Wednesday, October 31, 2012

yermedea RAW in Boston


This past weekend, the production of yermedea RAW embarked on the second part of its tour to perform two sold-out shows in Boston's Factory Theatre with the help of the phenomenal Sleeping Weazel artists' collective.
For both nights, we shared the stage with Vacant Lot Theatre Company's production of Equiprobablism, another play by Erik Ehn of his series entitled A Child's Drawing Of A Monster, directed by Kathleen Amshoff. As we realized that the venue of the Factory Theatre is even smaller than at 95 Empire Black Box, cast and crew once more set out to make it work and adapt our production to the new space. Just as at 95 Empire, the confines eventually proved to be a blessing as they enabled us to discover the work anew and intensify some moments even more, which all in all resulted in two very powerful performances.



The premiere was followed by a talk back with the directors, Kym Moore and Kathleen Amshoff, and artist Robbie McCauley. Robbie started off the conversation by praising the strong images of the production that brought her to reconsider the question of whether genocide is a natural and normal activity for humanity and how it could have been going on for centuries. She emphasized that it was theatre work like this that lets us stop in our tracks to consider these issues in the first place, all coming down to the fundamental question: Who are we? Kathleen stressed that Erik's writing is always interested in asking questions that cannot be easily answered. His writing may seem very oblique as it in fact is always coming from the side. A member of the audience related that although the images were stark and overwhelming, she did feel hopeful towards the end. Kym agreed that in spite of all the carnage, there is also life and survival and hope. It is above all in working with young companies that she is reminded of this hopefulness and the fact that humanity can do better than engaging in genocide. This becomes also very palpable with the figure of Pachamama in the show, which was early on incorporated by Kym and Alejandra Prieto. Not only is Pachamama the revitalizing force but she also stands in for the survival of women, who are not just victims but survivors, who are constantly coming back. Robbie connected this to Obatala, the dying and rising god of the Yoruba religion, that embodies faith in renewal and spiritual hope that is part of the feminine in everyone, which she also saw as the basis for the figure of the Driver, which Kym confirmed. The feminine, which resides in both men and women, is in this way an undervalued energy that is not supported by society, especially when this nurturing quality becomes apparent in men, who are too easily perceived as the sole perpetrators. Kym expressed that rather than an inherent duality, the opposition between the masculine and the feminine is a concept that is put onto us.



As another member of the audience asked about the scrolls that were used in the production, Kym remarked that although her family originally comes from Central America, she had little knowledge of the continent's history and especially the history of genocide there before starting this project. The scrolls and the Mayan script they display call into presence the vast number of stories that have been repressed or are not readily available in the West's version of history. Sleeping Weazel's Charlotte Meehan made a case for theatre that brings the stories of people to light, who are not seen - for to tell a story and thus to keep a people is also a joyful activity, even if the images may at first appear brutal and overwhelming.
Another audience member remarked that she often felt foreign to the experience of the performance and that she observed a historical dislocation. While at times she felt sympathy, at other points she felt extremely other and foreign. Kym mentioned that we may sometimes get over-concerned with identifying everything, which can get into way of actually seeing what is going on. Kathleen added that it is also Erik's poetic language that keeps you falling into and out of the story, which in fact asks a lot from the audience in terms of different forms of attention. Robbie then stressed that she often feels that audiences are underestimated and that theatre and art in general should put more trust in its audience to come to the work in their own time, whether it is during the performance, after the performance, a week later, or in their dreams.

Check back later this week for a report on the talk back with Kym and Erik in Boston!!!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Power of Art


