and… we’re off!

Sheesh. It’s been three days of teaching, and we’ve given no posts! Liza again. We’ve been exhausted from the six hours of mystery that unfold with our students in the Artpolis office, and consumed by strange and exciting Kosovar goings-on, like the weekend Polip International Poetry Festival, the confusing process of securing students, working the guest-teaching circuit, and staying out of crime scenes. Yes, our partner was robbed last night, luckily losing only a laptop from a burglar who was scared off by the office alarm. CSI came to dust for prints and examine the footprints on the carpet (the cleaning lady was there just yesterday, go figure they had to come track mud all over before we could enjoy the freshly vacuumed floor), and we were relegate behind a velvet curtain on the Artpolis stage working through mime exercises - not our morning plan, but we’re learning that “plan” in our current life situation means only “that which most definitely will not happen (but probably for the better).”

Things happen here really quickly. By that, I mean that we passed through a period of seemingly just waiting around, making phone calls and drinking macchiatos during which things were brewing under the surface that will magically appear at the last minute. We thought we had no students on Wednesday of last week and had way too many applicants on Thursday. Meanwhile, we taught a two-hour workshop to second year theatre students at the Faculty of Arts thanks to Agon (who kindly acted as our translator for the whole eclectic thing); we have some hilarious film footage of the event, in which one girl looks like she’s trying to climb out the window during one of our physical energy-building exercises.

Friday, we woke up super-early (pre-coffee, even) to be ready to brave the terrible traffic out of town. We had scheduled a workshop in Llaple Selo with the Geto Theatre crew, but when we arrived, we were met by just one girl who said that the young guy who had the keys to the space last was in Serbia for the day, and everyone who would have been able to do the workshop was in class or working for the Red Cross.  Okay. A bit disheartening, but this happens.

 

We ended up just talking through what our plans for the workshop were, making sure to mention our Serbian connections (thanks, Danica, MOCT, and Dah Teatar) and ensure that we wanted to find a way for the Llaple Selo group to participate. I was worried that having only Albanian partners would be problematic for the other ethnic/language groups participating, but that seemed less of a concern that simply free time. It seems that two weeks - every day -  is an incredibly long time for a workshop here (Though there has been some touchy political action occurring that might be gumming up the works. The President just left office when his coalition lost party and new elections are to occur at the beginning of November. Also, there was a lot of outrage over Serbian soccer fans burning Albanian flags in Italy at a soccer match. How much something like that affects a multi-ethnic project with Kosovar Serbian youth - and their willingness/ability to come alone into the capital - is hard to gauge). The student said she would try to get people to our full-group pre-project meeting on Sunday, but couldn’t guarantee who would come.

After leaving Laplje Selo, we headed to Plemetina to another Balkan Sunflowers office (this one works with the Roma community) to teach a workshop and meet with interested applicants, passing one of the country’s largest coal plants on the way (and I mean literally driving so close to the massive thing that we could touch it if we wanted to). Kefu and Driton, our contacts in Plemetina, met us at the crosswalk near the National Theatre, and we sped out of the city, singing along to Albanian rap. Kefu - a great provocatur and street artist working all across the Balkans (he’s the Kosovar Bob Marley, said Driton) - teased us about American politics the whole way, while Driton talked about the work he’s been doing working on campaigns to reduce prejudice against the Roma in France (also a musician, one of his songs was chosen to promote a Europe-wide campaign).

  (pre-workshop in Balkan Sunflowers)      (Kefu and Richard, arguing about drum and bass)

The Balkan Sunflowers office was small but warm (hot, with their space heater, actually), and we had a hilarious workshop with two guys, Jimmy (after Jimmy Hendrix) and Ardurr, in the center’s preschool classroom. They said if we could find a way for them to get to the workshop, Jimmy, Ardurr and another guy (maybe two) would definitely come.

So Sunday rolled around and we weren’t exactly sure who would come or what would happen. It turned out that we had about seven signed up for the morning session and nine for the afternoon session - sixteen, exactly what we’d hoped for. Huh. And with some switches, drops, and adds (today we got a ballerina), we’re at around twenty.

The groups have both been fantastic, and in different ways. The first group - now with five participants - is all Albanian-speaking (not what we were exactly thinking, but it’s how it turned out, no problem) and is made up of two students from the Youth Network, two students from the Interactive School, and a friend of one of the Youth Network folks. Two of the guys in the group are from the Fushe Kosova Ashkali community, and the rest from the Prishtina/Lipje area. We spent the first two days of the workshop introducing the groups (morning and afternoon) to physical training (in which balance has been a strong physical metaphor), character development, and some basic acrobatics; today after the CSI team left, we delved more into character using the eclectic costumes we bought in Milwaukee. It’s been fun and funny and they keep surprising us. 

