In 2006 I spent a year living in Buenos Aires. I was doing a Spanish degree and hadn’t yet directed a single play, let alone considered it as a career. It was a formative and exciting time, and it was also when the seeds of These Trees are Made of Blood were sown, although I didn’t know it then. Nevertheless, important experiences have a way of influencing things beyond their specific moment and, six years later I had an idea.
During my year in Argentina, I had to regularly walk across the Plaza de Mayo – a large square in front of the Presidential palace, the Casa Rosada – on my way to university. It is a place of huge historical significance and, amidst the tourists, vendors and flocks of pigeons, the past jostles with the present. Many a speech has been proclaimed from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, many a protest held and, in April 1977, it was where a group of women began to march in bold and public defiance of the oppression of the right-wing dictatorship (1976-83). They were so-called ordinary women whose children had been “disappeared”, and they risked everything to make their voices heard. Forty years after that first small gathering, they still march once a week. They are now joined by Argentines of younger generations in solidarity, news crews and curious visitors. The atmosphere is purposeful yet upbeat. These are women who have been protesting weekly for much of their lives – and women who, in many cases, have no further information about the whereabouts of their children but who will continue to demand justice until they no longer physically can. These are the now globally praised Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
I never forgot about them and, back in the UK when I started working professionally as a director, I decided to make a piece of theatre that explored their story. I had an instinct that playing with a satirical cabaret-framing device – to represent the grotesque nature of the dictatorship – might be interesting and I set about developing the idea in 2012. Firstly, I needed to put together a creative team and, through word of mouth recommendations, I met our composer/lyricist Darren Clark and writer Paul Jenkins. Our first two workshops were at BAC, and then we had a third week at Shoreditch Town Hall, where we were finalists in that year’s Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. Conceptually it was a tough nut to crack, and it soon became apparent that our eventual cast would need to have a rather daunting array of skills – we needed actors, musicians, singers, cabaret performers and a magician/illusion designer and most roles required at least three of these.
After the creatively exciting year that was 2012 we entered a difficult period for the piece. We knew we had an idea worth pursuing, we’d received ACE funding twice and we’d worked at brilliant venues. But neither for love nor money could we find a venue or producer willing to take a punt. Because that’s what it was. We were three unknowns waxing lyrical about how important the story was and how necessary the cabaret form was to tell it, but it was a huge gamble. The piece was not only creatively ambitious but also a financial challenge, with its cast of nine and, we were assured, no commercial potential.
The rejections went on for a couple of years, and we were at the point of accepting defeat when a new producer came into the mix, Jim Croxford of Theatre Bench. He loved Darren’s work, had been brought up in Bolivia and, over a very lucky coffee, we convinced him to come on board. I had been in talks with Southwark Playhouse in the meantime and we had a second stroke of luck when Artistic Director Chris Smyrnios also took a risk by programming us in 2015. A risk because we didn’t have a complete script or score at that point, and this is, as many will know, often a deal breaker. But there is always a real challenge – what comes first, venue or funding?
I mention all this because These Trees is definitely what it is because, not in spite of, the time it took to get it from idea to stage. Things move frustratingly slowly in theatre and making the jump from R&D to full production is often confoundingly difficult (mainly because of lack of money), but the upside of what that offers is time for ideas to germinate.
In 2013, I decided that it would be a positive step forward for me to return to Argentina and do some focused research. I spent a month volunteering in Buenos Aires before travelling around, and was able to re-experience the country through a very different lens. I visited many ex-detention centres, including the infamous ESMA, went to every relevant museum, did a Casa Rosada (presidential palace) tour, looked at political street art, talked to Mothers, visited their university, attended talks. My aim was to learn as much as I could, both factually and “emotionally” – the story we wanted to tell is ultimately a human one. It also felt important to be informed. There’s always an interesting question about authenticity and “right” to tell a story. Our creative team and cast are not all from the UK, but no-one is Argentine. This bothered me, but ultimately I had to ask myself why was I telling this story? I hope it will educate – most people in the UK have never learned about the dictatorships in Latin America – but more than that I hope it will act as a rallying cry against fear and for positive action. These atrocities happened forty years ago in Argentina, but there are similar crimes occurring right now in places such as Syria, Turkey, Mexico, the list goes on… And, as we’ve seen recently, the far-right is on the rise across the globe.
So, in the context of 2017, our show is hopefully saying “Look! Pay attention. Say no.” I remember going to La Perla, another ex-detention centre in Cordoba, and talking about the show to a guide. I mentioned my concern about being English and having no direct experience of the events. His reply stayed with me – that it was inevitably going to be my version of it, but that that’s all I could do.
I flew home equally appalled by the events and inspired by people I met, with a song in my heart. Well, twenty songs to be exact. And now we have the wonderful opportunity to tell the story once more at the Arcola. The show has been reworked and we hope it is bolder and tighter than before, while retaining all we loved about it the first time. I hope that the piece has a future life and, if so, it will no doubt continue to evolve and improve. Because theatre is live, and isn’t that why we do it?
These Trees are Made of Blood opens at Arcola Theatre on Friday 16th June and runs until 15th July. For tickets and more information, www.arcolatheatre.com