Inside/Outside/In – Post 6: Final Words

I have been posting about my theatre workshops in the refugee centre, the history of the site, along with verbatim interviews. I have found this month to be an exciting creative launchpad and a chance to engage with different people who move within the space. Now, as my month draws to a close, I would like to discuss how my research might feed into either a live performance or an audio performance tour within the space. How might I invite the wider public to engage with the history and current use of the site, using drama?

In my third workshop at the refugee centre, I asked a group member to read aloud some verbatim material recorded during an interview with another refugee (who is not part of the theatre group):

The journey takes hours. I look out of the window and nothing is next to us, just clouds and sky. I still remember my first day in London. I felt like I was in a new country, new place, new people, new weather. Everything was different. In a good way although it was too cold. I miss the sunshine, the food. I miss Bondu, it is a special vegetable dish. My mom was cooking for me every day. Every day I was just eating. I used to study marketing in Congo. In London I feel like it is home. I find new friends and family. When I say family I mean close friends. The culture is different that’s the main thing. The way they are doing. The way they are acting.

While this material was read aloud, the group physically acted out the story together, jointly expressing their culture shock on arrival in the UK.  Again, we were re-enacting the stories that emerge within the space on a daily basis and validating them through our shared activity. The participant’s willingness to engage in this work and their regular attendance at my classes, leads me to think that devising a full performance in the church space for an invited audience would be both a manageable and beneficial experience.

Indeed, the church itself, with its multiple objects and decorations, greatly provokes my imagination. Could we create a character out of the Jean Cocteau fresco in the Lady Chapel? Could the statue of Mary on the balcony, cut in half and smuggled out of France during World War Two, be viewed as a refugee of sorts? These furnishings are already part of another story, brought to life daily through sacraments and a revered liturgy. Would it be appropriate to stage refugee stories in this space? The site owners would understandably wish there to be some focus on the current, sacred nature of the space. Would my theatre group, made up of people of different religious backgrounds be comfortable working in this way?

I could stage my presentation in the balcony, a slightly removed location, which could be more spiritually neutral. Another idea could be to use the front steps of the church, although this could jeopardise my ability to reenact the panorama. Would the refugees be able to fully ‘take the space’ if they had to perform outside it? Would this setting not reinforce their exclusion? This location could, in fact, add another political dimension to the piece by sending a message that refugees continue to be on the outside of society looking in. A liminal locale on the threshold of the building could be the perfect place to stage the crossing of borders. Perhaps, I could incorporate the opening and closing of the picturesque metal gate through a stylised dance sequence? This dark entrance space, however, like the balcony, presents practical hurdles. How would we rehearse if people need to access the church? Would passers-by be invited to watch? Would we engage with the homeless people who sleep in the church during the day? Members of the public only come into a theatre space during the performance and, usually, in exchange for money. In this case, people are almost perpetually here, whether praying or sleeping. Would we ask them to leave or invite them to watch?

A site might provide exciting characters and spatial backdrops, which trigger creativity and provide rich material to mine from. Site-specificity can, however, also greatly affect a writer’s freedom; a site’s non-theatrical functions make it impossible to divorce direction and stage-management from the writing process. Interviewing, excavating, writing and directing may struggle for precedence within a short time frame, resulting in a competition between form and content. Architectural opportunities affect the architecture of the story, which, in turn, depends on the material gained through interviews.

These interlinking dependencies can make it difficult to progress with writing. When working with documentary material, fascinating ideas may come bubbling up, but they need to be placed under a particular denominator, whether the actors, the space or the story; one needs an organising idea upon which to build. It is also best to separate work into manageable stages. When working with a site, it is not always possible to bring one’s vision to life as originally planned. Being clear about the message one is trying to communicate with space-owners, before investing energy, is crucial. When writing a straight text, one has the freedom to build an imagined world that may play out in multiple different spaces. With site-specific work, the site itself becomes a character, which asserts its own authority and is far less malleable. With human sources it is possible to discard interview rushes. With a site, the practical and ethical ramifications of the space cannot usually be cut or edited: the space serves other, non-theatrical purposes, which need to be continually factored in. Moreover, a site-specific piece cannot be lifted and reinserted elsewhere; its identity is wrapped up in the space. It is, therefore, vital to consider the ethical and practical baggage beforehand and be realistic about whether this correlates with one’s vision.

