Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Changing Lives

John Harrison spends ten days on the margins with Elan Theatre

I walked up the steep Rhondda hillside to buy a pint of milk from one of Penrhys's few remaining shops. A ten-year-old girl called across the street to me. 'Hey, Fatty, are you a pervert?'

I denied being fat and continued. She was a typical Penrhys kid, not really aggressive, but bored, rude, loafing on the street. bored, rude, loafing on the street.

I was spending ten days as writer in residence on Cybermama, Elan theatre group's latest work in the Marginalia project. Director Firenza Guidi brings performance training to communities that are marginalised in different ways; previous venues include remote Cironella in Catalonia, and the multi-ethnic town of Fucceduo in Tuscany. Penrhys, infamously modelled on a Tuscan hill town, qualifies aged b As marginalised on most counts, even the spellchecker wanted to change it to 'Penury's.' I would help the project in any way I could, write for it, or write about it. In particular, l wanted to study how you go about putting together a story in mixed media. In fact, another question soon took over - What does an event like this really do for the community

Before any work begins on the eventual performance piece, a group of professionals goes into local schools and works with children on a variety of performance skills. Then advertising goes up for two performances, the first in ten days time. But all that exists on day one is a conceptual outline of what the evening might look like, twelve performers, a small production team and the anarchy of over-excited local children and uncommunicative teenagers.

In case that might seem easy, the partner European performance groups then arrive, and the Italians don't all speak good English, and some of the Catalans don't even speak good Spanish. Firenza speaks twelve languages and the kids understand Shut up! and Go away! in all of them

Over the next week-and-a-half the preparation falls into three phases. Appraising the potential of the venue and the performers, developing the concept into a performance, and willing it to happen.

On the first afternoon, dozens of kids appeared. Some had been to Elan's earlier sessions in the surrounding schools, but most were from the estate. They came out of interest, boredom or the desire to kick and punch other children in the warmth and comfort of the rehearsal space in Canolfan Rhys.

Within an hour I had a headache and was quizzing the professionals in whispers 'I don't have much to do with kids, are they all this atrocious?' The general view was that this bunch had been expelled from hell for giving it a bad name

The kids were told 'When the music stops, fall to the ground and play dead.' It took over a minute for the last ones to remember this, by which time the first ones had exhausted their micro-attention spans, and were already hissing 'Shut up you're supposed to be dead' at each other. The girls giggled. One boy knew that death was inextricably tied up with farting, and applied himself with vigour. Daylight fled, with a dish of blood flung over the hills. Next day an almost entirely different set of children showed up, and it began again.

The grown-ups were also misbehaving. The advertised venue was a disused boilerhouse managed by trustees, who want Rhondda Cynon Taff Council to take it off their hands; the Council were not ready to make a decision. No one wanted to approve its use, and Elan were left as piggy-in-the-middle.

The second stage saw Firenza dividing performers into groups with guidance on scenes for them to improvise. There had been a betrothal; something had gone wrong, the wedding never happened. She moved from group to group quickly discerning adjustments to make movements and meaning more vivid, then moving on to the next group. It was fascinating to see experience and technique applied to very raw material. Four random remarks improvised by local teenager Christopher Downes were made comic by adding a separate mannerism for each, and directing each one at a different section of an imaginary audience. After three attempts he had it off pat, and we fell about laughing. Within two or three days he had a new, wildly extrovert, stage persona.

The younger children came in for an hour at four o'clock. At the end Firenza said 'I need one or two volunteers to stay on.' Every hand shot up. Late in the evening, the four lads who are local band Razorfish jammed with the professionals for an hour and a half. Martyn Lewis had learned all the instruments, then taught three friends to play so he could have a band. They were good; they were added to the plans.

Next day we walked up to the boilerhouse and with a cluster of small torches, measured the spaces in the near windowless boilerhouse. A route was planned through them. 'The story,' announced Firenza,' is the geography of the building.' Back in Canolfan Rhys, each of us tried to draw the building. We pooled the results. I wrote.

The Story The geography of the, building
is the story.
in truth, we all visited different rooms
in a different country.

Next, the players were juxtaposed and we told stories about who they might be, who loved whom. Bit by bit, the concept was being married to the people and the place.

Just making it happen turned out to be the big hurdle. Seven days to go: the electricity cannot be reconnected until two days before we begin. The Razorfish have gone missing, the leader has hurt a shoulder, another's fourteen-year-old girlfriend has given birth successfully.

Five days to go: the quality of the kids' work has been at a standstill for days. Few seem to care. The Razorfish are back, but as a threesome.

Two days to go: the Council decides the boilerhouse is unsafe for use. At a vital stage in pulling the pieces into a whole, one day is totally lost securing a new venue and adapting the performance to fit it. The venue will be the large Community Centre, which isn't entirely characterless since its dreariness is enlivened by a profound architectural brutality.

First night I arrive an hour before curtain. The last rehearsal is finishing. Firenza adds a new musical sequence and they do it again.

Outside the first room are the audience, a full house to cram into the first two rooms. In the first one, the children who will welcome them in fight, quarrel, and cry. The door opens and the performance begins.

The kids who stayed the course delivered the goods. It worked on that first night, but it worked better on the second. The day lost was one they could not afford. This is the cost of working on the margins, the resources are marginal too. Many locals came again the next night, but the box-office cannot measure the real value of work like Cybermama. I talked to Diana Bembrook, drummer Daniel's mum. 'If I can't find him, the first door I knock on is Canolfan Rhys. That Arts Centre has changed my boy's life.' Now that's a worthwhile role for the arts in the community.

author:John Harrison

original source: New Welsh Review's 'Theatre in Wales' (Issue # 47, winter 1999/2000)
01 December 1999


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