5 September 2016

Lighting up Szakasci 2016

Exchange of community-engaged performing arts practice

Strangers become friends by making lanterns to be carried around the Roma village of Szakasci, Hungary

Children and young people from a small village in eastern Hungary took part in making and carrying lanterns, alongside the 40 participants of the second Summer Academy, in August 2016. The Academy was organised as a follow up to Except, a two year programme encouraging practitioners from all over Europe and beyond to share their techniques for socially engaged cultural practice. With people from Turkey, Serbia, India, Israel, Italy, Spain, France, Poland, Slovakia, Holland, Ukraine and Hungary, the conversations were rarely dominated by a Western European bias, which I found refreshing. Also, there were nearly as many scientists, psychologists, psychotherapists and doctors as there were dancers, actors and directors.

But most interesting to me was the Summer Academy’s location in one of the Roma villages in the Cserehat region. It was held there because of the commitment of its organisers: Spec.Street Theatre who have worked with the Roma in that area for years, and ProProgressione; and, secondly, because of the availability of accommodation and catering thanks to the ecotourism business of Dutch hostess Elisabeth, who is creating sustainable employment opportunities for Roma people: www.szakasci-tourism.com

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Working among, and with, the Roma children and families gave the Summer Academy a unique context – challenging, rewarding and thought-provoking in equal measure. We debated when and how to allow kids into our workshops, and we negotiated with them and with each other about access and the rules of engagement.

The grinding poverty in the village was obvious, and the lack of running water in the Roma homes was surprising to me. But the lack of opportunity to get an education – just enough to read and write even – was shocking. No school, and no public transport to get to a school, means that poverty repeats, generation to generation. And the Roma in Hungary are already at the bottom of the pile…with state-sponsored oppression (source: EU human rights agency) layered on top of centuries of suspicion, mistrust and blame.
In a village of outsiders that already dances to a different tune, the presence of 40 strangers clearly has the potential to be hugely exciting and very disruptive. Of course we all wanted our contribution to be positive, but how best to do that?

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I set out to share the relatively simple technique of lantern making within a broader dialogue about the role of the artist in civic society, and the place of celebration in contemporary arts practice. To ensure that the small event that we created would be inclusive, we held a meeting to agree the shape of the event. Some of the Roma men, and one of the young people, attended. With them, we agreed the site for the Roma band and for the small fire, which together would create a finale to our procession around the whole village.
On the night, the Star lantern led our procession. It was carried jointly by one of the local Roma youth (an expert in herding the swarm of children who were carrying lanterns) and Nena from Serbia, one of the Academy practitioners. They walked side by side.

My imagined ‘river of light’ accompanied by beautiful a capella singing didn’t happen. It was instead a wild scattering of lanterns held high by small children. And every tiny child was screaming with excitement, or with fury as other children tried to steal their lantern!
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But there was singing, and joy. We turned a half built structure (a ghost bus stop, perhaps?) into an illuminated lantern house through which everyone passed to reach the fire and the music… and people remarked that we had made a truly inclusive celebration shared equally between villagers and visitors.

Thank you to everyone who made it possible – Anastasiia Gapon, who came from Kyiv/Kiev as Creative Assistant to support the lantern making; Timea Szőke, Balazs Simon, Barna Petranyi and their teams at Spec.Street Theatre and ProProgressione; Elisabeth and her cooks from the village who provided delicious meals; all those who attended the Summer Academy, supported by Erasmus+, and www.exceptnet.eu supported by the European Union’s cultural programme; Walk the Plank; and the children, young people and families of the village of Szakasci.