The clown and his friends

May 14, 2011

Extract From ‘The Little Buddha’ by Claus Mikosch (

The clown once lived in freedom
He traveled all alone
Across the land and round the world
Deep inside there was his home

Being happy almost all the time
His life was bright and colourful
He gave laughter to the people
To be a clown was wonderful

But something always got him down
Something took his happiness
‘Twas the farewell from his new friends
The reason for his sadness

When their paths went separate ways
The clown would stop his game
Real tears rolled down his face
And his heart it felt the pain

But luckily one autumn day
An old man came with good advice
Be sad, he said, but not for long
‘Cause friends are here for life

And believe me, after every end
A new beginning will always come
And you say goodbye, and meet again
One day, for sure, consider it done

– Claus Mikosch

A Baker’s Dozen, Minus One

May 14, 2011

Yesterday (4/5/2011) was our last PWB show! 12 shows on this tour – what a fantastic run!

This show was in Kalimpong, a 2 and a bit hour journey on a bumpy, twisty, windy, wobbly road in a jeep. The show throughout the tour has always been a great unifier. It began with ideas sketched out on a giant piece of paper in a cold garage in London, followed by two weeks of rehearsing and training in the paradise of Kudle beach in Gokarna. A mass combination of energy, ideas and fun simmered in the Indian sun and matured over time to become something really special which we all feel immensely proud to have been involved with. Witnessing from its very inception how it’s evolved over time as we have become more comfortable with our characters, our skills and ourselves and really opening up to the crowd. I think we will all miss doing shows together as a team, bringing us all together with members being unwell, tired, hungry or not feeling it, and still digging in and releasing so much energy, joy and fun in such a short amount of time.

The Nuns last night (yes, Nuns) put it perfectly in a speech after the show “It is clear to us all that you’re full of life, love life and the joy of living. We are so pleased you have come here and volunteered your energy, time and skill for us.”

The school and boarding house we went to was called ST JOSEPH’s, a similar set up to EWSCT. After arriving in Kalimpong from our bumpy roller coaster ride up and down and round and round and losing and recovering our colour, we headed straight to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Some members went for a quick shave at the barbers while some others did some speed shopping on the bustling streets. Then back in the jeep (once we found it). Kalimpong has a crazy one way type system and is absolutely heaving with jeeps of various kinds. The town itself seems to consist mainly of two busy roads with jeeps continually streaming through.

We make it to the centre and are welcomed by a young Nun who takes us to the new building built in 2009. We sit down and enjoy a nice cup of tea in china cups and saucers that would make your auntie proud. The majority of the team are acting their best Grandmother afternoon tea behaviour, along with nice accents and correct names: Andrew, David, Matthew.

Watered and fed and so to work. Around 100 children ranging from 6 to 16 are arranged in our standard PWB circle: “Gola Ba Now!” (“Circle to make!”).

Quick intro of people and props and onto an hour of intense circus fun!! Tough job, huh.

Throughout the tour we have been called many things by the children, “Brother”, “Sister”, “Daddy”, “Mummy”, “Didi”, “Uncle”, “Aunty”, “Hey hey”, “Mister”, here it was “Sir, Sir” and “Miss, Miss”. The children were a lot of fun and quick learners. My prop was diabolo and one boy in particular, Raja, was throwing and catching smoothly, managing two tricks all within an hour. A lot of potential here.

“Gola Ba Now”. Time’s up. Show time.

The football pitch is swept up, glass and stones removed. The ever resourceful Dave ties a tarpaulin off the goalpost and we have our backdrop. 100 kids and 4 Nuns and  a few other workers and teachers! What a crowd!! Very enthusiastic, clapping and cheering and laughing. I have a distinct memory of seeing a young girl, maybe nine years old, watching the hoop routine with her mouth wide open and her hands stuck mid clap. Later that same girl blew Elma a kiss. The show was a lot of fun. With the cheers I think our skill levels go up. All went smoothly right up to the finale of the fire skipping rope. The last time we will ever jump this!! Quick hugs beforehand and Go!

Matt gets a whack on the head, “Oooh!” Minus a few hairs! “AHH”. The cheering is immense. The kids all start singing three cheers. Packing up usually involves surrounding the kit with ourselves and trying to make sure the kids don’t touch the fire equipment, especially the hot fire pots at the front. I chose selfishly to go and shake lots of hands, often several at the same time, as this would be our last show and I really wanted to milk it.

So into the “Green Room” (the office). We are all buzzing and comparing each other´s injuries: Livi, a cut on her toe, me a cut on my palm, Matt minus a few hairs and Eluned a swollen eye from a stray club. Singing and prayers issue from the canteen, a very calming sound.

We go up and have dinner with the Nuns, all vegetarians and no wine. Simple and satisfying. It is clear the Nuns are immensely pleased with us, the youngest is positively beaming. Another says she screamed at the head Nun when she saw us playing with fire. “Nobody is burnt, no?” “No, we are professionals”. I do love being described as a professional. A circus professional! A fire professional!!

