I ran into Peter Walker and Jo Dorras, the founders of Wan Smolbag Theatre company, in town yesterday. They stopped and thanked me for the review I wrote about 40 Dei, their latest stage production. As she turned to leave, Jo said, “Nobody’s ever written that kind of a review on us before.”
Public commentators in Vanuatu don’t write nearly often enough about Wan Smolbag. Even when they do, their description of the work and its effect tend to fit them into the ‘development NGO’ straitjacket. That’s not entirely inaccurate, of course; Smolbag is a development NGO. But such descriptions are incomplete.
Woefully so, in my opinion. Once understood, the reasons for this misperception explain a great deal about the failures of many formal development programmes. (That’s programmes, mind you, not projects. But that’s an essay for another day.) The problem, ultimately, is our human incapacity to quantify, or even adequately to analyse, certain cultural inputs.
Now, given that Smolbag has been working with the softer tools of drama, dialogue, understanding and community awareness for twenty years, they’ve got the issue pretty well sussed. At least innately. If there are still tensions between what they want to do and what donors are willing to fund, they’re manageable, and it must be said that, from top to bottom, Smolbag staff know what they’re about. They’re are as good at demonstrating the value of their work to donors, partners and the public as anyone I’ve encountered in a couple of decades of part- and full-time advocacy work.
But the preceding is really just a digression – I need to say a few things about Wan Smolbag as an artistic institution, and the only way to get there is to indulge in a deliberate bit of hand-waving that runs the risk of belittling the dozens of non-theatrical activities they manage. There’s a small mountain of data out there expressing in very finite terms just how effective this group is.
My point, I guess, is that no matter how good that makes them – and they are very good indeed – there’s more to it than that. And that’s what I want to write about today.
I’m not going to attempt to structure this in any useful way. This really is as much a personal exercise as a public one: If I succeed in conveying a sense of what makes Smolbag unique to you, I might understand it better myself….
Sometimes you have to write aimless jumbles like this just to get to what you really wanted to write in the first place.
Jo Dorras is one of those rare writers who appears to effortlessly traverse the language barrier. (I say ‘appears’ because every writer knows that no good writing is ever effortless.) The language in her scripts is almost perfectly transparent to a local audience. The wit, word play, intonation and cadence of her dialogue manages that tenuous balancing act between remaining natural enough that the audience absorbs it without effort and having her characters say the things we wish we had.
Following one production, I complimented her facility with Bislama (a deceptively difficult but deeply poetic language). With characteristic humility, Jo quickly attributed most of the coruscating, rapid-fire exchanges that typify her work to rehearsal-time ad-libs inserted by the actors. There’s some truth to that – and more on them in a moment – but the fact remains that she does what every playwright dreams about. Without indulging in self-conscious theatricality, her simple, constantly driving narratives are composed of those deftly structured scenes, those often alarmingly direct crises and confrontations that make stage drama worth watching.
I, for one, am hopelessly jealous.
I feel terribly ambivalent when I see her gift in action. I find myself wishing there were some way to translate it back to English, to make the world see just what a wonderful thing it is. But the poetry is sure to get lost in translation. Some of Smolbag’s regional work – the Love Patrol television series, for example – is acted in English. There’s still a great deal to admire in it, but the fact remains that the actors simply cannot bring their full fluency and adeptness to bear on what, for most, is their third or even fourth language.
It’s probably wrong of me to say it, but I occasionally get the impression that Jo feels constrained by English, too.
To all those with whom I worked in Canadian theatre lo! those many years ago: I wish I could transport you all here, just for one night. I wish I could show you just how good Smolbag’s actors are.
There isn’t one of you wouldn’t walk out of the theatre at once humbled and inspired. These men and women have virtually no prospect of fame, fortune – or even recognition as artists. Their work is their career, and they are almost universally respected for their contribution. But… ah, if only you could see. Just one show. Then I wouldn’t have to belabour myself to express so inadequately what a natural facility for drama they have, how fluent they are in expressing themselves.
