Monday, 26 August 2013

Birmingham Tours: walks considered as theatrical structures

I should mention an old friend of mine from University Ben Waddington who has become something of a guided tour specialist in Birmingham. I've just been reading his blog which offers both a description of the walks he has created and some reflection upon them. I'm not surprised to read that he has been working with Birmingham Rep theatre in spite of his formal distance from theatre considered as a stage show.

"Thinking of myself as a theatre practitioner doesn’t come naturally but a critical aspect of developing a guided walk calls for the journalistic ability to spot a story and then tell it convincingly. I feel there are vast unexplored vistas when using the guided tour format; a lost plateau between the Blue Badge data-delivery polished standard and the its-behind-you high camp of the ghost tour. Uncharted knowledge, opportunities for new dramatic approaches, content and audiences."

I would certainly agree with this and yet I do see signs of life and of innovation in the guided tour format. I observe that artists, musicians, theatre makers and writers are experimenting with the form as never before. B Tour Festival starts this week, Walking Artists Network is awash with tours and discussion, Mythogeography likewise, my inbox seems to be almost daily graced with news of new projects putting together the arts and walking in a new manner. What I am yet to see is this experimentation finding its way into the more conventional guided tours; it seems to me that blue badge guides are not focusing upon such things as deliberate unreliability, conflicting narratives, acoustics or ambiguity, but instead are trained to know a lot of facts about a location and its history. The two camps are basically trying to do different things for different constituencies. While it seems inevitable that guides will continue to be guides and artists will continue to be artists, I do think that the current wave of interest in the format of tours could provide an opportunity for guides and artists to learn something from one another. The guides have generally been doing it for longer than the artists and have a lot to pass on while the artists can inject considerable life into a rather stale format.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The China Tour 1966-71: The Cultural Revolution Revisited

Guided tours are typically recreations of a journey that has already taken place. The guide has already passed the same way before and then repeats or fashions a route out of this experience for the benefit of those being guided. It can happen that the emphasis is more upon the territory in general than on a specific path, but this does little to alter the fact that what is presented is the recreation of a previous experience, whether it is explicitly named as such or not. A city guide, for example, will usually learn and then repeat their tour and only make deviations from it if there are problems following the normal path. It is rare that a tour is deliberately open and the route not planned in advance: the flâneur or those on a dérive are typically self-directed and not led by a guide.  

And this brings us to a special subset of tours: recreations of famous journeys. Here the guide is not a living person but rather historical documents that record a previous traveller's journey. One of the attractions that this form of tour has is that the guide is less present. Another comes from comparing both the differences and similarities between what was there and what now is to be found on the route. The two of these put together can make for a stimulating but not overly prescriptive journey. What's more, from a travel writer's or broadcaster's point of view, it can be easier to capture the imagination of the reader/viewer by hooking contemporary experiences of a big name, like Marco Polo or Alexander The Great. 

Yesterday I came across this curious book, Travels in China 1966-71 by Rewi Alley. The author, a New Zealander who settled in China, was a supporter and member of the Chinese Communist Party who wrote a great many other books about the country too. The time frame is a very specific one in Chinese history; first part of the Cultural Revolution. Whilst the book does record his travels far and wide across China, it does not read as a single journey start to finish, but rather as a series of trips made over the course of 6 years. These trips have very specific political themes and are often to such things as cement factories or farming communes. Given the highly politicised time and the author's political sympathies, ideology jumps out of every page, and yet, at base the book does still retell a series of journeys around the country.

Possibly inspired by the notion of the unreliable guide, which was pervasive in Father Courage, the mobile performance I recently worked on, I am attracted to the idea of following Alley's journey and having him as a guide. Even though the book is only 40 years old, given the rapid redevelopment of China, particularly over the last 10 years, the burying of much of the cultural revolution and embrace of capitalism, this book has aged very badly. The places he visits, however, may very well still exist, such as the commune headquarters Kwangtung (pictured above) meaning that it would be entirely possible to retrace his route. Indeed, it may be the case that the places which no longer exist are just as telling as those which remain. 

The people he met may well also still be alive and might even remember their visitor. Did this boy grow up to drive a truck, as he said he wanted to, or did the future hold something very different for him? Does he remember his photo being taken, and is he aware he featured in this New World Press's 1973 publication? I'm not about to rush out tomorrow and find out; such a tour would take serious preparation and resources. What the idea of it does do for me, however, is it highlights the value of having a guide who is not so present and not so reliable. It may be that those who follow such a guide are more or less obliged to look more closely at what  is in front of them, than those who travel with a guide who is, at least on the surface, reliable and wholly present.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Father Courage: a intimate large-scale theatrical tour of Dubrovnik

The performances of Father Courage (Otac Hrabrost) directed by Boris Bakal and staged on the streets of Dubrovnik are now completed and it is now possible to say one or two words about it. 

Here is Jelena Lopatić, one of the five guides who led the audience from location to location. Each of the guides had an audience that followed them around throughout the entire show and so there were five audience groups of upto 40 in number. The guides led their groups through the streets and offered narration that was often personal or unreliable and not to be taken at face value. At five of the locations, an historic building, a courtyard, a space beside the city wall, a schoolroom and an outdoor basketball court, there were performances that involved other actors. The guides interacted in these five scenes with the other actors in different ways so there were, in a sense, five different performances within the the one larger one.

