Sunday, 22 September 2013

Images of Kendu Hearth 2013.

A random sampling in no particular order from a truly wonderful trip:

the speedy baboon

amsterdam schipol

on the way


better welcome

conference - all the talks were usually held in a circle

matatu parking - downtown kampala

the three organizers: pamela acaye, aida mbowa, mumbi tindyebwa

nice bike. nice socks.

street scene, kampala

the bicycle as pickup

downtown kampala

downtown kampala

downtown kampala

downtown kampala

nova bhattacharya dances

northern uganda

on safari

acaye takes us to the market

darlyne kokukama (UG) and sarah sunde (USA)

darlyne kokukama (UG) and sarah sunde (USA)

william (one of the actors from Theatre Factory)

hanging out at buzz restaurant and bar - our conference venue

jennifer brewin (CAN), looking tiny, and pamela acaye (UG), looking dangerous

gord rand (CAN), breaking bad

conference shot

kiki katese (Rwanda) speaks with aida mbowa (UG)

my hotel

the view from my hotel: bugolobi district, kampala

binyavanga wainaina and mumbi tindyebwa cutting loose

henry - the man who drove us to murchison falls national park

me and gord on safari


me and elephant on safari

crossing the nile

nova bhattacharya (CAN), aaya musuya (UG) and sophie alal (UG)

sunrise on the nile

a baby python crossing the road

nassim soleimanpour's play White Rabbit Red Rabbit gets its subsaharan premiere, 
with donna michelle st. bernard as the reader

our boat drops us at the beginning of a hike to murchison (or, in acholi, oren) and independence (uhuru) falls, on the nile river

gord rand (CAN) downtown

the weather

some of the many brilliant artistic directors, writers, thinkers sitting around being brilliant

water buffalos

ugandan kob

female lion out hunting (very lucky to see this)

the top of murchison falls - or - by its acholi name: oren


thank you, uganda

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Identity and the Artist

Aug 29

I take the morning off, and roll in for the afternoon session. It begins with Moses Serubiri giving a paper on Ugandan Identity and the Arts. Moses is a soft-spoken and, as it turns out, quite brilliant speaker. He is also a violinist and a photographer. Here's an attempt to capture a few of his points:

1) The ultimate challenge of the artist is to be unsure of the Ugandanness that constitutes their identity: "We are as we have been influenced," says Moses. But he also asks, "What are we influenced by? What are our choices?" Ugandan indentity is shaped by many influences.

2) In Uganda, there is sectarianism, tribalism, and racism (much, I would argue, as there is in Canada, or pretty much everywhere I've traveled). For the writer / artist, difference must be expressed in a language comprehensible BEYOND the borders in which it has been produced. Through the language of art, difference can be bridged.

3) Ugandan identity on stage is fluid. A character can change from one kind of identity to another, depending on circumstances, since Ugandan identity is shaped by many influences, and is dependent on context.

4) Being an artist involves taking on the identity of the other.

After Moses speaks, others begin to join the conversation. Binyavanga Wainaina (who has decided to stay for the whole conference, since it's an AMAZING thing), speaks about how art can create a space for awkwardness. He speaks of the shyness / shame that so many (maybe all?) people carry with them, and the need for a mask. Yet the mask is just that - a cover. Art can look under the mask, at the unguarded human.

Sam Okelo - another Artistic Director, and local force of nature - sums it up nicely: "One of the things that keeps human beings alive is fear." To this can be added Ted Hughes' notion that art throughout history has operated as medicine for a damaged consciousness. We are all, always, trying to understand how to behave, and we want to get it right because we are afraid of getting it wrong. And so - as Binyavanga says - we pick up masks. Art can offer solace, ways of being, comfort, challenge.

Kiki Katese, from Rwanda, says that the first time she felt really alone was as an artist. But she also speaks of the responsibility of the the citizen, and that the artist is not exempt from this. Because, as she says, if we don't pay attention, we will lose ourselves.

But she adds how difficult it is to survive as an artist  "in our countries, where we have to prostitute ourselves".

The talk continues and it is fascinating. Is there an African Identity? Is there an African signature in African work? The room is full of some of the most articulate, thoughtful, and precise thinkers I have ever been honored to be in a room with. I am captured by this talk, and forget to take more notes. Hence the skimpiness of the blog at this point! But there is a chorus of Canadian chatter at one point when one of the Ugandans asks, "Do other peoples worry about identity as much as we do?". The Canadians all practically shout "Yes!" Who we are on this earth seems to be an ongoing, unsolvable puzzle. But it seems right that it is the artist who wrestles with it, in ways beyond the sphere of other forms of human expression, beyond empirical study, journalism and politics.

Says Donna Michelle St. Bernard, "I try to give your belly something your brain already has".

