The joy of Theatre and it’s making is in the communication with the audience. When the audience gets it, and gives a resounding standing ovation, Theatre is made complete!
The applause was very loud, after the total silence in the audience except the occasional chuckle or cough, there had been moments of light laughter especially when the narrator said Gagarin had to assure the first people who saw him land from the sky in a parachute – a farmer and a child, – that he was not a ‘dangerous’ American and that he had indeed come from the sky! The five of us returned on stage to take another bow, the applause increased! Then through the blinding stage lights I realized we were being given the loudest standing ovation I have ever experienced in my many years of stage performance. Here it was, happening in Craiova Romania, on Sunday the 24th of April 2016. It was just on the last note of the xylophone tune I have named ‘Bells’ which I play to end the show as the lights dim and go off for us to get ready to take the bow. To think that just before the show someone was asking me, “How many people do you think they are expecting?” I said, “I have no idea” I had no way of knowing, then before our eyes, as the two of us, Tyler and I, played the introductory improvised music, (which we play to welcome the audience) we saw the theatre fill to capacity! And all those people on their feet, and calling us back again and again with their appreciation.
Last Dream production has been an emotional journey for me as well it has seen my return to professional Theatre after so many years of departure into film and music – especially into music. Music has always been the thing to beat of all my artistic passions. It is for this reason that it has shaped how I practice other art forms. When I think about making films, the thinking is influenced by music. When I practice storytelling the method incorporates music to the maximum. Thus my return to Theatre in Scotland has been through the practice and performance of African music in Scotland. In many ways it was unplanned. Much of my life as an artist is so unplanned and full of pleasant surprises. It is also full of uncertainty and difficulty but it is a full life – a life of exploration and a life of relative contentment, laughter contemplation, discovery and rediscovery. So, the journey started in the 2013 GRAMNet Party at The Glad Cafe, when I was introduced to Kai Fischer the creator and director of Last Dream (On Earth). He had been told by my friend and colleague Alison Phipps who is now my PhD supervisor and mentor, to come and see me perform at the Glad cafe with my Glasgow Highlife Band.
After overcoming my initial difficulty of understanding Kai’s German-Scottish accent I became very exited about what Kai was planning to embark on. I did not realize though at the time, that it was going to be an emotional journey for me, one that would see me become so passionate about my own migrant identity and the importance of creating alternative passionate narratives about the important role migration plays across the world; how life and it’s continuity is reliant on the opportunity to migrate; how people who migrate for whatever reason and by whatever means should not be criminalized and perceived as illegal members of any community. It took my mind back to think about the importance of the 1980s’ and 90s’ influx of other west Africans into Ghana and how they quickly became part of the population because as a nation the notion of illegality for someone fleeing from war and seeking refuge was not a part of the thinking of the ordinary Ghanaian, it was not a big issue. I remember working with five highly talented singers from Liberia and launching them into Television through the youth TV magazine programme I produced at the time at TV3 Network Ghana in the late 1990s. I remember how much joy they gave to anyone who listened to them sing and how they enriched their new home with their singing.
Today, many of those people have retuned to their home countries of Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, while others who chose to stay and made Ghana their homes are actively involved in civic participation as citizens of their adopted country. It made me reflect, and reflecting gave me the space to increase my understanding of some of the important human issues that arise when large groups of people become displaced. The pain of the pressure to move or die; how suddenly people find themselves living at the very edge of existence and needing just to survive! It made me think about the instinct to move, and how important it is for every individual to have the freedom to use that instinct to move away from danger, most of all, how it befalls us all to bear the responsibility making it easy – every individual to pursue the safety and comfort of any person at risk of losing their very existence as a result of no fault theirs; a result of war, drought, persecution poverty and loss – for people to move to safety.
So, as the applause resounded in my head, these thoughts became poignant. But also in my thoughts, as my heart missed several beats because we had to return to take another bow as the applause continued in intensity, was the realisation that we are actually passionately doing something about it. And in that auditorium far from home we had touched hundreds of hearts! An elderly member of the audience summed all this up for me in a single word, …
… hands raised to the brow in a salute. I quickly stepped back to him and shook hands with him, feeling humbled and with a multiplicity of ‘respect’ to him back. In the audience that night were many European theatre makers. In that audience were people who went on the journey with us through their headphones across the Sahara desert, and with us when we drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. But also with us at mission control on the occasion of the Soviet Union’s first manned flight into space, a journey of exploration, which led the way into more manned flights into space. But the significance, I hoped, of that space flight and its glory, the risks and the triumphs do not diminish the significance of the lives lost at sea on a rubber dingy in an attempt to reach what seems to be a better life in the eyes of a young girl named Sam whose first encounter with the sea opens the show, alongside the frighteningly realistic sound effects of sea, mixed with the ‘shhhhh-shhhhh’ of my rain drum, and wind effects. Her journey started with a lot of trepidation; a journey she took to the end of her young life in the company of a young man named Zouma, and another girl who called herself Pele, and the little boy they called Yahya! Only Pele and Yahya survived this arduous journey of bravery and fear.
