Indra Congress
Lockdown Conversations
April 27, 2020 By admin

Over the past few weeks I have engaged in a number of conversations with Indra coordinators in pairs and small groups to move the momentum forward in the build up to Lucknow 2021.   These conversations have been informative, stimulating and at times inspirational.

Indra lockdown conversations

Conversation 1.

Marina Barham of Al Harah Theatre in Palestine, Mary Duddy of First Act Theatre in Derry and Sarah Pym of Access Theatre Cornwall, UK.

Al Harah Theatre was under extreme pressure on various fronts before the arrival of the coronavirus.  The Trump administration’s plans for Palestine had led to various international funding agencies changing their terms and conditions, which were not acceptable to the Palestinian Authority, which in turn instructed cultural organisations not to accept them.   And then along comes the big bad virus!   Tourists staying at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, where we stayed for July Indra 2016, were found to carry the virus, staff became infected and Bethlehem found itself under lockdown. This has created yet more insecurity.  So Marina and her colleagues are under intense pressure.  Despite this Marina is still wanting to explore how young people connected with the theatre can reach out and engage with Indra.

Mary is in contact digitally with the young participants of First Act Theatre and they have already begun thinking of and planning for participating in the Indra Congress in Lucknow, India in the Autumn of 2021.  Beit Jala and Derry have a history of collaboration and it will be interesting to see what themes and ideas emerge from a dialogue.   Mary has a special interest in working with people with disabilities.  An area of special interest to Marina too, who visited the UK last year to attend a conference on disability arts.  It therefore made sense for Sarah Pym, founder of Access Theatre in the UK to join in a conversation with them.

As Sarah recounted this time is difficult for many people with disabilities who, in may instances, are more isolated then they were before.  Also, some people with severe disabilities may not have an understanding of why they have to remain under lockdown.

Concerns arising from physical and mental health came on the agenda.  Mary is currently working with her First Act group on issues around suicide as the figures for suicide in Northern Ireland are deeply worrying.  The Occupation together with the Covid 19 lockdown and blockade is obviously the cause of huge emotional and physical pressure for people in Palestine.


Conversation 2.

Mary Lange and Bheki of ARROW SA in Durban, Shannette Martin with company members of South Roots Theatre and Dance Company in the Cape, Lisa O’Neill – Rogan of Touchstones Arts Centre UK with apologies from Caroline Gleaves of Gorse Hill Studios.

The intention of this conversation was initially to connect South Africa and Rochdale and South Roots with the Gorse Hill Studios in Manchester.  A key aspect of the studio’s activities is with young people who find traditional school difficult.  South Roots are planning work in a downtown school in Cape Town and Mary felt there could be a useful dialogue there.

The conversation began with summaries of how people are coping with the current lockdown but quickly identified areas of overlapping interest, especially the area of masculinity and gender violence. The lockdown has highlighted the seriousness of these issues and the number of reported instances of such abuse and violence across the world has increased.  Lisa has done extensive work in this field and has been sharing films and other work she has produced.

They have been discussing a number of practical ideas to introduce the collaboration.  It could be useful to share these thoughts.  Participants could consider three questions to consider as a result of lockdown:

What is different?

What do you struggle most with?

What are you grateful for?

They have also discussed the idea of making a short introductory video, film or series of images, a poem, play or dance to share with peers using Zoom.


Conversation 3.

Urvashi Sahni Founder Director of Study Hall Foundation, Lucknow India, Ndeaamoh Mansarray, Sierra Leone and Isatta Kallon, Sierra Leonian refugee with Red Cross UK.  Apologies from Karen Metcalfe of Burnley Youth Theatre UK.

Ndeamoh came to the first ARROW/Indra Congress in Plymouth 2010 as a young group member with a Sierra Leone group of young people.  Sierra Leone is a desperately poor country which has experienced an ongoing barrage of traumas over the years; the cruel civil war, the Ebola outbreak, major flooding and now Covid 19. Since 2010 we have been unsuccessful in finding an institution or organisation to take a co-ordinating role in that country.  However, during this period Ndeamoh has stayed in contact, trained as a journalist and, on her own initiative, set up a group of young women to support other young women and girls who have been experienced rape, child marriage, FGM and other abuses.  She has chosen to focus her work in a rural area where these problems are most intense.

We were very moved by Ndeamoh’s bravery and initiative.  Urvashi is a leading figure in the education of marginalised young women and offered to help and support Ndeamoh in her efforts.  This led to a further Zoom meeting and an opportunity for Ndeamoh to recount in more detail her ideas and plans. Urvashi offered a number of strategic ideas that could help her establish the initiative and offered to link some of her students with Ndeamoh and her group to give ongoing support, advice and share experiences and ideas.

During the conversation Urvashi mentioned ‘India’s Daughters: Unwanted, Unsafe, Unequal’; the campaign group which seeks to raise wider awareness of these issues. We suggested that Ndeamoh’s group could be called ‘Daughters of Sierra Leone’ and could operate as a sister group to the Indian model. Urvashi also highlighted the importance of engaging young men directly in her campaign, who had sisters perhaps and were supportive.


Conversation 4

Alix Harris Plymouth Indra and Director ‘Beyond Face’, Asma Kaouech, Executive Director ‘Fanni Raghman Ali’, Tunisia, Tim Prentki.