This faculty is not at all a universal talent here in Vanuatu, but I do suspect there’s something in the water. I’ve never seen such a consistent capability for spontaneity, such an unquestioning willingness to let the action take them where it needs to. Western actors spend years practising, versing themselves in a craft so unforgiving that only a tiny percentage ever reach any real proficiency in it. There are, at any time, at least half a dozen truly remarkable actors working at Smolbag.
I don’t want to understate the time, energy and sweat Smolbag’s actors invest in the effort, but consider: What city of 200,000 could consistently produce dozens of superb actors, any one of whom could carry an entire show in Toronto, New York or London? Now spread that city over a thousand miles of ocean and tell me how such a thing could be.
One sees a similar phenomenon whenever music ‘fires up’, as they say here. I’ve seen people find the second or third harmony of a song they’ve never heard before within about a dozen bars. For someone to whom nothing creative comes easily, I find it downright intimidating.
I suspect it has something to do with Vanuatu being a nation without mirrors. It’s not that people aren’t every bit as prone to preening, vanity and the natural tropes of beauty, it’s just that they don’t seem to be as self-conscious about it.
I worry as I write this that I might be creating the impression of a nation of prodigies. I’m not really comfortable with that, for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the danger inherent in all generalisation. The fact remains though: This troupe is consistently superior, and some of them are legitimately world-class performers. They’d be stars in any other country.
One particularly compelling example: 40 Dei features something new for Smolbag drama – a character who undergoes what’s often facilely characterised as ‘a journey’. It would be a career-making role anywhere else, a young reprobate who exudes that sense that something’s not quite right about him, nor has it ever been. He’s always a touch too angry, a touch too cynically clear-sighted for his own good. Following his imprisonment for murder, though, he undergoes a transformation. The casually brutal, occasionally fatal prison environment causes him to unwind completely. Watching the young man playing Ben throw himself so unreservedly into this near-impossible role was, for me, utterly transfixing.
This is ground-breaking work. You have to remember that Vanuatu is a fundamentally static society. The very idea that one could be transformed by events creates an entirely new understanding – in Vanuatu, at least – of our frailty in the face of overwhelming circumstance. I can’t think of more than four of five actors in the world who would stand a chance living up to such a startlingly original role as this.
Vanuatu sometimes reminds me of Ireland. Its tightly – sometimes crushingly – enmeshed society makes drama almost a natural state. Opportunistic greed, petty rivalry, tempestuous behaviour, occasionally brutal outbursts, and the insatiable desire to discuss them all endlessly, make even the smallest events compelling. Life in Vanuatu is very much defined by the individuals one meets. Anonymity is not an option, and privacy in all things is almost impossible to maintain.
In addition, it punishes individual ambition. Nothing seems to excite more glee than gossip that positively luxuriates in the foibles and weaknesses of those who would elevate themselves. Except perhaps watching them inevitably being taken down a notch.
On top of all that, Vanuatu is a society in transition between village life and existence in a much wider world. In spite of the positively nimble adaptability of most of its residents, there exists a pervasive tension between kastom’s natural conservatism and some of the more subversive aspects of modern Western culture.
Most of Smolbag’s stories are thinly veiled accounts of local events. I don’t want to take anything away from Jo’s remarkable ability to distill these into theatre, but it bears mentioning that Vanuatu provides ample fodder.
What’s really remarkable, though, is just how much Smolbag gets away with. Theatre has always been an innately irreverent, subversive medium, and there’s something about that fourth wall that allows things to be said onstage that could get you lynched under other circumstances. But given the almost complete lack of distinction between formal events and very direct action here, I remain impressed that audiences in Vanuatu innately grasp that the role of theatre is often to speak the unspeakable.
(That’s not always the case, of course. Peter Walker recounts an episode in which a village production resulted in flaring tempers and near-violence on his blog. Go read it. It’s eminently worthwhile, an honest, often agonisingly – to me, anyway – familiar account of the triumphs and tribulations of directing a full-scale theatrical production. It’ll give you a better insight into Wan Smolbag than I could ever hope to do.)
