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Tag Archive | "culture"

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An Indian summer: relocating Shakespeare

Posted on 29 October 2012 by Anna Braybrooke

Directors are constantly trying to surprise us with innovative settings for Shakespeare: Hamlet in a bouncy castle, Othello in a pub, The Tempest in a barn and Macbeth in a prison, to name but a few. The message? Shakespeare’s themes might be timeless, but to stay relevant you have to be prepared to mix them up. Choosing an unexpected venue or an unusual setting for his writing can fall flat, but a change of scene can be brilliantly successful in illuminating a play. Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing has done just that for audiences this summer, transporting its characters into the midst of high summer in India to create an RSC production with a distinctly Asian flavour.

The decision to set the action in India was about far more than just adding some exotic window dressing. Anjana Vasan, part of the ensemble cast, explains why it makes perfect sense for the play’s themes: “There are some strange things that happen in the text that don’t really work in a Western context that urgently any more, like the whole storyline of how Hero is shamed in marriage and the question of chastity. But in India those themes of honour and chastity are very much important and immediate. Those kinds of contradictions exist in India, the tensions between old and new.”

Changing the setting meant gaining a slightly different audience too. Aysha Kala, who plays Watch, has been delighted to see how many people from an Indian background are coming to the show. “They get things that other people wouldn’t get about the culture and language.” And of course, “It’s nice that people who aren’t Asian are loving it and loving the fact that they feel like they’re in India”, she says.

Performing in London meant a change of routine for the tight-knit company, who all live together when they are in Stratford. Vasan remarks: “I think it’s rare when you get a company that gets along so well.”

The actors’ strong relationships have also been fostered by the play’s director. The cast includes both established industry professionals – including the doyenne of British-Asian entertainment, Meera Syal – and people just starting out in their theatre careers. But it seems that Khan created an atmosphere of equality from the very beginning of the process. Vasan confirms this: “From day one I felt like I never had to be anyone but myself.” Most of the company was required at nearly all the rehearsals, even the ones that solely involved the lead characters: “We would input and our suggestions were taken on board.”

“He [Khan] works in a very organic way,” Vasan continues, “he creates a really good ensemble energy and I think that’s what really comes across in the play: that it’s a story where even the smallest characters have a lot to do and are active in the narrative.” The result is a play that’s been enormous fun for the cast, and hopefully for audiences as well, with – as Kala puts it – such “high energy throughout the whole thing, it is just like a constant party.”

Much Ado About Nothing was performed on tour and in London as part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. For more about the RSC and its current and forthcoming productions, visit www.rsc.org.uk.

Image credit: RSC

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Filskit Blog: Theatre Olympics

Posted on 13 September 2012 by Filskit Theatre

It’s hard to believe that the Olympic and Paralympic games have come to an end. I am the first to admit that I was sceptical about the whole event, and living in southeast London, spent a lot of my time on the run up convinced that I would not be able to leave my flat for the crowds of tourists. But even I miss the air of buzz and excitement that has surrounded us this summer.

One thing that has struck me about London 2012 is how it has succeeded in inspiring people to take up sport. Working in primary schools, I have definitely seen the effect – the children are sport mad and some of them have abandoned drama club in favour of taking up netball or hockey. The BBC news were even asking for people to get in touch with their stories of oversubscribed sports clubs and waiting lists. The big job now, I guess, is sustainability – keeping these clubs going now that the main event is over.

Here at Filskit, our minds have been whirring since our R and D project, and we can’t help but wonder how those of us in the performing arts industry can create a similar effect (on a much smaller scale of course). Over the summer we’ve been lucky enough to visit and work in different venues and catch up with some of our friends and mentors in the industry. On more than one occasion the topic of engaging with a local community or new audiences has been raised.

Of course the job of bringing in the local community or engaging with new audiences is bound to sit mainly with arts venues. They are solid buildings, present at all times, a constant factor within a certain area, whereas touring companies come and go, sometimes only the once. What we’re interested in is how visiting companies can inspire people to get through the theatre door and put their bum on that seat.

