Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Being Festive

Peter Scott, who is on our board and does our annual accounts, phones on December 23rd with some queries about last year's finances. He's beavering away through the Christmas period to get the accounts done for an AGM on New Year's Eve (!), which should give us plenty of time to get them filed with Companies House and the Charity Commission before our 31st January deadline. "You can phone me at home any time tomorrow", his message says. "Tomorrow" is both a Saturday and Christmas Eve. Voluntary board members really do make companies like this one tick.

The last few days before the holiday were surprisingly full of meetings and new leads on next year. I'm invited to an Artist Links Networking Event at Gasworks - hosted by Simon Kirkby, whom I met briefly at the British Council in Shanghai. Mince pies, mulled wine and slideshows. Much of the emphasis is on visual arts (where the Artist Links scheme is most easily implemented - language being far less of an issue than in theatre), and there are moments when I feel the presentations by both British artists who've been to China and Chinese artists who've been to Britain verge on "What I did in my holidays". Still, landscape and architecture are themselves important as sources of inspiration, and there's no doubt that the experience of travel in itself is crucial to making intercultural art. for me, the most interesting presentation comes from Rose English, who is setting up a collaboration with Chinese acrobats / dancers. She talks about the cross-over she sees between calligraphy and choreography: what she calls "writing with the body". And, with a turn of phrase that sends her Chinese translator reeling, she talks of the form practised by her Chinese collaborators as being "both rigorous and capricious, and so very baroque". This is a really helpful insight for me, as I strive to find the links between Yueju and 18th century opera.

Meet with Jon Fawcett at Visiting Arts. He's an old friend from his days running Riverside Studios, and is full of enthusiasm for our plans, particularly since China is such a priority area for the British Council (and diplomacy in general) at the moment. He's even downloaded and printed out some relevant background material for me. I have a good feeling about our chances of a grant here - although the application deadline isn't till April. Jon mentions a few important anniversaries and initiatives which are on the way for 2007, which set me thinking about the future programme.

On from there to meet Lucy Anderson-Jones, who is a Business Advisor with Creative London North, as well as being a great chum of Chris Corner and Chair of the Wrestling School (which means she knows about our work already). Like Phill Ward, she's anxious to make the pots of training money hanging around this initiative into something tangible for artists. We fill in a very odd form together and she promises to find some genuinely useful training and business development opportunities. It's very clear to her, as it is to me, what the company needs in order to move forward - though I'm not sure that there are any new insights into how to do it. One good idea she mentions is a membership scheme, just because it's a way of bringing in funds which aren't specifically tied to a particular project. The problem is finding time to set one up.

Talking of time, Ben Evans phones from Oval House. He's very keen to have Li in their Southern Africa season - and I feel that if there is such a season in one of our favoured venues, then we really should be part of it. But, as we sift through next year's diaries, I begin to feel it may not happen. If we do this, then it needs to be a smaller show, done in their upstairs space; and we've no funds available to back it (unless we manage to raise a GFA, but that might get in the way of having one for Dis-Orientations). I'm still mulling this over - need to talk to the board about it.

I exchange emails with Tracy Xu from the Shanghai Municipal Performance Company. I met her at the ICA, when she picked me out from the crowd of Brits on account of my Chinese jacket (it always pays to go bush!). She has strong links with the Yue Opera and the International Festival, and she speaks perfect English - which is a big plus. I'm wondering whether there's a way of involving her in the project, particularly if we can take the piece to the Festival. The more I think about the work we're doing, the more I feel that the Festival environment is the ideal space for it. If we can get Dis-Orientations into this Shanghai Festival and Glasgay, plus Riverside and a couple of other UK venues, then I think it will be a really solid project.

The thing about a Festival is that people stop doing other things and concentrate for a time on saying things that matter in an atmosphere of celebration. As a result, the work acquires a much more specific, powerful focus. As if to push my thinking a bit further in this direction, Nisha's Christmas present to me is Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal's new book about their 25 years running LIFT, together with wise words from luminaries like Rustom Bharucha and the man who focused many of my ideas about Festivals, Peter Sellars. Peter's Postscript to the book is very brief, but as inspiring as ever. "The 21st century is exploding in front of us - can we replace fear with festival?"

My last meeting before the Christmas festival is about the ENO revival of Peter's production Nixon in China, which Fred Frumberg and I are slated to do together next year. It's a wonderful coincidence: turning next year into my own personal festival of Chinese culture.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Geof and Phill

A long chat with Geof Colman at Central about how the project will work through January and February. Apparently, because the company residency means Haili, Seema and myself, this will be one of the most expensive shows they've ever done, even though the set and costumes will cost them virtually nothing. This makes me feel a bit daunted; and Geof is obviously anxious that the work should give plenty of "added value" to the college, not least in terms of research. We concoct a plan to write a refereed article together. We also work out the fees for each of us: and I phone Haili to let her know. She's rightly a bit perturbed about how this will work with accommodation, so I set Wojtek on to the tricky task of finding inexpensive places to stay in London. Always a problem, this!

It's fascinating how the business of working in a drama school can shift your ways of looking at performance. Geof fills me in on the students' work so far, and we discuss the methods I'll be using to devise the play with them. At one point he asks me whether they will be "playing characters or responses". I answer that I don't know - but it might be closer to the mark to say that I don't really understand the question. All these sort of questions demand a theoretical framework (eg character = Stanislavski / Freud), and the fluid nature of our work is such that theories and practices come careering in and out of it like nobody's business. So I can't really postulate a theory of acting - which I guess is a good way to be with actors about to enter the profession. I can see why Geof says this isn't a project he would ever offer the students for their summer showcase: it won't show them fitting the professional mould.

Yesterday afternoon with Phill Ward at Collage Arts. Phill's a very interesting man: a former ACE opera officer, who writes criticism of the form (he'd just got back from David Pountney's Peter Grimes in Zurich, to which he is promising his Turkey of the Year Award), and also runs the performing arts arm of Collage. In practice, this means getting people with an interest in the sector to be mentored by experienced people like me - for which there is some EU money available. We set up for Wojtek to meet him next week.... Phill's also keen to revitalise the Consortium, which died the death after the office rent kicked in this summer. We go right back to the original idea of a group of companies sharing producing staff, showcasing opportunities etc. The key is that the other companies should be of a high enough standard for us to want to share a platform with them - and Phill has ideas about that too. A reborn Cherub, for example. Watch this space in January.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Operatic scale

I've just done a lightning-speed production: Act 3 of Wagner's Siegfried in three days, for an outfit called the Mastersingers, performing for the Wagner Society at the Royal Academy of Music last Sunday. Not a bad effort in the time available - it really helped to have somebody as creative as Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts doing the title role. It ended up being quite site-specific: the room was a concert hall, with no stage lighting, so we ended up setting the whole thing in the wreckage of an orchestral concert, with instruments scattered around, lighting from toppled music stands, and the characters in ripped evening dress. The journey through the fire consisted of Siegfried throwing huge quantities of manuscript paper (the very page from the score!) high in the air and all over the space. Given what I'm embarking on for next year, the salutary lesson for me was how difficult it is to be precise in direction when the piece is in a language you don't understand (it was sung in Wagner's mock-mediaeval German). Hearing the English version I directed before in my head led to a rather generalised "it's kind of this" approach, which isn't what theatre really should be.

I was also back at ENO last week, rehearsing in the Xerxes second cast, when the announcement was made of Sean Doran's departure and John Berry's appointment. It's very hard to de-code what's being going on behind closed doors - but it does seem to me that the Board has made a big mistake in not being seen to advertise the job. They may well have appointed John in the end anyway, but it should have been done by the rules and in accordance with Arts Council advice. Now they've given the Arts Council carte blanche to cut them completely if they're seen to mis-manage. "It's not our fault, you didn't follow our procedures". Click for a link!

The cheque from Columbia arrived yesterday. Very nice finally to see that sum of money in reality! Wojtek said it was the biggest cheque he'd ever seen: and I think that's true for the company too - Arts Council funding comes in instalments, but this was the whole lot in one wad. Fired by this, we finish off an application to UNESCO - if we get this money too then we'll really be able to make the production work on the scale it needs. This is a new funder for us, so we're groping in the dark a bit on the application: but I guess I've done enough of these things over the years to have some skill at penetrating funding-speak. In the post it goes, with good luck wishes attached.

Haili emails to say she's still not had a contract from Central, and she's worried about money. I've not had one either.... although I've already started working on the process, having meetings with Seema and Alex Stone (the student lighting designer). I'll be seeing Geof Coleman tomorrow, so it should get sorted then - I'm feeling that I've let her down on this, even though it's not my fault. Hopefully they'll be offering her enough to get the room she needs in London.
On Thursday I went to the re-opening of Oval House to see a show called Weights. It's a simple autobiographical monologue by a black American man called Lynn Manning, centring on the fact that he was blinded in a bar shooting when he was 23. Disability Theatre can be very "issue-led": but this managed to be quite the opposite, in spite (or maybe because) of its intensely personal focus. The sequence about learning to walk with a white stick was hilarious, and the description of blind love-making was very beautiful. Manning's language is very rich in imagery: it was, paradoxically, an incredibly visual show.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The News from China

Xerxes reviews are out: nice ones in the Guardian, Standard, Independent on Sunday and Times - although you'd think Nick Hytner had done it himself again. Always the lot of the revival director to go un-noticed..... although the framework he created, and within which I've worked (and which I admire hugely), is very definitely not "me". It's been an intellectual exercise in a way: giving life to characters in an already existing environment.

