The Consolation of Cakes

Cakes

The Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka ended yesterday with the most harrowing ritual of all – the giving out of diplomas to the children who took part, and the saying of goodbyes to children, artists and sponsors – an occasion for torrents of tears. Many of the children look forward to the Theatre School all year, and all of us remember how long a year lasts when you’re a child. Tears are followed by the consolation of cakes and then we’re gone.

Cakes are, indeed, one of life’s great consolations, and I must admit that food still occupies as important a place in my mind as it ever did when I was a child. I remember that at the end of the very first Children’s Theatre School just before Christmas in 2001, Elena Panayotova, who directs the School, asked the children to tell her their dreams for the future. Some of them mentioned becoming a footballer, or having loads of money, or being a film star, but I remember, with great affection, one small, slightly plump boy saying, ‘As many kebabche as I can eat.’

The kebabche is the local sausage – minced pork flavoured with cumin – and in 2001 orphanage food wasn’t as good or as plentiful as it is now. At the party we held for the children following the show I saw him pile a plate high with kebabche and cakes, and then take himself to a quiet corner to eat them all on his own. As much as he could eat was quite a lot.

I’m afraid I’m the same, and I saw myself in that child. I still haven’t entirely mastered the art of restraint. This morning in Sofia, we found the best patisserie in the city – the Orsetti Pasticceria, owned and managed by an Italian couple. Anything to avoid the appalling breakfast offered at the Arena di Serdica, an otherwise very good hotel. The cakes were delicious, and I ate too many of them.

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India – The Children’s Theatre School

It’s the last day of the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, after three weeks of workshops in masks, drama, photography, music, mime, dance, martial arts and yoga, and the children are getting ready for this afternoon’s final performance. This year’s theme is India.

The costumes are the best ever, a colourful, though sometimes fragile confection of silks, linens and acetates gathered from India, Oman and London’s Brick Lane. There will be a story, of course, told in Bulgarian, concerning the doings of a large handful of Indian Gods, Princes, Princesses and Devils (the latter role easy to cast from the 90 children who’ve come from schools and children’s homes around the country). Cultural accuracy isn’t our highest goal, but we do our best, and this year we have two dancers from Aurangebad in India to guide us.

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If you’re not here already, it’s probably too late, but in any case the village is full of colleagues, children, teachers, social workers, politicians, artists, musicians, journalists, spectators, and tourists. Talking to some of them last night, I was reassured, as I am every year, that what Elena Panayotova and her artists do through three weeks of hard and difficult work, and through their final presentation, makes a difference to the lives of the children who participate. Many of them come from the more disadvantaged sectors of Bulgarian society (a large number of them are Roma), and through the Theatre School they acquire confidence, openness and reassurance that they matter. If some go back to their classrooms believing that if they work hard they can achieve something for themselves and their families then it is all worthwhile.

But above all it is enormous fun, and for me, immensely rewarding simply to see how much the children enjoy themselves.

 

The Decline of the Village

I first came to the village of Shiroka Luka, high in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, by accident, on a walking holiday, in 1988. Bulgaria was then a more or less functioning socialist economy, if not the socialist paradise it had set out to become forty years earlier, and the village thrived as an agricultural community and as host to four substantial state institutions – an orphanage for children and teenagers, an orphanage for babies, a specialist folk music school for instrumentalists, singers and dancers, and a primary school for children from the village and the orphanage. There were jobs to be had in these institutions as well as in the fields and woodland that surround the village.

Even so, the population of the village and the surrounding area was lower than it had been a hundred years earlier. Subsistence farming and the simple rural life were even then less tempting than decades earlier, when villagers rarely left the valley, dressed in the local colourful styles and played the bagpipes and flute.

Since my visit in 1988 the population of the village has halved. Farming in the high meadows above the village has all but ceased, and this year, for the first time, not a single cow can be seen ambling in the early morning from the village to the nearby pastures to graze, and back again in the evening. Even fifteen years ago, cattle were housed in stables beneath the villagers’ houses, and in the evening you would see each cow break away from the herd to find her own way home as the cowherd led them through the village square. Villagers, presumably, milked their own cows and made their own cheese and butter.