Yermedea Raw finished its successful and powerful residency at 95 Empire yesterday after 5 extraordinary performances, which were in part followed by a talk back focusing on different issues. After Saturday's matinee, director Kym Moore was joined by Dorothy Abram (JWU), Omar Bah (a refugee from The Gambia), and Cristina Cabrera (English for Action) for a bilingual talk back session in English and Spanish (with Cristina translating) on refugee experience and the potential of art.
First, Dorothy and Kym tracked the different entry points for connecting with the production, whether it is through mythology or other stories, memories or experience. An audience member commented that the music used in the production was blending mythologies and realities for her and thus worked like a bridge into this world, no matter where you were coming from.
Another audience member then asked whether it was not immoral "to create art on the ashes of the victims, prettifying it to profit from it"? Omar stated that money is always made, whether it is in the theater or during the atrocities of genocide. For him, theater and art are first and foremost part of the healing process for the victims. Since the experiences of war and genocide will stay with you no matter what, the true profit lies in sharing these stories. Dorothy emphasized that each situation needs to be evaluated individually but that is of utmost importance to tell these stories as stories of survival. Kym added that we do not know what genocide is in the first place and the coming to terms with that fact is part of an educational process for everyone involved. To communicate this struggle within a community in a public space like the theater is "just the beginning of consciousness", especially considering that North American audiences are very well educated regarding historical events like the Holocaust but are largely unaware of the ongoing and current genocides carried out throughout the world.
At this point, the conversation centered around the function of art in the so-called First World and in other parts of the world. Kym stated that art in the US is understood as means either for profit or for leisure, whereas elsewhere art is understood to be a conscious way of living within a community, to understand what it means to be a human being. Kym emphasized that we need to change our perspective on what art can and must do, as art is able to change our image of the world and to transform absolutely anything. Since everybody is able to engage in art, art is the most powerful medium to create new images and tell stories, that will survive and help us to track humanity. Omar added that art helps us to find and understand intrinsic truths about our lives that we have yet no idea about. He continued to tell about his traumatic experiences in Africa, being persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured - but that art enabled him to connect again with his life and with others.
Closing the inspiring conversation this afternoon, an audience member stated that she appreciated the opportunity to witness and experience the emotional fallout of these extreme situations through participating in someone else's point of view, even if it's just for the limited time of this performance, which pulled her in as a witness and participant.

Although we are now taking a short break from the tour, check back in often as the blog will continue to keep you up to date on ongoing dramaturgical efforts and of course on the progress of the tour. Tickets for our performances in Boston and New York City are now on sale: we hope to see you there soon!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Another Talk Back with Erik Ehn

During our run at 95 Empire, we are also hosting a variety of talk back events. After yesterday's performance, playwright Erik Ehn was joined by director Kym Moore and director of the Soulographie play Maria Kizito Emily Mendelsohn to discuss the cycle of Soulographie plays and how Yermedea RAW is situated within it.
Erik started the conversation of by explaining his inspiration to write Soulographie as to negotiate the issue of genocide as a global problem, as a policy, and a way of running the world within 17 plays to possibly encompass what cannot be encompassed. Erik sees his plays as to provoke a state of readiness while committing to "productive waiting", a leaning towards meaning. One of his objectives in writing was to figure out how to rescue a sense of joyfulness in the face of crime and violence. Thus, Erik said, Soulographie does not attempt to explain genocide away but to put it into the context of joy, which for him is inherently the space of theatre. 
An audience member commented on the palpable mythological dimensions of the piece and wondered how the specificity of historical moments, for example in El Salvador, were dealt with. Director Kym Moore then talked about the research process for the play and how the history of El Salvador actually revealed the history of the entire continent, which the production company then actually compelled to widen the scope of the imagery without losing specific pointers to the culture of El Salvador. In this sense, the production sought to establish a balance between historical specificity and greater trends towards a mythological understanding of these events. Erik added that the plays are freed from the burden of supplying information, which is negotiated as part of the production's education and outreach efforts.
Various audience members commented on the power of the production of Yermedea RAW, specifically the use of the puppets and the variety of beautiful and haunting images such as the cornstalks and the shoes. Kym then talked about the true collaborative effort that went both into the design process and the rehearsal process with the actors to generate these moments.
Another comment by audience members centered around the fact that the production is very aware of the audience members being outsiders to the experience of genocide, that even witnessing is negotiated as a complex issue, whereas the shoes served as the vessels through which the souls of the departed traveled, taking hold of the actors who then relate their stories, which was described as very affecting.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Architecture of Sound