A performance could be staged on the roof of the church, an exciting platform within the cityscape, which could seat a large, private audience and would not automatically prompt a religious message. I believe this liminal roof space, like the steps, could add a deeper spatial-political dimension to my piece. The refugees could still peer into the church through the windows and describe the panorama, highlighting their continued social exclusion.

Alternatively, my research into the panorama might fuel a poetry audio tour of the church, perhaps a more appropriate dramatic form within a sacred space. When writing work specifically tailored to a site, audio poetry walks can also be a way of generating ongoing artistic value in a way that a live project cannot. This walk could incorporate the history of the building, recordings of the refugees singing and explain the religious elements of the space. It could even be a spiritual, archaeological treasure hunt communicated through poetry and prayer.

Meanwhile, performances can continue to take place in the refugee centre which adjoins the church. In fact, my theatre group is now preparing for our end-of-term showcase which will be performed for an internal audience in the refugee centre site. We will perform ‘Kembo’, ‘Shosha Loza’ and our other African songs. I hope this will draw in the wider community of refugees, staff and volunteers at the centre and engage them with our work as we continue to channel our migration experiences through song and dance to animate the stories that unfold daily in the site.

Should you wish to learn more about the work of Notre Dame Refugee Centre, you can visit this website.

 

 

Inside/Outside/In – Post 5

Interview with a regular parishioner of Notre Dame de France:

  1. When did you first come to the church?

End of August 1964. On my way to London, from Mauritius, I passed through Rome,which was getting ready for the final Session of VATICAN II. I had the rare privilege of visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Gardens, under the guidance of the secretary of my friend Juan Vasquez, who had been appointed as one of the lay auditors of the Council

  1. When did you first come to the refugee centre?

I joined the Notre Dame Refugee Centre, which had opened its doors in December 1997, in March 1999. I had retired from teaching the year before and and was looking for some work which would keep me busy and active. I had also retired from the national executive committee of Great Britain of the International Peace Movement ” PAX CHRISTI “, where I had been active for nearly 30 years. I am still a member : 50 years in 2018 !

  1. What does the building mean for you? 

The building, and the people living within its walls and periphery, means a lot to me, a kind of refuge from the problems I was meeting every now and then on questions of ‘racism’ and matters of ‘ Peace and Justice. Remember the sixties, when there was an influx of Indian refugees from East Africa and people were talking of being overwhelmed by immigrants, i.e. Peter Griffiths in Smethwick and Enoch Powell’s “ River of Blood “ speech.

  1. How were you treated by the French community as a non-white person when you first arrived?

When talking of racism, I avoid using the word community, it is more a question of individuals. I would not know how to qualify the answer to my query from the Rector of Notre Dame, when I asked him about the existence or not  of a  Frech Catholic Action  movement called “ Action Catholique des Milieux Indépendants “. He acknowledged that such groups existed but were not for people like me . What about the answer of that black Mauritian to me when I suggested to him to join the Africa Centre where he would meet a lot of lovely people, that he felt insulted as he was not an African or felt part of these kind of people! So racism came from all sides and from where you least expected them!

But on the whole, the support and acceptance were very positive I felt I could confide in people such as Father Noblet, Father Bozon, Father Raabe and Father Le Crureur and always got the support and comforting words I needed.

If I have to mention or name people who were really close supporting comforting friends, they would be François and Denise Batisse and their children, Françoise Moore and her husband, John and children, Karine and Isabelle, and Chantal, Robert and children, Bernadette Rattigan. These were but a few of the many, many friends I had and they are only friends of the sixties and seventies. I will never forget them!

I also joined groups such as “ Centre de Walsingham “ made up mainly  of French Assistant/es and attended many conferences, concerts, theatre groups’ plays and retreats organised in cooperation with the French Protestant church.

