As you'll recall, we watched Part 2 of Lin Htet's dramatic trilogy on Sunday night: Titus Andronicus. For some reason, we're watching Part 1 second. Only four of us Flying Circus Animals managed to make it: most of us had to rest or prepare for presentations tomorrow.
Interestingly, this time, the show was smaller, more intimate, less grandiose: performed on the small stage next to the IFB cafe. It was also a good deal better. Either he learned from feedback in the last show, or else (given that both these pieces have been performed before) he decided to ride on the successes of Part 1: Hamlet and take more risks in Part 2: Titus Andronicus. Am I making sense? Yes I am. You figure it out for yourself.
Here's the setup on stage: an old man is sitting with his feet in a basin of water. A young woman is seated next to him, a skull in her lap, motionlessly weeping. Every now and then, he wipes off his feet, rises before the audience, points to us, and says, "Shi noo? What for?"
Next to them are a young woman and an old woman. The young woman is handing the old woman earthenware pots filled with water. The old woman is smashing them on the ground - hurling, dropping, one at a time, two at a time, three, etc. This is the bit that transfixes the audience: the violence is right there, reminiscent of military atrocities, and kinda dangerous too. (I was sitting in the back row, and I got an earthenware splinter right on my lap.)
Below them, Soe is questioning two activists about Revenge and Forgiveness: the National Reconciliation Process, basically. The answers really aren't very exciting, but they're less banal than in the last edition.
Activist: Our culture teaches us to be religious, and our religion teaches us to forgive and forget. And forgive and forget is a concept that we always discuss. And there are people who agree and people who disagree about these concepts. And when I come across a person who arrests me, I can maybe shake his hand, but I can never forget what happened.
Meditations on the possibility of building a museum to commemorate the atrocities, comparisons to Rwanda, the fact that there are political prisoners still in jail, waiting for justice. And the Kachin Civil War once again: a remnant of World War Two, still unfinished in the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, amidst the audience, there's a man with his face wrapped in newspaper, performing odd antics: lighting a baby doll's hair on fire, crumbling prawn crackers between his hands, crawling under chairs, offering me a wet wipe. He also gave me a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Doll (the yellow one), let me hold it up and shot at it with a toy rifle. Later I think he burned this, too.
Rachael: Do you think he’s the ghost?
The whole thing ended, rather abruptly, after about an hour. Much earlier than expected. The old woman and young woman embraced and everyone bowed.
And since we had the free time, Brett suggested the four of us go over to Shwedagon Pagoda! Awesome idea.
So I was thinking of skipping out on Gitameit Music Center: rushing back to the hotel instead to convalesce.
I’m glad I didn’t. It’s an awesome little place: more like someone’s home than a respected arts institution: a little wooden house of three storeys on a side street, with tiny stairways and dusty Aung San Suu Kyi calendars and laser discs hanging from the eaves and a cat and music playing everywhere. Piano exercises, mostly – this is the only private, i.e. non-government-run music school in the nation, and it specializes in western instruments, though in one room there’s a Burmese harp and a Burmese piano (tuned to a non-Western scale). And a wonderfully random library, with encyclopedias and music scores and DVDs and CDs and books about music, film, performance, poetry, even an English primer on the art of zookeeping.
After wandering the space, snapping shots to our hearts’ content, we settled down at a table outside, sheltered by a pavilion. Somehow we ended up talking to Margaret, a scholarship student at Gitameit who’s learning the flute.
She gave us a run-down of the history of the school: founded nine years ago by the Burmese director Moe Naing and an American musician. (Mr Moe had greeted us at the door, but he couldn't attend to us at the time: he was attending Kaffe's workshop.)
The school used to subsist on aid funds, Margaret told us, but it's finally become self-supporting. Most of the students are studying here for pleasure, not careers, she said: they pay maybe 30,000 kyats for eight lessons a month. In addition, the centre raises cash through performances - Adriaan recalled that their choral shows were freaking amazing.
Of course, the centre still gets a helping hand from visiting musicians and conductors, who do workshops with the students: they've had folks from Europe, America, Australia, she said. In return, Gitameit does charity of its own: donating to monastic schools, workshops of one to two weeks in the provinces.