During our run at Leeds Theatre, we hosted six talk backs to gather information from our audience on how they perceived, experienced, and understood the production. One of the most common notes we received was the concordant praise of our soundscape, composed by Michael Costagliola. Just as the text, the actors, the images they create, the lights and the evolving set, the sound and the musical pieces create a specific atmosphere that stands in immediate dialogue with all other elements within the production, so much so that we understand our work as creating visual music, or - as one of our audience members has described it - a melodic poem.
In this TED talk, Julian Treasure, the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that advises worldwide businesses on how to use sound, asks us to pay attention to the sounds that surround us. How do they make us feel: productive, stressed, energized, acquisitive? He thus calls designers architects to action to pay attention to the “invisible architecture” of sound.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Not just stories


As the production took one week off before getting ready for the first leg of our tour at 95 Empire in Providence, we have been keeping busy in various ways, most notably in our outreach efforts. Below, please find a contribution from performer Alejandra Rivera Flaviá about these inspiring ventures.

“People think these are stories. They’re not. They’re real,” she said slowly. Although I could see it had taken her time to find the words, the message had been sharp in her eyes, in the universal language of human intention, since before she began to speak: I need you to understand.

She was from Rwanda, where her family continued to reside and suffer the realities of genocide, and she had approached me and my fellow cast member, Becky Bass, in the cafeteria of William D’Abate Elementary School on what, up until then, had seemed to be a not-so-special Tuesday. We were picking up after the Yermedea workshop we had just helped facilitate, in which we had explored the history of El Salvador through theatre with men and women of the English for Action program. Throughout the process, I was surprised to realize that she was not the only one who was moved to share her story. In fact, I was surprised (and surprised to be surprised) to see how much people were moved to begin with.

On the first exercise, the class was divided into groups of three, and each group was given a prompt that delineated an occurrence within the history of El Salvador; they were asked to create a tableau that represented the event. My group, composed of a young man in his mid-20s and a man and a woman who could have been in their late 50s, was given the prompt of “scorched earth,” which was a strategy that the Salvadorian government employed in 1981, which consisted of destroying anything that could be useful to left-wing guerrillas. And what was the most useful asset to these revolutionaries? The support of the people. So by “destroying anything,” I mean "destroying the people."

The small paper that my group was given described the atrocities associated with this tremendously cruel military policy, such as the burning of houses, the raping of women, and the murdering of an immense number of people. As soon as we finished reading it, I looked up to find the three students frozen. Feeling quite uncomfortable myself with the idea of embodying such a violent event, I initially chose to suppress my uneasiness for what I believed to be the sake of the exercise. “So, what ideas do you guys have concerning the prompt?” I asked. Silence. Faces stared at me blankly. Maybe they didn't understand. I needed to change my tactic. “Do you know what the word ‘genocide’ means in Spanish?” I continued. This time, there was no silence. The word “yes” emerged from their mouths, loud and sharp, almost before I could finish my question. I remember realizing how arrogant I must have seemed when asking that condescending question... See, I had arrived there with the understanding that I would need to help them cross a bridge from Spanish to English. As I have personally experienced from years of helping many adults to learn English, this bridge can often feel clunky and difficult to traverse, especially as we grow older, which is why the idea of a “language barrier” that prevents us from doing so has become such a popular image (as well as, unfortunately, an excuse to not try to understand). Despite of this barrier’s presence in my group when it came to language such as “right wing,” “felony,” and “indictment,” the second that I inquired if they needed help with the word “genocide,” such a collective reaction was a quick mutual agreement between the four of us that we all knew exactly what that meant. Thus, when it came to human pain, there was no such thing as a language barrier.

One of the men raised his finger in a gesture that signaled that he would be right back and proceeded to go over to Francesca, the workshop’s main facilitator, to explain the fact that these brutal events were close to his heart, making it difficult for him to perform the exercise. That was when I realized how counterintuitive it was of me to repress my own visceral reaction to the prompt. By doing so, I was inhibiting communication rather than fostering it, because—ultimately—that feeling of discomfort, that reluctance to mentally place ourselves within such a unbearable scene, that alliance with our weakness that allowed us the strength of accepting that we simply could not take it—that was the language we all shared. That was the language that would ensure that we would all indeed cross the bridge. And together.