We used to meet after the 10 o’clock mass at what is now the ‘Salle Yolanda Cantu’ and was then known as the ‘Centre Charles Péguy’. There were usually about 10 to 20 parishioners and their friends passing through London in the room. How I miss these ‘rencontres’ nowadays: the whole place have become so functional  due understandably to the growing activities of the church and lack of space. What a pity as so many solid and long-lasting friendships were made there !

The same feeling applies to the crypt, now a theatre but then a warm-hearted meeting place for the whole parish !

       5. How have things changed in terms of the racial diversity of the parish?

Before the departure of the Marists at the end of the eighties, the bulk of parishioners were French, with a very small, rather self-centred group of Mauritians.

When the Marists returned in the early nineties with a team made up of french-speaking English, Irish and American priests and one national from France, a real effort were made to include all francophone or francophile people and therefore the parish became more racially diversified.

It benefitted from this diverse influx both culturally and spiritually and both in richness and diversity. , with a predominance of more African -orientated activities, i.e. prayer groups, pentecostal ones and a fantastic African-dominated choir.

I wish however that there was at least one catholic action movement, based on the: “ SEE, JUDGE and ACT” of Cardinal Cardyjn of the ACTION CATHOLIQUE OUVTIERE.

      6. What is special about this space?

The round shape with the focus on the Altar with its near-centre position, following the Vatican Council emphasis on such a disposition for liturgical reasons and changes.

I also think that it is like the sun and its rays, it represents the church and its missionary attitude,  the church being like the sun and its activities the rays.

      7. If you could redesign one element of the building what would you do?

To have all the seating arrangements more altar orientated, instead of having the rows on the aisles facing bare walls.

A small wish that we get back the crypt from the Leicester Square theatre

Inside/Outside/In – Post 4

During my second practical workshop with the refugees, we began in a circle in the middle of the room and slowly began to raise our voices together and dance. We were familiar with the tunes and had in fact performed them for an internal audience at the refugee centre, earlier in the year during the spring. Let me reflect on that first song and dance session back in April, which was a moment of supreme shock for everyone. Up until then, our sessions had been highly structured and clearly led by me. I was using drama games I had learned during a Teaching Drama course and also my university training. Now, however, I felt the need to take a step back and let participants show me what they could do. ‘Let’s sing’ I said spontaneously. I then opened the floor to them.

I had previously often heard one of the ladies humming in the café and so asked her to kick us off. Her song, ‘Kembo’, seemed to be well- known, as they others were comfortable joining in, while the lady led the song and sung a second voice.  All of them chipped in at junctures to offer their own moves. I myself initiated a conga which was a very unifying moment. We stamped and sang loudly and without apology. A drama session is an ideal opportunity to temporarily break through some of the barriers the refugees may deal with in day-to-day life, particularly as they work through the necessary application processes to receive asylum. Here, they have a space to openly express themselves.

Most of the participants are Congolese. As a South African, this culture is, of course, different from my own, but not entirely alien. The refugees were, therefore, very surprised by my familiarity with African music. On the surface, I seem very English, as I moved to the UK at eleven. At heart, however, African rhythms are still deeply rooted. I taught them Shosha Loza, a Zulu song I had learned as a child. Before we began the theatre sessions, I had already been serving tea and coffee in the café for some months. I knew the clients but the drama group became a way for me to get to know the group more deeply, not through words but through movement and expressions of a shared African identity.

Now, having started the classes again after a long break over the summer and autumn, the singing and dancing is no longer a surprise for most of them but an expected pleasure at the end of each session. When we begin our final sing-song, visitors dropping in for the first time, continue to be surprised. The singing therefore becomes an initiation ceremony as we re-enact out group identity each week and welcome new people into the room. During our last session, a new lady actually arrived in the middle of the song. I consciously moved towards her, opened the door and invited the rest of the group to join me in welcoming her into the space. She was encouraged to take her coat off and join in with us immediately. The joy of this welcome perhaps transmitted the desires of the refugees to be welcomed here, in their new country of domicile. In this way, the song and dance becomes a way to express the needs of the group and a site of healing and unity.

