Ramblings from the Road

Today we’re off to Spain to perform Finding Joy at a festival in Badajoz. (Actually, by the time you read this we’ll already be back, but let’s pretend to set the scene). Last night we performed for a lovely, warm audience at the wonderful Corn Exchange in Newbury. Now we’re on the way to Luton airport, y Vamos en Espagna. With Vamos Theatre I’ve previously performed in Belgium, France and China. Now Spain and next up, Germany. Mask theatre is great like that, there are no words, no verbal language, therefore there’s no need for any kind of translation. It’s a universal language that can very simply give voice to our deepest feelings and human experiences. The complex ones that we often struggle to understand and find words for. I rambled on about the boundary breaking wonder of mask theatre in a previous blog, when I was first touring in The Best Thing. Now on tour with Finding Joy I’m going to ramble a little, if you’ll excuse me, about the wonders of life on the road.

It’s a transient sort of lifestyle, this touring business, which certainly takes its toll at times. The count of beds you’ve slept in is but a blur and mileage covered is well and truly off the radar. You have travel and meal receipts tucked away in every nook and cranny. Your family and friends have completely lost track of where you are (and so have you, for that matter) and wonder if they will ever see you again for more than a fleeting moment. A whirlwind of reunions swiftly followed again by premature goodbyes. Day off, a couple of loads of laundry, case packed again (hopefully catering for whatever the weather may throw this way), a few extra hours of sleep and we’re off again…

Back in the van. Elliott is driving and Sarah is the DJ. Music is essential medicine for the soul over many miles in Vanessa (that’s the VW sprinter that we currently spend a large proportion of our lives in). ‘Space Oddity – ground control to Major Tom’ is playing, one of our van favourites. “For here am I floating in a tin van… far away from home,” followed by a plane and we’re off to Spain. Actually, we’re flying into Portugal first, then driving across the border to Badajoz. Just like that.

Has everyone packed their sunglasses?” – check. As temperatures have plummeted in the UK, a couple of days of winter sun will be most welcome.

Of course, packing and checking in the oversized, over-weight, bubble-wrapped galore set doesn’t come without its fair share of stress (plus a bit extra for good measure). Luton airport is currently in disguise as a building site from hell. The drop off point is about a 15 minute walk away from check-in and luggage trolleys costs a scandalous £2 each to use. Plus it’s raining. As well as our personal bags, we have 6 of the largest most colourful suitcases you can imagine, bursting at the seams with all of our mask, props, costumes and tech equipment; a giant ski bag full of metal poles; and two massive unidentifiable packages. Many a head turns and an eyebrow raises as I wheel the sofa/bed/table through the throngs of London Luton commuters.

It’s a great, versatile design for our regular touring where it usually goes straight into the van, but a ‘little’ cumbersome – to say the least – when it comes to international travel on a budget airline. It’s covered in enough plastic bubble wrap and cellophane pallet wrap to give David Attenborough a funny turn. And fragile tape. Lots of fragile tape. James is wearing it too – it’s one of those fragile kind of days. Bidi has a backup bangle of it on her wrist, just in case we have to unpack and re-wrap when airport security tells us we are over the maximum overweight weight. We get lucky. The frowny, head-shaking airline lady is serving somebody else. Instead a very nice man, Watif, helps us with the check in process and we trundle on over to the oversized drop off. This touring malarkey is far from easy. But comparatively speaking it’s SO easy. So easy for us. The ones who won a lottery at birth that allows us to travel freely and easily from one country to another – strange, suspicious packages in tow.

Passports – check.

In my sleep-deprived state whilst travelling back from China at the end of last year’s Finding Joy tour, I managed to lose my passport. A British passport. One of the most powerful passports in the world, which allows visa-free access to 186 countries. Actually, a little internet research informs me that the UK passport has this year slipped to 11th place in passport power rankings, compared to Afghanistan, ranked as the current loser in the power passport Olympics. I wonder how our Great British passport will rank in a couple of years’ time. One thing I think we can be pretty sure of is that it won’t be improving any time soon (sigh), never mind returning to the top spot it held in 2015. Not that my passport should hold a superior position to other nationalities’ passports, should it?