That was how they found Margaret. She's the one all the way in the back, with long hair and a yellow T-shirt. She comes from the wartorn province of Kachin, where the Christian missions have left a strong tradition of choral music, both Western and indigenous-style. We asked her how her parents reacted to her decision to study music, and it turns out their response was just to go, get out of here, go where it's safe. Now when she takes the bus home, she's scared stiff of the bombs, the explosions that are still eating the place alive...
She's done well for herself since she's arrived. She's performed and done masterclasses in Germany and the Netherlands. In addition to the flute, she's also studying the Burmese harp, and she's researching a way to transcribe Kachin tunes through musical notation. She's also linked up with Kachin youth groups who donate money and food to refugee camps.
When we asked Margaret if she wanted to go back, she gave an unhesitating yes. She wants to rebuild the state. How can we do that through music?, we asked. And she told us she believes music can change people's mi
KS: Was this school good for you?
Thanks for the introduction, Margaret. Afterwards some folks stayed back for Kaffe's performance, but most of us left - she'd said it'd freak the students out to have all of us crowded into the rehearsal room. Maybe tomorrow I'll get her and KS to fill us in about how it went.
Feeling much better now, thank you. Partly because I snoozed during part of Zeya's talk this morning. Forgive me. Btw, I'm combining Zeya and Wai Mar's accounts because they're both painters-turned-audiovisualnonfictioneers (he's a VJ, a video journalist; she's a documentary filmmaker).
Zeya made the switch in 2006, when he was just 16, after one of his paintings didn't pass the standards of the censorship board. This was around the time DVB, the Democratic Voice of Burma, was being formed - he was torn between joining them or joining his aunt, who was a full-time rebel. In the end, he chose DVB, because he didn't think the rebels were very effective - with DVB, he believed he could provide a heart-to-heart message to the people of Myanmar.
Wai Mar went into a little more depth when she explained her transition. She recalls exhibiting her paintings in the 90s, and the Scrutiny Board officers coming down to check if she'd painted anything sensitive. Even a simple atmospheric depiction of barbed wire or a broken-down building were suspect, as they symbolised the twin taboos of the regime: Freedom and Poverty. To get on the good side of the censors, she cooked up pro-government narratives behind her work: telling the Scrutiny Board members what they wanted to hear.
Then she discovered new modes: contemporary art, video art, and finally documentary journalism. Now she's doing her Masters in Prague, but while she's here she's been recording the political changes that have taken place in her country, digesting them into documentary video format: the elections of 2010 and the by-elections of 2012, the pathetic government proxy rallies and the wild NLD celebratory parades. It's been easier for her, she thinks, because she's a woman, because she's a less established figure in the scene.
Zeya doesn't have that luxury. VJing is his job, and the police are on to him. Sometimes he's scared when he's filming, he says, so scared that his hands shake and he has to place his camera on a tripod or a fence, or just take deep deep breaths, just to get a steady shot.
He was even arrested him a few years ago, and placed in prison. One of the worst things about that experience was not being allowed to read - guards said there was a danger that he'd be reading political writing. Luckily he was able to negotiate the right to read school textbooks instead, receiving education from older prisoners, which somehow slippery-sloped itself into his bringing actual political writings into jail to form a prison library, where in the end his main problem was that he didn't have enough time to read...
He actually covers a wider scope of issues than Wai Mar. He's not just focussing on the NLD and the elections: he's looking at under-funded rehab centres for kids, the peace talks between the government and the Kachins - he's managed to put pressure on the Minister with his reporting, and he's cautiously optimistic that things are moving in the right direction.
He's bloody brave. It's so strange that we're using him for this petty purpose: videoing us talking about contemporary art and performance, instead of staying out there, keeping the spirit of democracy alive. Yes, art is important. But surely not as important as his activist work.
We'll get to hear more from both of these guys at Superintense in Singapore. Ciao till then.
My name's Ng Yi-Sheng, I'm a writer from Singapore, and I've been a Creative-in-Residence with TheatreWorks since 2006. I've served as blogger-documenter for two previous Flying Circus Projects: Singapore/Vietnam in 2007 and Singapore/Cambodia in 2009/2010.