Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Volpone Rehearsals: Myanmar Update 4

After six rehearsals the show is really taking shape.   Well, I think so by watching the actors, though I don't understand a word they are saying (as they are improvising in Burmese).  Still, they are beginning to "embody" the characters and come up with some funny “bits". 

Volpone is a Shakespeare era comedy, written by Ben Johnson in that same "Shakespearian language" which takes some getting used to.   It's beyond even the best of our English speakers here (heck, it's beyond me a lot of the time), so Joanna and I have been 'translating" the Elizabethan into modern-ish English, while also cutting and editing so this three hour play runs more like 60 minutes.  Since these translations are not set into Burmese yet, the actors have been improvising to get the feel of the characters and the plot, which has a lot of twists and turns and intrigue.

Traditional Myanmar theatre has a lot in common with "traditional" western theatre (ie, Shakespeare and Commedia del'Arte).  Since the military junta has been in charge, traditional/classical Burmese theatre is all you could study, as contemporary theatre techniques and modern plays have been viewed with suspicion and heavily censored. Thukhuma Khayeethe (the local theatre ensemble) wanted to do a Commedia era piece that could lend itself to modern interpretations, and Volpone is a great bridge between the classical and modern.

The actors have a lot of clown and comedy experience from performing social theatre productions for children and communities around Yangon. Joanna, Anna Zastrow and I did a 10 performance tour in 2010 with the newly formed Thukhuma Khayeethe to local monastery schools with the Hand Washing Show in 2010.  They have several new actors and actresses added in the last year, and this will be their first "serious comedy".

So we'll see how it goes... 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Foreign Policy: Myanmar Update 3

Another update from Michael in Yangon, where all is still well.  

We had an interesting chat with one of the young (21) receptionists at our hotel, a very nice, friendly, good English speaker.  On the subject of food I mentioned that Joanna and I were both fond of Japanese food, and she kind of frowned and said that, well, they had a lot of trouble with Japanese people.  I asked, "you mean Japanese tourists who stay at the hotel".  "No," she said, "the Japanese people who invaded my country and did very bad things!"   She then went on to list a variety of hideous tortures, hardly exclusive to the Japanese but certainly used by their thugs when they ran amok in China and SouthEast Asia in the 1940's.  I did let her know that we've had some wonderful experiences touring in Japan and have some very lovely friends who are Japanese, and, well, after all that was several generations ago.  She was not swayed in her opinion. Just one of those reality checks concerning foreign policy: some people just don't forgive and forget.   BUT... we did a check with a number of other locals, and it seems that this kind of thinking not so prevalent. Most everybody else either likes the Japanese or is indifferent.

Actually, most of the public buses here are Japanese made, with the steering wheel on the right side, like in England/Japan, but they drive on the right side, like in the US.  Which means they have to modify the doors, sealing the ones on the left and cutting new ones in on the right (the sidewalk side).  The buses look like hell, not just from that but being driven hard and fast.  Why? Because the buses are rented by the driver and the ticket taker, much like a taxi is rented from a cab company.  The passengers they pick up that day is their take (after the rental fee) which means the buses race each other to get to bus stops first.  It's pretty crazy.  It's not the kind of free market economy conducive to safety, but it's what they have at the moment.

Follow up Tid-Bit:
I mentioned in a previous email that the locals are happy that internet restrictions have lifted somewhat and they can now get You Tube.  I should add, however, that mostly all they can get is the opening page, not the actual videos which take far to long to download due to the slow connections.  But still, it's a start.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Visiting the Neighbors: Myanmar Update 2

Michael's Yangon update from January 22, 2012.

All's well that starts well here in Yangon.  We're working with 10 members of the group Thukhuma Khayeethe ("Arts Travelers"), four of whom we toured with on our last trip in 2010.  We've had three rehearsals so far.  Here's a little tid-bit from a recent rehearsal:

Our rehearsal studio is a rented, empty house in a suburban area in north Yangon called Inseine.  It IS pronounced "insane" but doesn't carry the same meaning--  though it might when we are through with it.  It is local to the famous prison of the same name where at least two of the actors were incarcerated several years for "political activities", in their pre-theatre days.

Anyway, we were doing one of those group circle exercises called Visiting the Neighbors, useful for ensemble building and character exploration.  It allows the actor freedom of physical and vocal expression.  Apparently, however, this neighborhood is not used to such freedom, because after about 10 minutes of what must have sounded like bedlam WE were visited by the neighbors, who demanded to know what the hell we were doing.  The offending character might have been yours' truly, who at the time was grabbing one of the actors by the lapels and shouting "Whaaaaat?!!!  He gave my money to WHOOOOOOO??!!!"   (Part of the exercise, of course.)

Clearly our theatre pals hadn't introduced themselves to the community and given them a "heads up" about what might go on.  We promised to be more "respectful".

More to come,
Watch this space.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What a Difference an Election Makes: Myanmar Update 1

Michael and Joanna left for Myanmar last Sunday to continue BST's collaboration with Thukhuma Khayethe (Arts Travelers).  Here is Michael's first update from January18.

Greetings from Yangon, Myanmar.

What a difference an election makes.  Today we met with our local collaborator, Thila Min of Art Travelers Theatre, and he was fairly giddy about how much has changed in the last few months.  The election was 4 or 5 months ago -- that is, the military regime handed over the government to "the people", though it was indeed one of the military favored parties that won most of the parliamentary seats. Since then, they have freed many political prisoners, Obama sent Hilary for chats with the government and the USA opened diplomatic relationships (we had an embassy here, but not an ambassador).   As Thila Min reports, people can now shout "freedom" in the streets, and say Aung San Suu Kyi's name without fear of imprisonment (until recently they had to refer to her as "the lady"; she being the opposition party leader lately free of her house arrest).  Heck, I just realized I can GOOGLE Aung San Suu Kyi's name and get results -- couldn't do that before!

They can now visit the websites You Tube and the BBC and Voice of America, previously all off limits. They notice there are WAY more tourists in town than ever before.  In fact that was a problem for us on our first night-- our two usual hotels were all booked, and all have raised their prices $5 per night.  We will be checking in to our favorite, Kung Lay Inn, tomorrow night.  We stopped by there and they still had our brochure on the desk from our stay in 2009! 

Our task here is to do some serious work on a play we've suggested to our collaborators in Arts Travelers: Ben Johnson's Volpone, a Shakespeare-era comedy about greed and con games (kinda resonated with us re: our collapsing US and world economy).  We're using the basic plot-line, but we'll update the language and situations.

We've been working with Arts Travelers in two projects, the last one being our tour around Yangon and the Mon and Katrin States with the Hand-Washing Show for kids.  Our hope is our version of Volpone will interest the sponsors of international collaborations to underwrite a tour of the show in Myanmar and the USA next year.  Their company has grown from the four members we worked with in 2010 to the 10 members they have now.  We'll meet the new actors for the first time tomorrow morning.

That’s the news at present.  We're pretty excited about being here and working with this energetic group.  

More to come,