Saturday, 1 February 2014

My Last Day in Arabia

I'm home now, after ten days in the United Arab Emirates - after an invitation to speak at an International Theatre Festival in Fujairah.


1) Flying over Iraq at night - the air crystal clear - the desert is dotted with beacons of fire: oil wells. 
2) Flying over the Gulf of Arabia at night - offshore from Kuwait - the sea is dotted with little warm dots of yellow light - dozens and dozens of them. Supertankers.

3) The United Arab Emirates is a rich place. I imagine i'm in Rome at the height of the Empire. Citizenship is everything. To many citizens comes a life of leisure: the Emirates all have citizen housing programs which gift HOUSES to their people. Health care is free. There is no income tax. The perfect streets and highways are dotted with luxury automobiles - especially giant, gleaming SUVs. Citizens are defined by ethnicity, and only make up between 15% to 20% of the population (one can marry into citizenship - but this is rare). Men mostly wear long flowing white or tan-coloured robes, women mostly wear some combination of black robes and Western dress - but this is a country where other forms of dress are comfortably tolerated.
4) The people i meet and talk with the most are foreign workers - over 80% of the population. These are people from indonesia, sri lanka, asia, africa, iran, bangladesh, india, afghanistan and pakistan. They are there to work. They serve food, build roads and buildings, drive cars, clean houses, do basically anything and everything. They have little to no hope of becoming citizens. At 65, they will be asked to leave the country.
5) Dubai is clean and vertical and there doesn't seem to be a lot to do. There are fancy malls, exquisite skyscrapers (the Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building - both impressive and lovely), and a plethora of luxury automobiles, beaches and gardens - all rising out of what was, just 20 years ago, mostly desert.
6) The Emirate of Fujairah - my destination - is a two hour drive from Dubai across the desert. It is the only Emirate with a port on the Gulf of Oman, rather than the Arabian Gulf. As a result - enormous pipelines are being built across the UAE to bring oil from Kuwait and Abu Dhabi to market via Fujairah's ports - avoiding the Straight of Hormuz, which is narrow, and vulnerable to closure from Iran. There is no oil in the ground in Fujairah - but there is plenty of oil in metal containers above ground - more than is imaginable. It is from this that this Emirate's wealth stems.
7) I begin to realize in a new way what power oil bestows on our planet to those who control it. 

But I'm here for Theatre:

1) The Fujairah International Monodrama festival has invited guests from across the world - the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa, Europe, Asia, South Asia and North America. I'm in Fujairah to speak on a panel about the future of theatre. All of our expenses are taken care of by the Festival - a level of generosity that is staggering.

2) The opening ceremony takes place in a 1400 seat, open air venue on the beach - a beautifully-built wooden structure modelled after the emirati ships of yore. It costs close to 1 million dollars to build. It is used once. It is torn down the next day.

3) I see shows from across the Arab World, and a few from international companies. The festival is for Solo Theatre - what is here (and in many parts of Europe) called Monodrama. The quality varies widely - and i gain an impression that curation for this festival is in its infancy - but the experience is eye-opening. I learn more about how varied the arab world is (i see shows from Kuwait, Tunisia, Algeria, UAE, Oman and Sudan). I see at least four really good shows (from Tunisia, South Africa, Algeria and Japan), and i meet some artists and presenters from distant lands whom i really like. Some of these connections will, i think, prove to be enduring. This is, for me, the most important outcome.

4) Unlike any other international festival i've ever been to - there is little to do when not in the theatre. There are only 2 shows a day (in two theatres in the town of Dibba - a 20 minute drive away), and we are all staying in a string of resort beach hotels in the middle of, well, nowhere. There is no city or town within walking distance. There is nothing to do but sit on the beach, or by the pool (or blog). Of all the other non-theatre guests - the language i hear most is Russian.

5) I notice the absence of women from panels about theatre, but the presence of women on the stage - an interesting contrast. The solo theatre form seems to open up a political space for arab women - or at least a space from which to speak.

6) A question begins to form in my mind: who is this festival for? There is no box office. No general public comes to see the shows - only guests of the festival.  But there are cameras everywhere. Everything is documented. A glossy brochure is produced daily detailing the previous day's shows. Each performance is more like a photo call than an opening. Theatre artists have never been so photographed. Is this all an enormous photo op? Will this further theatre in the Arab World in general, or UAE in particular? I am aware that i don't have the key with which to read what's happening around me.

