Thursday, 29 August 2013

Moving into Heavy Territory

Aug 27

Breakfast comes cold at the hotel. The eggs taste funny, but because I'm hungry, I eat every morsel.

The weather continues to be perfect: high 20s / low 30s, sunny, with no humidity. The afternoon session collects together a wide array of Ugandan theatre artists to discuss funding. With the exception that the government does not support the arts here, this discussion could be taking place in practically any country I've travelled to: the importance of multi-source funding, the importance of believing in your work, the importance of creating something that the public will want, perseverance, love, good bookkeeping.

A playwright and core member of Theatre Factory (a Kampala success story), Philip Luswata, asks a penetrating question: should we be selling our culture to people who own it in the first place? This sparks a discussion about public funding, and the Ugandans' awareness that other countries support arts. There is a large percentage of the population here that has little access to anything that costs much - so ticket price is a big issue, and taking art outside of Kampala is a big issue.

Stephen Rwangyezi, who has been running an extremely popular traditional dance and drumming show for almost 30 years, is a wonderful speaker (we saw his show on Sunday night, and it was amazing). He describes the artist as an assistant to God, because artists create what doesn't exist. The man has a sparkle in his eye, and then goes on to say that as an artist, you have to love your shit sooooo much, and handle it in such a way that everyone believes it is gold. He also talks about your own DNA, and how important it is that your shit is YOUR shit, and no one else's.

Many people speak, and the stories are varied - successes, tragedies. But the fact that all these artists are sitting in a circle implies a desire to share, and find some solutions.

A producer for Theatre Factory named Julius sums up why his company is thriving: "If you love the game, you keep up the game."

We move on to a session about international touring, and the North Americans speak about various funding sources. Again, the idea of multiple sources comes up as a necessity. I talk about ramping on - getting the project in front of the right eyes so that it can get invited on to places with money (gateway arenas like the Traverse in Edinburgh, or Under the Radar in New York, can lead to further tours). I say it's actually a fairly small club that sets tastes in international touring. Philip asks whether it's possible to make money on a tour. We say it's usually a big money-losing proposition. However, as a playwright, he has a chance to move a script around the world, which CAN make money.

Ahhhh, money.

August 27 evening

Goodness in Rwanda
During the day, I have begun to notice an increasing discomfort in my stomach. The sun has now set, and I help Gord Rand set up a screen and the projector for his screening of Goodness in Rwanda, a documentary Gord made of Volcano's tour to Rwanda with Michael Redhill's play in 2009. Shortly after the screen is up, while listening to a Ugandan performer / maker describe Invisible Theatre (fascinating stuff! It's a form where actors go into the street and begin a conflict / discussion that the general population starts to participate in - it's all filmed from hidden cameras), I begin to sweat. I have to sit down. I have to sit down. I realize things are not going so well. I go back to the hotel room to take some antacids, and then return to watch the documentary.

We watch Goodness in Rwanda. This is the film's first screening for an African audience. There are four people in the audience who are also in the film: me (I directed the stage play), Gord (who acted in Goodness, and directed the documentary), Kiki Katese (who invited the play to the festival she was then running in Rwanda), and Pamela Acaye (who is one of Kendu Hearth's organizers, and who was in Rwanda in 2009 to visit the festival - this is where she and I met). It is an emotional experience to see this film again, and revisit all we experienced during that tour: partially a failure to connect, partially a success in connecting, and a tremendous exposure to the aftermath of genocide by visiting memorial sites all over the country, and speaking with survivors, perpetrators, and artists. The Kampala audience is struck in various ways by this documentary. Some are tremendously moved: one woman is audibly weeping during the film. The general response is good - the film hits home.

