A young refugee’s giant footsteps

The refugee crisis is often in the news, and like other complex, global issues it can be hard to relate to. Perhaps focussing on the arduous journey of just one unaccompanied minor would help.

The Walk – One little girl. One BIG hope.
In 2021, from the Syria-Turkey border all the way to the UK, The Walk brought together celebrated artists, major cultural institutions, community groups and humanitarian organisations, creating one of the most innovative and adventurous public artworks ever attempted. At the heart of The Walk is ‘Little Amal’, a 3.5 metre-tall puppet of a young refugee girl, created by the acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company. Representing all displaced children, many separated from their families, Little Amal is travelling over 8,000km embodying the urgent message “Don’t forget about us”.

Four months, 5,000 miles: A refugee puppet looks for homeThe New York Times
The puppeteers were watching Tamara closely in order to mimic her behavior and create a 9-year-old Syrian refugee named Little Amal, the lead character in “The Walk,” one of the year’s most ambitious pieces of theater — and certainly the piece of theater with the biggest stage. The plot of “The Walk” was simple: Little Amal had lost her mother, and was looking to find her. But the logistics to pull off the almost $4 million project — a 5,000 mile journey from Turkey to England — were anything but.

She set off from Turkey in July.

Puppet of young Syrian refugee embarks on 5,000-mile journeyEuronews
Walking through the streets of Gaziantep, Turkey, a 12-foot-tall puppet of a 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl, called ‘Little Amal’, attracts the attention of passersby. Towering over crowds, it’s the beginning of a transcontinental trip that organisers hope will bring awareness to the refugee crisis, and the plight of millions of displaced children around the world.

And arrived in England in October.

Refugee puppet Little Amal welcomed at St Paul’s Cathedralindy100
The crowd cheered as Little Amal neared St Paul’s, and a group of children chanted “Amal! Amal! Amal!” The 3.5-metre tall puppet then climbed the cathedral’s steps before handing a gift – a wood carving of a ship at sea from St Paul’s birthplace at Tarsus in Turkey – to the dean, David Ison. Dr Ison addressed the puppet, saying: “The dome of St Paul’s is known around the world. Our doors are big enough to receive you. Our hope here for London is that it is big enough to receive all those who seek refuge in this city.”

The journey of Little AmalThe Atlantic
Amir Nizar Zuabi, the project’s artistic director, says, “The purpose of The Walk is to highlight the potential of the refugee, not just their dire circumstances. Little Amal is 3.5 meters tall because we want the world to grow big enough to greet her.”

Highlighting these journeys is a contentious issue, however.

Giant puppet ruffles some feathers on a long walk through GreeceThe New York Times
On Monday, the local council of Meteora, a municipality in central Greece, voted to ban Amal from walking through a village in the area, which is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its cluster of Orthodox monasteries built on towering rock formations. The objection raised by several council members was that a puppet depicting a Muslim refugee should not be permitted to perform in a space of such importance to Greek Orthodox believers. The local bishop opposed the project for that reason, while a local heritage group complained that the initiative could bring more refugees to a country that has already taken in tens of thousands.

The Walk: Little Amal puppet’s 8,000 km march across Europe to highlight refugee crisisWorld Socialist Web Site
If Amal was a real girl, she would not have made her way to Manchester so easily. Her way would have been blocked by barbed wire and national borders. Most likely, she would not have passed through Turkey, but would have been thrown into a concentration camp funded by the European Union (EU) as part of its Fortress Europe barring the way to asylum seekers. An EU deal signed in 2016 allows Greece to deport refugees that manage to reach its territory to Turkey. […]

Had Amal managed the journey across Europe, at the mercy of people smugglers, on reaching the port of Calais in northern France she would have joined 2,000 migrants, including 300 unaccompanied children stranded at the site of “The Jungle”—1.5 square miles (3.9 sq km) of refugee camps demolished in 2016. Police in Calais carry out daily evictions there, seizing tents, sleeping bags and blankets. They placed boulders to impede access to aid agency vehicles providing water, food and clothing.

But she did make it to Manchester, and then continued further north to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this week.

Migrant justice = Climate justiceUN Climate Change Conference (COP26)
The climate crisis is forcing people to move, and it will force millions more to move in the future. The issue of safe passage is an urgent one. Little Amal, a young refugee and 3.5m high puppet, has just completed a remarkable 8000km journey – The Walk, produced by Good Chance Theatre in association with Handspring Puppet Company. Along the way, Amal met with refugees like her, many affected directly by the consequences of the climate crisis. As borders are raised, how should we respond to this growing need to move to find safety?