The orphanage housed nearly 70 children in 1988, and there were 20 babies in the baby home. The primary school taught 100 children and the music school boarded more than 200. That was then. The baby orphanage closed about ten years ago, the children’s orphanage closed this year, the music school boards only around 100 pupils now and the village school teaches only 17 pupils.

You would think, looking at the village, as I have, over the last few days, that it still thrives, albeit in different ways. The village square is lined with restaurants and craft shops, selling Rhodope rugs, slippers and bells. But this occupies the village only for a few months each year. With these four institutions in decline or closed there is nothing to keep young people here, whilst in Plovdiv and Sofia there are jobs, and modern life and a more comfortable way of getting through the winter. However sentimentally we might regard the old way of life, we would be the last to choose to live it.

There’s an idea now that the orphanage might become a special centre for artistically gifted children, or a centre where the arts might be employed to inspire ordinary children – I’m not sure which.  All of this stems from the work that my friend Elena Panayotova and her colleagues have done through the Children’s Theatre School, but I can’t see how this could be enough to keep the village alive, or where the money might come from to finance it. It is a desperate, but a barely plausible hope.

It is, of course, sad to see village life, indeed a way of life, decline. But Shiroka Luka is too far away to serve as a pretty weekend bolt hole for the middle-classes of Plovdiv and Sofia, and, in any, case these are not yet sufficiently prosperous cities. What’s happening here happened fifty years ago in the United Kingdom and most of Europe and no one can stop it happening here. Things change.

Belonging

I’ve just arrived in Shiroka Luka to take part in, but mainly to enjoy, the annual Children’s Theatre School that LLP Group and systems@work  sponsors. Shiroka Luka is a beautiful village, high in the sparsely populated Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria, a place where, in the days when disadvantage was a political inconvenience, orphanages and other institutions for disadvantaged or disabled children were placed, out of sight and out of mind.

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Through the Theatre School we try, in a small way, to bring attention to, and give confidence to, children who are otherwise marginalised. Many are Roma children (‘gypsy’, to use a word imposed by the majority) and they will face discrimination almost every day of their lives. If we can give them a little more confidence we can chip away at the wall of prejudice that they must overcome, though it will be many years before the opportunities for a Roma child in Bulgaria are the same as for a ‘white’ Bulgarian.

I loathe prejudice and I loathe the marginalisation of any community. Marginalisation breeds despair, frustration, anger, and sometimes even violence. It is the marginalisation of those left behind by globalisation that led to the Brexit vote. It is the anger of the left-behind in the USA that is fuelling Trump’s unexpected, irrational popularity. And dare, I say it. whatever the causes may be, it is the marginalisation of the Arab and the Muslim world that fuels the irrational cruelty of extremism and violence. Religion is not the reason. Religion is simply a convenient justification for feelings that stem from a deeper frustration.

I strongly believe that most people want the same things, whatever their nationality, culture, religion, location, colour, gender, or sexuality. They want freedom of opportunity, access to education, opportunity to travel, impartial justice, free access to information, freedom of expression, health and prosperity for themselves and their families. I do not believe that people are fundamentally different from each other. Those who enjoy these freedoms are usually happy to live and let live, to tolerate colourful difference in any form, as long as it doesn’t diminish their own opportunity.

So, building walls and closing borders, when frustration and rage spill over into appalling violence, as in Nice, will never solve the problem. Isolation isn’t the solution. Inclusion is the only long-term solution.

Here in Shiroka Luka we are bent on inclusion, showing disadvantaged communities that they have opportunities in a society that has hitherto neglected them. It may take us a hundred years to achieve our aims, but we must start somewhere.

Don’t ask me how we can persuade those attracted by the ideology of IS that they belong to the same world as we do, and can be equally successful in it, but surely we must. There is no other solution.