But. A heated discussion begins when one woman starts to speak about appropriation of voice, and the problem of white people coming to Africa to interpret African experience. At this point, the discussion is mostly taken over by Africans - several Ugandans, and Kiki, the Rwandan who invited the play in the first place. Some say the film and the Canadians who came with the play have a right to come, since art should know no borders. Some say the play is not what the woman thinks it is (it ISN'T about Rwanda, but rather about genocide as a human phenomenon). Kiki says the play's presence in Rwanda should be seen in context - as one of many projects from many places. And some say there is indeed a political problem since the myth of white superiority is supported by such ventures. To me, it seems that every point made is valid, and there is no easy solution. For a privileged artist such as myself (white, male, Western), it is a reminder that awareness of underlying politics and power imbalances is important. I also think that reliance on the opinions of foreign artistic directors that invite work is also important. I speak to the woman after the general discussion and ask her what I should do in such a situation. She suggests I quiz artistic directors on whether or not they have internalized whiteness, and perhaps that is WHY they are making the invitation. I say that seems to me to be more patronizing than anything else - that such a line of questioning is closer to a colonial stance than accepting the analysis of a fellow professional. It's a tricky situation, and all I can think for now is that for a Western artist such as myself, awareness is a first step.

At this point, though, my stomach is now demanding that I get home as fast as possible. I do, and begin a long night of extreme discomfort.

Aug 28

Bed. That's where I remain almost all day. A shame. I miss what is apparently a spirited discussion about hybridity in African and International theatre - and one which takes up themes of commercial interference in art-making (what can be labeled in Uganda as "Airport Art" or "NGO Art" - art in which the artist is not free to do as they wish, but rather must do what is expected). One speaker calls out the West in general as having abandoned spirituality in society in general with the rise of the industrial revolution (this is the same point that the author of the brain book I mentioned in a previous post makes). There is a danger that Ugandan artists are now infected by this same trend marked by global corporatization. Apparently, of the over 2,000 government scholarships offered by Makarere University, for example, only 30-something are for the Arts (i.e. for general BA degrees). This means something like less than 1% of scholarships are available for music or drama.

Aug 28 evening

After taking my emergency antibiotics, I feel well enough to make it out to the evening festivities. We all travel to Kampala Sheraton (fancy) to see two things:

Donna Michelle St. Bernard
1) Donna Michelle St. Bernard (one of the visiting Canadians - playwright in residence at the National Arts Centre) does a rap set with an AMAZING local band. This rocks. Donna can write. She can also rap. And the combo of her political / smart / uber-pleasing rhymes with a tight band behind her is thrilling. She should tour with these guys. Amazing.

Pamela Acaye
2) An excerpt of Dawn of the Pearl, by Ugandan playwright Pamela Acaye. This is a work-in-progress by one of the conference organizers. What strikes me most is the quality of the writing: Pamela's work is very political, looking at the situation of land rights for women in Uganda, and the intense struggle faced by women in a largely patriarchal system. Formally, the piece swings effortlessly between scenes and songs in a way that seems terrifically innovative from a Canadian point of view.

Home to bed. I feel the stomach bug is on its way out. Perhaps I will try some solid food again tomorrow. And the conference now feels like it is getting into some heavy territory. It's a great discussion to be a part of.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Masterclass and Keynote

Aug 26

Masterclass at Kendu Hearth. Photo by @darlkomu on Twitter.

1) I get up at 7AM (which is midnight, Toronto time) to prep my class. I walk over to the space, and teach about 14 people. The class is a mix of international and Ugandan theatre artists. It goes very well. I have been reading a thick and apparently revolutionary tome on brain science called The Master and his Emmissary, by Iain McGilchrist (a brilliant Scottish neurologist, psychiatrist and teacher of English at Oxford). The science proposed by McGilchrist and my own practice seem to dovetail nicely, so I've been folding his theories on the brain into my teaching of theatre-making.

In essence, he proposes that the Western brain has become - through a kind of cultural selection - slanted towards left-hemisphere function, and that the right hemisphere has been inhibited. In practice, this means that we in the West tend towards language-centric communication, self-aggrandizement, denial of fact-based evidence if we don't like what the evidence states, a lack of spirituality, and a lack of appreciation for paradox, dynamic relationships and contradiction. In this context, the Arts can be seen as a corrective effort towards a rebalanced brain, since the Arts contribute to right brain engagement, and therefore healthier overall brain function. And a healthier brain means a better world.