Giant Syrian refugee puppet Amal attend COP26 in GlasgowThe Scotsman
The giant puppet’s visit comes at the Gender + Science and Innovation Day at the conference. The day focuses on not only the ways in which women, girls and marginalised people are disproportionately impacted by climate change, but also the importance of their leadership and participation in driving solutions.

Puccini and the plants

Something else I’d found around my birthday then forgotten to male a note of here was news of this wonderful concert. If playing music to plants helps them grow, there are thousands of ficus trees, palms and plants in Spain that must be feeling pretty healthy at the moment.

The artist Eugenio Ampudia inaugurates activity at the Liceu with a concert for 2,292 plantsLiceu Opera Barcelona
On the first day after the state of alarm instituted due to the pandemic ends, the Gran Teatre del Liceu reopens its doors, but it does so for an unusual audience. Conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia is preparing an original, unique and different concert, in which the 2,292 seats of the auditorium will be occupied on this occasion by plants. It will be on 22 June at 5:00 p.m., broadcast live online, when the UceLi Quartet string quartet performs Puccini’s “Crisantemi” for this verdant public, brought in from local nurseries.

2,292 plants fill the audience in opening performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del LiceuColossal
A collaboration with Madrid-based artist Eugenio Ampudia and the Max Estrella gallery, the concert was meant to reflect on humans’ relationship with nature. “I thought why don’t we go into the Liceu like weeds, take it over and let nature start growing everywhere and turn it into something alive even when there are no people,” Ampudia said in an interview.

Plants fill seats at Barcelona opera house concertAssociated Press
“I heard many more birds singing. And the plants in my garden and outside growing faster. And, without a doubt, I thought that maybe I could now relate in a much intimate way with people and nature,” he said before the performance.

At the end of the eight-minute concert, the sound of leaves and branches blowing in the wind resonated throughout the opera house like applause.

Here’s the performance in full, complete with “please silence your mobile phones and no pictures please” announcement.

It’s strange seeing these places, designed especially for large crowds, being so empty.

Plush seats and ornate balconies sit empty in Joanna Vestey’s unobstructed photographs of London theatersColossal
In Joanna Vestey’s Custodians for COVID series, one worker poses idly amid an otherwise unobstructed shot of a historic venue. The Oxford-based photographer has been capturing the empty seats and balconies of London theaters, which have been closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. For the timely series, Vestey visited 20 venues, including Royal Albert Hall, The Globe, and National Theatre, to photograph the breadth of the vacant architecture.

Scene changed?

Some desperately needed good news at last.

Boris Johnson pledges £1.5bn lifeline to keep UK’s arts sector afloatThe Guardian
After weeks of desperate warnings that the UK was facing an irreversible cultural catastrophe without targeted support, ministers announced a package that it said would protect the future of the country’s museums, galleries, theatres and music venues.

The playwright James Graham, who has spoken passionately about the urgent need for investment, said the money appeared to be more than most people in the arts had dared dream of. … “If this package is as ambitious as it looks, then conversations within our sector will now need to turn to what our recovery might look like in terms of protecting any gains made in recent years over inclusion, representation and diversity, and how this support can reach who need it most, particularly outside of London.”

A welcome lifeline.

S C E N E / C H A N G E (@_scene_change_) Instagram
A community for stage designers taking action for theatre.

But as ENO’s John Berry says, the devil will be in the details.

‘At last a glimpse of hope’: UK arts leaders on the rescue packageThe Guardian
“£1.57bn is a lot of money, but there are a lot of institutions for this to go round. It has to be seen as a positive step from the government and for culture in general, but it will all now be in the detail, in the balance between grants, loans and help for major institutions and help for individual artists, who have been hit the hardest.

“What are the strings attached going to be? In Germany, they just came out and said we’re going to pay every freelance artist now just to get them through, on top of everything else. The reason that opera and classical music have a voice and a direct line as high up as the prime minister is that culture is spoken about on the same level as health and social issues. So it is very normal in the rest of Europe for artistic leaders to be in regular conversation with the government about public subsidy during an emergency.

“Classical music and opera are central to the arts in this country and publicly there hasn’t been enough support for them. Freelance musicians have been hit hardest. It’s just depressing to see so many artists lose their work in opera, classical music and theatre in general in the UK. The plight of opera houses has been almost invisible.”

Will it be enough?

Emergency money for culture ‘won’t save every job’BBC News
The culture secretary said institutions would have to apply through industry bodies and would be asked to prove how they contributed to wider economic growth. He said the government was confident the emergency package would protect the majority of jobs in the culture sector – but not all.