So, how does this link to archaeology? Well, we have sung these songs countless times within the space. They are a means of voicing who we are, where we have come from and our links to our home countries. One Congolese man I interviewed said, he had learned to speak Eritrean here. The centre is a site for cross-cultural storytelling and linguistic exploration. By re-enacting our original song session back in May, over and over again each week, we regularly reinforce our group identity and individual validity within the space. We communicate, through song, the storytelling that is continually taking place. Click here to listen to an audio file from our last session.

We repeated the exercise from the previous week, waking up the space using our voices and bodies. This time, however, we incorporated the Congolese and Zulu songs into the exercise. I encouraged participants to invite the space into the communal activity, engaging with the different elements of the room, this time not by saying ‘hello’ but by singing. I believe this enabled the refugees to more consciously communicate with the room itself and perhaps subconsciously consider its role in framing and housing their experiences.

 

Inside/Outside In – Post 3

During our first practical workshop, we began to interact with the second floor room of the refugee centre. It is sometimes easy during theatre workshops to take the space for granted. Yet, this tangible terrain may provide a useful creative springboard with its own untapped potential. This is what I enjoy about site-specific work. It not only turns the space into an exotic location, but also uses it as a bold and necessary character in the drama. If participants begin to acknowledge that they are present within the workshop space and notice its tangibility and unique features, these can be welcomed and incorporated into the theatre-making process. During the workshop, I therefore aimed to encourage participants to take ownership of the refugee centre site and affirm their validity within it, through a dialogue with the spatial elements. This dialogue is a necessary one. Clients are in the refugee centre every week yet they do not always stop to consider the colour, texture or patterns around them. After interviewing some of them, it emerged that they had not really considered the facilities or layout. What really mattered to them was the people inside the space and the support they received there. It is their experiences within the site which animates it for them. During this session, I therefore wanted them to consider the particular physical elements of the space itself as the scenery of their day-to-day experiences and backdrop for their refugee stories, which they regularly share with staff and each other.

We began with a Tai Chi breathing exercise, raising our arms while inhaling and then exhaling with the sound ‘Mmmmaaaah’. I asked the participants to imagine that audience members were behind as well as in front of them and to stay still but try to aim their voices three hundred and sixty degrees around them. They were quite surprised at how this affected their breathing. One lady said she felt space opening up and she pointed at her lower back. We did this exercise together and experienced how our voices could hit different corners of the room. We also practiced directing these verbal reverberations to a particular object or point on the wall. This allowed us to open up a dialogue with different spatial elements. It is impossible for one’s eyes to turn corners but one’s voice can indeed do so when the intended target is clear in one’s mind, whether it be a table or another group member.

I then invited participants to explore the space by tapping and saying ‘hello’ as they made contact with the floor, walls, sockets, folded tables and chairs. In this way, they were able to wake up the room, using their bodies and their voices, which began to reverberate against the space. The next step was to rename the spatial features. Participants now moved around saying ‘Hello Moncillo!’ to the floor and ‘Hello Chezolet!’ to the cupboard as they spontaneously invented new tags and titles. It is interesting how existing linguistic sound patterns gave birth to new, imaginary words. When we began, only two ladies had arrived. One spoke only French: she had flown from the Congo just three weeks earlier. The other also spoke Italian: she had married an Italian and travelled to the UK via Italy. Neither spoke English. I, fortunately, speak Italian so was able to lead this part of the session in Italian while one of the ladies translated into French. We interacted with the space through a multi-lingual artistic process and referred to the floor in English, then Italian, then French. The constant need to translate slowed the workshop process down considerably, providing a reflective mood. This seemed to make participants more aware of the intercultural process that was taking place. It perhaps provided an artistic outlet to express the challenges faced by migrant communities trying to participate in social dialogue. It also manifested the struggles of other individuals in the host community, attempting to engage with new members of their environment, as represented by me, the workshop facilitator.  Indeed, the medium of theatre, through the performative relationship between actors and audience, is an ideal mode within which to enact a conversation between marginalised communities and the rest of society. This exercise mirrored the participants’ need for cultural conversation. Yet, the final, spontaneous creation of a new language also created a sense of unity and playfulness within the space, as we began to re-label the room with our own meanings and words. We were each inviting the rest of the group to discover the room in a new way and consider its objects afresh. This perhaps enabled us to explore the possibilities of positive intercultural communication.