The second group - today with thirteen and three observers - is mixed between Serbian (the kids from Laplje Selo came!), Albanian, and Roma  (the guys from Plemetina speak Serbian, too) and is more the place for experimenting with non-verbal performance. I think neither Richard nor I fully realized the difficulty of trying to work with a multi-lingual group on group-building, actor/performer training, and performance structuring. The group-building has been surprisingly easy: the physical work is easy for everyone to latch on to and follow, even though most of the group is made up of non-trained performers who run for cigarettes in the breaks. The more technical training - acro and actor training - has been a huge challenge because not everyone understands any of the languages spoken in the room. In planning out our sessions, we’ve taken to trying to explain an exercise  in Chinese or grammelot to the other person to see if it’s going to be too wordy to work with the group. That being said, we’ve made it through some pretty challenging terrain and come out well on the other side. Some of the group’s gotten really good at trips and slips, we have some solid bases for partner acro, and we’ve created our own vocabulary and soundscape for body leads and isolation work. We’ll be going deeper into the group training as we continue forwards into performance structuring, using balance, weight sharing, physical dialogue of impulse and response, and images from dreams to sculpt the final piece.

It’s been a bit chaotic and we’ve passed through a series of misunderstandings, but it’s exciting. It’s rewarding to see the kids working together, it’s inspiring to see how Artpolis is doing a huge amount of vital work in youth art/leadership training for youth all across the country, and we’ve been having fun making silly connections with our landlord as we clean the spools we acquired from the cable (?) factory (more on that later). Tomorrow, the spools; Friday, a conference of sorts; Saturday, who knows. It’s best not to make too many plans.

Umbrellas, Dialogue, Workshops, Hillary Clinton

Why are all the American flags flying in Prishtina?  Hillary Clinton will be here tomorrow.  Will we see her?  It’s doubtful, but if we do we will definitely invite her to participate in our project.  I can’t wait to see Liza and Hillary in a two-high - or to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walking on a cable spool.  The possibilities are endless.

As Liza mentioned in a previous post, rainy weather has set down on us in Prishtina, a sign of the quickly approaching winter.  Combine that with a broken heater in our apartment and things can get downright chilly.  Don’t worry though, the warmth of our Kosovar hosts would warm anyone’s hearts, even a heart as soggy and umbrella-less as mine.

There really is no excuse for me to go without an umbrella actually.  There are a number of street vendors selling umbrellas on the main drag, often in combination with food.  Don’t want roasted chestnuts?  How about an umbrella?  You don’t want sunflower seeds? Maybe you’d like a knee brace? 

In fact, I’m going to get an umbrella right now.

(15 minutes later)

I’m back, with an umbrella AND a belt (mine broke yesterday evening).  I ended up buying the umbrella and belt from a vendor selling both.  After some haggling, we agreed on 2 Euros for the Umbrella and 4 for the belt. Not bad if you ask me.

 

We’re teaching a series of introductory workshops to youth in Prishtina, Fushe Kosova, and Laplje Selo/Gracanica.  This is both to get students interested in our longer workshop and to offer something to some students who won’t be able to participate in a longer program.  On Thursday, we went to Balkan Sunflowers in Fushe Kosovo.  Balkan Sunflowers is a Kosovo NGO that operates a number of learning centers throughout Kosovo that works with the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities here.  Our workshop there focuses on three areas - ensemble, character, and physical dialogue.  Finding how to work as a whole, how to re-imagine the images we have of ourselves, and communication beyond language.  These are key areas of work for us here, and back home.  Oh, we also want the work to be fun.  Lets not forget that.

Here we are outside of Balkan Sunflowers.

And here I am inside Balkan Sunflowers with one of the participants.

On Sunday we taught a workshop at Artpolis’s Interactive School.  After a brief introduction we gave a demonstration of how physical training can be used to build a performance.  Then we worked on hand stories, a technique that Liza has been using in several community-based projects over the last few years.  Later in the week we will be at Laplje Selo, working with Geto Theatre, a Serbian youth theatre run by a lovely man named Zoran, and possibly in Mitrovica.  Mitrovica should be interesting, as the Albanian and Serbian populations are separated by a river, north and south.  The bridge that links the two halves of the city also acts as a kind of border.  Strange that a bridge can also be a wall.