Wojtek is doing great work at the office, and freeing me up from the daily terrors of running the company, so I can think art and strategy. He's been phoning round venues to move on the tour booking, and preparing a funding application to UNESCO. I'm starting to wonder how I managed without him - and it's only his second week!

Long chat with Alaknanda. I've watched her video of the Heiner Muller Medea: extraordinary, cold, visceral work, which must have seemed incredibly radical when it was done in Mumbai twelve years ago. Alak thinks that the fashion for things Indian in the British theatre is coming to an end, and she may well be right. It all seems to have blanded out into Bollywood spin-offs and thinly veiled attacks on traditional culture masquerading as inter-generational comedy. She thinks that, just in terms of fashion, we're probably right to be turning from India to China. This wasn't the idea at all - but I guess if China is the "next big thing" theatrically, then it's as well to be ahead of the game.

Good news from China: Director You has agreed that the Shanghai Yue Opera Company will be partners in our project, and that Zhang Ruihong will come to work with us. This is brilliant - the best possible outcome from the trip. Less welcome is the news that Zhou Ye Mang won't be available - but that's the easier part to fill, and I have other ideas. We still need to put together a package of official documents before they get government permission and issue contracts - but it feels like we're on the home straight. Alak felt that, to get Chinese actors working in a creative way which doesn't simply follow the tradition, it may be necessary to bring them here at the start of the work. I suppose she's basing this on her own experience: Indian actors also tend to "follow the master", and need encouragement to take creative responsibility themselves. I think she's probably right - we should do the whole process here, even if it means losing that sense of "living in the material" for the English actors: the authenticity of Zhang Ruihong will more than make up for it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Juwon, Jeremy, Yasmin and Ben

Xerxes finally opened on Saturday - it's not really relevant to this blog, but it explains why a lot of the energy which usually goes into the company has been diverted for a while. And yet... Watching it on Saturday, I was struck again by the way in which this form of opera plays many-layered games with gender, just like the Oriental forms. We used this idea in Orientations, of course, and I thoroughly expect to continue the theme in its successor - but it's nice to be reminded from a (finally and relatively) calm position in the audience what the origin of this idea was!

Our Mandela piece sneaks its way off the back burner as a result of a couple of meetings. The first is with Juwon Ogungbe, the African composer whose work I heard in the two plays I saw before going to China. He's incredibly knowledgeable about all forms of music, including Western opera, as well as having been part of the Soyinka - Chuck Mike circle in Nigeria. He's intrigued by the libretto, and picks out at once the challenges in terms of sound worlds, and the possibilities to be creative with an interweaving of styles. Buzzing from this, I have lunch with Jeremy Silver, an old friend from ENO who is now Principal Conductor of Opera Africa in Durban. Bizarrely, they have also started a similar project - in Zulu. We speculate as to whether there may be a way of collaborating, but since each opera already has its libretto, I'm not sure! Jeremy leaves with a copy of ours.......

The African theme continues when I meet up with Ben Evans from Oval House to talk about his planned Southern African season. Various ideas: the opera as work in progress, the African club night I've wanted to do since we did Uniforms and Hoodies in the summer, another Dev Virahsawmy play. The last of these intrigues Ben the most, because he's interested in plays about prisons and shifting post-colonial identities (plenty of those in Southern Africa): Dev having written Li while in prison makes it particularly intense, and we both feel the Oval's small space would suit the claustrophobia. Make a mental note to myself that, if we do end up producing this, it mustn't get any bigger than the space it's in (70 seats): the managerial and artistic focus of next year needs to be Dis-Orientations, and a second production would be a nice bonus.

The great joy of the last week has been the arrival of Wojciech Trzcinski on a work placement in the office. We've had "interns" before (none a great success), but this time I really sense there's somebody around who is passionate about what the company stands for, and is keen to throw himself into the work as a way of learning for his future career. I start him off with some tour booking phone calls and a funding application - and at once a weight seems to lift from my shoulders! So freed up, I drive over to Slough to meet Yasmin Gurreeboo at the West Wing: a very enterprising new venue which is keen to take, maybe even open Dis-Orientations. It still has some of the marks of being a converted school hall, but the technical facilities are good, and there's the right sort of buzz in the place. Yasmin's brought in some strong companies already, and has sold out some shows (including - promisingly - some on Asian themes). They've had Kun opera and are planning an East Asian season in January.... it sounds very promising.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Venues, venues, venues

Xerxes continues to give me fun and games - I'm only typing this now because today's Dress Rehearsal had to be cancelled when bits of the theatre started to fall onto the stage. First night is now Saturday - and the dress is when the first night was, which means that some things won't have been rehearsed for almost a week. Chaos reigns.

Meantime, lots of initial discussions with venues about Dis-Orientations. I met up with Louise Chantal at Riverside, who seems really keen, and will get back with dates within a week (at least in theory). Once the London dates are in place, we can work backwards (or forwards, if necessary). One of the key things is to have a co-producing venue in which to open the show. For the last two, this was the Phoenix in Leicester, which may well happen again, particularly since both Matthew (who runs it) and Paul Kerryson at the Haymarket are keen to present the show in that city, and are looking at a joint venture. There's also an interesting space in Slough, called the West Wing: this is run by Yasmin Gurreeboo, who is a Mauritian and got in touch with us a while ago about theatre on the island. We put her in touch with Dev Virahsawmy, and she's been a BC fan ever since! It's an exciting new venue, so Yasmin and I have set up a meeting for next week. Meanwhile, Wojciech Trzcinski, who I know via the designer Gary Thorne, gets in touch in search of a work placement - he's just finished his studies and needs some hands-on experience of admin in a theatre company. This could be a great way to get the tour booking done - or at least take some of the detailed workload off me.

Another of our favourite venues, Oval House, is planning a Southern African festival next May-June. Given all our connections with the region, and several projects we have in "planning", it seems mad not to be involved in this, although dates may not fit with my possible (probable) ENO revival of Nixon in China and I don't want to spread our potential for funding too thinly. Arrange yet another meeting for next week, and decide to see how it all pans out.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Moving and Shaking

If the blog's been quiet for a while, it's because Xerxes has been decidedly eventful. I can't be too explicit on the web - but two of the names in the publicity are not the same as those on the programme, so you can imagine some of the extra work that's been involved! And it's not over yet...

Meanwhile, Dis-Orientations moves on. My biggest concern is that the momentum may go out of things at the Chinese end - as I've experienced before, there's not much response to emails. Maybe I'll do some phoning next week (though the practicalities of that are fairly terrifying!). It should all work out with the Yue Opera Company; but until I know ,I won't know. The good news is that Zhang Wei, a big Yue Opera star who is independent of the government, and whom I failed to meet in Shanghai, has been emailing via her neice here, and seems very keen - so I have a fall-back position. Hopefully there will be video of her performing come December - by which time there really should be some response from Director You and friends.

Last Wednesday evening I was at the ICA, where Visiting Arts were throwing a party for Chinese arts administrators they've been placing on internships with UK organisations (and who are now off to france - mental note to talk to Farid about this show: Lierre being in the thick of Paris's Chinese quarter in the 13eme). Made some more useful contacts (like Tracy Xu from the Shanghai Municipal Performance Company, who came to talk to me because I was wearing a Chinese jacket, and turned out to be a possible "way in" to the Festival), and renewed some others (Jon Fawcett, who until recently programmed Riverside Studios, and booked Bullie's House in there, is now at Visiting Arts, who seem to be shifting their policy to include collaborations). Also meet an intriguing Chinese actress, who has trained with Phillippe Gaulier, and knows Zhang Rui-hong's work. Like me, she thinks that Zhang Rui-hong is a very special Yueju performer, with the ability to work in a whole range of ways and styles. As I suspected, it turns out that Blue Cloth and Red Dress is essentially her own creation.

The Columbia Foundation sends the confirmation letter / funding agreement. I'd been starting to stress out about the charitable status documents - wondering whether it would all go horribly wrong under US law. There was no reason to think it would other than paranoia.

This morning I met with Jon's successor at Riverside, Louise Chantal. She's a real mover and shaker - currently doing this job on a temporary basis as well as producing shows with companies like the Riot Group. The morning begins well when I spot a photo of Bullie's House on the venue's new leaflet for its membership scheme. They're obviously still very proud of it. Louise is really excited by the whole thing - so much so that we talk about the entire Trilogy for 2008, and even possible American tours.... It seems all we need to wait on is dates, which she should know this week. Cross my fingers.

Lunch with Seema, whose re-design of the Orientations set for last year's tour is now going to become the basis for the design of the Trilogy. It turns out her sister has lived in China for two years, so there's a really strong personal link to the material. The idea is that Seema will work with me through the whole process, creating the piece at Central and developing it with the professional cast. We both get very buzzy about it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

China Fallout

No blogging time since I got back - I plunged straight into rehearsals for Xerxes at the ENO. Not irrelevant to the project - castrato roles and counter-tenors aplenty - but inevitably freelance work (which I have to do for financial and publicity reasons) impedes the company a bit. It will all be easier as and when we get an administrator....