This is a sketch of the timetable as it was imagined at a middle point in the process. There are the five locations on the left and the initials of the performers who will be at them at any point in time. This was only ever going to be approximate and it was only after trying out the show with real audience groups that it was possible to make it all come together and avoid scenes clashing with one another. It required timekeepers who travelled with each guide to keep the whole system together and with this it functioned pretty smoothly. The sixth location on the diagram 'Klarissa' was the meeting point for everybody at the end of the night where people who had seen the performance with one of the guides could hear how it was with another guide. In this way the sense of the performance could grow in the imagination.

For a tour that included 494 stone stairs up and down it was really quite demanding on the audience. As they were mostly people from Dubrovnik however they were well used to it and that was not going to stop some of the ladies doing what they customarily do for social occasions like this: wearing heels! This woman was far from alone in sporting footwear like this and, trooper that she was, she made it through to the end of the show balancing on these orange heels. The price of fashion.  

The premiere party was certainly a glamorous affair with cameras, interviews, celebrities and so on. Not being part of the Croatian TV industry I was more a witness than a participant to the media circus that followed. I did have to note however that such attention existed for a show that was far from mainstream and this is something that would be most unlikely to happen in the UK. There have followed reviews which have been very positive, though they are in Croatian, so if you can't read the language and are curious, it is Google translate for you.

Finally, I caught the end of a meeting on porous dramaturgy that talked about the performance, tourism, the city, the training of the performers, the history of this work and much more besides. There will be some publications forthcoming on this topic, I'll be sure to flag them up here as a central part of the idea of porous dramaturgy is performance structures that are open to interaction with the environment they take place within.  

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Father Courage Tour

I am currently helping prepare the performance Father Courage for Dubrovnik Summer Festival, which will premiere next Tuesday. Directed by Boris Bakal, it is a performance that takes place in a number of locations around the old city and so requires some walking as there are no cars inside the city walls. I won't disclose too much about the show in advance, as there are some very nice surprises, but it is enough to say that the work brings together guiding, multi-media theatre, tells many stories in personal, political and poetic ways, and it remains an open-ended and at times beautiful experience. 

While the work deals less directly with tourism than most of the tours I have been writing about here, since it is happening here in Dubrovnik, tourism remains a definite presence. It is the city's main industry and it has transformed the character of the old town out of all recognition and besides, we keep crossing the paths of tourists as they mill around Stradun (pictured above) in the centre. Last night we made a run through of the show and a tourist from Italy happened to join us out of curiosity. She seemed very happy to have had this experience which led her through many parts of the city and into situations that a tourist might not otherwise encounter. While this sort of work is probably not for every tourist's tastes I genuinely believe that for a significant number of 'reluctant tourists' like the Italian woman from last night, it can be far more engaging than standardised guided tours. In a sense, with most touristic tours the format is completely familiar, it is just the content that varies from place to place. With this however it is an artistic performance which, in many ways, gives a much fuller and more vivid, subjective impression of the city, culture and people.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Tourists on Tour

Today I noticed an amusing phenomenon: tourists who wear tourist souvenirs from their previous destinations. This was the young man who brought this to my attention as he has followed a similar journey to mine: I covered Portsmouth Dockyard in a previous blog post

He is wearing a cap bought from HMS Victory in Portsmouth while here on holiday in Dubrovnik. Seeing this I see something of his tourism history; I see him on tour coming from a northerly historical maritime location to a southerly historical maritime location. A tourist on tour. I almost don't see him stopping off at home but instead imagine him making the journey direct from the UK to Croatia.

This is something very different from this tourist group. No prizes for guessing where they are from. They are recognisable for where they have come from whereas the man above, Italian I believe, is recognisable more for where he has been to. And this is something of a standard tourist conversation: exchanging lists and short comments about places you have visited. "I have been to Greece" says one,  "Oh we've been there too, back in 1983 when it was so beautiful and quiet." comes the reply.    

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Dubrovnik tours: busy as ever

I have the good fortune to return to the place where the idea for The Tour of All Tours first came to me: Dubrovnik. What's more, I'm here to assist making a performance that will involve some touring around the city, but more on that in a later post.

Today I caught the early shift of the tourists. As it is very hot during Summer it is best to start before it gets too oppressive or else wait till later in the day. I rather like the way she holds the number 1 so that people can identify her. When the tourist are dispatched to the guides they are given numbers depending on their language and route. Number 1 turned out to be an English speaking guide.

Here's a Chinese group and the thing that was most charming about them is how they have their translator and tour leader who wears a sailor's cap. The guide gives the explanation to him (I didn't catch whether this was in English or Croatian) and he then relays the information to the group. 

This is a Turkish group and I'd be very curious to see how their tour differed from those of say the Italians. Dubrovnik was under the Ottoman Empire's protection for a long and important period of time in its history so there must be some special information relating to this history that the Turkish group would hear. The Italians would hear a different history I imagine as they, or more specifically Venice, were another major power who exercised control over Dubrovnik for a period of time and who remained competitors for centuries to come. These colonial or historical ties are rich material for highly specific tours.

Finally, I saw a number of tours advertised that could take you out of the city and to some exotic locations. This was a typical offer: Montenegro, Mostar and Korcula. Albania is also popular and Sarajevo an option. With these tours some of them go to places known to most visitors from the wars of the 90s. The visits to Bosnia in particular can be a form of battlefield tourism. I also get a slight feeling that these tours play the angle of taking you from a reassuringly safe place to a slightly less safe place but in the company of a dependable guide. How true that is, is another question entirely: Albania may well be completely fine for all I know. 

I did hear today of a very extreme sort of tourism that took place during the war itself. Apparently there were people who paid to be able to participate in the war. Rather than mercenaries who are paid to fight, these were men who wanted a taste of the action and were willing to pay for the experience of being in a battle zone. Needless to say, I won't be taking those sort of tours myself for this blog!