We continued to turn to physical theatre as a means of expressing ourselves. This provided further liberation from linguistic boundaries and enabled us to engage in a “third culture” of corporeal interaction. I obviously had to be very cautious about opening up experiences of deep trauma and loss collectively, without the aid of a drama therapist present. Yet, in this case, I ascertained that both participants had received visas (through their husband and parents respectively) and had travelled legally to the UK. I also came to the UK legally aged eleven from South Africa. It therefore felt safe to explore our experiences within the rehearsal space, particularly as it was a contained group of three. I asked if they would be comfortable sharing their airport experiences, and they readily agreed. The Italian-speaker went first and described talking with an official, who had been surprised that she was married to an Italian. She re-enacted this exchange and invited us to participate physically in recreating the airport environment. This theatrical mode of telling her story clearly provided a sense of release for her, as having an avid audience ready to participate with her clearly gave added validity to her experiences. We then vivified my experience as a ten year pushing my three-year old sister in a pram through the airport in Johannesburg on route to London. My own migration helped me empathise to some extent with their transitions from the Congo to the UK. It seemed this shared background contributed to an ease within the rehearsal space, and I was transformed from a facilitator into a co-creator.

Finally, we re-enacted a scene from three weeks earlier, when the young Congolese girl had arrived at the airport in London to be greeted by her parents. She had not seen her mother in sixteen years and her father in ten. This was clearly a moment of great emotion and joy for her. She directed myself and the other participant to play her parents and told us to shout her name as she ran towards us. By bringing these stories to life within the shared rehearsal space, we fused our migration experiences. This kind of improvised re-enactment process could easily lead to devising a full play, based on collective experiences as we were able to knit together a common thread of shared stories. While we may not literally be telling our own story, we would be telling the collective story of migration which unites us all.

I aim to empower participants to tell their stories and affirm their presence and value within the refugee centre site. We have begun to engage with the space itself and explore how our voices and bodies can interact in novel, intuitive conversations with its elements. We have also begun to use the space as a platform, a playing area for presenting past memories of our migration experiences. I would like to explore some of the more difficult migration narratives. I know that many clients have gone through very extreme circumstances. I have privately recorded some of their stories, and we will be working with these in our next session, in a less subjective manner, which accommodates the pain and complexity of the subject matter. I hope that by bringing these astonishing stories to life in workshops, we can continue to consciously explore the role of the building as a contemporary repository for migration experiences.

Inside/Outside/In – Post 2

As a site-specific theatre-maker, I am deeply interested in how, upon artistic excavation, buildings may reveal interwoven stories from the past. The history of the Notre Dame site as a viewing point for ‘exotic’ peoples greatly fuels my imagination. I am trying to theatrically reenact the panorama through workshops with refugee actors. For Richard Boon and Jane Plaistow, community theatre:

‘Encourages the taking of space (literal and metaphorical) and the raising of self esteem, so that participants come both to question the root causes of their problems and oppressions – a process that leads from the micro to the macro, and from the particular community to the wider polity – and to believe that they can take centre stage to give voice and expression to their understandings’.[1]

By giving the audience a direct portal into the lives of marginalised people, who might not otherwise have access to theatre, ‘micro’ stories can be vocalised and heard. Empowering the refugees to give their own testimonies may reverse historically two-dimensional, Eurocentric visions of international peoples, thereby generating ‘a process that leads from the micro to the macro’. By returning to narrow Victorian perspectives of ‘the world’, new scenes can be rehearsed, which might challenge stereotypical preconceptions about refugees today. For Kelleher, ‘future utopias can be located at the site of a performed past’.[2] He suggests that by questioning the present and returning to the past, site-specific performance can create a platform for future visions. How might Victorian vistas of the site have a theatrical conversation with contemporary visions?


VICTORIAN VISTAS

Panorama, Leicester Square was built by Robert Barker, (d. 1806), inventor of the species of exhibition which gives its name to the building. The exhibitions at the Panorama are always among the most pleasing novelties of the London season. The paintings are changed every year.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

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SEBASTOPOL IN LEICESTER SQUARE.

