Jerome Bel: Gala

Jerome Bel's Gala gives professional theatre a massive joyful kick in the nuts.

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Perhaps the best moment comes half way through.  A seventeen year old boy moves forward from the chorus to perform a solo dance routine that the others will copy behind him.  Except it isn't his turn - he's gone too early.  So the middle aged ginger man who'd just finished leading a rave sequence, whispers gently in his ear, and the boy nodds and moves back, until his moment comes.

The mistake isn't covered up or awkward, it's just a tiny moment of human fallibility in a show which celebrates our mistakes and imperfections.  There is such quiet dignity and kindess in that exchange - the care, then the acknowledgement of the mistake and then we move on.  It doesn't matter.

Gala starts with a long, long series of images of stages all over the world: a rolling google image search projected on the back wall.  Lots of red velvet curtains, but outside stages, puppet show stages, ancient amphitheatres too.  It's in silence, apart from the toddler in the audience talking all the way through, doing the alphabet.  It's Tottenham, the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, and no-one shushes or looks exasperated.  It's just part of what's happening.

And when the images finish, it's just simple, as all the most complex things are.  There's an old re-used calendar standing up at at the front and it's got the world Ballet on it. So the participants, one by one, walk across the stage and do some ballet.  They spin, twice.  There's a couple of young kids, a boy (the one above) who uses a wheelchair, an old man who looks like Father Christmas.  A tall guy who probably dances in West End musicals.  An older woman.

They wear ridiculous clothes, and they try and do balletic spins.  Some of them are good it, some of them aren't.  It doesn't matter, not in a patronising way, it just doesn't matter because we're not watching them spin, we're watching them.

And we're challenged.  Some of the audience start to clap the more obviously physically disabled dancers when they complete their spins or jumps and that feels uncomfortable, or ok, or something else.  

The longer it goes, the more we tolerate the more proficient performers while expectantly waiting for those who are out of their comfort zone to step back onto the stage and dance.

After Ballet they do Michael Jackson moonwalks.  And a free-wheeling Waltz.  And three minutes of improvised movement all together in silence.  That bit's less exciting, maybe - there's too much to watch, it feels a bit safe, like they're not quite in it yet.  But there's a direct link between the audience and the performers, like parents at a school play - utterly invested in the people on stage and willing them to do well.

And then a young woman does a solo, a kind of wishy-washy contemporary piece within which she's fully committed, and when she's done the whole company reappear on stage all wearing each other's clothes.  Father Christmas is in a skirt.  A man is wearing only a pair of underpants stretched up over his shoulders.  They look ridiculous and wonderful.  The message is clear but gentle: we're different and we're all the same.

They stand behind the woman who did the solo and the same music comes up - it's Bon Iver - and she does it again, and they do it too.  And they don't know what they're doing, but that's it - we see them trying so hard and failing in the most joyful way.  They're a mass of clowns, except they're not idiots, they're winning.  They're trying hard and having an amazing time.

They do it again and again - a chaotic hula hoop dance led by an amazing performer that ends with hoops flying out of control, a rave with the ginger man, a bollywood number that goes so quickly that no-one gets even close.  There's something in pursuing something that's basically impossible that opens up huge space for achievement.  

The right to fail is liberating.  There's no precision.  Music fades up and down like it's being operated on a CD player at a teenage disco in the 90s.  The lighting is basic.  The sound is scratchy.  The curtain keeps getting caught on the sign that says 'Ballet'.

But it's the clunkiness which is so political:  it skewers so many things that are deemed important in professional theatre: precision, showmanship, virtuosity, perfection.  It says fuck your precision and your po-faced self-importance and your massive budgets, look at this space and look at these people.  

As the piece climaxes with Miley Cyrus and show-tunes, all we want is to join them.  And be part of them.  To throw on ridiculous clothes (then, at the end, throw them off - a final joyful exposure) and dance around like the awkward uncoordinated imperfect people like we are.