Trying to follow up venues in between Xerxes rehearsals. I have a meeting with Matthew from the Phoenix in Leicester, where we've opened our last two shows and could well open the next. As usual, he's full of positive energy and ideas for engaging new partners (always a good way forward). Fix up to see Louise Chantal, who's taken over programming Riverside Studios. And talk to lots of people on email. So far, so good. Meanwhile, I'm asked to put the full proposal for the Yue company into writing. More bureaucracy. I decide I'd better do this properly; and enlist Haili's help again. I've not done it yet - this will require an even clearer head than blogging.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Stars of China

Lunch with Xu Zheng, who coincides with me in Beijing just for today. He's another person Nick Yu recommended as an exciting actor for me to meet - until I tell Mengxuan who we're going to see, I have no idea that he happens to be one of the biggest TV and film stars in China. His wife is also a mega-star: he shows me her picture on his mobile - she's wearing full Beijing Opera (female) costume and make-up for a film she's currently shooting, and looks amazingly beautiful. I worry for a minute or two that I may have stumbled into a Chinese Posh and Becks - but in fact he turns out to be a profoundly thoughtful, spiritual and culturally attuned person. We talk about the durability of Chinese culture in the face of the West, and indeed of Chinese cultures in the face of one another (like me, he's a fan of the Lama temple, and with his shaved head he looks like a Tibetan monk himself). Before long he's telling me that I have to stay in China for at least three months in order to make any sense of the culture at all, and is inviting me to join him for a long drive through the wilds of Southern and Western China. If only: but today is my last day here, with the ENO and Xerxes beckoning me next week (never mind the much-missed family). The sad thing is that he is quite right: I've scratched surfaces here, but only enough to realise that there is a lifetime's work even to begin to see what China might perhaps be. But this, I explain to Zheng, is why the piece must be made by a mixture of Chinese and British artists, and why I must not impose a view of China on it. Only Chinese voices can and should speak for China.

Today, we speak mainly through Mengxuan. His English isn't great (and although I wish that were not an issue, in practical terms, it is). But I don't want to rush decisions on that basis, especially since he's so clearly in tune with what we're planning - and we promise to keep in touch and swap video material. I have his email address and phone number, which would apparently fetch a lot of money on the streets of Shanghai.

Talking to Xu Zheng, I feel very aware of how fundamental performance is in the lives of the Chinese people. Not always overtly so - although it can be, as today when I pay a brief visit to the Taoist Dongyue Temple, and am greeted with the sight of teenage acrobats from the circus school rehearsing in the open air, with a level of skill we can't begin to imagine in the West. But sometimes it is so much more subtle - the ritual of offering and refusing a cigarette, the paying of a restaurant bill, the handing over of business card with two hands, and its careful reading. All this ritual is theatre in a very real sense; the playing of a part in society (which is different from our Western performance of the individual self): and so making theatre about China is making theatre about a life already theatricalised - which is always a very potent thing to do.

Mao understood all this, of course. Early this morning, deprived of the tourist's or journalist's camera and notebook, I stood with what must have been a thousand or more Chinese people to file past his embalmed body in the Mausoleum. In the North Hall, they lay flowers before his marble statue, offering them with the same gestures that I saw in the Lama Temple yesterday. And, in the main space, the body of the Chairman itself lies, with two soldiers on guard. It's an incredibly powerful experience, even though the body looks rather plastic after all these years of treatment. Thirty years dead, and still the object of such veneration. No, Xu Zheng is right: I have not even begun to understand.

A footnote to this journey: the moment I said you couldn't read this blog in China, it suddenly appeared on the web. Another little mystery to fathom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Arts and Action

To Beijing Arts University for a session with Zhao Lihua and two other Beijing opera performers: another woman called Hali who plays male roles, and a young man called Manyi who performs the dan (female) parts. It's fascinating to watch total gender reversal like this: the girls sport long beards (even with their jeans and T-shirts) and Manyi minces magnificently. What's intriguing is how difficult they find it to improvise anything, either within their own style or in a more naturalistic mode. I suppose this is the Chinese tradition of taking everything from the master.

In the taxi, Megxuan asks me if I've heard about the Tiananmen Square masacre. "Of course", I say. It turns out that she, who is now 22 and a post-graduate, first heard about this last week. She's amazed to hear that it was news at all in the West, never mind that it now dominates our thinking about China. Most Chinese, she's convinced, don't know it even happened, and those that do (like her parents' generation, perhaps) have decided it's safer not to know.

Between all this, I fit in a trip to the Great Wall and a visit to the Lama Temple: the home of Tibetan Buddhism in Beijing. The monks are engaged in a complex ritual which looks like a debate punctuated by powerful clapping. This place, like the Forbidden City, was saved from destruction in the Cultural Revolution by the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai. He also loved the traditional art forms, and was a dan actor in his youth......

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Beijing mists

You can't read this blog in China. It seems strange enough that I can write it, given the vast amount of filters that run all over the internet here. It's proved impossible to access my email tonight - so if you're trying to tell me something urgent, I'm sorry! I don't know why the powers that be have chosen to censor the blog: perhaps it's all online journals from the West; or perhaps it's just those which refer to China. But I can write it.....

Beijing is very different from Shanghai: much more "Chinese", if I can fall into the cliches for a moment. For one thing, the city is bathed in a constant mist from the combination of early autumn and high pollution, so that even without the opium dens one seems to see it through a weird narcotic haze. Wandering through the Forbidden City today, the light seemed filtered and diffuse, with the sun only half visible, recalling Hardy's phrase about "a sun that was white, as though chidden of God". Through the antique magnificence, huge numbers of people from all over China (and all over the world) make their way; many of them dressed in far more traditional clothes than I saw anywhere in Shanghai: men in blue Mao suits with little caps, women in red-brown or grey jackets. There still seems to be a sense of awe in their response to the palace, although it's almost a century since the Emperor of Heaven walked these cobbles and sat on these thrones. But the religion of the Imperial survives: yesterday I even saw a woman praying at the Emperor's shrine in the Temple of Heaven.

Being physically present in the theatrical space of this city, you can see how the cult of Mao is actually a continuation of the Emperor's divine status. His huge portrait hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where he proclaimed the People's Republic, and so is on the exact North-South line on which the Imperial thrones sit within the Forbidden City behind him. Moving on the same line through Tiananmen Square, you come to the vast Mausoleum, where the Chairman's body lies embalmed. This morning, an ordinary Tuesday, there was an enormous queue to file past the corpse of this man who died in 1976. And everywhere in the Square, there are soldiers. Last night I watched the ceremonial lowering of the red flag at sunset, in an extraordinary display of goose-stepping precision. At dawn, it goes up again. China may have embraced economic capitalism, but the political power of the Communist state still appears absolute to me. Indeed, the economic boom may even be the state's way of buying off the dissenting middle-class intellectuals who protested in this square in 1989, with such tragic results. Given the specious freedoms of the market, they seem to crave far less the deeper freedoms of speech, thought and self-determination.

All of this has implications for the project, of course. It's impossible not to take on board the politics in making a piece like we are planning here; but difficult to know how the Chinese performers will respond, how indeed they may be implicated in anything we do. Given the story in yesterday's online Guardian about the beating of a dissident in Southern China, the safety of our artists has to be a priority in whatever we do, particularly since the Yue company were talking about the need for government permissions for collaboration. I wonder about setting up dialogues between English and Chinese characters, in which there is a deliberate ambiguity about the politics on both sides. As with everything, we need to try it.

Mengxuan / Julia introduces me to Zhao Lihua: a young actress who plays male roles in the Beijing opera. She's actually very feminine, dressed in the height of fashion, but there's something boyish in her face which makes sense of the casting. Being young Chinese, these girls want to talk in an incredibly over-priced Starbucks, where Lihua treats me to a display of Kung Fu high kicking over the cappuccinos. I'd like to watch her in performance, though it doesn't seem this will be possible in the next couple of days. In any case, I'm far less drawn to the use of Beijing opera than I am to Yueju: the latter has an established tradition of the cross-dressed woman, whereas Beijing opera only brought in actresses quite recently: until the Cultural Revolution dan actors like the great Mei Lanfang played the female roles.

I walk through the concubines' quarters in the Forbidden City; thinking about Mei Lanfang's famous performances as Imperial concubines. There's an exhibition about their lives which is fascinating. At one point, it suggests that all their leisure time, spent reading, writing, painting and embroidering, was "a boring life". This reminds me of something Meijing said in Shanghai one day: that she thought Chinese women were more liberated than Western women, because in China all the women worked, even after they had children (who are looked after by the state or by grand-parents). Liberty, it seems, consists in work here. The concubines had their moments of work too, of course: once in a while the Imperial summons would come, and the lucky lady for the night would be stripped naked, wrapped in yellow cloth and carried across the Forbidden City to be dumped at the feet of her lord and master. Concubines could be as young as 13, and the Emperors would follow the Chinese belief that having sex with young women would give an old man longer life. There's another Imperial tradition followed by Chairman Mao; who, if the new revelations are anything to go by, did very little except have sex with young women for the last decade or so of his life, while the Cultural Revolution went on all around.