Of course, it's more complicated than this, but for a three hour class, it works well!

Binyavanga Wainaina. Photo by Lannan Foundation.

2) The keynote address by writer, thinker and bad boy Binyavanga Wainaina. I have worked closely with Binyavanga in the past (on his play Shine Your Eye, part of Volcano's Another Africa), but this is the first time I've heard him address an African audience in Africa.

His speech is staggeringly brilliant. It is a call-to-arms, a reprimand, a challenge to all the artists in a packed room (I videoed it, and will put it online once I'm back in Canada). He speaks of some very large thing that has awoken in Africa, and has begun to move, whether anyone likes it or not. The consequences will be both good and bad, but the movement will be profound.

Binyavanga's presence also ensures press coverage for the conference: all the major papers in East Africa show up to listen. It is a thrilling night, and a thrilling beginning to this conference.

Monday, 26 August 2013

The First Few Days

Aug 22

1) Pearson airport. A beginning to the 24 hours or so of travel. Biggest impression is the bad beer on tap. I never ordered corporate beer, but Canadian was the cheapest. Never again...

Aug 23

1) Managed to sleep away the first flight. I putter around Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, and eat a $20 "full English breakfast."

2) 3 gate changes provided some much needed exercise, before boarding a full flight to Kigali, which departs 1.5 hours late. Much Dutch apology from the KLM pilot. At least two large groups of foster parents on their way to visit their wards in Kenya and Uganda - one Canadian group, one American. I sit next to a woman from Winnipeg who has been sponsoring a child in Kenya for many years. The child is now 14, and this will be their first meeting.

3) 8 hours or so, and we arrive for a stopover in Rwanda. I long to get off the plane, but we are not allowed. More passengers join us, and we are off to Entebbe.

4) We arrive at Entebbe. Two big changes from my last trip here: we no longer walk down stairs onto the runway - they now have the retractable hallways for de-planing; and foreigners are now photographed and fingerprinted upon going through customs - an unwelcome copycatting of the US Homeland Security system. I wonder if the fancy gear is from an American source. Globalization in action?

5) The fabulous Pamela Acaye meets me with a high leg kick, and arms akimbo - much more welcoming than a sign with my name. I'm through, and arrived in Uganda! It's just after midnight.

That Night (Aug 24)

1) From Entebbe it's about a half hour drive to Kampala. We go directly to a bar where we meet the other conference organizers - Aida Mbowa and Mumbi Tindyebwa. Much hilarity and drinking ensue. Biggest impression is how much better Nile Special beer is than Molson Canadian!

2) I collapse into bed at 3:30 AM. Already, this conference is fun.

Pamela, Mumbi, and Ross
(photo stolen from Facebook)
Aug 24

1) Morning coffee with Pamela. Jet lag and a malaria pill on an empty stomach make me feel unwell. We eat at a Chinese / Indian restaurant named Calypso ("welcome to Uganda" says Pam in explanation). I feel better.

2) we walk to the conference venue: a new establishment called Buzz. It is gorgeous. Three large rooms under an enormous thatched roof, with open-air walls, and a patio. Wonderful food. The manager (Kaval Ratel) is very amenable to the coming invasion by theatre artists. We sit and talk. The organizers plan and I check my email. The vibe is relaxed and productive.

I realize how much I like it here.

Aug 25

1) Breakfast with Donna Michelle S. Bernard (CDN playwright) and Gord Rand (CDN actor / filmmaker). Again I am reminded at how wonderful things like eggs taste in Africa. Zero processing. Fresh.

2) Some strolling, some talking, some eating. More people begin to arrive: Binyavanga Wainaina from Kenya; Jennifer Brewin, Nova Bhattacharya, and Leah Simone-Bowen from Canada; and Kiki Katese from Rwanda. I will teach tomorrow morning, and I begin to get nervous...