 

India in the Rhodopes

It’s nearly that time of year when my thoughts turn to the Theatre School for Children at Risk that we (LLP Group) sponsor every year in Shiroka Luka, a village in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria.  This year the theme is India. It’s a big theme, and a big country, but my friend Elena Panayotova, director of the event, and her artist friends have long since acquired the knack of boiling down a culture shared by hundreds of millions to a few bare essentials – a spot of yoga, a few fairy tales and a big Bollywood ending (see Bollywood).

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So I spent Monday afternoon with one of my closest friends, Peter, foraging for Indian knick-knacks, materials and clothes in Whitechapel, in the East End of London. ‘How many boys and girls outfits can we get for three hundred pounds?’ I ask, and we usually manage to buy as many as we can carry and at a generous discount too. The more difficult problem is ferrying them to Bulgaria.

The Theatre School runs from the 4th until the 23rd July in the village of Shiroka Luka and the town of Smolyan, both close to the Greek border, about fifty miles south of Plovdiv (does that help you to visualise its location?). Children from the village orphanage (built in the 1970s when the Communist government was eager to place such institutions out of sight and out of mind in remote mountain villages) and from other orphanages in the region come together for classes in yoga, mime, dance, music and theatre. Many of the children come from the Roma community and our aim is to help all of them gain in confidence , discipline and self-expression. Above all, though, it’s enormous fun.

If you’re anywhere near Bulgaria at the end of July then pay us a visit. Let me know and I’ll give you more useful directions.

And if you’d like to contribute in any way to the fun or funds, then let me know.

 

Children’s Theatre School – Tomorrow’s the Day

It’s final rehearsal day for the 13th Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, an event which LLP Group sponsors.

After two weeks of drama, mask-making, mime, yoga, martial arts, film-making and music workshops it’s time to put the whole lot together for tomorrow’s show. There’s a notional structure, based around an African and a Bulgarian story, separately told, but authenticity here gives way to spectacle and fun and there are a number of incongruous contributions from schools and orphanages in the region that must be fitted into the programme.

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This morning it’s the general rehearsal, and in the spirit of all hands to the plough I’m taking part myself, playing some Hungarian folk music by Bartok on my oboe at the beginning of the African tale (seems authentic to me!). I used to think that it should only be about the children, that only the children should make the costumes and design the backdrops, but I’ve come to see that the children enjoy and gain much from collaborating not only with each other, but also with the artists, and even, dare I say it, with the sponsors. It’s a miraculous form of therapy that works in both directions.

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If you’re anywhere near Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains, then come. It’s only four hours drive from Sofia. The show starts at 2pm tomorrow afternoon.

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At the Eagle’s Eye

I’m in the village of Shiroka Luka, high in the Rhodope Mountains of South-Central Bulgaria (see blue spot below), for the annual Children’s Theatre School, which LLP Group sponsors.

shiroka luka map

I first came to the village, by chance, in the late Spring of 1988 on a walking holiday with a friend. The village hosts one of the two national folk-music schools which the State (then still a Communist state) supported. We heard music, made some enquiries, and then accompanied the students, in a terrible old bus, to a local village for a concert. How we got back to our hotel, some twenty miles distant, is now lost in a haze of rakiya, a poisonous local fruit brandy.

Ten years later, long after the Communist regime had given up the ghost, my friend returned and discovered a folk-music school in grave decline, but worse, an orphanage (which we hadn’t seen on our first visit), in extreme distress, with insufficient money to feed and clothe its 70 children. My friend then started a charity, supported by other friends all over the world, that provided food, clothes and other necessities. Especially in the early years, this made a vital difference to the lives of hundreds of children, though now, seventeen years later, the situation has improved greatly and the distress, if it remains, is less obvious and less acute.

Some years after my friend’s return, and inspired by his work, I persuaded my business partners and a group of actors, musicians and theatre directors from Sofia, to run an annual theatre school for children from this and other orphanages in the region. This year is the thirteenth year. But today, I and two friends, took a day off from the chaos of the children’s rehearsals and drove to the Eagle’s Eye, a vantage point high above a limestone gorge near the Yagodina Cave, almost on the border with Greece. You can reach it only in the back of a hired off-road vehicle, and for the faint-hearted the journey is a strain. However, the view of the meadows, mountains, villages and deep gorges justifies the mild anxiety.