We’re one week away from beginning our full workshop/performance series and I am ready to get started on this next phase of work here.  Organizational periods are necessary, but difficult.  To offset this, Liza and I are setting aside time each day to do our own training, partly to prepare for the workshops and partly to keep sane.  Or at least as sane as we ever were.  Our training together last night, like much of our work with students right now, focused on dialogue.  How can we meet each other, and what is it that we find in that place of meeting? 

Time to make dinner.  Everyone has to eat - that is one thing we all have in common.

Richard

Breaking Bread 2010

Richard here, with an update about our upcoming project in Kosovo, Breaking Bread 2010.  First off, our departure date is approaching quickly (September 29th!).  My nails are bitten.  My eyes are blurry.  My bags are packed. Lets go.

(That’s me on my way to rehearsal in Prishtina during Breaking Bread 2008)

New development: in addition to our existing collaboration with artists from The National Theatre of Kosovo and Urban Theatre (Kosovo), We’ve just cemented a partnership with a Prishtina based NGO, ARTPOLIS.  Here is a little bit about them in the words of their executive director, Zana Hoxha Krasniqi:

"ARTPOLIS is a Kosovo-based NGO that promotes culture, arts and multiethnic co-existence through social dialogue and use of theatre as a tool for promoting diversity. Founded in 2004, its primary mission is to enhance cultural development through an open social dialogue.  Artpolis is a member of ISPA (International performing Arts Association www.ispa.org) and the Youth Network for Social Change.”

We are very excited to have another collaborating organization on board, especially one whose mission fits the goals of our project as well as ARTPOLIS does.  As you may know, Breaking Bread 2010 has been conceived as a collaboratively run project between U.S. and Kosovar artists which aims to create an original, non-verbal piece of street theatre with Albanian, Serbian, and Roma youth. This is an exciting and challenging time for Kosovo, having been recognized as an independent nation by the U.N only a few months ago, and we are thrilled to be working in Kosovo during this time of change.

As Liza mentioned in an earlier post, The Hinterlands are the grateful recipients of a 2010 CEC Artslink grant, one of only twelve given out nationally, and the only one to go to an organization outside of NYC or the Bay Area.  We have also been fortunate to receive several private donations to the project as well as in-kind support from several organizations in Prishtina.  However, we are still looking for additional funds to help support the participation of Kosovar artists, to provide transportation for our students, to build props, costumes, and puppets, and to fund our tour to Kosovar Serbian and Roma communities in Gracanica and Fushe Kosova.  You can make a tax-deductible donation to Breaking Bread 2010 here.  Every bit helps.

My interest began in Kosovo began the way that many of my interests have: with a friendship.  Kushtrim Hoxha came to Greensboro College in 1999 as a refugee, although I don’t think I knew this at the time. I was blown away by his presence and technique as an actor and by his warmth and generosity as person.  As I got to know him and some of the other Kosovar Albanian students at the college, I heard their stories of the war, of tragedy and calamity, but also of hope. Hope for an independent Kosovo but also for reconciliation with their Serbian neighbors.  Hope, ultimately, for peace.

Kush and I worked together on a number of different projects while in college and resolved to work together again after we finished.  As these things often go, it took 6 years for me to get to Kosovo.  I went to Dell’Arte for a year, then to Double Edge for almost five, and Kush was busy with his own projects in Kosovo and elsewhere.  So when Kush, Bond Street member Meghan Frank, and I launched Breaking Bread in 2008, it was for me the fulfillment of a promise as well as an artistic project.  A promise to a friend to see his home. 

Kosovo was clearly very different in 2008 than in 1999.  While it remains the poorest country in Europe with an unemployment rate of around 40 percent, there have been major improvements in most areas of daily life.  However, society is still largely segregated and there is a minimal interaction between ethnic groups.  Of course,there are numerous initiatives towards integration or at least mutual acceptance in the region. This includes efforts made by artists such as Kushtrim, both with Urban Theatre and through his efforts with Coopertiva (a reality TV show based in cooperative games between Serbian and Albanian teens), and Zana Krasniqi of ARTPOLIS. 

One of the main difficulties faced by those who seek to achieve reconciliation between different ethnic groups in Kosovo is the language barrier between the Albanian, Serbian, and Roma population.  In deciding to do another theatre-based project in Kosovo, it became apparent that we would need to do something visual and non-verbal in order to both create a performance that was accessible to a variety of populations and give participants from different language groups the opportunity to work together outside of an everyday context.  And we thought it should be funny, because everyone likes to laugh, right?  Well, we sure hope so.

(Kids at Balkan Sunflowers learning center in Fushe Kosova)