I am even more impressed, though, by the courage of these people in appropriating what is, fundamentally, a foreign influence and making it so much their own that their audiences find themselves transported beyond their own inclinations.
I sometimes worry that Jo might be losing hope. Every one of her scripts tackles difficult – and deeply disturbing – social issues. As I mentioned, most of them are drawn from life. This only makes the plots, which detail the rampant brutality, sexual and spousal abuse, corruption, venality and loss of restraint that punctuate life in Vanuatu, all the more affecting. But in the last two shows I’ve sensed that her stubborn distaste for moral bromides and facile conclusions is being tinged by a loss of patience. It could be that 20 years of working for such tiny increments in societal change has begun to tell.
Of course, it could be that my perspective is changing, that my own optimism and faith in humanity is waning and that I’m just projecting it onto Smolbag’s shows because… well, because they render everything that I most love and loathe about Vanuatu so clearly.
I took some of my adoptive family to the theatre last week. Some of them had never seen a play before in their life. I can’t tell you the gratification I felt at seeing them sit there, rapt, transfixed by the action onstage. Even little Daniela, not yet three years old, was entranced.
We talked about the play for hours afterward. My tawian (sister-in-law) Georgeline, especially, was touched by the plight of Lei, an intelligent, too-sensitive young woman forced into a loveless marriage. I’ll just say that, for her, art imitates life and leave it at that.
But I’m troubled nonetheless. Troubled that, for all its force, there are some aspects of Vanuatu society that are particularly intransigent. Violence against women and children, for example, is endemic, so common that people often report it with less concern than they express over the football score. It would be a worse than tragic if there weren’t someone brave enough to stand up and address such issues, and for that the entire country is in Smolbag’s debt.
(They are not the only ones showing such courage, of course, but there’s a quantum difference between talking about something and showing it happen onstage. And I’m writing about theatre’s particular effects, not about the social issues generally.)
Nonetheless. Nonetheless. I worry that there’s some aspect of the human psyche that is so pliant that it can witness such events acted out and, in the full knowledge that this is happening all around, right now, still blithely move along exactly as it has done other every day of its existence. I worry, in other words, that a society in which accommodation of others’ shortcomings is a cardinal virtue might not want to change. Or even know how to if it did.
I know that’s not true. I see evidence of it everywhere, in the young men and women openly holding hands where even a few years ago any overt sign of affection was punished. I see it in the devotion of parents to their children’s education, the compelling desire to see them achieve more than they.
Again, I’m fairly certain that this is a case of my own bias coming into play. It’s easy to get tired, to begin to lose one’s sense of optimism when the best one can hope for is tiny, incremental gains, measured like grains of sand in a desert. It’s not really like that.
And just to remind myself that it’s so, I’m going to leave off writing now, and go sit down at the family nakamal in Freswota and laugh and josh and explore the day’s tiny melodramas with whomever shows up.
Update: … A few additional notes after further reflection…
I don’t know how I could have meandered so far without once mentioning Smolbag’s musical work. Rather than go on at length talking about it, though, I’ll just point you to one of their songs. It’s a very rough cut, from the sound of it, recorded ‘live on the floor’ by the actors clustering as best they can around a few mics. When you listen to it, close your eyes, filter out the distortions, and just imagine this scene:
As the actors, still in character, come out for their curtain call, this music is playing. The voices add themselves one by one and few by few until the tiny theatre is brimming with their voices. The lyrics speak of the troubles in this world and wonder if they will ever diminish.
“There’s too much trouble in this world / God help me…”
Most striking of all, a prisoner who’s been beaten mercilessly stands silent, face sheathed in blood, staring straight into the audience as the music rises. He says nothing for the first half of the song. One of the more effective pieces of stagecraft I’ve seen in a long time.
At the heart of the operation is the theatre’s founder and director, Peter Walker. His efforts animate the entire operation, providing a place where dozens of promising talents from all across the nation can find their own potential.
But there’s no need for me to attempt any explanation. I’d only fumble it anyway. Go read his blog. It’s worth it.