Our guide was Ilie, by chance a ‘graduate’ of the orphanage in Shiroka Luka. Through an interpreter I asked him about his life then and now. His is a typical story. Ilie still doesn’t know where he was born, or even whether he has brothers or sisters, and the law doesn’t permit him to find out. This is an ever present sadness. He remembers the worst times as the mid-1990s when there wasn’t enough food or fuel to heat the orphanage, and, still to his surprise, no one in the village offered help. He confirms that life for ‘orphans’ is incomparably better now. In fact, there are now only a few orphans in large institutions, the social services department having adopted the European norm of fostering children. It’s hard on those, though, whose early life spans the old and the new systems, since, he says, the children find it hard to adapt to family life after the hurly-burly of communal living, and most long to return to the orphanage.

Ilie

Ilie is in his thirties, and I asked him about the transition from social care to complete independence. For him this came, as it still does for today’s orphans, abruptly, at the end of secondary school. He tells us it was hard to get a job, and that the stigma of the orphanage hangs over him and his orphanage friends still. There are no jobs in this region, there’s no affordable accommodation, and support from the state is provided only for a few months.

Life may be less hard than it was, but tragedies still occur. During the winter of 2013-2014 a friend of Ilie, penniless and homeless, froze to death on the streets of Smolyan, the regional capital. It is hard to understand how this can happen in Europe. There is much still to do in Bulgaria.

Madness in the Mountains

Right now it’s the hottest ticket in the Balkans, so book soon, or lose your chance to take part in the 13th International Children’s Theatre School, in Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria.

shiroka luka

More than  a hundred children from orphanages and schools in the region come together for twenty chaotic, exuberant days of dance, song, mask-making, yoga, martial arts, mime, film-making, music, photography and drama.

‘Every year we do a different theme,’ says acclaimed theatre director, and committed vegan, Elena Panayotova. ‘We’ve done Japan, China, South America, Africa, Russia, India, even Mars. There’s nowhere we won’t go.’

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Each year’s programme is meticulously researched, and plans are often approved in advance by the cultural sections of  the Sofia Embassies, sometimes, as last year (when Argentine tango was mixed, to great effect, with Russian flower dancing), by more than one Embassy at the same time.

‘It was truly authentic in absolutely every single detail, except perhaps just a few,’ said an Indian friend of mine of the children’s 2009 exploration of Indian culture. ‘I almost believed I was at home.’

Watch the moves and decide for yourself:

Balkan Bollywood 

(This fabulous routine went on to win the Most Authentic Non-Indian Bollywood Style Award, First Class (Balkan Section), at the Festival of Indian Music and Arts in Udaipur.)

‘Nataraja Shiva, the god of dance, sleeps in all of us,’ commented acclaimed choreographer, Veronika Petrova, enigmatically. ‘Awake him at your peril.’

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Elena Panayotova, Director of the Theatre School, spent the winter in India studying the Seven Ways of the Chickpea at a food stall in Chennai, and returns refreshed for this year’s event.

‘But I’m done with India,’ she says. ‘It’s mostly about Africa this year, with just a bit of Bulgaria for good measure.’

Elena spends much of her time working at an uncompromisingly high intellectual level for prestigious theatre companies across Europe.

‘What has working with children taught you?’ I asked her.

‘I’ve learnt that the true beauty of the world lies in small things,’ she answered, with a mischievous and curiously enigmatic smile.

Even so, the Children’s Theatre School gets bigger and bigger, and you’d have to go far to find as much joy in one place as you can find in July in the Rhodope Mountains.

The children visibly gain in confidence, and many return each year. Most come from difficult situations, and through the theatre school they learn to believe in themselves. Almost nothing matters more..

LLP Group sponsors the Theatre School. Join us for the final show on Saturday 18th July.