Aug 29 evening

The evening is Nova. Nova Bhattacharya dances for us all, and it is tremendous. She dances three pieces, and speaks between each. The first is Classical Indian Dance. The second is an early piece of hers, when she was exploring a contemporary way to use Classical dance in performance. The final piece was made for Nova by Canadian choreographic legend Jose Navas. Through the three pieces, we see both the evolution of Nova's practice, and the incredible skill and depth of her expression. It is riveting.

Inspired perhaps by all the fascinating talk of the afternoon, Nova introduces herself as a Canadian, and how tricky it can be to maintain that simple identity when she dances - how the South Asian-ness of her appearance, and the form she has trained in (in Canada!), leads others to assumptions.

Assumption. The part of identity that identity fights against.

Aug 30

The Woman Artist

Today's panel is an examination of She. There are three speakers from three different countries: Odile Katese ("Kiki") from Rwanda; Pamela Acaye (one of thee conference directors) from Uganda; and Sarah Sunde (a director and the associate AD of New Georges in NYC), from the USA. Here are a collection of impressions:

1) Kiki speaks about all she has done in Rwanda - creating the organization, Professional Dreamers, creating the Women Drummers of Rwanda, founding a national drum festival, running an International Theatre Festival: "From the stage, I learned to be active. To make something from nothing. I had to accept to be stubborn."

2) Sarah speaks about New Georges in New York. It is a theatre with 175 associated directors and writers. They are careful with the language they use to describe themselves, and say, mostly, that they make plays that happen to be created by women.

3) Pamela speaks of women's stories. She says that these stories are everywhere in the environment around us, that every mat, every basket has a story, perhaps of subjugation, perhaps of rebellion.

The moderator, Melissa Kiguwa, speaks about the age-old invisibility of women's words in the world of the published book: "If women are writing, where are their words?"

The talk turns to moments of oppression, of the obstacles faced by women.

Pamela tells the story of her mother - the second wife of her father. Pamela's mother gave birth to too many girls, and was judged as worthless. One day, male relatives came to the house to clear away all of these useless girls, to throw them into the market, to make their own way as prostitutes, or, well, whatever. Pamela's mother stood up to the men, and kept her girls together. The young Pamela watched this, and something awoke in her - an awareness.

Kiki spoke of poverty, and the women drummers she works with, of learning the despair of women. She says that until she began to work with them, and understand the pressures of their lives, "I didn't know how poor they were".

The talk shifts to harm - and how an educated woman who goes into a community to work with local women, may have to be very careful to not leave harm, to not create stigma, to not mark these women out for derision or retribution. A woman named Sophie Alal, artistic director of Denyu African, speaks of always asking the question: "How stealthily can I enter a community?" Sarah, the American, talks about dropping labels: "Women's Theatre" or "Feminist Theatre", since power accrues to that which doesn't need a label. I speak about Jackie Maxwell's work at the Shaw Festival, tipping the male / white balance more towards female / diverse.

Words are spoken of. Kiki says she hates the word "sacrifice". She says she doesn't make sacrifices, she makes choices.

Sophie says she hates the word "empowerment." She says we all have power inside us. The trick is getting to it. But it's not as if it's not already there.

Sophie goes on to talk of the idea of sisterhood - that a sisterhood is a safe place to talk, to enjoy a liberty from other, outside pressures. This, she says, leads to an awareness of gifts - of the things that are available to women, that may not be available to men. She speaks of the sympathy that she discovered for men through sisterhood.

Kiki - who continues to blow everyone away whenever she speaks - sums everything up perfectly: "We are just ordinary people, doing a crazy thing, an extraordinary thing." Of the women she works with, and of herself, too, she says that the work is the thing. The work is the focus, and at the end of each day, the artists doing this work, the women making this work, simply go back to their lives. The work is the thing. And this work - art, whatever you want to call it - will affect people however it will.

That's the idea.

Aug 30 Evening

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

We all gather for the sub-Sarahan premiere of Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour's extraordinary White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Donna Michelle St. Bernard bravely volunteers to be the actor for the piece when the scheduled actor doesn't show. The show is a cold-read, and looks at issues of art, of being trapped, and of manipulation and enforced obedience - all in an enormously quirky way. It has travelled the world since I saw a rehearsal of it in Tehran 2 years ago, and told playwright Nassim Soleimanpour I wanted to produce it. Everywhere it goes, this play seems to connect in a visceral way with the people who experience it together (it is a rare experience as audience to know that the performer doesn't know anymore than you do about what is about to happen). This is no exception. There are Rwandan and American artistic directors in the audience who want to carry on the tradition of taking these words to their own homes.

We take pictures. We email Nassim. There is only one day left.

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.