That's done it: now this blog will never be available to read in China.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Beijing Dawn

Of the three actors Nick suggested to me, I've met two. The third, Xu Zheng, is in Beijing, where I arrived this morning at 6.30, just as the sun was rising and the mist hanging over the capital. I've already phoned Xu Zheng from Shanghai, but it's difficult to hold phone conversations in a foreign language (at one point he told me, in perfect English "I don't really speak English"). I told him I'd ask a Chinese speaker to phone him when I got here.

This will be Fang Mengxuan ("You can call me Julia" - I'm getting used to this), who is a student here and a friend of Haili and "Jessica" from the Yue opera: having volunteered to be my guide and translator in Beijing, she had a frustrating hour this morning running around outside the vast Beijing station searching for a westerner in a red hat. She's also tracked down some other intriguing Beijing theatre people for me to speak to.

The last of the Yue operas, on Saturday night, was called Peer at Princess Three Times, and was another comic piece about a woman general who can't be looked at by men, and eventually falls in love with a doctor. It's silly but fun: and again different in style from the others I've seen. This time it's much closer to Beijing Opera - lots of twirling swords with tassles on the end. With such flexibility within the form as practised here, it seems odd that people are expressing concern about my preserving its integrity and authenticity: but I suppose the sense of ownership is important. Meijing, who laughs throughout this piece, talks about how interesting it is that all the Yue pieces are about women doing "male" things, like being generals or dressing as boys to become scholars or Prime Ministers. This is a theatre of feminism - and a much more telling one than China's Supergirl.

On Sunday afternoon I meet an actor called Zhou Ye Mang: a fascinating man in his late forties, who has spent a couple of years in Canada, and so speaks good English, but who is also deeply rooted in the history and culture of his home. He's worked with Richard Schechner (in Shanghai), and played Jerry in a Chinese version of Pinter's Betrayal. He's interested in the project, but concerned that he may not speak English well enough. I try to reassure him that the language barrier is part of the point, and we improvise some scenes which start to give him the idea. He acts wonderfully - no demonstrative histrionics at all. This is very promising. He talks about his interest in Western theatre as a way of freeing his creativity (I understand that!), and tells me about the "many tragedies" he knew during the Cultural Revolution. It's a powerful couple of hours - and I hope they will lead somewhere. It's always so hard to tell here: things don't seem to "settle" very easily.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Chinese whispers

I begin to understand why they call the game Chinese whispers. You think you understand what's going on, but actually it's changing subtly all the time.

I've been seeing the Yue opera each night while I've been here, and last night it was one of their cult shows, about a girl who dresses as a man (as so often), becomes Prime Minister and then the target of the Emperor's lust. There's a wonderful scene with the two of them on (Beijing opera style) horses, where you see a man fancying a man, a woman fancying a woman, and a man fancying a woman all at once. And people say there's no gay subtext in Yueju.....

Anyway - before I see this, I get to spend some time with performers. Zhang Ruihong, Huang Hui and Wu Qun: three of the xiaosheng in the company, all of whom I've been impressed with over the last few nights. With Meijing translating, they seem very friendly and open to the ideas (which, of course, have to be explained from the very beginning), and shriek with excitement at being given packets of shortbread from the UK - I think more because I'm showing a bit of Chinese etiquette than because they love biscuits. We even get to work a bit - simple improvisation on opening letters and communicating across language. There's the illustrative tendency there which I suspected I'd see - but also a real sense of different acting styles and some very inspiring creativity. I think this should all work.

Then I take Messrs You and Ho for dinner (more Chinese etiquette - I have to pay for the whole party as the one who invited them - but since a meal costs about the same as a Starbucks coffee here it doesn't hurt much!). And the Chinese whispers start. Meijing and I float Bingbing's idea of the show coming back to Shanghai, and they start to say that this would require some supervision from them, since they are the guardians of the Yue form - fair enough. But when I say that the show will be made next autumn and they can look at it then, and maybe we should think about the 2007 Festival rather than 2006, they start moving round the same ideas again. After about an hour I finally work out that they're asking for a co-production credit, which would then get us access to costumes and music (and co-operation!) as well as a performer. I'm not sure if they work out that I'm amenable to this - and I get more and more worried about the sexual politics of the work as they start to talk about suitability for Chinese audiences and government permissions for collaborations. Back at the hotel, I write myself a tough note in my production notebook that I mustn't let the show be artistically compromised, whatever.

This morning the sun comes out for the first time since I've been here, and I walk over to Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre to meet Nick Yu, who is a playwright and who programmes this theatre complex. After the prudish propaganda I've had from everybody else, this is incredible. SDAC has just produced Patrick Marber's Closer, and next year they are doing Angels in America, precisely because they want to target (wait for it) the gay audience. I ask whether they'll get censored - "No, it will be fine", says Nick: "the only thing that ever got stopped was The Vagina Monologues - they wanted us to change the title." And suddenly I feel back on track, with Nick and the casting lady, Jackie, phoning round male actors who have a good knowledge of English.

My sense is, with the right man from SDAC, and the right actress from SYT, I can make this work on the right lines - and we can probably bring it back to perform at SDAC too (Nick mentions this even before I do). Off to meet the first actor now.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Zhang Ruihong

So much going on that I can't record it all - and some of it probably shouldn't go on the net anyway, because a lot of the meetings are about me learning where I need to show tact in the etiquette of working with Chinese people. I seem to be managing so far.

Much of Wednesday is spent with the Yue opera company: watching them rehearse both at their base and in the theatre. Their technical sessions look as nightmarish as ours, although everybody seems much clamer about it. I squeeze in a meeting with an actor called Jeffrey Zhang and his extraordinary wife Jasmine. It's one of the knock-on effects of the Open Door policy that lots of younger Chinese now have a Western name as well as the Chinese one. They choose it themselves and change it at will: the only girl in the Yue company who speaks English is called Han Lei, "But you can call me Jessica". Jeffrey combines a Robbie Williams-esque modernity with work as a kun opera "National Treasure". Jasmine acts as our interpreter, and is keen for him to come and work in England, but I feel I need somebody with good English for this job. Her English in his body would work fine....

The evening at the Yue opera, where I see for the first time a really brilliant performer. Her name is Zhang Ruihong, and in this piece, Blue Cloak & Red Dress, she plays four different male roles. In a way they are all part of the same role, each older than the one before, each slightly wiser, each a further incarnation of the same soul, learning slowly about how to deal with the world and with women. In the wonderful final scene, which Ruihong performs solo, she is the poet Li Bai, at the end of his life, dressed entirely in white with a long (and totally realistic) beard. She performs a strange, sad dance of death, and departs into a sort of white oblivion. It's very moving, in a way I can't quite comprehend, because it's also deeply Chinese, and carries the weight of so much history and inheritance. This sense of moving through different bodies into eventual nothingness is very resonant for the whole idea of performance, and certainly for cross-gender performance. In the end, I suppose it says, the self is nothing at all, ungendered, unsexed, without race, culture or language - and to accept that is to reach the essential truth.

It's very strange indeed to step out of a performance like this into the crazy streets of modern Shanghai. I walk through the main shopping areas, which are still teeming with life at 10.30pm, and I keep my video camera on as I go, in case this material might feed the production. As I walk, I get approached by at least ten pimps in as many minutes. "Hello - how are you? Want lady?" Given that prostitution is illegal in China, the Western market is clearly still feeding that ancient industry known as Shanghai vice.

Thursday afternoon with the British Council's Arts Manager Zhao Bingbing: a real bundle of energy and ideas, who is very helpful indeed on cultural sensitivity and etiquette, as well as having lots of suggestions for ways we can move the project on. She's coming with me to the Yue performance tonight, and will help me set up meetings with some of the xiaosheng themselves tomorrow. Including, I hope, Zhang Ruihong.....

In the art deco lobby of the famous famous Peace Hotel (where Coward wrote Private Lives and the Gang of Four had their HQ) I buy a little Chinese tea set for Nisha. "Present for wife?" the shop assistant asks me. When I say yes, she tries to get me to buy a jade bracelet "for girlfriend". So that's the assumption Chinese women make about Western men!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Writing this in Shanghai Library on the third morning of my trip. Oh the wonders of the web!

When he knew I was coming out here, Oliver said he thought Shanghai now was probably like New York was in the 1920s. If anything, it's even buzzier, even more capitalist (which is pretty weird in a communist state) and certainly cleaner (which isn't: apart from the odd blob of spittle, there's not a speck of litter to be seen).

It was with some trepidation, and an armful of presents, that I ventured from the Nanyin Hotel (swanky if anonymous, and a snip at the discounted price) to the Yue Opera Company, accompanied by Meijing from the British Council, who'd agreed to be my translator for the morning, even though the National Holiday is happening - which for some reason means that the Britsh Council doesn't work, even though the government-run Yue Opera does.... I needn't have worried. Director You and his Arts Supervisor (which I think means Artistic Director) Mr Hu Xu couldn't have been more positive. We talked over green tea for the entire morning (it takes that long when you're discussing the nature of a devised piece via a translator), and find ourselves going into quite complex areas about cultural relations. I even get bold enough to explain how I think the finances should work, and Mr You says at once that it sounds just right. I'd thought I wouldn't get that far till the fourth meeting over rice wine and crispy duck. Anther myth about China bites the dust. The meeting was followed by a massive lunch, all the same - lots of formal toasting and my first encounter with blue uncooked prawns. But already I fel we've established the connection - there will be a xiaosheng coming from here to work with us.

