Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Blog With Few Words: Myanmar Update 3

From Michael: Hey Kids!  Tired of blogs filled with words?  No?  Well, since our goal here in Yangon has been  writing a play and a training manual, I sure as hell am tired of words, so this blog entry will use pictures as the jump off.  

First up:
These are our good friends in Thukhuma Khayethe, Nyan (left) and Thila (right) getting ready for a show they donated to a local old folks home.  Notice that Thila is wearing a traditional longyi, or rather a traditional clown longyi.  You would know this because the pattern of the cloth, while perhaps appropriate for the Scottish Bagpipe Infantry, is really only appropriate for a Burmese table cloth - or a clown. 

This is pretty much all you need to know about the Water Festival, whose proper Burmese name is Thingyan.  Basically, sponsors (especially booze companies) build these reviewer stands / dance floors all around town for young people, especially young men, to fire water hoses and cannons at Toyota pick-ups filled with more youth, especially young men, who consider it a fun blessing to be doused in water.  The pickups will stop for a minute or two to be sure their passengers are thoroughly soaked.   They will line up at the bigger, more famous stands and wait their turn for the soaking. 

During this time taxis will cover their seats with plastic as passengers are likely to be dripping, and street-side revelers are apt to toss buckets of water into the taxi to soak their foreign passengers (we speak from experience).   This is why we do not actually have too many pictures of the festivities; we feared for the life of our Canon G-12.

Once we got the whole idea behind the Water Festival (soak everyone, especially the foreigners) we decided to stroll around the more peaceful side streets, where only the occasional reveler might gently pour a bowl of water down your back.  Our neighborhood around the hotel has lovely flowers in full bloom.  Atop a background of greens are yellows, reds, pinks, and white (pinks pictured here).  

We did taxi over to the state-manicured Peoples Park;  no water cannons allowed in the park, but we did enjoy running through the sprinklers.   In the area marked LOVE we hung out with a couple of park rangers, whose job apparently is to make sure that the young love-birds sitting in the cul-de-sacs keep their hands visible at all times.  Not sharing a common language, I showed them our mini-portfolio of pictures from our tours, and the images of us working with the Afghans elicited a lot of conversation between them.  The man then pulled a cross from around his neck, indicating that he was a Christian and, I think, inquiring if perhaps we were Christian missionaries working to convert the Afghan Muslims.   I'm not sure what brand of Christianity he thought uses stilts and outrageous costumes, but, no, that wasn't our job.

This is the table at the Gitameit Music Center around which Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayethe make our master plans for bringing a new version of "Volpone" into the world.  Playing the part of Michael McGuigan is Eugenio Barba of Denmark's Odin Teatret.  To his right, playing herself, is the wonderful Odin actress Julia Varley.  They were both traveling around Myanmar and their pass through Yangon coincided with our stay here.  We had a lovely afternoon together before they headed to Bali.

And here we all are outside the Gitameit gate.  Obviously Eugenio won the part of playing me because of the hair color.  

Next blog:  all the work we're doing (probably more words). 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Starting Anew in Myanmar: Update 2

Joanna Sherman's update from Myanmar on blending the East and West on stage, Burmese culture "opening up," and the future of theatre in the country.

Finally -- greetings from Myanmar!  All is going very well.  We have been having some fascinating discussions with Thila Min about Buddhism, life, theatre, making sense of the recent violence here, Myanmar cultural history, and... the play.  All endlessly interesting. 

Basically, we have been exploring how Burmese performance styles and US/European styles can blend in style, character, setting, music, dance, and structure of the play. We are watching DVDs of famous zat pwe performers and performances, looking mostly at structure: for example, they always begin with the Nat pwe, a dance to certain spirits to get on their good side. Otherwise these spirits seemed to me to be a bit shady or hedonistic (tricksters?) who could play some nasty pranks during the performance.  So perhaps we might start with such a dance -- what fun!  At the same time, the costumes and altar to these spirits are, as Thila says, very "bling bling", which fits right into Volpone's love of "bling".  The altar to the spirits could very easily become Volpone's altar to his gold, and the play does open with he and Mosca's worshiping their stash. 

We have had further discussions on where the show will travel, what kind of venues, and who would our audiences be??  These are huge questions since modern theatre is really unknown!  Just like Afghanistan... for slightly different reasons.  In one, the government forbade it on religious grounds, and the other, the government forbade it on political grounds. As things loosen up, the Thukhuma Khayeethe folks seem to think it is time to take modern theatre public. But still, who will our audiences be?  The National Theatre here in Yangon still stands idle except for rentals for big events. But even the concerts lose money.  The zat pwe is very cheap and everyone knows exactly what to expect.  Could we do some scenes in the pwe?  Thila says not.  People go the pwe to have a night out of entertainment, but actual attention to what's on stage drifts in and out depending on personal taste, who's awake and who's sleeping, what's to eat, who you're with, etc.  It's a night-long picnic. Everyone knows the stories so no need to actually pay attention.  A serious tale (however comical) would not command attention with the pwe crowd. 