To see Sebastopol it is not necessary to go abroad it is enough to travel to the foreign quarter of London only. This journey has been performed by ourselves. We have been to see MR. BURFORD’S Panorama of Sebastopol in Leicester Square, and recommend all our readers who are within reach of it to do themselves the same pleasure. The London “season” being now over, there are few places either of instruction or entertainment remaining, open, and this is a place of both. Moreover, as Rank and Fashion have for the most part left Town, the possibility of seeing all that is to be seen in the Panorama – to wit:, very much – is likely to be increased by some diminution of the hitherto attendant crowd of the nobility, gentry, and clergy. There will be less danger than there has been heretofore of having one a corns crushed by a duke, of being hustled by an earl, or elbowed about and squeezed by peeresses and maids-of-honour, the bulk of a bishop being, in the meanwhile, interposed between one’s eye and the canvas. However, to secure a good view of the exhibition, it may be advisable to go early in the morning, while Rank and Fashion are at breakfast, or late in the afternoon when Rank and Fashion are at dinner.
    Sebastopol is depicted as firing and under fire, and the first impression derived from the view of the beleaguered city, presented by MR. BURFORD, is that of astonishment at the preternatural stillness, comparatively speaking, of the scene. Comparatively speaking, because a considerable noise is being made by MRS. MAJOR M’GAB, or some other military lady, who is sure to be present, and to be explaining the positions of the Allies with commanding gestures, in a loud voice. Astonishment, because the picture has such an air of reality, and the smoke of the bombardment looks so particularly natural, as to make you wonder at not bearing the artillery’s roar and the crack of the rifles.
    The visitor finds himself situated, with reference to the Crimea, precisely as, with allowance for change of circumstances, he would be with regard to London if he were on the top of St. Paul’s: except that the objects below him do not seem so distant, and that the smoke of the ordnance does not obscure the prospect like the smoke of the chimneys. He sees the hays and harbours that surround the Crimean coast, the Allied Fleets, the enemy’s vessels, as many as have not been sunk, and the mast-heads of those; and all the forts and batteries – the Mamelon, Malakhoff, Redan, Flagstaff, Quarantine, Constantine, Nicholas, Alexander, Star, and so forth: also the encampments of the Allies and the head-quarters of the Generals, together with a number of other objects which, recalled to his mind’s eye, will enable him to read the Times every morning with the advantage of illustrations.
    There is somebody present (besides MRS. M’GAB) who will oblige the company with any information they may desire in reference to the particulars of the Panorama.
    It is not too much to say, that those who visit MR. BURFORD’S Sebastopol will see more of that City than they would if they we stationed before the CZAR’S: for the Panorama was painted some little time ago, since when a great many of the buildings represented in it have been demolished: and we hope the time will very soon come when the only correct picture of Sebastopol will be the accurate likeness of certain heaps of rubbish.
    There is one very important difference between the prospect of Sebastopol held out by MR. BURFORD, and that afforded by the Government – and paid for by the tax-payers. The Downing Street one is rather expensive: that in Leicester Square will cost nobody more than a shilling. 

Punch, August 25, 1855

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Panorama, Burford’s, Leicester Square … open every day, Sunday excepted, from 11 till dusk. Admission to each view 1s.

Burford’s Panorama – Among the various attractive exhibitions of London, is that belonging to Mr. Burford, situated at the Eastern corner of Leicester Square, where a series of unrivalled productions, from the pencil of that distinguished painter, afford a truly gratifying treat to the curious in topographical delineation. There are, generally, two views of celebrated places; admission to each view, 1s., and catalogues 6d.

Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to it Sights, 1844


CONTEMPORARY VISIONS

Interview 1: Congolese woman, fifties.

1. WHEN DID YOU FIRST COME TO THIS PLACE?

Maybe 7 years ago. I don’t know. I think it was 2005.

2. WHICH IS ROOM IN THIS BUILDING IS YOUR FAVOURITE?

The food, the people, this room [the cafe].

