make-shift at BIARI

On June 26, 2012

Helen participated in the Theatre and Civil Society Institute at BIARI in June 2012, and presented two make-shift events from Providence – one as part of BIARI and one immediately after it ended.

Organised by Brown University, the Brown International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI) bring together academics, artists and thinkers from around the world for two weeks of presentations, speakers, performances and exchange around topics of current global interest. This year there was a total of 140 participants, of which 24 were in Theatre and Civil Society; our cohort hailed from the USA, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Brasil, China, India, New Zealand, Spain, Kosovo, Romania, Iraq, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya. All of the participants except me made presentations about their particular research or work, and we had a number of invited speakers and artists who spoke about and presented their work as well. My contribution was a make-shift event on the morning of Thursday June 20th; eight of the cohort joined me in the house while the others watched a screening at the university. For this event Paula was at the Home and the World Summit at Dartington in the UK, where a screening was also taking place for the conference attendees.

There was a lot of interest in and curiousity about make-shift, not just from the Theatre and Civil Society participants but also many others who were participating in BIARI’s institutes on climate change, population and development, and global health and HIV. I jokingly encouraged them to join online if their own programmes were boring on Thursday morning, but I aso handed out lots of leaflets and cards with the web address and explained that they could join future shows online.

Because the event was taking place from two conferences in different time zones, quite a bit of negotiation took place beforehand via email; Paula and I had stipulated that the event needed three hours (including getting to and from the houses, and discussion), so this meant a morning performance in the USA and afternoon in the UK. Unfortunately, our very full programme at BIARI squeezed my three hours down to about two and half, including 45 minutes of morning tea-time. Instead of having some discussion time with the house participants after the performance, both Paula and I needed to go immediately after the show back to our respective conferences. Although the houses weren’t far away, there would be a bit of a gap so we had arranged for the organisers at both screenings to connect with Skype and have some discussion while they waited for us. Practical difficulties at Brown – not least of all the incredible heat that day in Providence – made this challenging for the organisers, but it was still a useful connection.

The performance itself went pretty well from my perspective – I managed to remember to turn off my mic at the appropriate times and I don’t think I missed any cues. The eight house participants were very enthusiastic and entered into the spirit of a house party, as we had already spent a week and a half together and formed a bond. We didn’t have time for the usual refreshments as part of the show, but everyone had dutifully brought their plastic with them and some great kites were created. Afterwards the participants hurried back to BIARI while I packed up; by the time I got back the next presentation was about to start so it was unfortunate not to have the usual discussion. But that evening all of the house participants, plus a few others who had watched the screening, joined me for dinner and we had a great conversation with a lot of questions about the form and technology, as well as sharing of thoughts around the issues of disposability, obsolesence and consumerism.

The other presentations within the Theatre and Civil Society insitute included street theatre in India, songs of the Ethiopian revolution in 1974, the Chilean students protests last year and the ongoing border violence in Mexico. There were also performances and talks by Ana Correa and Violeta Luna, providing concrete examples of the political use of theatre – as a tool to remember, make visible and raise awareness. I have blogged in more detail about these performances and BIARI in general on the Magdalena web site.

The day after BIARI ended, we had another make-shift event in Providence, this time at the home of Ellen, a friend of my friend and colleague, theatre director Vanessa Gilbert. It was a Sunday morning – a difficult time to gather an audience, but quality is always more important than quantity and the event went very well; I found myself able to relax and take time in the work. One of the unique aspects of this event was the host’s request that no-one wear any scented cosmetics, or bring any plastic that had had such products in it, since she has high sensitivity to such chemicals; this made me think about how these chemicals in the environment must affect us all to some degree, even if we aren’t aware of it. Packaging from cosmetics is often amongst the plastic that participants bring with them – and it’s something that’s very hard to avoid; even if you’re buying chemical-free, organic hair and body products, they are nearly always packaged in plastic. And how did we package such products before plastic? Well, we didn’t have such products – or not nearly so many; most of it we made ourselves.

BIARI was a great opportunity to meet and exchange with researchers from around the world, and to present make-shift to new audiences. It was an important learning experience in terms of negotiating between two conference situations, and understanding the importance of the discussion part of the event. Many thanks to the organisers at both BIARI and the Home and the World for the opportunity and their support in the project.

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