So we are thinking that perhaps cinemas might offer a venue, or maybe schools... we are starting anew here. There is no knowledge of modern theatre. If we succeed, we are opening a new door.  It is quite like what we were doing in Afghanistan with Exile Theatre -- first people who saw our work were aghast at what they saw in our abstract surreal storytelling... then slowly they all tried to mimic it.  (At least in Afghanistan they had a tradition in the Stanislavsky style from the Russians two decades before).  Here we hope Thukhuma Khayeethe can lead the way. I expect it will have a tough start, and that's why we are trying to cagily introduce some mix of East and West to ease in some new ideas.

We still have a lot more decisions to make about language, costume, character, staging, music, etc. but we are off to a good start.  We made a great start in our prior rehearsal process, and now (especially since things are truly looking like they are opening up... even just over the course of one year) we can really plan to take our show public!  Not just hidden away at Gitameit or the American Center or Alliance Francais. 

We have a hiatus now in our work on the play during the Water Festival.  It officially starts today and we will report!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Yangon News #1

Michael's update from Yangon on the current situation on the ground, the effects of history, progress, and the Water Festival.

Greetings from Yangon...
...where the weather is hot and the atmosphere is peaceful.  It's the calm before the storm, the storm being the New Year Celebration and the infamous Water Festival which starts today, Saturday April 13.   I'm getting the impression it's like being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and Times Square for New Years.  We have an expectation of getting continually soaked by water cannons and blasters, and assured that my sins or bad karma or both are being washed away.  Another reason not to drink the water.

Joanna and I are here to flesh out the plans for a US - Burmese production of Ben Jonson's Elizabethan-era comedy, Volpone, which we plan to produce with our friends in Thukhuma Khayethe (Art Travelers Theatre Co.) with whom we've been training and performing since 2009.

Our first visit four years ago was under the watchful eyes of the military dictatorship, which kept the beloved lady Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.  Our last visit a year ago had seen Suu Kyi released and elected to Parliament, and a new "open" era coming in (hopefully).   Now a year later, we are getting the skinny from our friends on how things have been going.

If you have been following the news, you may be aware that there have been recent clashes and bloodshed between the Buddhists and the Muslims. To understand where this comes from, we have to take a step back and remember our cultural history.

First, the name Myanmar vs Burma.  In the Burmese language, and we are talking history here, the name of the country when written in official King's court documents is Myanmar.  When the commoners speak it, they say Burma. This notion of having special words for the King and other words for commoners is not rare in world languages.  The British, having had colonies all over the place including here, referred to this territory as Burma, partly to stick-it to the former royal rulers.  But there are a lot of ethnicities and religions:  the majority are Buddhist and ethnic Burmese, but there are also Muslims, Christians and Hindus who are Shan, Karin, Mon etc etc.  When the military took over somewhat after the Brits left, they changed the name to the more "inclusive" Myanmar (inclusive sounding, though the military was primarily Burmese, paranoid and brutal to anyone remotely dissenting).

There is a good primer and political update on this Burma - Myanmar - US relations issue at the Washington Post.

With that background and even a vague understanding of world politics, its pretty easy to guess what happens when a formerly oppressed people gets a taste of freedom and democracy. They use their new-found voices to yell at each other. Every under-educated charismatic bullet-head now figures their opinion is better than the next guy, and they get on the radio and say "ya know, these [insert ethnic group here] people are dirty and smelly and taking over our way of life. They should leave."  So yeah, there are ethnic tensions, these days particularly between the Buddhists and the Muslims. Myanmar shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and the politics are akin to the immigrant situation between the US and Mexico.   Arizona, anyone?

More to the point, our friend Thila Min (director of TK) reports that people are happy to take their rights, but not the responsibility.  Freedom of speech can be used for good or for evil, but nobody wants to be responsible for the evil their speech might unleash.  Sound familiar? 

Thila's English is very good,  but I wouldn't have thought he knew a word like "crony", which he uses a lot to describe another problem: rampant crony-ism.  There is a great deal of deal-making, land grabbing and back scratching between politicians, connected merchants, and foreign interests, all to the detriment of the poor and middle class that the new openness was supposed to help. 

But, by and large, there are "onward and upward" kinds of changes going on. We've been staying in the same neighborhood through these years, and just in the last year we have seen many new and modern homes spring up, gigantic hotels, new car dealerships, all in formerly vacant lots. I don't know if they are getting any business, but the construction companies must be making a killing. The members of  Thukhuma Khayethe also hear the siren call of business opportunities outside of theatre work.  One of the finest clown-actors I know, Soe Myat Thu, is getting a lot of work instead as an English-French-Burmese translator for all the foreign business people descending on Yangon.

But the theatre work does go on. We have had some great meetings with Thukhuma Khayethe about our co-production of Volpone, and we're learning more about the culture and seeing how it might manifest in the play, which is exciting. 

Next: swimming in the Water Festival.