting theme that I now find difficult to get out of my head.  Secondly, (though it has taken some time to get this right) the tension at key moments – Grusha defending Michael by attacking the soldier, crossing the bridge, and the two occasions at the plays’ climax when the child is pulled from the circle – all have the drama heightened by the rising low chords of the accordion.  Finally, the play ends with a dance, with the iconic Zorba tune accompanying the initial traditional Greek circle steps, which, as it becomes faster and faster, transforms into an exuberant Afghan celebration, which has the whole audience clapping along.  Originally, of course, this was picked out on a bouzouki, but I think I now prefer the accordion version.

This was our final performance, the extra one brought about by, as they say, public demand. As is so often the case, it did not reach the near perfection of the penultimate show – I will have to stop predicting this in my final pep talk, for maybe my warning against it is the very thing which brings it about.  It was, nonetheless, a strong performance and much appreciated by its audience.  I think that each audience has “got” the story, and enjoyed both the theatricality of the telling, and the real skill of the people telling it, while there is no doubt that the cast have been infected by the magic of theatre.  I just have to hope that the school can find some way for it to continue.  Whether or not that happens, all of the participants will have what I promised them at the start,  a memory which will last them all their lives.

Points of view

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Shafiqha: “Last night we had a performance at Gekko X.  We performed The Chalk Circle at 8.00 p.m.  It was perfect!!

In the beginning we were nervous, but when we started, everything was great.  The actors spoke loudly clearly and with feeling.  When the old man Salman said lies everybody laughed.  In the play two old people wanted a divorce and the judge granted them one.

My favourite part of the play was when I reserved a room in the hotel.  I spoke loudly and angrily because the innkeeper told me and my friend, “we don’t have any rooms.”  Then we had to go to the dirty stable where the animals lived.  I held my nose and I waved my hand.  I liked this part because I got to be a long time on the stage.”

Chris: Arriving at the venue as usual, with just over an hour to go to curtain-up, I noticed a problem: the lid of the trunk – in our production, the Queen’s trunk, which she rummages through to choose the best dresses to take with her and then the ‘baby’ gets left behind in – had come adrift.  This was an old, rickety thing, the first prop I had noticed in the Gekko X store room (and actually belonging to the Flying Seagulls, a travelling theatre group, famous throughout the refugee hotspots.)  Luckily, we had the right person there to fix it: Andrew, a director of Better Days, who had first cut his teeth in refugee assistance being a dab hand at fixing tent-zips – a truly wonderful skill, and vital in that world.

It took him some time to find the required bits and pieces from the chaos that the store-room had degenerated into, but after that, he said the job was easy enough.  I would not agree, seeing as he had to work in a narrow corridor, with performers constantly stepping over and around him.  Many a man would have exploded at such a point; he carried on, until the job was done.

Val: I was on duty backstage. Which you can see from the video clips doesn’t appear like any backstage I’ve ever come across before. Standing there, you can clearly see and hear everything happening on stage, but the audience can’t see you!

My job – to help make sure everyone had the right props and cue entrances. But I was redundant, if anything I was in the way, because the kids have got it all sewn up. Ali in particular, stands in the middle of backstage, orchestrating everything; not that the performers need telling, but he adds just that extra crispness that keeps each scene flowing from one to another. In the many, many productions I’ve helped with, I have never known such an organised, focused and professional bunch – no messing around, no whispering or giggling, no showing-off. Magnificent.

Andrew had been worried when he put the curtain up, that it would be too flimsy (and admittedly, it might not stand the test of a day-time performance), but last night, from my point of view I agree with Shafiqha, it was perfect!

Tonight’s the night

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Azdak and Prime Minister

The final rehearsal this afternoon was focused on the most difficult scene in the play, and the one that had caused most problems during last night’s dress rehearsal: the trial scene.  Partly we needed to try hard for a rigorous adherence to the text, which seems obvious but is not as easy as it sounds, all the more so since much of it is delivered in Farsi; I have to take it on trust that they are saying what is written on the page.  But that was largely a mechanical exercise in collective memory.  Far more important is the business of ensuring that each and every person on stage – and that is the whole cast – is reacting and responding physically at every moment.  And by the end they got it, they really did.  All they had to do now was reproduce that in the glare and pressure of performance.