To the lighthouse

This article was published in Prompt Magazine in February 2008.

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It’s 10am on a boiling September day in Accra and I’m utterly, hopelessly lost. It’s my first Saturday in Ghana, my first full day of work at the Community Theatre Centre and the first time that I’ll meet the people with whom I’ll be working for the next four months. I have no idea where I am, or where the bus that I’m on is heading. I’m not even entirely sure that I went to the right bus station in the first place.

“Look for a lighthouse” said Johnson Kefome, the Senior Programme Officer at Theatre for a Change, an NGO that uses theatre as a tool for HIV/AIDS education. I’ve come to Ghana to work with the company, my trip funded by the Rupert Rhymes Bursary. At the moment my interview for the funding in the SOLT/TMA Covent Garden Office feels a long way away: the rusty bus is encased in the billowing fumes of trucks and taxis, surrounded by people with bags of drinking water and fruit piled high on trays. I’m already late and I still have no idea if I’m travelling in the right direction.

I’m trying to get to James Town, one of the poorest areas of Accra, once the capital of British operations in the Gold Coast. Two hundred years ago it was used for trading slaves and other African commodities. Now it’s a shanty town, tens of thousands of people from all across Ghana, from Sierre Leone, Togo and Burkina Faso, crammed into a corner of Ghana’s main city, with little sanitation, no running water and one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country.

I eventually pluck up the courage to ask the driver whether we’re anywhere near a lighthouse. He looks confused. The people crammed in around me, holding school books, chickens, briefcases and shopping bags look concerned. All my fears about being on the wrong bus, travelling in the wrong direction, are confirmed. Some of my fellow passengers start to laugh gently.

In the moments that follow I start to learn valuable lessons about Ghana and its people. The first is that Ghanaians are incredibly, wonderfully helpful. The bus stops and about ten people get out with me to help me find my way. The second lesson is that, as a Westerner, I have financial resources beyond the dreams of most Ghanaians, something that is to become more and more discomforting the longer I live there. In this instance I’m able to hail a taxi and jump in with no more than a cursory check about the cost: about £2. In no time at all I’m zipping through the Accra traffic, chatting happily about London to the driver who asks me if I’ve met Michael Essien or David Beckham.

Arriving in James Town is like entering another world. The roads are being rebuilt so there is no traffic around and the streets have been taken over by the local community. Women sit on the half built kerbs, cooking food and chatting. Men put massive speakers out in the street and play ear-splitting high life music for each other. There are kids everywhere.

In the months to come I am to learn that despite James Towns’ problems, it is still one of the friendliest, most uplifting places that I’ve been. It is impossible to walk its streets without saying ‘hello’ a hundred times on every journey. Kids run out from every alley, flocking like birds to a spare patch of ground where they kick half-deflated footballs about in the dust. Men, women, children fall into step wherever I go, just to have a conversation about England, or Ghana, politics, religion, football.

At the weekend kids from across James Town come to the Community Theatre Centre, where I eventually arrive on that first Saturday morning. I’m really late, but there are only a few people there and the first workshop hasn’t even started yet. When it does I join in, try and learn the names of the twenty or so people who’ve turned up so far. I teach them a game and try and follow the exercises explained in Ga, the local language.

As the first few weeks of my stay go by, I learn very soon that my plans of running workshops with the kids here were misconceived. It’s clear that Theatre for a Change’s approach to their work is so rooted in their community that it would be ridiculous for me to try and lead workshops and rehearsals. For a start, they’re all – by necessity – in Ga. And they’re run by people who’ve lived here all their lives. Trying to take over a workshop would be like me trying to tell the fisherfolk who live in corrugated iron huts on the beach how to fix their nets.

So instead I spend the first month in Ghana watching the workshops, taking hundreds of photos and interviewing participants and facilitators. Theatre for a Change uses a form of drama called Interactive Theatre to empower young people to change the way they live their lives and thereby avoid the risk of HIV infection. It’s an approach that puts the children at its very centre. The kids bring stories from their local community to their workshops, discuss them, develop them into short performances and then perform them in schools, churches, youth centres and sometimes just in the street. Audiences at these performances are encouraged to step into the action, to take the place of the protagonists and see if they can suggest ways to solve the problems presented to them.