This conversation was an opportunity for us initially to meet with Seifedin Jelassi, who is the President and leading arts practitioner of the Tunisian cultural organisation Fanni Raghman Ali. This is a grassroots cultural organisation, arising from a groundswell of protest in the streets; a human rights organisation that seeks to create safe, creative cultural spaces in the country supporting the eradication of exclusion and exploring innovative, cultural and alternative ways to transform society.  The company produces vibrant street theatre incorporating a diverse range of art forms.  At the time of this conversation Seif was working as a volunteer helping vulnerable people in a central remote area deal with issues arising from Covid 19.  His colleague Asma Kaouech joined us on the company’s behalf and spoke eloquently and passionately about their work.

Asma described the work of the company as creating ‘cells’ in which disadvantaged young people could find a space in which their voices were listened to and respected.  Many young people in Tunisia face multiple challenges including, largely because of the experience of exclusion, the temptation to join ISIS and other extremist organisations.

The basic mission of Fanni Raghman Anni resonates closely with that of Indra more widely.  Alix Harris has for several years been running the Indra group in Plymouth and shares a similar vision and aspiration on behalf of the young people with whom she works.  Under her guidance the Indra group in Plymouth has created vivid, engaging theatre addressing issues from gender violence to sharing the stories and experiences of their peers in the West Bank, Palestine.  Alix’s important work with her own company, ‘Beyond Face’ addresses her aspiration to address issues of exclusion faced by young artists of colour in South West England

On Seif’s return to Tunis the conversation will be continued and hopefully a platform for sharing and dialogue will be created.  Asma speaks fluent English but the majority of people in Tunisia speak mainly French, Tunisia being a former colony of the French.  This will create interesting challenges as we proceed with a, hopefully ongoing, conversation and exchange of stories and ideas.


Conversation 5. 

Betty Giannouli of Athens University in Greece, Marina Coutinho of the University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Tim Prentki.

The potential connection and resonance between these two committed academics and practitioners was apparent.  Marina works at the University in Rio where she teaches drama to students who will be working in school and community settings.  She runs an ‘extension’ programme in which her students link up with young people in the huge Mare favela.  The political situation in Brazil is currently very scary with an unhinged right wing President who makes Trump look like a moderate liberal.  Activists, educators and others literally live in fear of their lives.  The Covid 19 pandemic enhances the insecurity. This article in the Guardian provides a useful reference:

Betty’s students are training as teachers and are undertaking a specific programme in drama pedagogy.  Betty, both in her work with her students and more widely with her pivotal role with the Hellenic Theatre/Drama and Education Network in Greece (TENet – Gr), has worked with young people and children in refugee camps.  She has a history of using forms of monologue to convey story and experience.

The first conversation was a rich melting pot of ideas and sharing.  Under the pressure of lockdown neither is able to work directly with their target groups in the respective favela and refugee settings.  It was decided therefore to set up a preliminary Zoom meeting at which the students from both settings could begin to meet, learn something about each other and their respective aspirations.

Language again being an issue to be addressed i.e. Portugese and Greek being the respective languages.   English, as the language of the computer, will be a key bridge.


Conversation 6.

Diane Conrad, University of Alberta, Canada, Jerry Adesewo of Aroja Theatre, Abuja, Nigeria, and Matt Jennings, University of Ulster.

Diane has been involved with Indra since the Derry Congress, to which she brought a group of students who were undertaking a Masters course in drama and conflict.  That course is currently not running.  However, Diane is keen to act as a conduit to access Indra participants to teachers, schools and interested groups in Alberta.  For example, one of her ex-students, Josh, who came to Derry, is now teaching and keen to re-connect with Indra.  Diane is currently considering a possible research project linked to Indra.

Jerry is Director of the Aroja Theatre in Abuja with which he is involved in a diverse range of theatre activities and projects with young people.  He has recently been working on a programme with Save the Children in Nigeria and WRAPA (Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative) on issues arising from early child marriage.

Matt is teaching at the University of Ulster in Derry.  A number of his students have come through First Act Theatre and been directly involved in ARROW/Indra activities in the past. Matt is running an applied theatre course and is currently involved with the linking and the uses of drama and performance with the training of nurses and in the wider field of ‘care.’  Matt is also running a module on drama and conflict, for which Indra is a useful reference point.

A range of potential themes and issues arose during the discussion.  Jerry provided a poem that he proposed some of his participants and Matt’s students could use as a joint reading.

There followed a rich discussion on the theme of oil, a connecting thread between Nigeria and Alberta.  Jerry explained at length the profound impact of oil extraction, particularly in the Delta region which has destroyed environment, fed corruption, led to the impoverishment of local people and had a devastating impact on the region and wider country.

Similarly the tar sands development in Alberta has had a profoundly destructive social and environmental impact.  Indigenous people have seen their land  taken, yet again, sacred sites despoiled and previous agreements and commitments overturned.

Derry does not have the same problem directly although this is a world wide issue for us all.   We considered various texts and ideas that might create a focus for dialogue.  Jerry referred to a production of his at the Aroja Theatre of Ken Sar-Wiwa’s play ‘The Wheel’.  Sara-Wiwa was an activist who was hanged for his role in disclosing corruption and showing up the links between corruption, the Federal Government and Oil giant Shell.  Shell agreed eventually to pay $15.5m (£9.6m) in settlement of a legal action in which it was accused of having ­collaborated in the execution of the writer.

Coincidentally I have myself created a simulated drama, Zobodo, which can be worked through as a process drama in a range of contexts. I was due to present it in a community centre this week but this has been cancelled because of the pandemic.

Much of interest to follow up.