“Sadly, not everyone is going to be able to survive and not every job is going to be protected and sadly, I will have to be honest with you, of course we will see further redundancies.”

Need a change of scene?

Cheers! But not everything’s opening back up tomorrow, on Super Saturday.

#scenechange designers wrap theatres with pink tape in #MissingLiveTheatre campaignOfficial London Theatre
While much of the UK’s entertainment and hospitality industries will be open to customers from tomorrow, theatres sadly remain closed, unable to stage live performances.

A community of designers named #scenechange have been struck by the negative visual imagery of theatre closures and the sadness that comes with seeing venues that were once bubbling with energy, now feeling stark and bleak.

Today, in collaboration with theatres across the UK, the #scenechange community will launch #MissingLiveTheatre, wrapping theatre buildings in a positive message of hope and visibility to the industry.

It’s not just a West End issue. Far from it.

Designers will wrap theatres in #MissingLiveTheatre tapeTheatre Weekly
Beginning with the National Theatre, #scenechange will, in conjunction with theatre staff, wrap theatres with pink barrier tape reading ‘Missing Live Theatre’. The baton will then be passed from the National Theatre to Royal Exchange Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Lyric Belfast and Sherman Theatre across the day on Friday, and throughout the West End on the Saturday. The week beginning 6 July will see further theatres nationwide joining #MissingLiveTheatre, with over 50 venues already committed including the RSC, Sadler’s Wells, Theatr Clwyd, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Sheffield Theatres, Ambassador Theatre Group, amongst many others.

It’s a larger industry than you’d think, and a difficult one to be in at the moment.

Designers unite to support freelance theater creatives with #SceneChange platformVariety
Freelance creative artists make up the major part of the theater ecology — of the 290,000 jobs in the U.K. theater industry, for example, more than two-thirds are freelance or self-employed.

As visual artists, designers bring a unique skill set that can help reimagine theater spaces as the industry navigates its way back to live performance. #SceneChange aims to positively engage with buildings, directors and producers nationwide, to support and inform the process back to production.

Hieronymus boats

Here’s something you don’t see every day, a floating theatrical and musical festival, dedicated to the work and spirit of Hieronymus Bosch.

A Parade of Earthly Delights: Floating Bosch Parade celebrates painter Hieronymus Bosch in spectacular aquatic eventColossal
A floating parade dedicated to painter Hieronymus Bosch honors the artist’s fascination with the fantastical and absurd in an annual event that embodies his philosophy and aesthetic. The 2019 occurrence of the Bosch Parade included a musical performance played on a partially submerged piano and a scene with two people straddling enormous horns, just two of fourteen vignettes devoted to an evolving story about “power and counterforce, battle and rapprochement, chaos and hope.”

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Stunning photos from the Bosch Parade, the sailing parade in the spirit of Jheronimus BoschDesign You Trust
This floating, poetic parade of art works portrays a universal tale of power and counterforce, battle and rapprochement, chaos and hope. From the chaos after the battle a new order has to emerge. Eventually, old opposites will form the foundation for a new hope in this storyline filled with symbolism and fantasy – as it is in Jheronimus Bosch’s works.

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Happy Robot Day!

They come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all 99 years old today, kind of.

Today in History 1921: The word ‘Robot’ enters the English languageBoing Boing
On January 25, 1921 the Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots premiered, entering the word into the Science Fiction vocabulary.

happy-robot-day

The Czech play that gave us the word ‘Robot’The MIT Press Reader
Thus, “R.U.R.,” which gave birth to the robot, was a critique of mechanization and the ways it can dehumanize people. The word itself derives from the Czech word “robota,” or forced labor, as done by serfs. Its Slavic linguistic root, “rab,” means “slave.” The original word for robots more accurately defines androids, then, in that they were neither metallic nor mechanical.

The contrast between robots as mechanical slaves and potentially rebellious destroyers of their human makers echoes Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and helps set the tone for later Western characterizations of robots as slaves straining against their lot, ready to burst out of control. The duality echoes throughout the twentieth century: Terminator, HAL 9000, Blade Runner’s replicants.

happy-robot-day-2

Machine Morality and Human ResponsibilityThe New Atlantis
This year [2011] marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first performance of the play from which we get the term “robot.” The Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. Physically, Čapek’s robots were not the kind of things to which we now apply the term: they were biological rather than mechanical, and humanlike in appearance. But their behavior should be familiar from its echoes in later science fiction — for Čapek’s robots ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race.