We don’t currently have an answer for this. But going back to the Olympics, what was it that inspired people to take up sport? I believe it’s seeing something spectacular, watching people who are at the top of their game achieve something amazing and thinking that you can try it yourself and you might be amazing too. That would work for us anyway.

With our new show for children, The Feather Catcher, we are hoping to create not just one show that can hop in and out of venues, but a whole network of events. As the performance is for ages 3+, we have planned an interactive story time that can go to nurseries or preschools, and we also have plans for a family friendly post- or pre- show workshop. We are also thinking carefully about branching out into a new area for us: Autism Friendly performances. This is by no means new territory in the theatre world, with venues such as Polka Theatre offering Autism Friendly versions of their in house productions. For us, as with the idea of creating work for children, this is an area that we have always felt strongly about but never considered we would be able to do, until we were approached at a sharing of our work.

By expanding the theatrical experience for children we want them to see theatre and the arts as something more than passive entertainment – something they participate and invest in, just as they do in sport. True, it will be difficult to replicate the superstar status of Chris Hoy and Ellie Simmonds, but contact with the performers and those who create the arts could still ignite an passion that could last a lifetime.

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre are an all-female ensemble with a passion for micro-projection. The company, Sarah Gee, Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson, have been making work together since 2008. As graduates of the European Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford they were brought together by their shared love of projection and cake.

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Funding the arts: How young people are doing it for themselves

Posted on 12 September 2012 by Dana Segal

With endless Twitter hashtags about cabinet reshuffles, Arts Council funding and the first £9,000-a-year university students entering their academic and artistic lives, you’re probably feeling really inspired, right? Oh sorry, I meant disheartened.

It’s easy to believe that as young producers, collaborators and artists, we have truly lost the battle with the arts industry: that we are at a cultural deficit far greater than we can even imagine to reverse in our lifetimes. However, in my opinion, when asked: “What is the biggest issue facing young people in the arts today?” Quite frankly, it’s the fact that people are talking about it. This “issue”.

Maybe there are no issues. Maybe there is nothing wrong. Maybe we’re forgetting that there will always be issues to overcome and those who recognise them are those that surpass them. I don’t know a single actor, artist or musician who goes on stage or sits in front of a canvas or a drum kit and due to the force of government legislation can’t utter their lines or pick up their brush or drumsticks. Young people are still creating so much art and due to the digitalised age they are broadcasting their creations across the world. Even more so to our credit, in response to our culture, we are developing artistic forms beyond those traditionally recognised.

The sad truth is that the Arts Council have cut £100 million pounds worth of funding, so whilst it’s wonderful that we are doing our best to create, fund and most importantly develop artistic work, so much less is readily availiable for us to utilise. But through this sadness? Well, we’ve been doing OK. Young people understand how to subsidise their projects better than  anyone. They raise money the old fashioned way – cake sales, car washes, shining shoes (OK, maybe not that old fashioned) – combine that with platforms for crowd funding and the vast opportunities on offer by organisations like IdeasTap and TalentHouse, and you have the beginnings of a project.

Don’t forget, these people will become the future investors and  fundraisers of the arts industry. Not all projects get off the ground or find the funding, but that’s how it should be and was, even in times of prosperity. Although art is for everyone, it is statistically impossible for every piece or show or song to be artistically brilliant – but those who deserve eventually get, through sheer determination and patience far greater than I have ever had. It’s all well and good to nod our heads and accept that ideal, but it should never be a case of eventually!

Dear Government: doing OK on our own is not a good enough excuse not to support us. How many young people do you know go through the fiddly, mind-numbing, jargon-ridden process of filling out ACE funding forms to produce a show? I don’t know any, and I know a lot of young people. In fact, no one is readily taught the process of even applying for funding; it’s as though discouraging applications will keep you from feeling guilty about denying many projects funding. The few young projects that manage to squeeze some funding out of the ACE through local authorities suffer now from regional cuts. You are creating fewer and fewer opportunities for young people when all we are doing is our best to create them for ourselves.