How we tell the stories of the importance of life, and the importance of one journey in relation to the other, the importance of the responsibility humanity has towards itself, the fears we have accumulated about each other and how we have erected various forms of barriers against each other in order to respond to those fears; how we tell the stories is what will constitute how we as practitioners of creative arts would bring new and creative thinking and hopefully, real understanding to the narratives on migration and migrants. But how we react to the stories, what we do about the stories, what actions others take about these stories we tell when we tell them, is what will shape the world today and tomorrow.
We were told later that part of the discussions in the European Theatre Price on the day conference was “How Theatre affects and transforms lives”. I can talk with total confidence, about my own life as it has been transformed by ‘Last Dream (On Earth)’ Theatre production – the innovation, the friendships developed the relationship built, maintained and transformed, the experimentation and learning, learning through devising, mutual respect, support and compassion, meeting people in the Scottish theatre industry, receiving positive critical feedback and recognition: for example, becoming a Critics Award for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) nominee, and actually jointly winning and sharing the award for music and sound with such talented individuals like Matt and Tyler has been transformational to say the least, and life changing. However, deepest and life gripping is the transformation that continues to evolve as a result of all these and more. The potentials and new opportunities, the hearts touched in our audiences their continued interest in the production as the tension builds around migration in Europe, that is Theatre as it impacts on people – performer and audience alike.
Kai Fischer’s Last Dream (On Earth) has been recognized and acclaimed as a work of genius in Criova Romania, and I am proud to be part of this journey proud to have been called upon to dig into and use my skills to contribute to the telling, proud to be called upon to dig into my experience to translate what seems verbally difficult to translate into new sounds that invite the audience to embark on their own journeys into the world of a vibrant sonic narrative woven with strands of minimalist visual narrative. There were Theatre critics from all over Europe, some of who went out to the pub with us along with National Theatre of Scotland staff. They will be writing their critiques, but what has been etched into their memories and the memories of those Theatre enthusiasts who witnessed the single night show in Craiova this Spring of 2016 can hardly be analyzed and critiqued in a conventional manner. What was etched in our memories as performers is only within our own reach to draw upon again to enrich how we ‘interthink’ create, recreate and share. It exists in a different space of grasping and understanding. It is a lived experience! It is the beginning of a big dream! Last Dream (On Earth) and it has just began.
When I got the first email from Kai to inform me about the potential (or was it a strong possibility) of Last Dream going to European Theatre Price 2016, there was a heavy embargo on the news! In the same email was another (embargoed) news that there could be support to take the production to the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe. At the time I was still working on my PhD research documentary film ‘Music Across Borders’. I was still doing final touches to the editing and preparing the programme for the premier screenings and jazz concerts in Glasgow and Copenhagen. This means that when the time came the final day’s screening overlapped with my first day of Last Dream rehearsal in preparation for Craiova. We had had a full house the previous day at the Glad Cafe and I was exited about the audience comments. I was feeling particularly happy for a number of reasons. Firstly, that what was just an idea exactly a year before had turned out to become a real documentary film. Secondly, Danish composer and saxophone player Katrine Suwalski and her Another World Band who feature in the documentary were in Glasgow for the screening and to perform after the screening. Thirdly, my friend and colleague filmmaker Ian Masters who I had not seen for 10 years had decided to come and meet me in Glasgow to discuss a new film project based on a long standing screen project he had involved me in from 2000.
Many things which were just dreams before, seem to be coming together at the same time, and I found myself in the middle of it all, feeling very privileged. The documentary premier was a success even though I would have been happier if more people had turned up to see it on the first and third days, and enjoyed the high quality jazz music of Katrine Suwalski and her Another World Band in collaboration with Glasgow Highlife Band and Paragon’s Kaleodophone. So this means I returned to rehearse with my colleagues in Last Dream production (which had two new young actors a new stage manger and a new sound engineer!) with a lot of enthusiasm. We had barely two weeks to be ready. I struggled during the first two days as I was still suffering from sleep deprivation – a result of weeks of final editing work on Music Across Borders documentary film and the busy schedule of hosting and performing with Katrine and Another World Band. But I was back and that was invigorating. Yet, nothing tops how invigorating it feels to be endorsed by an audience like the European Price New Theatrical Realities audience! It was super invigorating! So I flew back to Glasgow in high spirits, looking forward to attend my son’s school talent show where he was going to play the kora in front of other children their teachers and parents. He had come to me a few days earlier to ask if he could audition for the show with the Kora, he had started persuading his own dream as a performer and I knew it was great for his confidence.