14 February 2016

How to develop a community through the arts?

Between 18-26 January 2016, in Flaxley, Gloucestershire, UK, took place the training course ”Act for your Comunity! Training on Community development”. Andreea, one of our participants wants to share with you the story behind this project. Are you interested in finding out more? Keep reading!

I have been taking part in training courses so far, but none was like the one offered by the ASHA Center, located in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, UK. 

I decided to somehow end an intensive period of travel by engaging in something more artsy, peaceful and meditative. The decision paid off. At ASHA it was all about well being and community development through the arts: theatre, dance and music. 

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The Founder Director of ASHA is Zerbanoo Gifford, who received the International Splendor Award in Hollywood in 2007, for her life time achievements in the field of equality and human rights. Her humanitarian work actually spans over thirty years of grassroots and global activism. Zerbanoo made political history in British public life, as the first non-white woman to be elected as a councilor for the Liberals in 1982, becoming a pioneer for the Asian women. Then she went on contesting a Parliamentary election, on three occasions, being the first non-white woman to do so. She was given the Freedom of the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, for her work combating modern slavery and racism. In 2006 she was awarded the International Woman of the Year, and in 2010 to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of American Suffrage, she was honoured by the Sewall-Belmont Museum in Washington DC, in an exhibition commemorating key women who advanced women’s rights.

She is truly an inspiration to anyone and she has authored several books: “The Golden Thread: Asian Experiences of Post-Raj Britain”, “The Asian Presence in Europe”, “South Asian Funding in the UK”, “Celebrating India”, “Thomas Clarkson and the Campaign against the Slave Trade”, “Confessions to a Serial Womaniser: Secrets of the World’s Inspirational Women”. 
The last one, features 300 interviews with exceptional women from 60 countries, and accompanies the website of ASHA.
Among the many trend setters and life changing patrons of ASHA, are to be counted Sarah Miles, the darling of the 60's, loved as one of Britain's foremost actresses in theatre and film, giving extraordinary, state of the art performances throughout her life in:  Lady Caroline Lamb, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines, Great Expectations, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, White Mischief, Hope and Glory and others. She was spotted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art by Sir John Gielgud (believed to be the finest Hamlet of his era, check him out, he is a treat!), who put her straight into the play he was directing at the time in the West End, Dazzling Prospect, opposite Margaret Rutherford. Rutherford, an Oscar winning actress, is otherwise famous for receiving like a true soldier all the tomatoes coming in from the audience during the second act of the aforementioned play, "we shall stand here until they run out of ammunition", apparently Rutherford said, right after receiving a tomato in the middle of her forehead. Sarah's husband was the regretted Robert Bolt, the screenwriter of Lawrence of Arabia and many other delicious films. In his last 14 years of life, he was cared by with much love from Sarah, as he was paralyzed following a heart attack.

Internationally acclaimed yogini Swamini Kalji (Kaliji Ray), founder of TriYoga®, a complete method that includes the full range of yoga practices, Elaine Mitchell Attias, a Foundation Member of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, winner of 17 International Film Festival Awards, and currently working on her book called " It's the creativity, stupid!", also support ASHA, and so do royal figures such as Marquess of Bath, Usha Devi Rathore, Baroness Howells and his Royal Highness Sri Arvindsinghiji Mewar, Maharana of Udaipur. Check out more here: http://www.ashacentre.org/

The domain in which ASHA operates, is one of the most special places I have been in. It's a picturesque Georgian home, bordered by five acres of biodynamic gardens, filled with trees that were planted by people from different religions, from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism, to Judaism and Islam. And they even added humanism and atheism to the plate. Now..they were not just any people who planted the trees, but people whom had some contribution to the world peace. The gardens are surrounded by a quick spring, and sprinkled with Buddha, and other gods and goddesses statues, including one placed right in the middle of the spring. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Wooden, artistically carved benches on which we could take a break in the afternoons, the tiger lodge ( a hexagonal beautiful temple) could be used for meditation in the evenings, and small British houses with red bricks are scattered around the domain. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Every room bears the name of a writer: Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy etc. I was living in J.R.R Tolkien, with a Bulgarian, a Croatian, a Lithuanian, and 2 Italian girls ( yes, there was plenty of space). 
They even have a Lord of the Rings like house, near which we exercised our Theater Image skills.  
Image and video hosting by TinyPic Image and video hosting by TinyPic