I took a deep breath and said, “You know, I feel pretty uncomfortable doing this one. It’s very painful, so I don’t think we should do it directly.” What a release that was for them, I could have never imagined. As soon as I acknowledged this, it felt as though the picture unfroze. They began breathing again, which made me realize that they had been holding their breath to a certain extent since they had read the paper. Now they nodded warmly, with sighs of relief, spoke to me as a fellow human being and not a distant intruder, and I felt as though I was finally part of the group.


We decided that, instead of making a tableau of the actual event, we would make one of the counteracting force to such atrocities: compassion. Without much help from me, they joyfully began playing with ideas until they quickly made a beautiful picture. The older man was on the floor, while the woman reached her hand out to him, offering her help. The younger man put his head and his hands on her shoulder. I was very compelled. I felt very human. My mother had once said to me, “You are, first and foremost, a creature of the earth, so if you ever feel lost or disconnected, take your shoes off, and walk in the grass.” This time, working with the group, I didn’t have to remove my boots. Looking at the image they created made me feel my feet on the ground. It reminded me of why we are doing Yermedea in the first place, of why someone like me—a young college girl whose closest experience with physical abuse was the occasional slap from the kindergarden bully—has the capacity and the right to represent the pain of those who have suffered crimes against humanity. It reminded me of the simple and majestic fact of human connection, and how it is ultimately the only “cure,” if one may call it that, to genocide.

As a closing action, we all signed (with our fingerprints) a contract that validated our commitment to acknowledging, to remembering the fact that genocides have occurred and continue to occur throughout the world. As simple as this may have been, it made an impact. On something. Perhaps inside of us, perhaps not, but somewhere and somehow. You see, it’s easy to feel small. It’s easy to step out of rehearsal and emerge yourself in the bubble of what you consider to be your own world. It’s easy to believe that there is nothing you can do for those whose plight you cannot see or understand, but the truth is that when it comes to the desire of making a difference (any difference), “your own world” is merely an illusion. The world belongs to us all, and because “le monde est petit,” each thought looks pretty large in proportion to it. In fact, each thought is large to begin with. Kym Moore, our director, once told us as a cast, “I don't think you as actors are aware of how much exists in this world because of a tiny impulse you had that suddenly grew into a full blown moment that currently exists here in three dimensions.” I don’t think we as people on this planet are aware of that either. 


So come see Yermedea even if you can’t fly to El Salvador to rescue the women whose stories we want to tell you, vote in the national election even if you only think of yourself as one in 300,000,000 people, and keep making things happen by the sole act of existing. Because you are indeed making things happen. And if you ever feel lost or disconnected, take your shoes off and put your feet on the grass, or help facilitate a workshop, or recognize the impulses that inhabit your body in this very moment. Or simply remember that it’s not true that you are disconnected at all, that your ability to think about what is happening to people throughout the world is in fact your connection to these people. Your thoughts are, just like the stories the people in our workshop needed to share... real. 

submitted by Alejandra Rivera Flaviá

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Yanomami


The BBC has recently picked up a news item from Survival International, an organization who works for tribal peoples' rights worldwide. They already reported in late August that there had been a massacre of a group of the Yanomami Amazon tribe in Venezuela by illegal gold miners. While Survival International has since then stated that they were unable to confirm this massacre (read about it here), they also stated that the story of the incident has with all likelihood spread from similar attacks earlier this year. Since the Yanomami are a rather isolated tribe of about 32,000 people, living in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, it is sometimes hard to verify reports in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, the history of abuse of the land and attacks on the tribe by illegal gold miners in the area has been documented for years now. Both Brazilian and Venezuelan authorities have failed to remove the illegal miners and to limit the expanding cattle ranches into indigenous territories, which not only pollute and destroy the land but also endanger the lives of the Yanomami by bringing disease and violence to their territory. In fact, there are several mining bills in the works that would allow for an intensified exploitation of Yanomami land. In response, the Yanomami organization Horonami has issued a statement last week that urges the Venezuelan government to tackle the ‘presence and impacts’ of illegal gold mining, rather than deny the problem exists. Furthermore, they ask for a proper investigation of said massacre, admonishing the Venezuelan authorities and military for pretending that everything is well in the region.

Watch a video with Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who speaks about what the proposed mining bill in Brazil would mean for his people.


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