Project year

2012

Industry/Media

Theatre

Web links
Webpage for A Place at the Table
Promo video by Mathieu Leborgne
Link Three
Creative team credits

A Place at the Table

Camden People's Theatre (2009, 2011), Amnesty International (2012), Southwark Cathedral (2012) - all in London, UK

Paul Burgess and the team

Paul Burgess

Katharine Williams

Matthew Lee Knowles

Paul Burgess

Daedalus Theatre Company

Choreographer: Cécile Feza Bushidi, with additional material by Jennifer Muteteli and other members of the company. Additional Writing by Alex Swift and members of the company. Devised by the cast, which between 2009 and 2012 included: Naomi Grossett, Jennifer Muteteli, Grace Nyandoro, Lelo Majozi-Motlogeloa, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Tayo Oyeniyi and Susan Worsfold. Main advisors: Désiré Katihabwa and Richard Wilson. For full credits see website.

A Place at the Table - process photo

Description

What was the case study project about?

The piece was conceived as an attempt to understand the eruption of violence in Burundi in 1993: a major factor in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide. A friend of mine, Charlotte Wilson, was murdered by a militia in Burundi in 2000; her brother Richard’s investigation - an attempt to better understand the causes behind Charlotte’s death - and his resulting book uncovered huge gaps and conflicts within accounts of the events surrounding the 1993 coup and subsequent assassination of President Ndadaye. These problematic, ambiguous narratives felt like something that theatre could usefully explore, especially if we worked in conjunction with Burundian refugees, including our main advisor Désiré Katihabwa, experts, researchers and activists, including Richard.

The piece was also about conflicting narratives that revolved around a key event without ever fully revealing the central truth of what happened. The piece was performed on a table, around which audience, stage manager and cast sat together as equals. This was to both to signify and, in a very practical way, to enable the collaborative nature of the piece. But at one point, parts of the tabletop came off and soil was revealed underneath, triggered by a buried phone starting to ring. This was a dual symbol that suggested both the buried past (literal and figurative) and the idea that there was a hole, an absence, at the centre of our understanding of the specific events of 1993, and indeed of such huge, complex outbursts of violence in general.

Part one was a performance (on and in the table). In part two we shared food (from the fantastic African restaurant near CPT) and let people chat. Both parts were equally important.

A Place at the Table - press photo

Eco Thinking

What does ecological thinking mean to you and how do you approach it in your work?

For me, ecological thinking is about looking at something as a whole and in context, and taking responsibility for whatever that turns out to mean. With theatre that involved considering the complex interplay of team, audience, building, environmental impacts and so on. Ecological thinking also means that the aesthetic quality of the ‘artwork’ itself - the play, or whatever - is inseparable from those relationships; it’s not just that the production doesn’t exist in a bubble; neither do its meanings.

Looking at theatre in this context really highlights the neglect the sector has for the wellbeing of its workers. But it also exposes a disregard for our natural environment, and, despite campaigning on environmental issues, I have long struggled to give the latter the attention it deserves in my work. This is normally due simply to time and budgetary constraints, cultural pressures (eg trying not to be the ‘difficult’ one on the team) and the fact that the designer has limited influence over construction and disposal. I have sometimes been successful in sourcing secondhand materials or finding a future life for set costumes etc. For example, the set for A Place at the Table was donated to a carpentry workshop to be reused, and ‘Video Boy’, a sculptural figure present at the table as a symbolic witness, was largely constructed from salvage. But in most projects it’s an uphill struggle.

Other aspects of ecological thinking have generally been more successful, such as how we've developed our collaborative processes. I’ll say more about them below.

One last thought. Interesting things came from using soil. It created a lot of problems but, rather beautifully, the table was at CPT for long enough for seeds planted as part of the performance to sprout over the course of the run.

Aims and Objectives

What were the aims and objectives of the project?

We set out to investigate accounts of the eruption of violence in Burundi in 1993, and to find a way of presenting these stories so that a bigger picture could emerge from conflicting and incomplete stories. We wanted to do this with a process that was truly collaborative, and share it via a performance that gave the audience an active role. As project lead, I started the process by bringing together a team of equals to research and devise the piece, each contributing different skills and life experiences. I saw my role as director-designer not only as a kind of soft-touch dramaturg but also as creating the right frame for both rehearsal room and performance. (By ‘frame’ I mean a set of things: the use of physical space and objects, the visual metaphors that held the themes, and crucially an atmosphere that would nurture participation, creativity and collaboration.)

Alongside very open-ended devising exercises, individual research, and individual and group writing, the key to our process turned out to be working around one big table with lots of healthy snacks. We knew we wanted to make the final performance interactive or participatory but, as an introvert who hates most participatory theatre, I wanted to maintain the relaxed inclusivity of our rehearsal room. Our breakthrough was to turn our table and shared food into the scenography, harnessing the power they have to bring people together.

We also had to ask ourselves who we were speaking for and what right we had to do so. Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to cast a majority Burundian team (most refugees are in French-speaking countries) but the majority of voices represented within the piece had lived experience of the events of 1993 or its direct consequences, and the majority of the people who created the piece were of African origin. These include a Congolese choreographer who created a dance towards the end of the piece which, especially after some of the harrowing testimonies, carried enormous cathartic power. Désiré, whose own experiences in 1993 became part of the piece, was with us much of the time. It’s also worth remembering that Richard had lost a sister due to the conflict in Burundi, and I had a lost a school friend. While we prioritised Burundian voices and those from the Great Lakes region, along with the wider Africa diaspora, such white voices as ours were not invalid.