After the meal we get taken down to the main hall canteen where all the children have finished their prayers and food and are now doing homework. We get escorted to the front thinking we are just waving goodbye and picking up our equipment. Seven empty chairs are waiting at the front. We are asked to sit and a lovely speech is given by the young Nun. A thank you song is also sung to us, and another speech about the joy of life given by the head Nun. Then we are presented with a traditional Nepalese scarf each and Matt says a thank you.

I am close to tears. Not only was it a great show, a great crowd, not only is it our last show with a fantastic group of people, but also this experience of being sung to by 100 children all so amazed and happy to see us, what an experience. I feel so privileged to have been involved with this adventure. I am close to tears.

– Andy

Pork and Politics in Darjeeling

May 3, 2011

The misty hills of Darjeeling occasionally break to give us a sneaky glimpse of the Himalayas – sunset time is best – and Mount Kanchenjunga, the tallest peak of this mountain range border line.

Colourful concrete houses dot the slopes and bushy green trees column out between them. Mornings can be sunny and cold or just drizzly, and we are constantly reminded by the locals and friends we have made here that “the weather isn’t supposed to be like this now”. But it’s still wonderfully clean in comparison to Varanasi. There seems to be a rudimentary rubbish collection system: concrete boxes on every road side where rubbish is thrown and can be sorted through by the rag pickers before being dumped somewhere else.

We have met and been befriended by the owners of a local cafe “Petrichor”, which feels like a second living room with movies and board games, tasty muffins and herbal teas. Also one of our neighbours has a small cake business. These really are the tastiest cakes around (making up for the downgrade in quality of the sweets after moving further north). “Cake Lady”,  as she is commonly known, has baked us some nice birthday treats and desserts. Then there is Emma and Roshan; Emma is the Acting Director of Edith Wilkins Street Children Trust (EWSCT), where all our circus fun happens, while Roshan works with small farmers, forest villages and organic/fairtrade tea gardens in the area.  They have been very welcoming, providing us with cups of tea after workshops and letting us do our washing at their house.

PWB has been provided with a 3 bedroom, 1 kitchen, 1 toilet flat for our stay here by EWSCT. The flat is a 30 minute work-out walk from the centre – up and down, down and up. Luckily the carnivores among us are able to keep our energy levels up with all the butchers around offering great quality bacon, cutlets and sausages!  My first bacon sandwich in 3 months! (Sorry Dave, our third generation Vegi). As in Varanasi there are still lots of dogs around which bark at night but mostly they only give the unicyclists hassle. (Andy got an unlucky surprise when cycling along and a dog bit him on the leg: he is getting rabies jabs now!)

We are settling into a routine here of working three week days with the drop in centre kids and the weekend mornings with the residential children. In our first few days at the EWSCT centre we ran introductions to the props and started writing new names down. As it’s our third project I think I am getting better at names – mainly because they aren’t so unfamiliar any more. I have met at least three Pujas, several Laxshmis and countless Manishes. Success! I’m remembering their names before they even get mine; perhaps it’s the lack of pressure because the children here aren’t as demanding for our attention or shouting “my name, my name!” all the time.

Despite Darjeeling being different in colour, weather, noise, and people from the rest of India – cows and rickshaws have been replaced by lots of jeeps – public performance is still a big thing and on our third day the PWB team settle down to watch a 2-3 hour show. The EWSCT performance has all the trimmings: a colourful backdrop with candy coloured supporting for the roof, a sound system and lots of enthusiastic kids.

It starts off well on a sunny morning outside with some partner work dancing then – suddenly – big drops of rain start falling and everyone bundles inside. After an hour of re-shuffling, nearly everyone has a seat in the big classroom and we continue. Choreography to some traditional and some modern dance music are followed by an award certificates ceremony.The children are applauded for everything from 50 metre races to improved behaviour.

The favourite act seems to be the Euro pop song “Gasolina” which two older boys dance along to. Everyone starts screaming and bouncing up and down – threatening the stability of the building. Teachers drag us to the front to dance and older ones stand on chairs to clap along. The whistling is intense and before the song can finish “again, again” is demanded. Repeat above scene with no less enthusiasm!

While we were here state elections were held on 18th April. A little bit of context: Darjeeling is part of West Bengal but there seems to be large support for the formation of a separate state “Ghorkaland” because of the large differences in culture and language. Practically every shop and restaurant/hotel have Ghorkaland written on their facades and this issue is playing a major part in voter allegiance regarding parties. The Indian government established an independent hill council in the 1980’s to placate the hill people which is now in turmoil because it didn´t hold democratic elections for 20 odd years. In 2007 the ruling party’s leader was overthrown. Since then the demand for state independence has been renewed.

Results of the recent election will be announced on 13th May and we await the outcome excitedly. As for the EWSCT centre, we are thrilled to be working with such a responsive and friendly group of children – and no doubt due in part to our improved teaching skills – this may prove to be the best project yet.

– Elma

The PWB show in Darjeeling

May 3, 2011

All performers love to make a big splash and as far as PWB shows go this one has to have had the biggest splash yet.  Darjeeling isn’t a particularly big town, as Indian towns go, and PWB are to perform in Chowrasta (the centre square); it seems like the whole town knows about it.

