Feature | On connection and safe spaces: Borders ألسياج הגדר in rehearsals

by Diana Miranda

Written by Nimrod Danishman, Borders explores the relationship of two young men who meet on Grindr, one is in Israel, and the other in Lebanon. Although deeply affected by political circumstances, their digital relationship strengthens against all odds. I spent an afternoon in a rehearsal ahead of the run at VAULT Festival 2023, after looking at the show from the sidelines for some years now.

Borders was originally written in Hebrew and staged in Israel. It made its way to London through Junction Theatre, a new company founded by Neta Gracewell that supports emerging migrant artists, particularly from the MENA community. After previews at Shout Festival 2021, the show was supposed to have its London debut at VAULT 2022, but we all know what happened there (or if you don’t, one word: Omicron). They managed to book a run at Drayton Arms Theatre as part of Vault’s transfer season, which was my first Borders. Later on, they had a few performances at a community centre, and this year they finally made it to VAULT. This would be my second Borders.

I join one of the show’s rehearsals shortly before their tech at VAULT. The rehearsal period is brief because these aren’t Borders’ first steps. To an extent, my perception of the rehearsal is shaped by having watched the show at Drayton Arms a year ago. One of the performers has changed (fun trivia: the Junction Theatre production has gone through three different Georges, while the production in Israel had three different Boazes), and the venue where I caught my first Borders is significantly different to the one where I’ll watch my second one – a 51-seat black box above a pub, versus a 170-seat theatre underneath a train station.

The rehearsal I’m observing has a full house: director Neta Gracewell, producer and stage manager Maria Majewska, movement director Adi Gortler, lighting designer Cheng Keng, and performers Yaniv Yafe and Tarik Badwan. The set and costume designer Ethan Cheek shows up by the end with a “suitcase of presents” – the show’s costumes and props. He then proceeds to dress the set, consisting of a wide, foldable barrier-like structure that has been manipulated onstage during numerous runs. This border has had it rough, I learn, and it’s treated like a third, cherished character that needs to be cared for.

The movement director has significant input in that afternoon rehearsal, and she guides the performers’ interactions with that third character as it is pushed, laid on, compacted or elongated. However, her guidance regarding the interactions between Boaz and George is the most intriguing. The script is structured like a chat on Grindr, so the actors face front instead of looking each other in the eye. Despite the virtual nature of their relationship, they’re very much together through conversation and actions. The piece is about connection and finding an emotionally safe space, and their movements reflect these – sometimes eagerly, or deliberately hesitant. The movement direction doesn’t aim for a rigid choreography; it’s a guideline that performers aim to follow steadily but freely.

After my first Borders at Drayton Arms, I wrote about the cleverness of staging a digital conversation facing the public. It elicits a connection with audiences and makes the auditorium recipient of the characters’ cravings, the comfort in sharing, and the reassurance of friendship and love. Flash forward to my visit to the rehearsal studio, and I am familiarised with the storytelling convention as I watch the curation of gestures that strengthen that audience connection. As far as I can tell, this is not a conscious choice. Not that the production doesn’t worry about sharing with audiences, rather, it’s more as if they achieve it organically by focusing on the story and the relationship between the characters.

They perform a full run at the end of the day. Notes are taken as the show unfolds, but there’s no interruption nor input, other than the director’s nods and smiles. These don’t seem designed to encourage, but rather spontaneous gestures elicited by a show she knows by heart. Gracewell encourages a supportive atmosphere, from deliberately purchased ‘Border biscuits’ to an extra five minutes when decompression is needed. The agenda is set resolutely, but she empowers the performers with the knowledge that they can take care of themselves, and that they’re part of a team that will accompany them throughout the journey.

After the run, the production team discusses time management for Vault’s tech day. Gracewell is firm on having a rehearsal in situ, which I sense is driven by ensuring the performers’ safety. The stage manager advises that a significant amount of time will be necessary to settle in. I immediately see the two-headed nature of this – she’s also wearing her producer’s hat, ergo the sensible and ever-grounding input. The discussions are wrapped in an environment of what I call ‘collaborative stubbornness’. They try to find time to get the necessary technical work done whilst also allowing the performers to familiarize themselves with the space. I wasn’t there during tech so that’s not my story to tell, but there is something reassuring about witnessing a conversation unfold between the lighting designer, stage manager and director on how they’re trying to achieve something more ambitious than in previous runs, and how technical prep work reflects that.

As an insider, I see Border’s goals and consistent sense of direction. The production is clear on the story they want to tell and how they want to tell it. There’s a space-holding energy in the room that allows people to be present and not anxious. Candid conversations are part of the rehearsal process, which is rigorous, but values understanding above perfectionism. Exactly a year ago I met the lovely Jen Toksvig and took part in the R&D process for The Broad Cloth, a hybrid performance with accessibility at its heart, in collaboration with Teatro Vivo. I took a lot from that experience, including the lens needed to recognise practices of holding space and environmental support. These are so vital yet often neglected in theatremaking. If that visit to Borders‘ rehearsal room is representative of Junction Theatre’s effort to dialogue and make support a two-way street, their goodwill, focus and care in crafting a safe space is worth highlighting.

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