Other voices were part of the mix too, such as the writer and composer, partly because we wanted continuity with our past projects and partly because the whole piece was a kind of conversation between lived and second hand experience. Roles like that were, however, there to support and amplify. And of course I had to be very careful how I delineated my role as director-designer. But we discussed all this as part of our process and I believe we found a good balance.

A Place at the Table at AIUK

Learning Points

What did you do to challenge the status quo?

We challenged established version of events. In fact, one of the key testimonies we used, based on an interview I did myself, came from Lt Jean Paul Kamana, who led the soldiers accused of killing President Ndadaye. His account conflicted directly with the UN’s, and in one section we put both side-by-side. He came to watch and was sat opposite the actor playing him…

We also introduced many people to recent Burundian history for the first time. In fact, many people knew nothing at all about Burundi, let alone its regional significance. (People still talk to me about the play I did about Rwanda! Um, no!) But I think the most radical thing was how we brought people together, and created a space and atmosphere that encouraged strangers to share food and talk. The ways we achieved this have all become methodologies that we have carried forward to other Daedalus projects, such as our community storytelling project East. They are, I think, a quietly radical approach to theatre-making.

Another interesting learning point was the importance of place. The piece was later revived so it could be performed at Amnesty International UK and Southwark Cathedral, which has strong links to that part of Africa. Each venue, including the initial studio theatre, brought a different but equally exciting weight and atmosphere to the project. I always think that every production, even in a 'black box', is site-specific, but the different resonances of performing the piece in a theatre, at a campaigning organisation and then in a mediaeval cathedral, were quite a profound lesson in the importance of place.

Reflection

What are some of the best decisions in relation to ecological motivation and action you’ve made related to this project?

As a lead artist in the role of director-designer, it’s easy to become too powerful, or, as I have done in the past, to be so conscious of avoiding hierarchy that one excessively holds back on one’s creative contribution and regrets it later. I feel that here, after some experimenting in early R&D sessions, we did get the balance right by making it clear that I would contribute fully as a creative, but that we were in the room as equals and I was also there to enable and facilitate. But not with an overall directorial vision.

The other decision was not to pretend, as most theatre does, that the audience is not really there. This led to the ideas of the table and shared food. And, in turn, to my dream goal of unprompted participation. For me, this section of the performance carried equal weight to the preceding hour in which the audience were passive, watching the performers.

The performance itself contained some harrowing testimonies. We found that by going through this, then sharing our responses (Cecile's choreography, bits of personal writing by the cast, etc) and finally sharing food, we had successfully created an atmosphere that encouraged conversations between strangers, without us having to put anyone on the spot. Sometimes people kept talking until the building was closed, and then went to the pub to continue.

Our audience consisted of refugees and others who knew a lot about recent Great Lakes region history but also lots of people who knew nothing about it at all. Getting these people talking together about the intricacies of the Burundian politics and was something really special.

A Place at the Table - press photo

Sharing is Caring

What is your advice and best tips for other people and teams who want to bring these values into their work?

I have mentioned issues above that clearly beg questions about colonisation and cultural appropriation, but what advice do I have for navigating this? Well, during a process like this, you just have to keep asking yourself who you're really giving a voice to, whether those voices have integrity (as opposed to truth, which is far too elusive), which voices are being excluded, whether your own voice is too loud, and whether you are creating a frame that is enabling rather than limiting. And you have to be truly prepared to step back. Also, no matter how confident you are of your own ethical position, what it looks like from the outside is also important.

As for our collaborative and participatory methodology, for me it's about a few things which I felt instinctively but only succesfully articulated later. Never put anyone on the spot but instead create an atmosphere where people are happy to volunteer. Frame the rehearsal and performance space in a way that is comfortable, accessible and feels like an invitation. Do what you need to do to quietly empower people by giving them the information they need and knowing when to be encouraging and when to give people space. Finally, don't be possessive. It’s not collaboration if you're not prepared to let go of all the fantastic ideas you thought of.

One day I might write a manifesto.

A Place at the Table - process photo

Moving Forwards

How can you be more accountable through your actions as a creative professional?

Theatre has much to offer, both in the way it can find truth in conflicting, ambiguous and/or incomplete narratives and in the way it can connect people. I’d like to keep developing the methodologies we discovered in A Place at the Table, and making more pieces that deal with difficult topics this way, but it’s difficult getting support from venues. Even after this piece had some amazing reviews, we found it almost impossible to take it beyond the initial three venues, or get opportunities to make further work of this nature. I do however carry forward many of the lessons learnt, in terms of both methodologies and ethics.

These lessons have changed how I think about my ‘day job’ as a designer working on much more conventional productions. I see my role there as creating a frame too: a frame that enables other people to explore ideas and express themselves. But this is of course a complex undertaking because that frame is always, albeit to varying extents, a representation of my voice. And so it should be! It’s not a neutral role though, and it needs to be accountable.

The thing is, I’m doing this whole theatre malarkey, including all the horrible stuff that comes with it like the unpaid hours on failed fundraising applications, the dysfunctional scheduling, and the low fees, because I have something to say about the world and this art-form is how I find my voice. But that in turn means I have to be accountable and ask myself whether my voice is getting in the way of others or not providing support, or causing any other of kind harm. Having a voice is not just a privilege but a kind of power, and that requires responsibility, right?