What do you do when a Small Boy Jumps out of a Cardboard Box in the Middle of your show?

The last tour of Meeting the Odyssey was planned in 2012 to happen in Greece, the home of the Odyssey. The idea was to show respect to the European cultural heritage and stand in solidarity with the financially struggling country. We set out to encourage dialogue to reduce prejudice.

In the summer of 2016 the Greek financial crisis hasn’t left anywhere, but to add to that the refugee crisis has in some places turned to an unbearable tragedy. A project that set out to find European stories now found itself in the middle of a great migration, where leaving home, longing, and waiting are painfully real. The project manager of Meeting the Odyssey, Matilda von Weissemberg wrote a blog this spring asking how they as artists, can contribute to a better understanding between cultures and traditions? Or can we do anything at all?

Co-operation with the Greek partners was often complicated, but the group was ready to set off without reliable knowledge about where they would be performing or living.

 

mto-lesvos-a boy2016

 

Being on tour doesn’t mean you can’t stop to evaluate your work and to listen to others

My role in this project is to help the group evaluate their work. I plan and facilitate workshops where the group can come together to discuss their experiences, and reflect the meaning of their work.

This summer I held the self-evaluation workshop during an interesting time. The first tour of the summer was ending and the second one beginning. The group that had visited the islands of Leros and Lesbos, and the cities Lavrion and Elefsina, got to share their experience with the group just about to start their tour. At the same time the starting group had a chance to discuss about their plans and expectations.

We started working in smaller groups. The finishing group analyzed the work they had accomplished, while the starting group did a small “time-travel” exercise. The point was to imagine what it was going to be like on the last day of the tour looking back. The group came up with three different scenarios, one best-case scenario, one realistically successful, and one worst-case scenario disaster. The stories imagined different tours, and since they were told by professional storytellers, they didn’t lack twists or turns.

The mood got more serious once the returning group started sharing their experience. Their tours most heavy and demanding, but also most important moments were experienced in the refugee camps. The decision to perform and do workshops with kids and teens that had made the trip to Europe alone was made during the tour. The practical arrangements and permits were a bit difficult, but after long negotiations also successful.

One of the main goals of Meeting the Odyssey is to improve artists learning and skill, which is why there was a lot of discussion about being outside your own comfort zone. About situations where the old models don’t apply, and uncertainty runs high. That’s when you have to test new methods and work together with strangers. The biggest challenge in previous years has been culture clashes between participants and the loss of privacy in a cramped ship. This time they were faced with real calamity, towards which many felt helpless. People coming together in shows and workshops clearly gave some in the camps happy moments, which will have to do for now.

 

Breaking your routines can be liberating

The picture at the start of the blog is of the actors being surprised in the middle of a show in the refugee camp in Lesvos. There’s an “empty” cardboard box in the middle of the stage, out of which a small boy jumps out and forces the actors to improvise. According to the actors adapting to new and unexpected situations has by this stage become a normal and permanent state.

This is probably why the piece of advice most emphasized by the finishing group was flexibility, flexibility, and flexibility. There is no point in overanalyzing setbacks; they should be dealt with quickly and efficiently. In addition to flexibility they recommended to personally double check everything that was agreed on once on the spot.

Power and responsibility in the Europe wide project caused a lot of discussion. It was difficult to act in situations where the person responsible was far far away from the action. For example how can you motivate a French communications manager to promote shows in Berlin, or how can a technology expert from Helsinki sort out problems happening in Opole, Poland? Local contacts are obviously incredibly important, but sometimes you simply don’t have enough resources to assure a successful operation. Sometimes you just have to make due with what’s available.

The sharing of these experiences seemed to be quite important at that moment. The whole group had known each other since two tours back, and the half now leaving had a clear need and urge to understand the circumstances of the coming tour.

 

How to understand the importance of your work for the project, and wider implications for European projects

The artist and researcher Alexanros Mistriotis joined the latter part of the workshop discussion and showed his own work as the projects outside evaluator. Mistrios led the group to think about their own contribution, and the project as a whole in the EU’s strategy. His point of view was critical and questioning; do we understand what kind of politics and path of progress we’re actually supporting? Whose stories are we telling? The discussion was sprawling and fruitful.

Mistriotis spoke about resources and power fleeing the control of the local population. About how one can get motivated to follow what seems like faceless orders, and how one can learn to affect the things happening locally. A theme that rose up during the discussion was the growing disconnect between people and politicians.

Community building and intensive dialogue rose as solutions to situations that occasionally felt hopeless. As we returned to the goals of the project and the potential of art to open up new perspectives and start discussions. You have to work one story and person at a time. One can hope that the boy who appeared from the box and the other refugees got a slight glimmer of hope, or at least the chance to forget their situation for a short while.

Maybe thanks to this and the projects like this voters and decision makers can be made to do everything in their power to ensure that all of us have the same opportunities for a safe and good life. For that to be possible we must understand that there is only us, not us and them.

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