And that was a performance in front of, as it turned out, a packed house (though, in typically Greek fashion, it didn’t look like that would happen with five minutes to spare.)  I introduced the play with Zerefiah, stage manager turned Azdak, who ten days before had not even been in the company, at my side.  She had had five days to learn the role, and it was she who had the task of keeping that final trial scene on track.  I was proud to be standing next to her, while we explained in English and Farsi that photos were forbidden, that we should use our ears, eyes and memory instead, and that Isaq Ali had been sent to Athens five days previously.  I wished her luck, and we began.

It was great.  The cast did themselves proud, remembering nearly everything we had worked on, talked about.  The trial scene was terrific, the dance exuberant, and the audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering.  

But almost as wonderful was the post-performance.  After they took their final bow, rather than have the cast do the traditional thing of retreating backstage, they stepped forward and fell into the arms of their teachers, friends, supporters, children(!).  Even a parent or two, though I remain unsure how that squares with the idea of unaccompanied minors.  The whole room was full of joy, and it was twenty minutes before we could get people to leave.  And yes, I allowed myself the pleasure and indulgence of bathing in all that love.

Run and run through

I flew in late on Saturday night, already acclimatised to the hot weather after the recent UK heatwave. My role this week in Mytilini is to organise costumes for the performance. In theory, it should have been just ‘organising’ as Chris had pulled together most of them from the local Chinese shop, the Women’s Centre and a local tailor. Plus I arrived (bizarrely distinct from my fellow Thomas Cook package holiday-makers) with a suitcase of shawls, scarves and old shirts (a few quick snips to cut off the collar produces a peasant shirt, remove the sleeves and you have a country jerkin). Oh and also (how many times have I seen it on stage as teacher or preacher?) Chris’s black graduation gown.

Perfect. Well not quite perfect, as unfortunately, the costumes from the Women’s Centre were far from production ready, so together with two volunteer English teachers, Pam and Ciara, we set about hand-sewing the soldier’s tabards. I am no seamstress (as my school needlework teacher regularly reminded me), but I am quite good at pulling together easily donned/shed character costumes that will stand the test of a week’s production run.

The costumes are relatively simple – black trousers/skirts and t-shirt (the latter showing Jaime’s fist/circle logo) as a base. Each character then dons a shawl, shirt, scarf, apron, jerkin, tabard or whatever to signify their character. It’s amazing how costumes lift not only the audience’s perception of a play, but also give the performer confidence and the finishing touch to their characterisation. An old peasant man comes to life in a raggedy jerkin, a servant girl is easily recognisable in an apron. With the production mostly spoken in Farsi interspersed with bits of English, it will be important the (predominantly?) English/Greek speaking audience understand who’s who. Predictably, the kids pushed back strongly on wearing the unfashionable trousers (‘no, you can’t wear your designer ripped jeans onstage’), but they soon acquiesced. I’m impressed with the professional attitude they have taken towards the performance – it was a good dress rehearsal run through.

The second run is of a completely different nature. I’m training, along with our eldest Lucy, for the Great North Run (half-marathon) in just over a months’ time. This is a crucial time, building up distance week-by-week, my current target being 14km. Which just happens to be the return distance to the airport along the shore of the Med from the apartment.

Greece wakes up quite late, so early morning in Mytilini is a very different experience to the usual hustle of Ermou or the harbour front. Heading out of town, I spent the first 2km passing a multitude of street cleaners (mostly well-dressed young women, in ordinary day clothes), plus a couple of men strimming weeds growing out of the pavement cracks. Past the marina, taking care over kerbs, around and under trees, I felt the heat as I climbed over the hill to the road along the coast. At regular intervals, there were small groups of people in sleeping bags on the beach or in the back of their cars, hatch-back open for air, their children already up playing on the stony beach or riding their bicycles (I’m guessing possibly Roma people). Plus a handful of fellow joggers, all enjoying the view over the perfectly calm sea.