My experience in Fujairah is settling into my memory in a surreal way. I have been to many international festivals on four continents, and not a single one compares. For one thing - most festivals take place in large cities, rather than in remote desert resorts. And most societies are structured in ways unlike the Emirates - where the Citizen exists in a stratum far above the enormous work force. I'm not in Kansas anymore.

And yet, and yet. I warm to the Emirati sense of humour - the men (i meet only one woman citizen, and, sadly, have no in-depth conversation with her) are quite lovely, relaxed and warm. The culture is looser than i had imagined - people arrive late, appointments are missed, it's not too big a deal. I learn and learn and learn. I speak with peers from China and Korea and Slovenia and Germany and France and Algeria and Sweden and Tunisia and Greece and Luxembourg and Lithuania and Ukraine. I learn about their points of view - their work - their sensibilities - their struggles at home. It is a rich experience.

My Last Day:

1) I speak with Constance, from Cameroon. She works the front desk at the hotel i stay at. She is a singer who hasn't sung for two years. She feels trapped in Fujairah - "Dead in Fujairah", she says, with a smile - living and working in an isolated beach resort, with no chance to further her singing. She dreams of moving to Europe, of finding a way to make music - even if only part-time. But the market in UAE is for Arabic singers,  she has a good job, and it is hard for Africans to move around this world. 
2) I speak with a Nigerian man who checks out towels by the pools. He has applied to emigrate to Canada four times, and has been turned down every time. He feels he owes a debt to himself, to his family, to his future - and that neither Nigeria nor the UAE can provide him with a real future. 

3) I make a brief appearance at the closing banquet for the festival. Rock concert lighting. Speeches. Hundreds of guests. I sit next to a Ukrainian theatre artist, and talk with him about what he is about to go home to. I ask if he will join the protests in the streets. "Of course," he says. He is a large, gentle, sweet man. He tells me about a production of Anouilh's The Lark (about Joan of Arc) his company did during the Orange Revolution. He is lit as if from within as he talks. He tells me the story of a show performed in rooms that were being used by the opposition to organize revolt - with protesters asleep on the floor - with chaos all around - and yet with a crowd slowly gathering to watch Joan of Arc, to listen to what she had to say about self-sacrifice for a cause. The performance ended with the entire room chanting "Long Live Ukraine." He smiles - simultaneously sad and ecstatic. Like Joan of Arc in the teddy bear body of a Ukrainian artist. As i write this, i think about the different worlds the two of us are returning to. My eyes fill with tears for him, thinking of the images from Kiev now filling the internet.
4) I speak with a Tunisian theatre artist - Meher Awachri - whose show is one of my favourites. He is the person i've chatted perhaps most with here. We agree we want to work together on something. It is this thing that happens when i travel. I meet artists from radically different backgrounds, and, without any effort really, we find ourselves talking deeply, easily. Something clicks. The Tunisian speaks about this too - how important it has become for him to acknowledge this ease of communication - and how this ease is the essential ingredient for collaboration. 

5) My drive to the airport in Dubai is 50 minutes late - but i have learned in ten short days to have asked for the car an hour earlier than i needed to. I begin the 24 hour trip back to winter - a nine hour time difference and a forty degree change in temperature between Dubai and Toronto. I'm happy to have come. I'm happy to be going home.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Five More....

over the next three days there are five more shows, and the panel i speak on. First, the shows:

1) Diary of a Madman, from Kuwait

One of the more innovative of the arab shows we've seen, so far. Again - no surtitles or translation, so it's impossible to judge how well the Gogol was adapted. The actor is lit onstage by black-clad technicians who move with him, shining mobile light sources on both him, and the many props scattered around the darkened stage. each shift in character is accompanied by a shift in light. It contributes to a film noir feel - and seems quite effective. it is also one of the only pieces we see that uses humour - which is a welcome change. again - i wish i could understand the text.

2) Life as a Dream: Salvador Dali (Russian Stage Theatre, in Germany)

The less said about this the better. Amateurish. Painful. How this managed to find a place at an international festival is puzzling - especially given how much very good german and/or russian work there is in the world. Curation seems to be uneven here.