The company operates from a secluded compound in the heart of the otherwise bustling French Concession. It's like a little oasis of indigenous culture in the thick of the constantly shifting concrete desert. I've just been there again this morning, watching them rehearse. I've chosen the perfect time to be here in many ways - the company is 50 years old this year, and they're doing a festival of performances. There's a different show every night at the Yi Fu theatre. Last night, Meijing and I were their guests at Empress of Hanwen, performed by the younger artists in the company. Wonderful to see the form in the flesh after all the discussions and the DVDs. It is, of course, so much more fascinating in the reality, when you can see the bodies in movement with the music, and watch the entirety of the stage picture. What struck me watching it was that the form is already intercultural, even before I start faffing about with it. Yue dates from 100 years ago, and it seems to me to be a compound of the many influences on Southern China a century ago. There's the kun opera tradition there, of course; but there's also a powerful stream of melodrama (it's above all a theatre of feeling, even of sentiment), and of Western opera. The orchestra is in a pit, not beside the stage, and includes Western cellos and oboes alongside the Chinese instruments: there's even a conductor. This makes the work much more accessible to ears like mine than is the kun opera: it also suggests that the process we're embarking on should be aware of itself as part of an historical continuum of dialogue between forms - something I'd not realised before. The xiaoseng are incredible: the woman who plays the Emperor is totally convincing as a man.

Meijing and I have dinner in a little Hunan restaurant opposite the theatre, with a picture of Mao on the wall. She's 24, so she's grown up in the era after his death, even though she (and this food) both come from his home town. As a result, she learnt her perfect English in school. She's spent a year in London, and so I'm not too worried about cultural sensitivities with her: so we talk about the gender issue more widely than I've done with other Chinese people so far. She says there was a TV show called Supergirl recently, with the public voting for their favourite young girl in a competition, on the lines of Pop Idol. With millions of votes each, and a total craze among the women of the country, the two winners were both very butch....

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Crazy days

Why do the last few days before you go away always disintegrate into total pandemonium? I suppose because you feel you have to sort your whole life out, because nothing can possibly wait for two weeks..... Well, it's past midnight on Saturday, and I'll be up at 5.30 tomorrow to fly to Shanghai, so some things are really going to have to wait. Like the VAT return. But at least I'm doing a last piece of late-night blogging. You have to get your priorities right.

Oh, and I managed to:

do an affidavit of charitable status for Columbia (figures suggesting we're over-dependent on the Arts Council, which I think we know - hopefully Columbia will help us out of that!);

create a CD of our music with carefully designed inlay card to give a unique present to Chinese hosts (and buy boxes of shortbread in case that turns out to be more appropriate);

take the family to Aberystwyth to stay with Nisha's sister while I'm away (a mere 450 mile round trip);

sort out people to share the office and the paperwork to pay Collage Arts;

have a meeting with Geof and Jess at Central about the first stage of the project (we'll be developing the piece with the students in January / February) and how we'll divide expense and credit;

and so on. I'm ready to go!

In the thick of it all, I squeeze in two pieces of African theatre: Who Killed Mr Drum? at the Riverside and The Lion and the Jewel at the Barbican. They couldn't be more different: the South African piece is elegiac, even a little nostalgic for the political and cultural energies of the apartheid era. The Soyinka, although it's fifty years old, feels incredibly current. It's a comedy of changing values (or the failure of change) in post-colonial Nigeria, centring on a woman's sense of herself as a new sort of goddess, because she's been pictured in a magazine. Yes, that current! As so often with Soyinka, I find the piece very disturbing: in spite of the humour and the undeniably infectious buoyancy of Chuck Mike's production with Collective Artistes. As in his serious plays, the colonial, the modern, is only an intervention in a broader cultural history - which is a refreshingly accurate way of looking at it. But the re-assertion of the elder's authority, in the form of what amounts to rape, doesn't feel like a laughing matter to me. I find myself on both sides of the arguments, and not knowing where to place myself. Which is what really good plays do.

The music for both plays is terrific, and they share the same composer: Juwon Ogungbe. I email him about our dormant opera project.

Next time, in Shanghai!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Je ne suis jamais allée en Chine

Much of Saturday is spent at Rose Bruford College, wearing my other hat as a tutor on the Distance Learning Programme. I do a workshop on space for the theatre students, and lead a discussion about "what is art?" (based around Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper sculpture) for the opera ones. Since I met Nesta the other day, I've been feeling that these two hats are actually getting a bit closer together, and today confirms it when Jayne Richards (who runs the Theatre Studies programme) suggests that she should use Dis-Orientations as the case-study for a chapter she's been asked to write in a new book on devised theatre. This is really good news for the company: anything that shows we're being taken seriously, and that our practice is worth studying and recording. Jayne is amazed when I say she can come and watch rehearsals: apparently most people are very precious about this, especially for devised work (I suppose the crazed secrecy surrounding Mike Leigh's recent process at the National is a case in point). I don't see why people think like that: we aren't in all honesty doing anything secret, really. And it's contradictory: why advertise a piece as "devised" if you won't allow anybody access to the process? Why make the process an issue if you're not willing to talk about it?

To the Barbican for The Dragon's Trilogy: a revival of the first Robert Lepage production I saw, a full fourteen years ago. I'd been full of ambiguous anticipation for this: hoping to relive the mind-expanding and emotionally wrenching experience of 1991, and dreading that it will all be a terrible let-down now I'm older and "wiser". I needn't have worried. This production remains one of the finest pieces of theatre I have ever seen. What's extraordinary is that it should still feel so innovative after all this time: there are still so few practitioners who dare really to take risks with the poetry inherent in the form. Most of the profession are still enslaved to showbiz or naturalism.

I'd wondered whether the play might be a useful pointer for my work in China, since I remember very well the elements of Chinese theatre in the piece, and the sense of a dialogue with the Orient. But, coming back to it now, it doesn't feel to me as if it's really about China at all - as the very first line "Je ne suis jamais allée en Chine", bears witness. It's about the Québécois , their struggles (especially in terms of language) to find identity for themselves both within Canada and in dialogue with the world. The Chinatowns of Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver become images of that: little islands of a different culture, which remain unknown and perhaps impenetrable. Certainly in the early sections, the Chinese characters (most of whom are literally faceless) never move beyond opium-den clichés, but in a way that's the point, since these Chinese are imagined by young girls playing. It's only in the final sections, when a real Japanese artist comes into the life of the Québécois artist Pierre, that there is a real engagement. And so the play ends with Pierre's decision to visit China as a way of moving himself forward, as an artist and perhaps also as a human being. This is a moment which is full of personal resonance for me today.

Haili's been sending me advice about the little presents I need to give to the people I meet. The only rule is that they shouldn't be made in China. Trying to buy things, this proves easier said than done!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Market Forces

Haili has sent me her dissertation, which is about the Yue opera's evolution in the post-Mao era. It's fascinating. A lot of her argument concentrates on the financial aspects of production (which are always crucial, of course), and the shift from a Maoist model of Communist art funded entirely by the state to what she calls "marketisation". During the Cultural Revolution, there was no Yue opera at all (and there are some horror stories about what happened to the performers), and only approved pieces like my old friend The Red Detachment of Women (which is "quoted" in Nixon in China) were approved. Yueju was revived under Deng Xiaoping, and started to accommodate itself to the demands of a new audience. Strangely, in becoming more commercial, Yue also seems to have become more radical, at least in terms of gender politics. Haili explains how a piece called Butterfly Dream, which was aimed at a younger, more Westernized, female audience, uniquely ended with the female protagonist turning against her husband (who has disguised himself as a young seducer in order to test her out). What Haili doesn't discuss is how the fact of an all-female cast affects this perceived feminism in the piece: is it easier for a female protagonist to rebel against the male when that male is in fact female, or does the all-female Yueju provide a safe space in which experiments in feminism can be conducted?

I find her view that the market is the equivalent of freedom strange - though I can see why it may currently feel that way in China. The problem is that in the long run this will mean that it gets more difficult to experiment in the arts, and blandness will set in.

Market forces come into their own for us today, though. Our insurance broker has sent us a hefty invoice for renewal of our combined commercial policy. I'm about to sign the cheque when I decide it's a ridiculous amount, and phone another broker who contacted us when we joined ITC. The phone call saves us £500 a year.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Meetings with Remarkable Women

Thursday was spent dashing around a rain-sodden London. Coffee (really good coffee, actually) at the offices of LIFT with the new director, Angharad Wyn-Jones. We linked up via email quite soon after she arrived in the job - largely because of our mutual friendship and admiration for Peter Sellars, whose ill-fated tenure at Adelaide was a real indication of what an international arts festival really could be. Angharad is taking on the task of re-launching LIFT after its five-year "enquiry" period, and returning it to a festival form in 2007. Meanwhile she's setting up something called the New Parliament - a portable space for the crucial debates of the moment, which don't get aired in the more tired theatre of Westminster. We talk about the challenges of this, and particularly the problem of finding a ritual which will enable the space to function, without simply aping the rituals of an outmoded political process. This will in itself be a function of the intercultural dialogue she's setting up. She's watched the Orientations video, (and enjoyed it!): we talk about the intimacy required between artists of different cultures to make really deep collaborations happen - the way hosting people in your own home can be a really crucial part of the process (as we did for Lifati and Mahesh, and as Mahesh once did for me).