It’s an approach rooted in Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre techniques, often glibly referenced by hyper-confident young British directors, but frequently misused in this country. Sometimes in Ghana it works incredibly – I watch spellbound as a group of young women at a tailoring school laugh and screech at a performance about teenage pregnancy that they then take over and try and solve. Sometimes it doesn’t work so well – a performance in a market street gets interrupted by a huge storm before any of the audience can join in. What is most fascinating is the confidence and enthusiasm of the young people involved – and how easily they talk about HIV, about rape, incest and the dangers of sharing razor blades.

After a few weeks I interview a fifteen year old boy who looks tired. He tells me that he’s been in a little café all night, chatting on MSN with a man from Texas who he has never met in person. I’m fascinated by his desire to talk to someone so far away and intrigued by the way that new technology has enabled him to do so. Our conversation inspires the project that I spend the vast majority of my remaining time in Ghana running: InterACT Online.

InterACT Online is a website which hosts videos that I make over the next few months with facilitators working for Theatre for a Change. There’s Nii, a budding playwright and workshop leader whose Aunt has forced him unwillingly to work in a bank during the week. Collins, who is half Liberian and dreams of setting up a new community theatre in his homeland. Armanda and Forster, both sixteen, the youngest facilitators working at the Community Theatre Centre.

We link each Ghanaian participant with a theatre director or practitioner in London. Each video that they make is addressed to their London partner – a video postcard about their life, their dreams and their work. The London-based practitioners start to send videos back: one from Gabby Vautier at the Young Vic that reveals incredible similarities between her work with the local community in Lambeth and Nii’s work in James Town. A video from Jacqui Rice at Company of Angels who wants to compare the challenges facing eleven year olds in both countries. Her partner, Reggie, responds with a video featuring interviews with the children known as the ‘Group of Hope’, the youngest Theatre for a Change participants and those who have most to gain – and lose – from HIV education.

Over two months we exchange more than 25 videos in total. Over a thousand people log onto the website. And as the project develops so we see its benefits: making the videos helps the Ghanaian participants to consolidate and rationalise their work. It gives them ideas for new approaches to their workshops and makes them feel that, in Nii’s words “we are talking to the world”. The UK participants gain a better understanding of forum theatre in practice, of the challenges facing Ghana – and Africa as a whole.

For my part, the videos allow me to ask questions that I might never have done otherwise, to find out more about what makes Theatre for a Change tick. I learn very soon that the whole company is driven by the incredible enthusiasm of its staff and participants. Never before have I met people working in theatre who are so kind, so generous and so unpretentious about their work.

And then, almost as abruptly as it began, my trip starts to come to an end. Watching the workshops, making the videos, even just walking the dry dusty streets – all have helped me make some incredible new friends. Friends who I know I will stay in touch with for months and years to come. As I leave, some of the theatres in London – Company of Angels, Hampstead Theatre – are already making plans for collaborative projects based on the video discussions that they’ve already had with their link in Accra.

On my last day in Ghana I go back to James Town. The dark, dirty warehouse that is home to the Community Theatre Centre is empty that day, an old boxing punch bag hangs alone in the corner. As I walk away I say hello to another hundred people, have a load more conversations with strangers who want to know if I’m married, who I support and if I believe in God. I stop to kick an old football back to the kids on the beach, many of whom will never go to school. I walk past the old slave forts, down the now nearly tarmacked streets – soon to be filled with cars and trucks again, humans once more relegated to their doorways and the alley ways near their houses.

As I leave I look back one more time and see the lighthouse in the distance, right next to the Community Theatre Centre. I think back and wonder at how I ever got so lost trying to reach it on that first hot morning and I start to imagine how easy it will be to find when I come back next time.