(Pause here for a tea break?) Could you excuse me for a moment while I find a brown paper bag – I’m feeling a little travel sick. Or maybe it’s thinking about the unjust privilege that’s making me a little nauseous…

Have you got a cup of tea? Are you sitting comfortably? Good, now where was I? Oh yes. November 2017 trip to Mimos international Festival in Guangzhou. Lost passport. So, luckily I was back in England when I lost my passport and it didn’t prove to be too much of an ordeal. Getting a new one was pricey, but again, easy enough. I imagine my passport could have sold for quite a price if it got into the wrong hands. I can but hope that it at least it went to somebody who really needed it. Not many of the people who genuinely need false travel documents look like me though, do they? White skin, blonde hair… not in current global conditions anyway. That’s not to say that this couldn’t change. It may feel like our little island is somehow separate from the horrors we see on the news, but the truth is quite the contrary. Our history makes us more connected to global affairs than the media would have us believe; and our humanity should make us yet even more connected. Alas.

Time to check in. Passports – double check; boarding cards – check; EHIC cards (soon to be useless?) – check.

My nana, Florence, is 98. She served in the Second World War as a telephonist plotter. Like Joy in the show, she has dementia and doesn’t remember much. She does, however, remember the war. “German prisoners of war at Sunday mass, bless them, they were nice enough lads really. Just following their orders.” She also remembers that together is better than divided. When it came to the referendum, she couldn’t really understand why she was being asked such a question. The answer was clear.

So here we are at the airport. Over the last ten years I’ve spent a lot of time in airports. I moved to Italy to study in 2009 and ended up staying for much longer than I had intended. What a privilege to be able make a life for myself there, to study and work and meet some of the most wonderful people I know. Will the next generation be granted the same luxury? Sarah’s daughter, Amelie, is on tour with us this week. It’s half term, so they are making the most of some mother/daughter time. Amelie is learning Spanish at school, so will hopefully help us out with a bit of translation when we need it. They moved over to the UK from Australia last year and are, if I may say so, a wonderful addition to our Great nation of Britain. As are my new friends in London, where I’ve recently moved into a new home. Friends from different parts of Europe and the greater world beyond: Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, South Africa. Lovely friends that made me feel most welcome and at home in a big new city.

After Finding Joy a couple of weeks ago at CAST in Doncaster (part of the civic and cultural quarter which received over 2.4 million pounds from the EU’s Regional Development Fund), James and I jumped on a train back to London to join approximately 700,000 marching for a people’s vote. What a wonderful community moment, people of all ages and from all backgrounds, peacefully coming together to voice a shared opinion. A shared vision for how we feel the future should be. And for how it shouldn’t be.

This blog seems to have turned into a bit of a political rant. Maybe this isn’t really the place for that. But then again, maybe 2018 isn’t the time for the type of politics that we are seeing across the globe at the moment. After a bit of a pause in writing while we take to the sky, we’re in Spain now. With two Aussies in the group, we decide we’ll all stick together and go through the non EU/other passports border control. Watching the ‘VIP’ queue clear 4 times over in the time it takes us to get to the front of the line is fun – said no one, ever. Best get used to that, hadn’t we?

Once we’re through, a lovely welcome awaits us and our ridiculous array of luggage. Now I’d best get practicing my Spanish. Dos cerveças e tres sangria por favor. And don’t forget the tapas. The wonders of life on the road.

This blog post was first published by Vamos Theatre.

Inspiring Joy – Celebrating Nana Flo

Florence – or Flo to friends – is 97, and can be thanked (or blamed, depending on your perspective) for an offspring of two children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

I’ve chosen my Nana Flo because as well as being an inspiration, she also has a few similarities to the character Joy in the show.

