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Talking Point ... Origins Festival

Michael Walling, artistic director of Border Crossings and director of the Origins Festival, tells Whatsonstage.com more about the event, which takes place at the Soho Theatre and Riverside Studios from 4 to 17 May 2009.

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What is Origins Festival of First Nations and how did it come to be?
First Nations are the original inhabitants of the lands which were colonised by Western powers in the past. They are often referred to as 'indigenous peoples', but a lot of them don't really respond to that label - after all, everybody is indigenous in some way! The panel of advisors we got together in 2007 liked the Canadian term 'First Nations' - it says something about why these cultures are important.

The idea of the Festival really came from a production we did in 2004 - a play called Bullie's House by Thomas Keneally. We brought over four Aboriginal Australian performers to appear in it - and they were quite brilliant. Working with them, I was very struck how readily performance came to them - it's so ingrained in the culture that it's just assumed everyone can do it. It felt like a different approach to theatre, and one to which the English audiences responded incredibly warmly and enthusiastically. You could feel the recognition of something very valuable in the culture, something from which we can really learn.

What are your highlights?
The Festival has a film programme, comedy, workshops, talks, an exhibition... but just within the theatre programme, there are some amazing pieces. Salvage by the Cherokee writer Diane Glancy is an extraordinary play: at once a modern, gritty piece of realism and a mystical and poetic piece. You see - in First Nations cultures, there tends not to be a distinction drawn between the everyday world and the world of dreams, the spiritual. They would regard that distinction as artificial - and that's very theatrical, isn't it? Theatre makes visible the invisible.

Then there's the Australian piece, Windmill Baby by David Milroy, which is a monologue in that Aboriginal storytelling tradition we were talking about - Rohanna Angus plays an old woman thinking back over her life, and re-telling it. At the end, she reveals a very deep sorrow, which resonates with the racial politics of Australia.

Is it all very serious?
Not at all! In fact, Windmill Baby is very funny a lot of the time. And then there's the Maori piece, Strange Resting Places, which is full of rough and ready comedy. It's about the Maori battalion's adventures in Italy during World War 2 - if you put Maori and Italians together you get a feast of wine, women and song... Almighty Voice and His Wife from Canada is also very funny, in a more bizarre, surreal way. The first half re-tells a bit of Cree history - the second half is like music hall or a medicine show, which goes drastically wrong! And then there's the Native American stand-up Chuquai Billy, who's performing late-night at Soho. He's unique - truly.

What’s the relevance to London in 2009?
We're at a crisis point in Western culture: the economic system is falling apart - there's an enviornmental catastrophe... It's time we started to listen to people who have different approaches to living, and ask what they might be able to teach us. We've deliberately chosen pieces which ask questions of our own culture, and which present alternatives. It's a festival about how we can jointly inhabit this fragile planet.

Who are Border Crossings?
We're a theatre company which specialises in intercultural work - and we've been doing it for 14 years now. We like to collaborate with artists from other cultures, and to open up real dialogues through theatre. The Festival is a logical extension of that mission.

For more on the Origins Festival, click here


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