3) The Law of Gravity, from Tunisia

Amazing. As my compadre from Slovenia (AD of the Maribor Festival), Alja Predan says, this is the first modern actor we've seen here - someone at home with a complex physical stage language that is not naturalistic. Meher Awachri, from Tunisia, acts a show about a construction worker in Tunis, with text masterfully written by Awachri, based on verbatim sources (Awachri is also the director).

Awachri's physicality is astonishing - non-naturalisitc physically-demanding work coupled with a beautiful, poetic text (and there are SURTITLES!). This is the piece that won the first prize at the Kiel Festival in Germany last year - and deserves to travel widely. It is a brilliant and haunting journey into the world of the labourer in Tunisia - a world of pride, and skill, and degradation.

This is one of my favourites. I speak extensively with Awachri in the days to follow, and hear about the theatre in Tunis - how difficult it is to find space, or a way into the wider world if you are part of the younger, more experimental generation. The trouble of translation is also something we spend time on. He talks about how it is a different show for the surtitle reader than for the Tunisian - that the language tricks he is using, the humour and the clich├ęs he plays with are all missed by an audience that has to read. it's as if there are two shows, and he is constantly refining the more minimalist English version for the sake of travel. he is a major talent, methinks.

4) Miss Julie, from Sweden

A post-dramatic-live-video-cameras-on-stage piece. the woman performer - Anna Pettersson - takes on all the parts of the Strindberg herself with precision. But its reason-for-being is unclear. There is a feminist question posed near the very end - why should Julie be the one to pay with her life - not the man? it's a good question - but it doesn't seem to inform the work that has preceded. without a carefully constructed political journey, this kind of self-conscious, high-tech theatre can too-easily seem simply derivative - an exercise in trickery - rather than a deep political questioning of how society is organized. a missed opportunity.

5) Human Form 1, from Japan, via Germany

Wow. This is a dance/theatre piece heavily informed by Butoh. The performer - Minako Seki, from Japan, now based in Germany - is virtuosic. As we enter, a white clad, bug-like figure is seated at a small white table. The costume is terrific. Think: Elton John in concert meets The Fly, by David Cronenberg. There is an endlessly looping minimalist soundtrack - part buzzing, part electronic music.

The piece is demanding of its audience. It is excrutiatingly slowly paced - it takes forever for Seki to evolve in her movements from an insect like creature (with a physical vocab that is part pop-and-lock, and part Butoh) to an anguished, utterly raw soul - with an entirely different movement vocabulary (jagged and chaotic and full of abandon and risk).  There are many walk outs during the first 20 to 30 minutes. I fight boredom. But i have seen this notion of elongated stage time before from Japan, and the performer is clearly accomplished, so i struggle to stay with it. Then, at some hard-to-define point, it happens: i find myself leaning forward, and am soon utterly captured by the piece. 

There is something in this kind of slow set-up, this playing with boredom, and minimal movement - that allows a very deep entanglement with the piece later on. By the time Seki is downstage, perhaps 70 minutes later, after evolving finally to a point of writhing and howling - i am completely inside the artwork. Emotions stream across her face - as if all of human experience is being conducted through her to us. I don't think these words can remotely capture the feeling of being in the audience, nor do i think this piece would be possible without a long, painfully boring (to the Western eye) section at its beginning. It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, but for me, it is masterful work.

The Panel

Finally, a little about the panel i speak on. Once again, women's voices are absent (in this case - there are NO women on the panel - just 6 men, from 6 different countries).

The title is: "What's Left of Theatre (New Realities, New Trends)". Having learned from the panel a few days before, we collectively resolve to be brief! We all stick to speeches that are 7-8 minutes long.


Some highlights:

Savas Patsilidas, from Greece, gives perhaps the more scholarly paper of the group. One of the points he makes is that with the rise of the Internet age, he perceives a shift in emphasis in our Globalised societies from the source of meaning, to the reception of meaning. Target is more central than source.

Hans-Georg Knopp from Germany (now based in Shanghai) speaks of the kind of experimentation being done by Rimini Protokol, where non-performer civilians and new technologies are used on stage. As an example, he speaks of the piece Rimini did in Vancouver with some game designers and a memorable crossing guard.

