Features BooksPerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 10 July 2012

Contacting Baba

Baba Israel, Artistic Director of Contact Theatre in Manchester and director of CountryBoy's Struggle talks about bringing technology into the theatre.
Carmel Doohan

At TED last Year, Baba Israel spoke about growing up in the 1970’s with parents who were core members of Living Theatre- an experimental group who wanted to take theatre out of the theatre. He joked that following such an upbringing, it sometimes feels strange to find himself running a building. But Contact Theatre in Manchester, where Israel has been Artistic Director for three years, is a no ordinary theatrical space. A passion to create and enable cross-platform work that reaches a wider audience is what Israel considers both his and Contact’s ‘calling card.’ “I believe in improvisation, spontaneity, collaboration and interaction.”

This summer he will be directing his Edinburgh debut at the Pleasance. CountryBoy’s Struggle is a ‘hip-hop journey’ following young MC Micheal as he moves from rural Cornwall to London. Israel writes with and directs performer and poet Maxwell Golden, who he taught in a masterclass in 2006. Impressed with Golden’s ability as a MC and poet and his ability to “become so many different characters.” he invited him to Manchester and they began to develop a new project together. Beginning with physical comedy – Golden is a skilled clown – they improvised and devised their characters, then tested sketches in local parks and video-ed themselves to getting a feel for what was working. Israel describes this process as “the first half.” The second half is a rigorous process of editing and refinement. “The writing process is central. The piece reflects this balance between improvisation and carefully edited writing.”

“I started as a writer in the spoken word scene in New York. This poetry and heightened language is something I’m passionate about. Writing, performance, video, music- theatre is the place where all of it gets together. On stage you make the words come alive.” This combination of hip hop, spoken word and well structured narrative arc is what he hopes will draw a diverse audience to the show. “It is a universal, coming of age tale about family, religion and intergration.”

Along with traditional story telling elements it also embraces the digital. As part of a commission by Space it will be aired as a series of Webisodes,- “something between a music videos and a TV serial”- making use of animation and a variety of digital platforms to gather support for the live performances. Israel is excited by the combination of improvisation and technology. A fascinating example of this merging can be seen in his work with Culture Hub where he combines telepresence with dance using Skype to create Digital Duets and letting performers collaborate in real time from opposite sides of the world.

He takes the notion of freestyling far further than most, creating improvisations with a global reach. Audiences in America can hold up objects to be danced to by English dancers; audiences online and on site can tweet their thoughts to prompts live poetry. For him twitter is just another “source of creativity. Something to respond to. A way of building communication and an active dialogue.” He sees it as a jumping of point for further collaboration rather than simply a marketing tool.

Participation and the cross over of both forms and cultures is crucial to him. Contact’s festival Contacting to the World which is in full flow at the moment, is an international theatre exchange project where companies from Manchester and Nottingham are twinned with companies in Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand and Nigeria to create workshops and performances involving young people around the world. When I interviewed him Israel voiced concerns about some of the problems the Nigerian performers were having obtaining visa’s:  “Hopefully something will turn around before next week.”

Sadly, however Crown Troupe of Africa have not been able to reach the UK and perform at the festival. “This is a challenging issue. International travel is difficult and we need to get to a place where artists can move freely and connect with one another throughout the world.”

Collaborating, improvising and finding new ways to communicate – despite now finding himself running a building – Baba Israel  is determined that art, in whatever form it might take, should not be “bound to any territory.

CountryBoy’s Struggle is at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, from 1st-27th August 2012.

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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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