Preparations for the show started early that day (not mentioning the paperwork for permissions and equipment hire) with practice and a walk through to remind the team of the new show format.  As we went through the group pyramid the sun burst through the heavy mountain clouds drenching us in hot beams.  However, just as quickly as it came, it went again bringing on very sad potential of cancellation.

Then it was time to prepare the stage for the event.  With a show that revels in intimacy with the crowd, the raised stage was dismissed in preference for a street level show.  However this meant that some work was needed to make it shipshape; horse and dog waste needed to be cleaned away with water and brush, seating needed to be arranged and a large sound system hired.  With everything in place it was surprising how much of the square our event was taking up.  As we got closer to showtime the light rain cleared and a sunset broke through the heavy cloud.  It’s really going to happen!

Ten minutes before the commencement of my fire safety speech I decided I had enough time to dash to the nearest toilet to ensure no anxiety during the show.  Running through the early evening tourist crowd I bump into our friend Roshan.  “Hi Matt, here’s the journalists!”  Did I have time for an interview?  Glancing at my watch: “Sure but we’ll have to make it quick…”  Business cards passed out, hands shaken, questions answered… I finally manage to relieve myself and start dashing to back stage when I’m intercepted by a camera crew.  “Time for an interview?”  Er, um, yeah sure, why not…  Clowning on stage is already underway by the time I manage to get back to my point by the sound system to cut the sound and run out “…don’t try this at home folks…”.  Before we know it the policeman (Olly) is whistling from the back of the audience “Namaste!  Namaste!”.  It’s showtime!

As dance turns to juggling, juggling to ribbons, ribbons to theatre and theatre to hoops we notice more and more faces appearing on buildings around the square.  By the time the fire is being spun, hooped and juggled, everywhere you look there are faces of people thoroughly enjoying a show that will last in our memories for a very long time.  Definitely a performing highlight of my career and very special feeling to give something to the wonderful people of Darjeeling.


ps. Read the local press:

Edith Wilkins Street Children Trust

May 3, 2011

In Darjeeling we are volunteering with a charity called Edith Wilkins Street Children Trust ( EWSCT provides support and care for street children and children living in extremely difficult circumstances. The Darjeeling District shares three international borders and a significant population of migrant workers come to the region during the tourist season and the tea season. Some of the young people that EWSCT works with have travelled to the area for work in the tourist industry, as domestic workers or in the sex trade. While some arrive alone or with their families, others are trafficked into the area; it has been estimated that up to 20,000 women and girls are trafficked into India from Nepal every month for involvement in the sex industry. The region also has a high incidence of alcoholism, drug abuse and marital breakdown which has a serious impact on children. Many of the young people involved with EWSCT are the children of a first marriage who have been neglected or left to fend for themselves when one or both parents have re-married. Amongst the children who access the services of EWSCT, many have been victims of abuse. EWSCT runs a number of projects in Darjeeling and Siliguri, including residential homes and shelters, drop-in centres, education and vocational training, health services, medical and nutritional support and counselling. During our month in Darjeeling, Performers Without Borders are working with the young people at the drop-in centre and residential centres. Some of these children live on site whilst others can come at any time to access the drop-in centre. The centre provides them with a safe place to be and to learn, and when they initially come here, many children simply sleep, in the knowledge that they are safe here. A non-formal education is offered, including subjects such as maths and languages. This allows children who may be unfamiliar with a school routine and structure to learn at their own pace. The aim is that many will eventually be able to return to mainstream education, or alternatively to pre-vocational training in areas such as electronics, tailoring and beauty therapy. There are many other activities at the drop-in centre including sports, life skills, arts and crafts, music, dance and performance. This is where Performers Without Borders comes in. Five days a week we spend a few hours teaching circus workshops with a group of around 40-60 children. It is often difficult to conceive of the terrible circumstances we are told that many of the children have experienced, as we are invariably greeted with smiles, laugher and curiosity to learn. It is all too easy to recite the rhetoric of how teaching performing arts can help vulnerable children to develop life skills – especially when trying to persuade sponsors of how worthy we know this project is! But being here I can see for myself how the excitement of learning circus, theatre and dance engages the kids and keeps them focused for several hours at a time. Often during our sessions, the young people stay the whole time and are still eager to carry on even after two or three hours of concentrating hard on learning something new. Before being involved with EWSCT, many of the children have never had the chance to play, and for many this is an important opportunity to have fun and to develop the social skills of working with others. Sometimes we can see that there are difficult dynamics between one or two of the kids, and we are told that having lived in such appalling conditions, many of them find it difficult at times to interact appropriately with others. For this reason, it seems all the more important that they have the opportunity to play, to enjoy themselves, and to experience positive interactions with other people. After one or two sessions, many have already discovered their favourite props, and happily tell us their specialties when we come in each day, asking “When are we dancing?”, or announcing gladly “Hello, I am plate!”. The kids are not the only ones having fun here – looking around, the smiles on the team’s faces are just as wide as those of the kids. As we come towards the end of the 2011 tour, I am as enthusiastic as ever about what we are doing, and can see for myself how much difference a little fun and playfulness can make. – Eluned