The media doesn’t really bother celebrating the successes of self-funded projects because it’s too busy telling us about the latest cut or closure. Particularly to those affecting Youth & Education arts programmes. Too often is it felt by parents, education officials and young people themselves that there is nothing to do, nothing available for young people. It’s just not true. Actually, since the recession there have been so many arts organisations that have gone above and beyond to create and develop opportunities for young people who can’t even afford a bus ticket, let alone a £9,000 a year university course. Big and small institutions, digital spaces and charities – so many opportunities that are there for the taking.

It’s not the responsibility of these arts institutions to tell young people to pull their finger out and demand them to take part – if they don’t make the effort, it’s their loss. However, it is your responsibility to make those opportunities clearly aware and available to every young person from every type of background, and be there with the right answers and tools when a curious young person wants to learn how to play piano, create a show, or run an event. Creating a social capital and network of young artists and producers is key to reviving the “issues” surrounding us.

I am boycotting the recession, I am boycotting the idea of an issue and instead making a different one: when the young artists, musicians and theatre makers of our generation finally grow and become the heart of the British cultural industry, how on earth am I going to decide what show to go to each night? A much more optimistic and aspirational issue facing the young artists of 2012.

Image by Howard Lake

Dana Segal

Dana Segal

Dana is the Youth Engagement Officer at The Roundhouse in London. She runs a small local theatre company called Organised Crime, and reviews theatre.

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Seizing history with RSC’s Julius Caesar

Posted on 31 August 2012 by Annie Gouk

The Royal Shakespeare Company is renowned for its innovative re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s work, and this summer they have taken on one of the Bard’s greatest political plays, Julius Caesar. Actor Jude Owusu, playing the part of Cinna the poet in the play, tells us more.

Focusing on the true events of Roman history, Julius Caesar is a gripping tale of conspiracy and assassination; friendship and betrayal. While the RSC have stayed true to these themes, the company has also added a twist. “This particular adaptation is set in Africa,” Owusu explains. While giving a fresh perspective on the classic, this setting highlights the political issues we face today: “If you look back at the history of Africa it’s littered with despotic kings, people that cling onto power for a bit too long – there’s the classic case of Mugabe in the Middle East and at the moment you have the problems in Syria and the Arab Spring – all these different things just seem to make the play so relevant and so necessary”.

However, while the concerns of the play are reflected in modern African politics, Owusu argues, “I don’t particularly think it was meant to make a political point, because you could set Julius Caesar anywhere that’s had a conflict and it would just be incredibly apt”. Instead, the decision to set the play in Africa has other influences. “I think one of the main reasons behind it was that Greg Doran, the director of the piece, is a massive fan of Nelson Mandela”. Owusu shares a story that he and the other actors were told in rehearsals: “The complete works of Shakespeare were smuggled in to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and all of the different prisoners highlighted a passage that was really poignant to them and that really inspired them, and under Nelson Mandela’s name he’d signed a passage from Julius Caesar where Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their death, The valiant never taste of death but once”. So it’s from that inspiration that Doran really wanted to set the play in Africa”. As well as this, “a lot of Africans find Julius Caesar to be their African Shakespeare play – of all the collection of his works, it’s the one that most Africans really find tangible and they can really relate it to their lives”.

One of the ways in which the audience is transported to Africa is through the live music incorporated into the production. “The music is a massive part of the whole piece, it gives a real sense of Africa. The group is called The Vibes of March, which is a play on words of the “Ides of March” Caesar is warned about. They play loads of original African instruments – they’ve even got an unexploded bomb shell they use as an instrument as well. So there’s just a wonderful soundscape created”. The use of a bomb shell again evokes the conflicts Africa faces, not to mention the giant statue that dominates the set. For Owusu, “it reminds me whenever I see it of – do you remember the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled? It’s kind of similar to that. It’s a statue of Caesar, and during Brutus’s moment when he’s revisited by the ghost of Caesar, the statue collapses”. Nothing quite screams tyrannous dictator like a giant statue of yourself. As well as this, the costumes try and give a sense of modern African fashion, as well as issues of class. “I think the aim behind the costumes was to give a sense of the different hierarchies within the country. So you’ve got the likes of Caesar wearing very smart African suits, which are actually kind of half-western suits, and for the plebeians you’ve got just normal, functioning African attire, so they’ve taken into consideration the heat and humidity of Africa”.