In fact the whole Gloucester area is somewhat made famous due to the filming of the well-known Harry Potter at the magnificent Gloucester Cathedral, where some English kings were crowned (Henri III) and buried ( Edward II), and where a bishop was burned on stake somewhere in the 15th century, following the orders of catholic Queen Mary. 
But perhaps, even more important than the film, is that this 1300 years old place of worship, that we got to visit as a group, is an absolute witness of the changes in English social life over the centuries, and hosts, besides an impressive collection of stained glass windows,  a diversified programme of regular exhibitions, collaborating with many local artists and communities to deliver high quality events, one of the most notable being the Crucible Exhibitions. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The lovely Alborada Gallery at ASHA, was donated by the 4th richest woman in the UK, Kirsten Rausing, who is one of the patrons of ASHA. Kirsten has Swedish origins, and is one of the directors of the British Bloodstock Agency. 
Her paternal grandfather is Ruben Rausing, founder of the liquid food packaging Tetra Pack. Her maternal grandpa, Henry Mayne, was a landscape painter in Sweden. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The gorgeous Georgian house, is in fact a former mill with one floor, whose owner went bankrupt in the past, and at some point in the 18th century, he was even forced to close the upper windows because Great Britain had repealed a property tax for windows, 156 years after first being introduced, meaning people were paying more if they had more windows. Good that is over.

Besides arts, at ASHA you also eat well, is like a detox journey. They have a lovely Nepalese couple, in charge of maintenance, house-keeping and cooking: Prakash, an accomplished chess-player in his spare time and Indiu, his wife, whose real name, "Bhagawati" actually means ‘Goddess.’  
Indiu cooks the most incredible food ever, with the help of some very skilled ASHA volunteers, using just freshly picked vegetables from the garden, according to the phases of the moon and the overall universal cycles. For example, one day the Moon was passing through Capricorn and Taurus constellations, which are known by the ancients to represent the roots, so at ASHA, they plucked the roots that very day, and cooked them so they have the maximum of benefits on us, the happy guests. " Blessings on the meal, blessings on the chefs..", and blessings on whatever we decided to bless that day, be that friendships, Forest or Mother Nature. That's how all our meals were starting and only when we were in complete formation, with none of us missing. All cutlery was in place and the table cloths were always sparkling white. 

The activities took place in a cozy establishment, with the walls and part of the ceiling made from glass, having a 360 degrees view to the domain and the nearby Jurassic park like Forest : The Royal Forest of Dean. The Forest of Dean, is in fact England’s first National Forest Park, a wonder for nature lovers and a green muse for Tolkien and J.K.Rowling to write their astonishing tales. Nearby is Tiintern Abbey, which served as an inspiration for Wordsworth’s poem of the same name. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Our facilitator was one of the most dedicated and talented trainers and facilitators I ever came across. An actress originating from Alsace, Lucie Klein, is trained at the Russian Drama School of Strasbourg, and she never kept short of sharing her experiences, teaching us how to use theatre for community development, and making sure every single participant ( and we were more than 30) feels good and completely integrated. And she meant it when she asked " how are you?". At ASHA, it is in fact a habit to ask this question, and fully engage with the answer, without a shred of hypocrisy. One thing that will always stick with me from Lucie, is her mentioning that " art learning is a change process, that enriches what will go on tomorrow". And is true. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

We also had Adrian Locher around, the artistic director of ASHA, an incredible cheerful and joyous man, who happens to have a strong, magnificent voice for acting (no wonder he is also a voice coach), being educated at London School of Speech and Drama. In addition to this, he is also co-director at the Gloucester Theatre Company, and has run numerous drama-based programmes with young people from around the world. I will forever remember him telling me: "England has a tradition for making theatre, being an actor or an actress it is something taken very seriously."

