Two days ago, I was in Birmingham at Midlands Arts Centre for the second/last performance of the most recent work I directed: If Walls Could Speak, a performance mixing theatre, live grafitti, jazz vocals, spoken word and theatre, envisioned by graffiti artist Mohammed Ali.
The development process and the show itself were both really successful in many ways; the concept and form were artistically ambitious, full of creative risks and the content had a depth of research that honoured the complex blend of voices expressed. The show happened around the audience on raised platforms with the audience of 200 standing in the centre of the stripped down theatre space. Sub bass speakers were positioned under the staging provoking a heightened and more emmersive sensorial experience. Both of the two evenings completely sold out, to a really mixed audience, most of whom lived within a five mile radius of mac, but had never been to an event there. The show just felt right, not only as a self contained piece of exciting work, but in relation to my ongoing interest in performance as healing.
Before I carry on about the show, I have a little anecdote which I love and constantly repeat… One day, about 10 years ago, in Dubai, where I was performing in a minimal techno driven version of Tarzan to 3000 parents and children daily (all true…) a dear friend, the director of the show who was also performing along side me in it, hit his elbow on a scaffolding bar. A month later, back in Cardiff, with an elbow the size of a football, he visited an acupuncturist. This accupuncturist was by chance the official acupuncturist for the Chinese Olympic team, working in Cardiff whilst his wife completed a PHD there. He inflicted the most painful treatments my friend had ever experienced but cured his elbow in two session. During the second session he looked at my friends hands and said, “You are very lucky that you are an artist. If you didn’t have an artistic outlet, you would have psychological problems, your nerves are very close to the surface.” This statement rings true for me and seems relevant for many people I know, those who have outlets and those who do not.
Back to the project. I first met Mohammed at RichMix (Hackney) on a cold October night to discuss his initial inspiration and the driving themes behind the work. He wanted to create homage to Sparkbrook, an area of Birmingham where he spent much of his childhood, but which the media associates primarily with Muslim extremists and CCTV surveillance. He was interested in exploring the swathes of migrant communities that have settled then since WW2. So was I, but I was also interested in his personal investment, I wanted to find out how his own story figured in the areas history.
The performance became a collage, which mixed verbatum information and anecdotes of Sparkbrook residence with Mohammed’s own memories and reflections from growing up in the area. His father’s restaurant set the scene for a brilliantly contradictory piece of writing about faith, servitude, abuse of hospitality and violence. On the final day of rehearsal, Mohammed sat in the area on stage that depicted the restaurant in the position his father would have taken on tabel number 16 and for the last third of the show moved between this position and the creation of a mural behind the scene. At one point, we had to halt the rehearsal as tears flowed down his cheeks. The show had shifted something within him and from the audience response; it seemed to provoke profound reflection in the audience present.
For myself, having spent the month before this project on the verge of depression, for several work related and personal reasons, not to mention the friggin’ weather, If walls Could Speak healed my darkness, it allowed me to feel free to be dinamic and creative around artists I admire and connect with, engaged in a project I believed in. Though we worked hard and stretched ourselves, I left the experienced fired up and charged with energy.
I am writing this post by hand, in a black sketchbook, on the last leg of a 20-hour journey to Teresina, Piaui, North East Brazil. I’m on my way to Brazil for several projects, the first of which is a collaboration with Pilar Fortes and her company Os Shakespirados on their latest show, Memorias Cala Te Ja! (Memories Shut Your Mouth!) for the Curitiba international Festival of Theatre. A new project, in a completely new place, a new collaboration and a new context for my relationship to Brazil!
It’s 10.35am and we are just about to take off from Brazilia. I’ve been in text communication with Anna Smith (co-founder and producer of Unfinished Business), because we’re waiting on the response from Arts Council England for our biggest grant to date. It would support: 1. the development of our organisation (i.e. instead of giving us fish (spondoooliks) it would help teach us to fish for ourselves!), 2. the summer tour of Only Wolves And Lions and 3. the initial research process for our next major company project Change My Mind. The plane is late taking off; I instinctively turn my phone back on. The plane begins its roll down the runway with increasing velocity and as the nose tips to the sky and the wheels become airborne my stomach flips as I read a text from Anna which says: ‘We fucking got it!’