Nana has been faced with her fair share of challenges throughout the years: losing her mother when she was a baby and her father at 12 years old; serving as an ATS telephonist plotter during the second world war; being widowed 33 years ago; a number of health scares, falls and setbacks; and inevitably at 97, her siblings and closest friends all “beating her to it”.

Until earlier this year she was just about mobile (with the help of a stick) and living semiindependently, but after a TIA stroke and a fall she is now in a wheelchair and living in a care home.

Despite her difficulties – the frustrations of dementia and a deteriorating memory / loss of mobility and independence, she has never lost her sense of humour. She may not really know where she is or what is going on, but she always shows love and gratitude to those around her.

Louder Than Words

Don’t get me wrong, I love language. I am fascinated by its roots and evolution, and by the similarities and contrasts between different languages. With words we can express our thoughts and feelings, explain our needs and desires, give directions and share stories. The rhythm and cadence of words can be incredibly evocative, and generally seen as our primary means of communication, the majority of people would feel lost without them. What somebody says and the way they say it give us useful clues as to what kind of person they are, but the language of spoken word can also be a hindrance. It can divide us from our fellow human beings into separate groups of ethnicity, religion, nationality, intellect and class.

We often fear that which we do not understand, probably in part a result of the intrinsic human fight or flight survival response system. But in the current global political climate, that ‘fear of the unknown’ is undoubtedly played upon and exacerbated, and in some areas of society the sense of ‘us and them’ seems to be disconcertingly prevalent. As an actor, theatre maker, and I like to think to some degree an activist, I am particularly interested in how theatre can be used to break down and communicate across our perceived boundaries and barriers. And I think that physical theatre, and in particular the wordless medium of full mask theatre, is the ideal tool with which we can do this. Primarily because it is a universal language.

This year Vamos is embarking on a number of ventures, with which I am delighted to be involved. One of these is ‘relaxed performances,’ where people with additional needs can watch the show without worrying about the traditional constraints that theatre can often present. Last month we had the honour of performing at the National Star College in Cheltenham, for a wonderful group of young people who have limited opportunities to get out to the theatre. Vamos has been working with National Star for a few years and it was a very humbling and joyful experience to perform for and meet the students. They gave great feedback, asked some incredibly intelligent and complex questions about the themes of love, life and death, and really shared in the emotional journey of the story with us.

We have performed The Best Thing in a variety of settings to audience members from all walks of life. From GCSE drama students to senior citizens, NHS nurses to army veterans, seasoned theatre goers to those who have never stepped foot in a theatre before. We have had audience members who don’t speak English, and over the next few months we will be taking the show to Belgium and France, without a translator. We also performed the show for a group of students from Braidwood school for the Deaf in Birmingham, again without an interpreter. Before performing for different types of audience I often wonder how they will respond to and connect with the show, and whether they will understand it – it’s quite a complicated storyline after all. But while the immediate audience response naturally varies from night to night, sometimes with laughter, gasps, applause, or silence in unexpected moments, the feedback afterwards is generally the same. People, no matter who they are or where they are from, really do ‘get it’. Even if an odd detail of the story is occasionally missed, the human connection and empathy seems to be consistently felt.

It never ceases to amaze how a seemingly inanimate mask can say so much, without actually saying anything. Our audiences regularly comment on how the masks appeared to change their expressions to convey many different emotions, and how easy it was to understand what the characters were saying. In Vamos Theatre productions, an audience is required to really engage their imaginations to fill in the lines of dialogue and piece together the story. Imagination is very much linked to memories, feelings and emotions, meaning that once the imagination is open, so is the heart. Mask is a very different experience from the theatre that most people are used to, and yet Vamos’s characters, storyline and emotions are somehow very familiar. This mixture of strange, unknown and yet deeply personal, creates a very pure and universal human language. Having been honoured to experience performing with Vamos, I believe it is a language that can speak louder and connect more deeply than words.