While these contrivances of clothes and music strive to bring Africa to the theatre, the production also features an all-black cast. “That’s not to say there aren’t any white people in locations in Africa – but in terms of African hierarchy, government and things like that, I think it is predominantly black, and in Julius Caesar there are a lot of senate scenes”. For Owusu, who would hesitate to see a play purely on the basis that it had a cast of one particular group, this casting can definitely be seen to have positive effects. “As a black person and as a young black actor, I do think there is some merit and some worth in having productions that show the audience a representation of themselves, because I think that’s what inevitably inspires somebody. If you inspire someone it’s not someone who’s a superhuman doing something incredible, it’s inspiring because it’s somebody like you, somebody similar to you doing something extraordinary, and that’s what encourages and inspires. So say if you had an all female version of Julius Caesar, on the one hand it could be wonderful because it would inspire loads of young girls to go ‘wow, that person’s just like me, I’d like to do something like this’”. Despite this, Owusu maintains that the colour of the actors’ skin is not relevant to the art of theatre. “I don’t think it’s an issue at all, I mean I don’t ever go and watch a Chekhov play and go ‘oh my god, that was an all white cast’ – it doesn’t really matter, it’s just what it is”.

Another way in which the RSC has breathed new life into Julius Caesar is in its use of volunteer actors for the chorus during the play’s run in Stratford-upon-Avon. “They were fantastic!” enthuses Owusu, who feels they not only invigorated the play, but also the professional actors they were working alongside. “It was marvellous to have them there because there were so many of them, and they gave a real sense of vibrancy. Their energy reminded the actors that what they’re doing is a great job. Sometimes when you’re doing your dream it feels like a job, and to see their enthusiasm and their love of working with the RSC was just inspiring, and I think it rubbed off on everyone else”. Unfortunately, the company won’t be able to use volunteers while performing in London. “I think it was down to the space of the theatre, we just couldn’t fit them on the stage. And I think it was something to do with Equity as well – you’d have to pay all of them money to be on the stage and I don’t think that was in the budget”.

While the London volunteers may not be able to live their dream of performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, for Owusu this dream has become a reality. Fresh on the scene, having graduated just two years ago, this is Osuwu’s first time performing with the company, and so far he has been thrilled with the experience. “It can be a little nerve-wracking working with these people, but actually the higher up you go the fewer egos there are. Everyone’s been so professional, and it’s been fantastic”. In his first part with the company, he plays the small but significant role of Cinna the poet. “Cinna the poet is a wonderful character. He leaves his house because he has a dream, and in his dream he’s having dinner with Caesar. He turns to the audience and says ‘but that dream is slightly twisted, it doesn’t feel right. I have no reason why I’m even outside here, but there’s this thing that’s leading me forth outside my house’, and it’s that curiosity that he has that unfortunately leads him into the mob who then kill him”.

While his character dies within a short number of lines, Owusu argues that “it’s a beautiful piece because just in the scene before that, Mark Anthony has turned the mob around using speech, the power of rhetoric, and Shakespeare ironically in the following scene allows the mob to murder a man of words, a man who uses speech”. Like the rest of the play, the scene with Cinna the poet reverberates with modern concerns, both political and day-to-day. “I remember watching the London riots, and there was this one image of this guy on a bike who was attacked. He actually had nothing to do with the riots, he was just minding his own business, and there was this immediacy of ‘it could be anything it could be anyone’, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time”. It’s through imagery such as this that we realise how relevant Shakespeare still is in our time – a relevancy that the RSC brings to the fore in this production.

Julius Caesar plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15th September and then tours the UK until the end of October, visiting cities including Norwich, Salford and Cardiff. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar.

Image credit: RSC

Annie Gouk

Annie Gouk

Annie, 20, is in her third year studying English Literature at Lancaster University. Also the features editor for the university newspaper, SCAN, her interest in journalism is matched by a passion for theatre. Luckily for her, a module in Shakespeare means the chance to see regular performances, while writing for AYT combines her two loves.

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