3. DO YOU LIKE THIS PLACE? WHY DO YOU COME HERE?

I like this place because people nice, they care, they enjoy for see people. You understand? This place is good for help people. You refugee, you have problems. You come here to enjoy. You have problems – cut your money, cut your house. You come here you have consolation. You happy. Before I had pain. Here, I am happy. I tell people, you respect people. Volunteers here. The people working here – respect people’.

4. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE MEMORY OF THIS ROOM?

At Christmas, they had the party, the food. Bring musicians. They come here from different countries. Or you bring a CD from your country.

5. HOW DO YOU TRAVEL HERE?
 
I come here by bus, sometimes by train. A long way. I change 3 buses and then a train. I take Victoria line. I think 2 hours each way.

6. HOW OFTEN DO YOU COME HERE?

Sometimes Mondays and sometimes Thursdays. When I have a problem I
come both days.

7. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THIS PLACE IN ONE WORD?

Enjoy

Interview 2: Congolese Man fifties

1. WHEN DID YOU FIRST COME TO THIS PLACE?

4 years ago.

2. WHICH IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROOM?

This space [corridor]. I like this space. We sit, we talk, we discuss. Most of the time I sit here. People are moving. I don’t mind. Inside it’s noisy. It’s busy. You can’t talk.

3. DO YOU LIKE THIS PLACE?

I like it. If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t come here for four years! I like the atmosphere. The place is nice. You can meet people from different backgrounds. Four years ago I was new. I was happy because it was French. That’s why I came here very quickly – very easy for me to integrate. I can also speak Congolese with people here. I speak nine languages – Chinese, Russian, Korean, Swahili, Arabic, French,Italian…I learned Tigrina – Eritrean language – friends come here from there and they teach me their language.


The church at a Sunday mass today.

The original panorama

In my next blogpost, I will report back on a practical workshop I am facilitating in the refugee centre tomorrow, based on identity and ownership of the space. I hope this will provide a more intuitive, communal way into the site for participants to compliment our spoken, one-to-one interviews.

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[1] Richard Boon and Jane Plastow (eds), Theatre and Empowerment: Community Theatre on the World Stage, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p. 7.

[2] Joe Kelleher, Theatre & Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p.54.

Inside/Outside/In – Post 1

My month of November is underway! During this month, I will be exploring how theatre workshops might enable members of the public to discover and enliven hidden stories and myths that are woven into space. What space will I explore? One that is very close to home…

I returned from a trip to Herzegovina a couple of days ago. Coming home is always a particular shock: I live just around the corner from Leicester Square. When I leave the house in the morning hordes of tourists are, therefore, rather surprised to see me emerging onto a Chinatown-street! Yet, I actually live up above the hubbub. At the top of the lengthy weathered staircase of ‘the Tower’ (as we fondly call it) is the kitchen of our flat. This leads directly onto the roof of Notre Dame de France RC Church – a huge outdoor garden space.

When I arrived here, just over a year ago, I began to engage with this unusual building in all its vastness from the outside in. As I walked over the roof deck, I noticed that the church was perfectly round. The reason? It was once a Victorian Panorama picture house: a precursor to the cinema. Here, one could spend a Sunday afternoon surveying exotic international vistas stretched across circular walls.

As a theatre-maker, this inner-city site immediately caught my imagination. Yet, it is not only its past that fascinates me but also its present; it is now the Sunday destination of choice for French-speaking Catholics from all across London. Once a visual portal into the ‘international’, the church now physically hosts Congolese, French, Senegalese, Ivoirians, Madagascans, Cameroonians, and Polynesians mass-goers. The parish centre, adjoining the church, welcomes an even wider range of nationalities. Refugees queue here as early as 5am each morning for food, housing information and citizenship advice. Many have been coming twice a week for over twenty years. This site therefore plays a vital role in the day-to-day lives of countless refugees and ex-refugees in London.

During this month, I am ‘digging up’ the site, exploring the Victorian fascination with international spectacle through an investigation of original archives. Simultaneously, I am collaborating with the refugees and religious community members who currently use it, via interviews and theatre workshops. My aim is to discover the local/global narratives that continue to resonate within Notre Dame’s walls. If the site is a palimpsest with stories woven into it then how might we animate and reconstruct its ‘international’ visions in the present ? I hope that by empowering the refugees to share their perspectives on the space they will no longer be subjects but artists and storytellers, narrating their own migratory experiences.