Dash across town to NYU in London, getting soaked through to the pelt in the process, and spend an hour with Nesta Jones, who's head of Research at Rose Bruford. She had been keen to host the Laboratory there (and was only stopped by other people's rapacity), and we look into doing this properly for the next lot of workshops. The only criticism we had was of the room (no natural light, concrete floor), so a nice studio will be a big help. Nesta's also keen to help with other aspects of research, including getting the interviews for the book I'm planning transcribed. And we talk about the possibility of Dis-Orientations workshopping or even rehearsing in the college, depending on dates. This might well work out. If the workshop were during their Easter break, then it could run into the college's symposium, which might be the ideal atmosphere for a really probing enquiry.

The last meeting of the day is with Alaknanda Samarth. We've been friends for a couple of years, and today she gives me her CV for the first time. It's full of totally amazing reviews for her performances in India and over here - though it's also quite short on credits.... Alak is notoriously selective about her work, so I feel pretty privileged even to get the CV, as well as the video of her Medea (the Heiner Muller version, which she did with the visual artist Nalini Malani). She was a big fan of Orientations (which she said was "like an opera"), and is excited to hear about the plans to move it on. We talk about the crisis of masculinity in the current moment: something of which we both feel horribly aware. What are supposed to be the positive aspects of being male today? I can't think of anything.... Men are supposed to be commended for showing their "feminine side", but the only "male side" we ever see in women is the ladette culture. Surely being a man is more valuable than that? So - there's a road for the play to travel along....

On Wednesday night, I saw a preview of David Edgar's Playing with Fire at the National. No doubt Michael Billington will be writing about the joy of seeing a big, public play on the Olivier stage - but I feel terribly disappointed that this sharp-minded playwright, whose Destiny, Maydays and Pentecost were such sophisticated, humane responses to crises on both left and right, should be defeated by the challenge of the multicultural. Even within white Britain, he manages to caricature Northern people (all nail bars and "Eh up"), and reduce New Labour to glib self-seekers (surely what's disturbing about New Labour is that it started from a genuine desire for a more just and equal society?). Of the Islamic voice, which ought to be at the centre of a play based around the 2001 riots in the North (never mind relevance to the present moment) we hear virtually nothing. We're left thinking that the problem is an internal Labour Party issue - old guard Northerners versus smarmy Southies - which misses the enormity of these events completely.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Talking to the Arts Council

Long phone conversation with Nick at the Arts Council about the failed application to fund the research trip. He's very honest about what he calls "a paradox in the system", which is that while they encourage artists to research and develop work, they also need lots of detail on the expected results before they can fund that research. Apparently our application would have been stronger if there had been a list of people I would be meeting - difficult given that one reason for the trip is to find out who the people are that I need to meet! Still, he's impressed by the news from the Columbia Foundation, which he says makes an application for a touring grant more likely to succeed (I suppose on the basis that if somebody else has already made a decision, you're more likely to be right if you make the same one).

They've also sent me a consultation form to help with their response to the government's white paper on youth. Lots of the basic ideas in all this I agree with (of course) - arts are good for young people etc. But I'm very wary of the utilitarian tone of the whole thing, and try to indicate this in my answers. They ask what can be done to stop young people taking drugs, drifting into crime etc. If I'm expected to say "get them acting", I disappoint. This is really a question about the spiritual crisis besetting our society: and, while the arts certainly have a role in whatever regeneration can be attempted, it's not a simple thing like "provision of opportunities in youth theatre". We need to search for new routes to spiritual truth - and perhaps then we'll be able to convey them more widely through our fragmented world.

It doesn't sound very like funding-speak, does it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Batman Dance

Relief from the weekend's traumas - the back-up copy I kept of the footage turns out to be of higher quality than I'd thought, and I'm able to construct a decent enough version of the DVD. It takes all day, but at least it's clawed back.

Meeting with Athina Fokidou - a freelance administrator who's keen to work with us. She's just started doing some fundraising for Stone Crabs on a commission-only basis, and is willing to do the same for us. Nothing to lose, I guess.

5pm and the phone goes. Henry Holmes from the Columbia Foundation in San Francisco, calling at 9am his time. It's the news I'd not been trying to hope for too much: they've agreed to fund Dis-Orientations with a big grant. This is fantastic on so many levels: for a start, it means that we know at this early stage the production will be happening. It means we don't have to rely solely on the Arts Council (though we'll ask them for a top-up); that we can make definite venue bookings rather than the usual "pencil tour" pending the ACE application; that I can go to China and put money on the table rather than tentative possibilities. Looking at the Columbia website (http://www.columbia.org/), I'm also very struck by the company we're in: usually these funds go to organisations like the National or the Almeida - so this is a big vote of confidence. I suppose it all goes back to Gary Thorne taking the initiative and bringing Henry to meet me at the office back in the spring. I owe Gary a serious drink.

When you run a company, the "highs" are quite few and far between - even though people tend to think they're the only reason anyone would want to work in the theatre. Opening nights are nice, a good review is pretty nice, and the moments in rehearsal when you really find something truthful are deeply fulfilling. But, for me, the moment when I find out that we will definitely do a project I've been working on for months is the one that has me doing the Batman Dance. So - I do it.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Not that I'm in the slightest bit technophobic - theatre always falls in love with its context, and that's the world of video projections, websites and blogs! But there are moments....

Through the summer, I've been editing a video of interviews and extracts from plays as a co-production with Rose Bruford College: part of a new Module I'm doing for the Distance Learning programme, on Post-Colonial & Black Theatres. It's ended up as five DVDs, and over the weekend I set about copying them onto a VHS tape for a student without DVD. When I got to the last DVD, I discovered the whole thing was in meltdown. Constant break-up, incomprehensible sound, totally unusable. So - the whole thing needs re-doing. What's more, it's the most complex edit AND the only one for which I don't have some of the original material any more. So re-thought as well as re-done. Just when I thought I might have a simpler week of it. Grrrr.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Investing in the future...?

Paul's creativity research is featured on the radio today: he's on Radio 4's Creativity programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/creativegenius.shtml), talking about the experiments he's done with creative activities in brain scanners. Hopefully this is what we'll be building on as the work in Plymouth progresses.

I'm spending the first three days of this week at the ENO. I think most directors tend to mix their company commitments with freelance projects, and when you work with a project-funded company like this one it's all the more necessary, for reasons of simple survival. But it does feel odd to be plunged into a totally different set-up, where many of the key issues (like casting, scheduling and - in this case - even the set and the structure of the staging) are totally outside my control. Even odder is the fact that these three days on Handel's Xerxes are a full six weeks ahead of the main rehearsal period. It's because Lawrence Zazzo, who'll be singing Arsemenes, isn't going to be in the real rehearsals for the first two weeks - so I have these three days to dip his toe in the water, helped by whoever else happens to be free. Luckily, Larry is a very intelligent and creative performer. Otherwise this would be distinctly tricky....

A letter turns up from the Arts Council, turning down our application to fund my research visit to China. This isn't the end of the world - we've got money in the bank which can pay for it (though obviously we'd sooner have used that for something else). What's more worrying is that this is the third application in a row to be turned down (and the other two were a lot more significant - which is why there's no full-scale production in this, our tenth anniversary year). I need to phone them and see whether we're doing something wrong. It really doesn't make any sense in the wake of two really successful productions last year. And we HAVE to get funds behind the new project.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Theatre of Science

Wednesday and Thursday were spent at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, doing a workshop in collaboration with their Theatre of Science project. It's an idea Paul Howard-Jones and I have been working on for a while. As well as creating the music for lots of our shows (most recently Mappa Mundi), Paul is also an educationalist and a brain scientist, with a particular interest in creativity. When we did the development workshop for Mappa (on a self-built stage at the bottom of his Welsh garden!), he became fascinated by the nature of the devising process, wondering what was actually going on in scientific terms to generate the material. On one level, this workshop is the beginnings of a piece of scientific research into the creative process (and we even mock-up a projected experiment with actors in a brain scanner); but it's also a seeding process for a play we could devise in response to these scientific ideas. We're really keen that there should be a proper two-way traffic in this work (most Sci-art collaborations I've seen have been plays which become a mouthpiece for science education - and that doesn't interest me very much).

It's only two days, of course, but these initial sessions do suggest to me that we really can do something which makes a piece of theatre which is fully engaged with (rather than simply illustrating) brain science, and which actually contributes, through the research into its making, to scientific knowledge. At one point Paul suggests an analogy between the processes he's seeing in the room and the creative workings of the brain itself: the space operates like the Working Memory, with the actors contributing Long-Term Memory (which is related, crucially, to culture), and their sensory experiences. The director (whom Paul links to the brain's Executive Control) has to relax the level of control in order for the free associations essential to creativity to occur. This makes a lot of sense to me; and I think it's probably especially true in intercultural work, where the "Long-Term Memories" are often so far removed from anything the "Executive Control" is aware of. Jeff Teare (a very experienced director who's sitting in as the Theatre of Science's note-taker / dramaturg, and ends up acting and contributing enormously to the work) comments that I tend to let improvisations run on much longer than other directors, and that this often leads to unexpected results. My guess is that this comes from having done intercultural work - I at least know that I can't predict what's going to happen next.

