Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Volpone: From Rehearsal to Performance

In our final weeks in Myanmar, Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayeethe premiered our quite unique version of Volpone, an adaptation of Ben Jonson's 1605 play. The play is a fusion of styles, combining Italian commedia dell'arte with a Burmese dance to the spirits, and addresses the particularly relevant theme of personal responsibility in a country just moving from strict military rule to a certain amount of personal freedom. With freedom comes responsibility

Check out photos from the process below:

The Bond Street and Thukhuma Khayeethe teams discuss the script
(L-R: Nyan Lin Aung, Ngwe Ngwe Tin, Zin Mar Thwin, Kyae Zan and Soe Moe Thu. 
Not shown: Soe Myat Thu, Thila Min, Michael McGuigan and Joanna Sherman)

Rehearsal sure is tiring!

A dusty dress rehearsal at Gitameit

Our smallest audience members listen to the live pre-performance music at our second performance -- in a squatter settlement just outside Yangon. Wah Wah (in the blue dress at right) played the Burmese harp, which can be seen on the chair next to her, and the violin. 
 The audiences stayed enthralled and attentive for the entire hour and a half show!  And eagerly contributed to the ending in which the audience gets to decide who is guilty and who is not and why. Most important, they understand that they have a voice in their future -- they can speak out against injustice and have a responsibility to do so

Audience participation at the final show in the lovely township of East Dagon in Yangon.

Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayeethe give a huge thanks to all those that made this production possible, especially the Theatre Communications Group's In the Lab Grant program that supported the entire mulit-year process, the Gitameit Music School, and all of our supporters!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Volpone Premieres in Yangon

People have been asking, why Volpone?  How did you manage to make that make sense in Myanmar?  Did they catch the British humor or understand the context?  Well, it was easier than one might think -- human beings have the same flaws and foibles everywhere. Adjusting the characters to Burmese society was not a big leap!  

The tough part was the verbal translation -- translating from old English to new English to American to easy American to Burmese to clever Burmese. Even the humor slipped easily between cultures. It's a great pleasure to know that what makes people laugh is the same everywhere you go. People love to laugh.

[It reminds me of our first performances in Afghanistan in 2003, just after the fall of the Taliban regime. We took a comic show to small towns where people had never seen a show, since all of the arts had been banned under the Taliban. There were still many Taliban-sympathizers in the audience and we had no idea if we'd be welcomed or shot. In fact, they were rolling in the aisles (figuratively speaking) -- the children along with the white beards!  Everyone loves slapstick! ]

The other reasons for doing Volpone is the content and message. Both companies believe that theatre artists have a unique opportunity to facilitate discussion around social issues and, in Myanmar, that has not been an option. All outlets for discussion were censored, and all public material had to pass government scrutiny beforehand. We hope that this production will make bold first steps. The story is bizarre enough to only obliquely reflect reality and anger any leftover censors. And, hopefully, it will provide an exciting model for social engagement through theatre for both performers and audiences in the future.  

Meanwhile, Yangon is a city in transition! Newly opened to foreign trade, I was shocked to see shops like Armani in a newly refurbished airport that had only had local handicraft stalls for years!  So it was only appropriate that, against this backdrop of change, Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayeethe premiered our Volpone in a space that was quite literally still under construction.

Volpone premiered at the new Gitameit studios, with workers pouring concrete in the next room and bamboo scaffolding holding up the stairwell. Nonetheless, the show was a success, with laughs all around, and an opportunity to test the material and the interactive ending. Since it was at Gitameit, among artists, we got some great feedback and ideas. Up next: two more performances in more daring spaces around Yangon!

Check out photos from the rehearsal process below, and stay tuned for more updates:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Updates from Myanmar

Greetings from Yangon, Myanmar, where Bond Street Theatre has just wrapped the second week of rehearsals for Volpone, our show in collaboration with Burmese theatre group Thukhuma Khayeethe.

Those of you who have followed Bond Street's adventures over the years might remember that we frequently rehearse at the very cool Gitameit Music School in Yangon. This time we were lucky to be the first group to rehearse in the "new" Gitameit studios. Well, lucky might be a little strong, since they are still actively constructing the building, which meant dust, nails, sparks and concrete everywhere. Concrete steps newly poured..."hmm, any steel reinforcing in there?" we wondered as we made our way to the third floor. 

The best thing was the group of workmen who traipsed around during our warm-ups and rehearsals, watching us with great curiosity. One of them was heard to say, "What are they doing? They're just playing!"  Yup. That's why they call it a play.  

After one week, they started some serious welding in our space and we had to move. For our second week, we rehearsed in a small Buddhist Monastery located near the home of director Thila Min. Note: monasteries make great rehearsal spaces!

Our rehearsals so far have included practice in traditional Burmese dance, learning a traditional Nat dance, a spirit dance that (interestingly enough) is about the joys of drinking. We have spent our meetings with TK over the years sharing physical performance techniques, so we speak the same language theatrically and can jump right into the work. Our latest addition to the mix was introducing the style of the Italian commedia dell'arte. Now, in the third stage of working on Volpone, we are easily blending our mix of physical vocabularies.  

We are working all day -- 10am to 5pm!  What a luxury!  Morning and afternoon sessions are separated by lunch at one of the street side stalls. Yes, I know they say don't eat street food... but this is what they have! And it's great food, freshly made from fresh produce from local farmers

Next week is tech week and the cast and crew will be assembling set pieces and costumes for our debut public performances in the following week!  It's been a whirlwind process, and the next week is sure to be no different. If there's one thing we've learned about street performances, it's that they are always full of surprises! Stay tuned!

Rehearsing at the New Gitameit Studios

Monday, January 02, 2017

Street Theatre in Myanmar

We landed in Yangon, Myanmar and, after 24 hours of no sleep, immediately made up for lost time. Still a bit jetlagged, we met with the whole gang from Thukhuma Khayeethe yesterday, our intrepid and inventive partners in Myanmar since 2009. Since our last visit just a year and a half ago, there were two marriages and three children including one set of twins!   

This week we will begin our rehearsals for Volpone, our adaptation of Ben Jonson's 16th century play. A dual-language production, the show tackles themes of greed and corruption but, since plays in progress have a way of taking on a life of their own, we'll see how it manifests these or other themes.

The challenge, beyond the obvious hurdles of creating successful theatre, is that Thukhuma Khayeethe is trying to create a culture of contemporary theatre where there has been none over the last 5 decades. Traditional theatre abounds, and this is what the tourists want to see, but contemporary theatre has been forbidden under the military regime since, as we know, theatre is dangerous! It can expose uncomfortable truths!

In addition, it was our intention, now that the military regime is (mostly) gone, to bring theatre directly to the people by doing our plays in the streets or parks. There are no venues for contemporary theatre, so it's is a logical place to perform... but how would an actual play be received?

People do see dramas on TV, so the idea is not unknown, but they don't see theatre. They love comedy, so we have to combine both, with the added complication that we intend our Volpone to be interactive with the ending decided by the audience. Will they respond?  Will they participate?

Since our last trip, Thukhuma Khayeethe has also started a coalition of four young theatre groups that also want to do modern theatre. TK is the oldest and most experienced group, but it is really encouraging to see a new movement starting up. 

With this interactive show, we will be examining all these questions with Thukhuma Khayeethe, and continuing to figure out how to use theatre to spark discussion and bring taboo topics to light without having anyone end up in jail.  With performances in public spaces as our testing ground, and a newly opened government, we have a unique opportunity to experiment with all possibilities while refining the show.  We can't wait to see where the coming weeks take us!