During this month, I will post up records from the interviews, pictures of our workshops and research into the site’s history. I will also post about my engagement in a MOOC Course in site-specific dance and performance with students across the world, which I hope will add a further international perspective to the work; I want to consider how this public research project, Inside/Outside/In, might practically fuel a site-specific performance or sound tour. Pictures to come!

Crossing Over – Mythoarchaeology and Popular Culture

There’s a 2002 headline from The Onion that satirises the recurrent role of archaeologists in pop culture: “Archaeologist Tired of Unearthing Unspeakable Evils”. In the article, the “unspeakable evils” have taken the shape of giant rats, ophidian women, Mayan coyote spectres and walrus bone women.

Aside from the exoticism of the manifestations, any pop culture aficionado will recognise the pattern: in handling a mythical, long-hidden object, or in disturbing the dream of the dead, the fictional archaeologist inadvertently summons an otherwordly force seeking revenge. Why has this portrayal become a trope, why does it resonate with the audience? Although the consequences of these interactions are almost invariably negative, their essence is, to me, a great depiction of Mythoarchaeology.

The Mummy (1932) film poster.

The Mummy (1932) film poster.

My fascination with archaeology started with the myths my father told me when I was a child, and my favourite was that of the Minotaur. When I learned that Crete, the home of Asterion, appeared on the maps, something clicked: this was different to other tales I’d heard, this was somewhat more real. When I looked at my father’s books and saw ancient artifacts depicting Theseus fighting the bull, I was mesmerised. These ancient objects had a magical quality: they came from a time that was closer to the mythical world I’d imagined. Many years later, when I first visited Crete, the ruins of Knossos became a portal between this world and what had inhabited my imagination for decades, and the experience was almost numinous.

There are many ways in which we might react to a place, or an artifact, in an emotional level, as Rob Irving and I discussed during our Avebury walk. Sometimes it’s an object that casts a spell: the Egyptomania that followed the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun was perhaps a consequence of the extraordinary state of preservation of the objects found, and the fact that they had remained untouched for centuries. Sometimes the process starts with a myth or a story that speaks to us and culminates with a pilgrimage to the place linked to it. The place of destination may have been considered sacred for centuries, or perhaps is only sacred in our imagination.

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The journey to a sacred destination is a spiritual experience, and the supposed existence of an invisible line connecting these places is a manifestation of this idea. In pilgrimage, we’re told, the journey is more important than the destination, a way of self-discovery. By taking an ancient path, we re-enact what our ancestors did: the journey itself is the portal to the past. When we arrive, we perform our ritual: we touch the stones, we sit on the ruins, as if they were able to reveal their secrets to us.

Jeannette Winterson says that the past is another country; I’ve always thought of it as an Otherworld. There’s something haunting in ruins, not necessarily milleniae-old ones like Knossos or Avebury, but also more recent ones. They’re remains of something that isn’t quite there, but that can be summoned by our imagination. Objects and ruins become tokens, thin places or portals to an Otherworld. Remains of the past are the closest we’ll ever be to it.

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When the pop culture archaeologist finds one of these thin places or manipulates one of these tokens, the Otherworld gets loose. Evil energies make great adversaries in fiction, but there’s another reason for which these stories may resonate with audiences: what comes from this Otherworld has already crossed a threshold. Despite our curiosity, we’re inherently scared of what may come back, of the thing that knocks on the door in The Monkey’s Paw, of whatever is summoned by an old bone whistle. The souls that return know the secret that has haunted our imagination since the origins of civilisation: what lies beyond the threshold of death. In pop culture, the figure of the archaeologist, then, is that of an unwilling shaman, a mediator between this world and the other, and a shaman’s role has always been essential to the tribe.

by Maria J Pérez Cuervo (@mjpcuervo)

Link to The Onion article:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/archaeologist-tired-of-unearthing-unspeakable-anci,1448/