Then it's my turn. I speak of three revolutions i see happening around me:

1) A Revolution in the understanding of the Human Brain - this is based on the work of Scottish neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. Essentially - Western post-industrial society has favoured Left Brain ascendency, and this has led to all kinds of problems (link for more info here: Our world is becoming increasingly schizophrenic due to this phenomenon (the rise of extreme points of view, simplistic thinking, adherence to dogma regardless of evidence, etc.). Art - which is a Right Brain activity - can offer a way to re-balance the brain. The need for complexity in our discourse and reengagement of Right brain function is of tremendous importance, i would argue, to our survival. Theatre is especially well-suited, as a form, to complex expression.
2) A Revolution in Who is Making Theatre - In Toronto, the rise of a generation of theatre makers that is multicultural is good news - leading to a hybrid, many-voiced, complex platform.
3) A Revolution in Theatrical Space - site-specific work / headphone work / virtual reality goggle work / one-on-one performance / storefront theatre / placing non-performers together with performers on stage / etc. what constitutes a theatrical space has been exploded.

William Sun Huizhu, from the Shanghai Theatre Academy and one of the editors of The Drama Review, points out that he is the only non-Westerner on the panel, and, as such, offers a different perspective. In Shanghai, he speaks of three active considerations in how theatre should evolve, if it is to remain vibrant: The Avant Garde, Tradition and Community. All three must be paid attention to. The wholesale introduction of Western techniques does not work - since current Western practice is itself built on, and deeply connected to, Western tradition. If one's society does not have this same tradition, one cannot simply adopt new techniques and hope to see them take root.

There is  a telling moment from our moderator, Dr. Habib, in response to William's talk about theatre practice and the ideal role for government (in non-Western cultures). He says, "Because you mention the Emirati Government, i cannot talk about this at all!". He laughs. Hmmm.

The New Zealander on the panel, Anatoly Frusin, speaks of how - as theatre goes forward - the ability to transgress must be protected.

Finally, Englishman Colin Watkeys brings us home with a passionate defense of solo theatre, and the necessity for the intimate relationship it engenders between the performer and the audience - and the essential engagement of the imagination that is at the core of theatre.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

A Road Trip to Dubai

on friday - the muslim day of rest - i set off for dubai with two trusty companions. they are Lovisa Bjorkman, from the Swedish International Theatre Institute in Stockholm, and Meher Awachri, a writer and performer from Tunis. They are excellent company (Meher's headscarf below is a joke - he borrowed it from a 16 year old white kid - our hostess's son - and upon seeing his reflection said, "Man - i look ARAB!")

we've been invited to visit a friend of mine from a thousand years ago - Jill Rosenberg. Jill and i trained in musical theatre together (seriously) at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the 80s. She's now married with a family, and living in Dubai, and has been kind enough to be our hostess for the day.

we are picked up by Shan - a driver from India, who has been in UAE for many years. we set out across the desert. it takes about 2 hours. we speak about theatre and religion and the modern world. like one does in a car full of such varied people in the desert. and then we see the science fiction city rising up along the coast.

it is good to escape the resort hotel dynamic, and go somewhere else. and dubai is definitely somewhere else.

jill is a great host. she and her husband john (another Canadian) have a beautiful house. 

jill and her teenage son agree to be our tour guides, and we set out. our first stop is the beach, where bikinis and burkas exist side by side.

we, of course, go to the mall. dubai seems to exist for shopping, and the dubai mall is enormous and shiny and packed with shoppers. there is also a GIANT aquarium - complete with sharks, and an olympic sized ice rink. for the canadian nationalists in the crowd, there's a tim horton's AND a second cup. 


the Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building - is immediately outside and is both impressive and beautiful. we don't go up, because it is sold out (and costs a lot anyway). so we take some photos, and have some lunch.

after lunch we head over to a district called the Creek - where there is much shipping/trade with points east. here we see the port culture in full swing - with labourers moving around on water taxis, and many iterations of the Dhow style of boat building. we wandered around a market maze packed with Indians and Pakistanis and Afghans selling t-shirts and dishes and carpets and electronics, etc etc. there is also a replica area where some old buildings have been reproduced.

finally, we meet up with Jill's husband and some friends (an architect from the USA and an interior designer from Iran) have a drink on the 24th floor of something tall, with an amazing view out into the gulf.

it's a fun day.

The overall impression of Dubai is newness.  The building is all new. The city is spotless (they replace the flowers along the highways frequently to always have different colours). And there doesn't seem to be much to do, other than shop and drive and be fabulous (if you are emirati) or work (if you are a foreign labourer). i have never been in a place quite like it.

and then we journey back across the desert to fujairah, and the monodrama festival we have ducked out of for the day...