We did theatre image and theatre for community development, because they believe in communities with a shared sense of multi-purpose, and in keeping people together through various activities, destined to nurture the individual talents of those involved.  We played bullying and bullied kids in school, gangs robbers, rapists, victims, lovers, wives, mistresses, parents, teachers and  even wall flowers. And the vibe of creativity was always at its highest, controversial and sometimes amusing. Some of the theatre exercises that I loved were focused on the way we walk...with our heads, with our hearts or from our hips; walking focused, walking with open hearts, walking sexually or like fearful enemies. Theatre is one of the strongest tools to figure out how we behave, how we control our bodies and our emotions, how we get in the flow of life, how we perceive, understand and react to others. Theatre teaches us empathy and life, and ASHA treats it with respect. In fact, in the whole UK theatre gets the respects it deserves. 

We even had a wonderful theatre workshop one evening with Alexander Gifford, English theater director, former model and actor, artistic director of the theater group Tongues of Fire, now running the Gloucester Theatre company, and managing director of the Picturedom Theatre since 2009. He was also one of the three leads in Kaizad Gustad's cult comedy Bombay Boys. Alexander happens to be one of the sons of the founder lady of ASHA. 

He was incredibly open and relaxed and it was a pleasure to take part in his exercises that made us more aware of the society we live in, and of ourselves. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

By the way, ASHA as a term comes in fact from Persian, and it was used to defined communities working with light, using the light to grow and thrive. Of course, the opposite term exists as well. 
Dr. Rashna Writer said that “In Indian languages [ASHA]  means `hope’; but it has an immensely ancient pedigree. The Indo-Iranians held that there was a natural law which ensured that the sun would maintain its regular movement, the seasons change and existence continue in an orderly manner. This law was known to the Indians as `rta’; to the Iranian peoples as `asha’. The concept of `asha’ had ethical implications: order, righteousness, justice."

Besides theatre and storytelling, there are many ways to bound communities together, such as the use of music and dance and painting together. We had a painting workshop in another city called Stroud, with an Italian artist, Liri Fillipini, that taught us how to play with the rainbow colors.
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

And we had contact dances every evening with a polish dancer, Paulina, that was invited at ASHA to work with us, and with a Hungarian-Cuban dancer, Carmen. Paulina taught us that the first contact of a dancer is with the floor, so we rolled over and felt our space, and with Carmen we proceeded on working on choreography in teams, developing movements using an 8 seconds timing and then combing the movements two by two, from each other. The results were spectacular and creative, we couldn't get enough of them. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Drumming. African drumming. Samba drumming: went on at ASHA with the guys from World Jungle. They taught us for a whole day how to hit the drums and how to play different instruments, while paying attention to a conductor. Every time the conductor lift the stick up, we had to stop, but in a certain team order, and than start again, respecting the order he was giving. We learned to listen to each other sounds, while still hearing our own, and we took turns in such a way, that by the evening, we touched all possible instruments available in the house. Amazing. 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The voice and singing workshops with Elle Holiday, actress, writer, choir master, and play writer, were simply divine. She has an amazing energy and flow and she is so engaging, that by the end of the day everyone became a rhythm singer.
One of the most powerful exercises was singing the lines of a Hawaiian song that was going on like this: "he ke ha, o Mae Mae" meaning more or less that you are "full of light, I am so happy I met you", while holding hands with another person and touching our foreheads at the end, to feel each other's vibrations. It is so intense and bonding, that we got teary eyes. Singing, Elle says, "is like being in love, our bodies secret oxytocin, and we become instantly happy.  
Our voices belong to ourselves. Our bodies are one with our voices, so don't let anyone tell you, you cannot sing. Your voice is your own.
When you have a group of people singing together, the hearts beat on the same frequency. And if you did not know, the melody of a tongue takes the shape of the land." Elle also taught us a Zimbabwean proverb: "If you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing." 

And we even had druids who came and blessed ASHA's apple tree using an old song called: "Oh apple tree we wassail thee." 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

ASHA is definitely a place to which I would return to with pleasure any day, and to quote one of the participants, "we all grew separately, but we grew together so we could reach this point, of training together in the arts."

And Gloucester is a city of unique charm and good shopping! 
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Here is a video that illustrates better the vibe of this project.
If you are member of GEYC Comunity, you can see the video here.
If you are not a member you can sign up here.