If we're able to push this project on (and I really hope we can), then I must be careful to make sure that it doesn't run away from the company's identity. I don't think it will - behind much of what we've done this last couple of days has lurked the possibility that it's only Western culture that identifies our creativity as an individual's possession: that creativity in other cultures is more related to the collective. Paul's scientific model raises the question of where the "I" is situated - in Control, Senses and Memory, or in Working Memory. But if "I" doesn't matter in this way, then the question doesn't really arise. So this could also develop into a play about identity (which, I tend to think, is what all good theatre is about).

There's a great moment of unintentional comedy when we ask Sophie Hobson and Clere Stephens to improvise with a prop brain. It starts to speak, move and so on - leading Sophie to say: "It's got a mind of its own, that brain". Now, there's a conundrum...

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Back at the Lab

Our second Laboratory workshop took place on Friday and Saturday. This time it was my turn to lead an exploration of the methods we're developing as a company to devise intercultural theatre. I called it New Mythologies, which sounds a bit pompous, but seemed more and more justified as a title during the two days.

After Farid's brilliant voice work the week before, I'd been concerned that I wasn't "teaching" a technique or something "useful" for acting in quite the same way. But it soon became clear that it was actually an advantage to do something really different, and that the more exploratory approach simply confirms Josip's longstanding belief that Farid and I are very complementary in our directorial approaches - each of us offers something which the other does not, but we share common goals. It would be wonderful to find a way of furthering the collaboration.

During the workshop, I mix up some tried and tested devising approaches with a few completely new ones, and inter-breed them a bit. The most exciting exercise for me is to use the game called The Playwright as a way of re-telling a mythological story - it really distills things down to the essentials, and allows for the creation of very beautiful imagery. We apply the exercise to The Butterfly Lovers, and find some wonderful physical approaches which I'll hang on to for the project. Kamini Gupta (designer) is there, and tells me that similar methods are applied to mythic material in psychotherapy workshops, which figures I suppose. It's certainly very powerful to see how these myths resonate with such a diverse group of people as this.

I find myself wondering at one point whether this really is a workshop in devising inter-cultural theatre, or whether it's just looking at devising, and drawing off sources from many cultures. Perhaps if the group had been more genuinely diverse (and not just composed of essentially British people from a range of ethnic backgrounds) then there might have been more need for different methods - our interculturalism is a response to the needs of the moment, and not something we impose on the world! It's in the object exercises that the complexity of our culture really kicks in - Roisin creates a story with a postcard from an Indian temple, a wig block and a loo roll, and sends us into the realms of magical realism. This is exciting.

These two workshops have really paid off: the Laboratory is starting to feed the company's work, as well as exciting and rewarding the people who attend. We will do more.......

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Venue packs and a packed venue

Much of yesterday was spent creating the venue pack for our next production. It's one of the most crucial jobs in any cycle (because it's crucial to selling the show to the venues, and so making the whole thing happen), and also one of the most difficult (because I have to talk about the piece more than a year ahead of its happening, which is virtually impossible, especially for devised shows like this one, for which I don't even know the story!). I resort to suggesting possible approaches, styles and forms - making a big thing of the Chinese link, which is, I'm sure, going to be the key for marketing the show. Nisha (quite rightly) feels the pack looks too wordy, and needs some careful re-working in terms of layout. But the Yue opera images are wonderful and should excite people.

To the King's Head to see Tim Hudson (who was Hugh Burton in Bullie's House and Toby Belch in Twelfth Night) playing Boris Johnson in Who's the Daddy? This show got the most enthusiastic response I've ever seen on the Newsnight Review: a sort of Serious Money effect for journalists, I think - it's successful because it creates a press story about the press, which always makes them happy. The tiny space is packed out, which at £22.50 a ticket (!) represents an awful lot of cash. But the plans for a West End transfer have apparently been scuppered by the writers themselves - it seems the internal politics of The Spectator can take this lampooning in the back room of an Islington pub, but not in a big commercial space. It's no great loss: in spite of some very funny scenes (Blunkett getting a blow job from a gay chef in the belief that it's Kimberley Quinn), this is basically an ill-plotted farce with no political bite, and only Tim's terrific performance in the bedrock role holds it all together (in a very basic way at one point tonight, when he has to dash offstage to remind another actor to make his crucial entrance...). There's no real political satire either - anybody who portrays the incredibly right-wing Blunkett as an old-fashioned Socialist class warrior is missing a trick. At one point, Boris advises him to do something better with his time, like repealing Magna Carta, which feels much closer to the mark!

Monday, August 22, 2005

La Voix Comme La Geste du Corps

At last - the first of the Laboratory workshops has happened, led by Farid Paya from the Théâtre du Lierre in Paris. He arrives on the Eurostar on Thursday night - working with us for two really wonderful days.

The focus of Farid's workshop is almost entirely on the practicalities of performance - how the voice is produced by the body - how we can use the body to create huge resonance and amazing sounds. He draws off Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern techniques - although always with the caveat that "This isn't the real technique: it is only the way we use it". It's very remarkable how rapidly the voices of the participants grow and blossom under his care. What really excites me about this work, however, is what is left unsaid about it - the way in which this expansion of human capability is in itself an exploration of what it means to be human; the way in which the expanded, resonant body becomes a far more significant vehicle than the everyday body; the way the trained and chanelled voice can act as an echo chamber in which spiritual sounds are heard. There's nothing new about this, of course - Tibetan Buddhism and Gregorian chant alike know all about it - but to hear such sounds in the secular space of theatre practice is what makes the work so exciting for the current moment, when we're so starved of spiritual truth, so much in need of a new mythology.

These two days have been so valuable in so many ways. There's the work itself, and the fact that it represents a first step for our Laboratory (the real potential of which is just beginning to dawn on me!) and for our relationship with Lierre, which Josip has so painstakingly brokered over the last few months. And there's the sense of the company as a company. The workshop has given us the chance to bring together some of the key actors we've been involved with over the last few years - and it's really warming to feel their presence here, advancing their own practice and the practice of the company as a group. So often this job can feel very lonely - yet, in the end, you can't make theatre without that reality of "company". The word doesn't just mean a legal entity - it's about human companionship and a shared endeavour.

Farid and I talk about all this. Even a company as established as his is very far from the ideal of the permanent ensemble (and perhaps that ideal just isn't possible any more). Like us, Lierre returns to certain key performers as part of a fluid group, which keeps changing according to the production. For us, the issues of cultural background are often so central to the project that the ensemble ideal just won't work. But the presence of really fine actors who know what we're trying to do and share those aims is very heartening to me; and their dialogue with performers from other cultural traditions is what will keep this company growing and further the work, as this workshop proves. Lovely to see Alistair, Anjali, Arnie, Indy and Lydia in action, alongside some very exciting people we'd not met before, who've got a sense of this work and want to experience it more fully.

I emerge on Saturday evening feeling refreshed in body, mind and spirit!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Australian adventures?

Meet up with Emma Calverley at the National Theatre. She's a colleague of Andrew Spencer, who was our Press Officer on Bullie's House, and now works as a producer in Australia. We've been talking about trying to remount the production out there for a while, and meeting Emma today helps put some of the ideas into a clearer light. She's very positive about the play's potential in Oz - not least because of the "star" pull of Thomas Keneally and Natasha Wanganeen. I'm keen that any tour should include Aboriginal communities as well as the big cities: where, as Emma says, Aboriginal people are rarely even seen.

On the way to meet her I pop into the Africa Centre, and spot a book comparing the theatre of Yeats and Soyinka.... Nearly buy it, then decide to wait till I've a bit of time to read it properly.

We keep getting orders for large quantities of the Orientations script. My guess is that somebody is setting it to study on a course. I'd love to know who....

Monday, August 15, 2005

Falstaff and Frida

I saw Henry IV Part 2 at the National Theatre on Saturday night. After Nick Hytner's brilliant Henry V at the time the Iraq war broke out, I'd hoped to see a similarly bold approach to its prequel in the National epic - but this is actually a very conventional, even conservative production, and as a result much of the politics in the first half seems so remote as to be incomprehensible. The production takes off after the interval, when the play becomes much more personal: David Bradley and Michael Gambon are very moving as the old King and Falstaff, and there's the luxury casting of John Wood as Justice Shallow. But I was still left feeling that the whole thing seemed worthy rather than immediate.

It's with these thoughts that I go to the Tate's Frida Kahlo exhibition on Sunday afternoon. Frida was a character in our Mappa Mundi in 2000-1: confronting one of our protagonists, Enrique, with the realities of the Mexican mestizaje identity (which was especially potent when we toured Mexico, of course!). In many ways, she's the ultimate symbol for the contemporary artistic icon: female, post-colonial, disabled, mixed race, AND bi-sexual. Looking at her paintings is like a lesson in this amazing biography - in fact, many of the paintings only really make sense in terms of the specifics of her life and times. Watching people going round the exhibition, I'm struck that they seem to be spending more time reading the captions than looking at the pictures. This art - political or autobiographical - draws its meaning from its context, and can't really survive without a context. It's hardly Kahlo's fault that we're now looking at her paintings in a very different context from the one in which she made them. But the experience makes me think again about Henry IV. In the theatre, because of the ephemeral nature of the form, we can and must be aware of the context - the particular audience addressed - if we're to have any chance of conveying real radical meaning. This is what Nick achieved so brilliantly with his Henry V - but the current production is generalised rather than specific in terms of the context, and so fails to ignite. Tourist Shakespeare.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Sheffield, Shanghai and San Francisco

Wednesday was entirely devoted to driving up to Sheffield and back for lunch with Stella McCabe, who co-ordinates the programming for the theatres there. It's really important to have meetings like this - once there's a face in the memory, it's always much easier to talk to people on the phone. The Sheffield theatres are moving through periods of change at the moment - Sam West taking over as AD, and a programme of rennovation being set up. As a result, she doesn't even know when there will be a Studio to programme - but she's very positive about our plans, so it's time well spent.