Before R.U.R., artificially created anthropoids, like Frankenstein’s monster or modern versions of the Jewish legend of the golem, might have acted destructively on a small scale; but Čapek seems to have been the first to see robots as an extension of the Industrial Revolution, and hence to grant them a reach capable of global transformation. Though his robots are closer to what we now might call androids, only a pedant would refuse Čapek honors as the father of the robot apocalypse.

I hope someone’s planning a big celebration next year.

Glass in Manchester

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre have a new Philip Glass work, Tao of Glass, “an exploration of life, loss and a single question: Where does true inspiration come from?” It’s a collaboration with Phelim McDermott, who has worked with his music before.

Tao of Glass review – golden odyssey through Philip Glass’s music
Tao of Glass, co-directed with Kirsty Housley and with a score by Glass himself, is – on one level – the story of McDermott’s long-held dream of creating a piece to his music. Aided by three puppeteers and a small band of musicians, he acts out his story not as a narrative, but as a collage of fragments. His initial idea, he tells us, had been to stage Maurice Sendak’s children’s book In the Night Kitchen, about a boy falling into a surreal underworld. But Sendak died before work could begin, and the project came to nothing. Yet what do we have here? A falling puppet boy, a model piano that ingeniously transforms into a toy theatre of kitchen cupboards and utensils, a fantasy flight inside a milk bottle, all to a specially composed score.

It all sounds extraordinary.

Meditating in Manchester: Tao of Glass – in pictures
This world premiere at Manchester international festival combines Philip Glass’s mesmerising music and performer-director Phelim McDermott’s theatricality.

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Philip Glass: from Einstein on the Beach to a superfan in Manchester
As a young Glass fan, McDermott saw ENO’s European premiere of Akhnaten in London in 1985. After picking up his ticket, he says, he spotted the composer in the street and followed him around Covent Garden until Glass disappeared into a sushi restaurant. “I guess there was a fantasy – if I stopped him, what would I say? A little bit like when I saw Quentin Tarantino at a crime writers’ festival in Nottingham. On some level, Tao of Glass is me finally daring to stop Philip and ask him a question.”

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I love how he has a matching anecdote.

Philip Glass: I once had Salvador Dali in the back of my cab
An element of this show is Phelim McDermott’s love of your music. He says in 1985 he followed you down the street and was too shy to say hello. Have you ever had a moment where you were starstruck?

Oh yes. In my early days as a composer, I had day jobs as most people do. For a period of time I was driving taxis and Salvador Dali got in my cab. Can you believe that? With the moustaches and everything. And I was dying to talk to him.

But it was a very short ride. I took him from a restaurant back to his hotel, only about six blocks. And I was thinking, I’ve gotta say something. I never could think of anything to say to him. Better that, because I’m afraid that if I said something, whatever it was, it would have been probably very stupid. In the end I can say I missed meeting him by very little.

Reminds me of the time as a student when I almost met Peter Greenaway. We were both on a train to Cardiff, for a showing and Q&A of The Baby of Mâcon at the Chapter arts centre. Yep, just too shy to meet a hero. Good to know I’m not the only one.

Apes on a stage

One of my favourite books is now a play, and Patrick Marmion’s stage version of Will Self’s Great Apes is getting great reviews.

Young British Apes
Transferred to the present day, complete with mobile phones, Twitter and “the statue of the colonial fascist Rhodes”, the story loses none of its satirical power. There is a hilarious scene in which a celebrated naturalist (Stephen Ventura) talks to Simon about the mating habits of humans in the wild. Office politics are shown in all their fighting, biting, bum-kissing glory. Monkey puns – “the green shoots of recovery”, “the swing of my group house” and suchlike – are good, but the funniest scenes are those that take place among the art mob. Simon, with his asymmetric quiff and endless supplies of drugs, is a composite of all the trendy artists of the past two decades.

Back in the Young British Artist era, Self’s novel was an early prophecy of artists losing their “sense of perspective”. Marmion’s version is cleverly done, playing on our nostalgia for the year when New Labour’s landslide victory was followed by Charles Saatchi’s show Sensation: Young British Artists – a feeling that endures because 1997 was “the future that never happened” (to borrow the title of Richard Power Sayeed’s recent book). Twenty years and Turner Prizes later, we are, in Busner’s words, “not into the woods yet”.

And here’s a section from the author on what he was aiming for with his novel.

Will Self on Great Apes
It became my objective to write the ape satire that would mark our annihilation of our near-conspecific: a prolonged and clamorous howl of approaching species-loneliness. My tactics were simple: to pile detail-upon-detail of chimp/human physical correspondence, until my readers had no option but to accept – in their very guts, muscles and sinews – the reality of their kinship.

Read more about Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre and watch the trailer and behind-the-scenes videos.