Both run and run through have provided a very satisfying start to my week in Lesvos. A feeling of achievement and anticipation for myself (running) and for the kids (performing).

Bring me laughter

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As I have not mentioned it for some weeks, I may have left the impression that the Comedy workshops at Mosaik have ground to a halt.  Far from it: the lesson has run each Friday afternoon, even though there were occasions when it did not seem likely.  Afghan time is much like Greek time in its lack of punctuality, but people drifted in, and each week I ended up with at least a dozen, most of them being regulars, including a couple from Gekko.

Today I had even more than average, fifteen or so, including four or five kids who wandered in and out, taking part as and when they felt like it.  As there were quite a few new faces, I felt entitled to recycle some old material, mostly involving some mime.  We started with a ball, and they all got a lot of fun throwing the one invisible ball around among ourselves, especially when it grew larger and larger with every throw.

Miming a door, and showing the room beyond, was the next stage, and that in turn led on to the physical theatre notion of people acting as things: doors again at first, but then a shower, a TV, and then a group acting out a person using various things in a room (with my usual twist of the things coming alive to intimidate their owner.)  There was plenty of laughter, even though we never got close to my initial idea of working towards a performance.

We finished the session with a little bit of gentle satire, all based around mobile phones, but with the twist (© A Marsden-Smedley, Stowe School A-level Drama class, 2016) of using real apples instead of phones (geddit?)  We had people comparing types of apple-phone, social occasions where everyone was staring at their apple, people colliding because they were checking their apple and not looking where they were going.  For comparison, we even had an old-fashioned landline, ie a banana.

I am pretty sure they have gained something from the class, beyond having a good laugh (though that is an end in itself.)  We even had quite a discussion (in Farsi, so the finer points escaped me) about how drama is all about building confidence, no matter what the situation.  Though I am not so naïve as to ignore the fact that the offer of a pair of bus tickets for each participant also played its part.

The promised land

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The statue of liberty at the harbour entrance in Mytilini

I had been wondering what topic to focus upon for today’s post, and then the answer popped straight into my lap… though not really in a good way. I was conducting a rather chaotic rehearsal, guided by who happened to be there, and called upon Isaq, playing the part of Azdak, to give a cue.  He is normally the most attentive and reliable of actors, but on this occasion was on his phone.  And clearly he was not to be disturbed, waving away any attempt to gain his attention.  When the call finished he was in a state of manic excitement – “I have to go!” – and rushed around the room shaking hands.  I assumed it was some temporary emergency; it was only when he thrust his script into my hands that the reality dawned, swiftly confirmed by others: Isaq was off to Athens, leaving within the hour.  Azdak was gone.  The storyteller was gone.

It did call for a rapid re-think. Zarifeh, my newly-acquired stage manager, offered to step into the breach, but this was a big ask.  The alternative was me, but this would torpedo my desire to have the play acted in Farsi and English.  The solution struck: Zarifeh would take over Azdak – an important role, but only appearing in the final scenes.  And I would be the storyteller, who only speaks in English. 

Iqbal, who plays the soldier in the play, was unexpectedly at the rehearsal, as his interview about his future had taken place that morning.  He too was receiving a series of phone calls, and after each one I was expecting that he would tell me that he too was on his way.  Luckily (for me) and unluckily (for him) no such news came.  Not yet, at any rate: it does seem that people are on the move, so nothing is certain.

Isaq had clearly been very excited about his move to Athens, a place he saw as the promised land, but it is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it is another step in his journey, and moving forward off the island makes it less likely that he will be sent back.  On the other, there will be less support; there is nothing like Gekko available for him there, much less chance to continue his education.  But it is an important step.  In many ways, the person I feel most sorry for is Pam, one of the American volunteers, who has spent hour after hour helping him with his lines, coaching, coaxing, encouraging, listening; she had so looked forward to seeing him on stage.  He won’t have anyone like her in Athens.

Oh, and a new Michael turned up today, the best yet.  Yippee!

Drawing to a close

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The drawing at the heart of the poster for the play is by Matin, who plays a number of roles in the play.  He is one of a number of capable artists in the school, and though there is no art as part of the regular curriculum, it is offered whenever there is a volunteer with the requisite skills (Jaime is one such at present).  In addition, those who show a particular aptitude are sent for lessons at a local school for art in the town, with a scholarship.

With just one week to go, some cracks are starting to appear.  As well as a certain fading of energy (perfectly normal in the rehearsal process at this stage), there are particular problems appearing which are specific to working with refugee children.  One of the cast has apparently left to go to Athens.  I have heard such rumours before, but this time it does appear to be accurate.  She only has a couple of small roles, so they can be covered, but she is also the sister of our most recent Michael, and he has gone with her.  We spent about half an hour coaching him through his part last week, coaxing some life out of his initial woodenness, and now that has to be done again with another young and inexperienced actor.  Never mind; I knew that was a potential problem, and moving to Athens is a positive step for both of them.

But today three others told me of news which will prevent them from rehearsing tomorrow.  Iqbal, my soldier, has an interview in connection with his status, and he seems more worried that he might be sent back than excited about the possibility of moving on; one can only hope for the best for him.  Only in the case of Fatima and Amina, two sisters who play the Queen and a couple of villains, is the news an unqualified blessing, as their mother is coming from Germany to see them, the first time in five years apart.  I have been telling them all that the play will be a positive, memorable experience for them, but it pales into insignificance in comparison.

The Circle game

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It was just as well that I bought a packet of coloured chalks ahead of time, rather than as a last minute purchase.  As the title of the play suggests, chalk is quite important for the iconic final scene, so it came as quite a shock, when I tried it out, to discover that the polished floor tiles of GekkoX would not take chalk at all.  The Permanent Black Marker Circle did not have quite the same ring (no pun intended) and might in any case have ended up as just a bit too permanent.  But a circle of some kind there had to be.

But constraint is the mother of creativity, as they say (I’m not sure they do, actually, but I think I’ve heard something of the kind.)  I needed something that would show up well, but which could be dropped onto the floor.  It occurred to me that the day-glo orange material of a life jacket might be just the thing, as well as having some symbolic resonance.  What was more, there was likely to be a ready-made supply very close: Mosaik operated a workshop, called Safe Passage, which turned old life-jackets into bags and purses of all kinds – surely they would have scraps of material.

And they did, bags and bags of the stuff, as well as plenty just lying about on the workshop floor.  I was quite prepared to pay for it, but they would have none of it, waving me away in a devil-may-care fashion.  All I had to do was cut the small scraps into even smaller scraps, and the problem was solved.  I just need to make sure the air-con in Gekko X doesn’t blow it around and I have a symbolically relevant solution.  Better than chalk!

Rehearsals week 6

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Rehearsing with a stand-in Michael

Three big developments this week.  The first you already know about – the dance which finishes the show.  Not exactly the cast’s favourite rehearsal activity, and I do know how they feel, having that same sense of utter helplessness myself, but it has to be done. In fact, we tried to squeeze in another short rehearsal at the end of Wednesday’s rehearsal, but them being tired made it even harder. We shall persevere. 

Wednesday brought the arrival of young Michael, the boy playing the human Christmas cracker which concludes the story.  His name is Sajad, and he is the younger brother of one of the cast.  He had learnt his lines, which was very sweet, but at first he was as wooden as Pinocchio.  Hardly surprising when, like the rest of the cast, he had never acted before, but after a fair bit of coaching, he was getting the hang of it – “I’m a real boy!”

Even more important in lots of ways, it seems as though I have got a good stage manager.  Zarifeh speaks excellent English, and also appears to be very well organised; immediately, she proved to be a great help.  Like the other capable and talented students at Gekko, she is much in demand, but I think she could prove to be the final – and vital – piece in the puzzle.

On Thursday it took a while for people to arrive – and, worryingly, one boy is missing quite a few rehearsals – but once we were there (and the cast discovered there was no dance today) things started to come together promisingly.  We went from the very beginning, and, while there have been some strong individual moments already, they were now starting to tie them together.  I know that my belief in the production swings wildly, depending upon how the last rehearsal went, but it is good to end the week with some real optimism.