On Thursday, Haili comes down from Manchester to meet me, armed with VCDs and programmes of the Yue Opera. Like many mainland Chinese I've met here, she's very polite and smartly dressed in a summer frock and white jacket, looking rather incongruous in the Bohemian ambience of the Border Crossings office (which she calls "very colourful"). I'm amazed when she says that she was a Xiaosheng (performer of male roles) in Yue Opera. Apparently, for a Chinese woman, she is quite tall - and a glance at the Yue images suggests that women with rounder faces tend to play the men, while the female roles go to shorter women with longer faces. It all looks incredibly beautiful, and some of the images are quite astonishing: realistic beards on female faces. One book she lends me has images from the height of the Mao era: in one, an actress sports a thick moustache and smokes in a passable impersonation of Stalin; while in another it looks for all the world as if Premier Zhou Enlai is on the stage - only the stylised "male" positioning of the feet gives away the fact that this is also a Yue performer.

We talk for about four hours. Haili tells me how, when she was performing in the Yue company, there was a real feeling of love generated between her and her "female" partners. Feelings of jealousy would arise if a performer worked with a different partner. But Haili is quite insistent that these feelings are not the same as lesbian love in the way Western people understand it. In fact, she thinks that all "love" ( a concept I find myself having to question as we talk) is different in the West. "It's all about posession, about having the other person", while in Chinese culture love is more "sentimental" (a term she uses freely and without any hint of the derogatory). Maybe this is Communism showing its opposition to the idea of ownership in any form - or, more likely, it's Confucianism privileging the collective and the ideal over the individual and the physical. It's a fundamental cultural difference, and one which could really yield fruit in the project. There's a dramatic conflict here which can grow into a play.

Henry Holmes phones from the Columbia Foundation in San Francisco. Our application is being looked at very seriously - we're down to the shortlist now. Henry asks me some very probing, very detailed questions about the application. I'm very happy that his emphasis is all on the artistic ideas behind the work, and their political and cultural significance; not just on the size of the planned audience and its ethnic composition (which seems to be the sole criterion for many funders nowadays). If nothing else, this will be the most thorough assessment of a funding bid we've ever experienced. The phone call lasts forty minutes; at the end of which Henry says we should know the result by mid-September. Fingers crossed.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Thinking about Yeats

The blog's been quiet for a week or so, because I've been on a family holiday in Wales. Holiday reading was Roy Foster's biography of Yeats. I've been interested in him ever since I went to Ireland and did a course on Irish Theatre at TCD in 1986. I suppose that was actually the experience which started my fascination with post-colonial theatre, and the ways in which drama can come to redefine identity in the thick of political change. That's why it's so interesting for me to read about Yeats from the point of view of an historian rather than a literary critic: unlike Jeffares, or even the wonderful Ellmann, Foster is able to present Yeats in terms of an ever-changing cultural and political landscape in the turbulent moment of de-colonisation.

What's fascinating about this in terms of Border Crossings is the way in which Yeats created a theatre form which was both mythic and multicultural (even intercultural), but (as Foster makes clear) also addressed very immediate political realities. People tend to be very dismissive of Yeats' plays as intellectual and esoteric games - but I remember how very alive (and very clear) it was possible to make The Dreaming of the Bones when I did a workshop on it some years ago. He's a writer with a lot to teach us.

Back from holiday to find a letter from Collage Arts, from whom we let our office space. Not surprisingly, they've decided the period of charity has gone on long enough, and we should pay a commercial rent. That's fine for us provided the other companies in the consortium can do it too: but if they can't, then I fear we may end up being faced with a huge rent bill we can't possibly manage. The last thing I want is to go back to running the company from home: we outgrew that years ago! Fire off an email to the other consortium members and cross my fingers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Setting up possible contacts for China, I talk by email to the delightfully named Bingbing - Arts Manager at the British Council in Shanghai. And, out of the blue, I get a phone call from a woman in Manchester called Haili Heaton, who Bingbing contacted straight away. Astonishingly, Haili was a Yue performer as a child, and has just written a thesis on the form. She's really excited about what we're doing, and (of course) knows all the Yue XiaoSheng (literally "Young Man" - played by women in Yue opera), and everybody else personally. She even made a film of Yue - which I didn't even know existed.

We arrange to meet in a couple of weeks time. Then she emails me about four times. I think she's even more excited than I am.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Meet the Board!

Saturday morning, and we have a board meeting at the National Theatre. I'm full of admiration for this group of people, who oversee the company on a totally voluntary basis (and, in Peter Scott's case, even do the accounts - I hand over a wad of papers today with a deep sense of guilt!). We spend a couple of hours talking about everything which is going on in the company, and about Kath Gorman's recent consultancy document. There's so much that's positive in all this - but our basic problems remain the same as ever: we're not in a position to do much of the work necessary to build the company, because we can't pay full time employees (either myself or an administrator). And, unless that work is done, then we won't be able to do so.... It all feels very chicken and egg.

Still, Kath's key recommendations about diversifying the funding sources and expanding the board to include people who can do some serious lobbying are really useful.

The big decision we make is that I need to go to China. Soon. Time to start working on it.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Back to School

We've been reviving Uniforms and Hoodies, the Education piece we created for Patti Smith's Meltdown, with the kids at Lilian Baylis School in Lambeth (see www.bordercrossings.org.uk/uniforms&hoodies.html ). Two days re-rehearsal, and two performances for the rest of the school. I'm not sure it's the best way to do things: there was such a big high for the performers after their Festival Hall performance, and it would be a shame if that were eclipsed in their memories by a more hurriedly rehearsed, technically messy show with a less enthusiastic audience. On the other hand, it's very good for the rest of the school to see a real piece of protest theatre with music and video, which is talking about the real concerns of their age group, and makes those concerns political.

As before with this group, 90% of the time and energy goes in crowd control - but it's all put into perspective at the end of the show, when the Headmaster has to get up and explain to everybody that the local tube has been closed because of a bomb. A bit odd to hear him talking about how they must be respectful to the police who are dealing with this, just after he's been praising a rather anti-police bit of theatre.

For me, the really interesting outcome of this project has been the discovery about form. The piece is somewhere between drama, rock concert and video installation. I really like the way songs and scenes move in and out of one another, commenting without the music-theatre cliches of characters bursting into song. It makes the whole thing very much of the teenagers' world, but still allows it to be immediate and powerful. I'm wondering if we shouldn't try to create something like this as a public project for young audiences - a club night with theatre.

With these thoughts mulling round in my head, I go to the V&A for the launch of the Mayor's Commission's Report on African and Asian Heriatge. Lots of very exciting African musicians and DJs there. I remember that Third World Bunfight has been experimenting with Club Nights recently..... (http://www.thirdworldbunfight.co.za/index.html) Hum..... Then we all get harangued from the platform for talking too much during the two hours of speeches. Reach for another glass of champagne.

Monday, July 18, 2005

China, Iran and supertitles

Friday morning at the Cultural Department of the Chinese Embassy. It's a huge mansion on Hampstead Heath, which Miss Chang (the Assistant and, as far as I can tell, one of only two people who work there) tells me they bought from "an oil magnate". It's curtained and airy on this boiling hot day, and she pours me Chinese tea "to make you cool". I sink into the leather sofa.

The Cultural Counsellor, Mr Ke Yasha, appears: an efficient middle-aged man in a Mandela shirt. They're very helpful and very polite - but I sense all along that the cultural difference here is very real - that there are things in his subtext I'm just not getting. The idea of starting a project without having a script is one he obviously finds tricky to deal with - and he suggests that I don't even try to sell that one to any institutions in China. "Individual artists, yes", he says. "And this will be easier for you. There will be less bureaucracy. And I can smoothe the way." I have a feeling this alone will be worth its weight in gold - so I'm not too bothered when my query about funding is met with polite laughter.

I go to see Amid the Clouds at the Royal Court - it's a company from Iran in a poetic piece about refugees coming from that country to Europe. Great to see work with a real Islamic cultural voice behind it - something there's so little of in the theatre (though we're striving towards something of this with the Nottingham group). The moment when the two characters make a temporary marriage is very beautiful - and only possible within that tradition, which as a result asserts its humanity, even its feminism, in a very surprising way. And I love the blending of really harsh political realities with the mythic - the woman is a modern version of Maryam (Mary), which again is very resonant for Nottingham.

I rarely get annoyed by supertitles in foreign language theatre, but tonight I find them a real hindrance. I think it's because so much of the play is in monologue form, and sometimes the monologues are pre-recorded and whispered in darkness, as if we're inside the protagonist's head. But hearing this in Persian, and reading the title, I don't get that immediate experience which the company clearly want me to have. I'm cut off from the play at precisely the moment I should be drawn in.

This afternoon I was editing the video interview I did with Jatinder Verma for Rose Bruford. At one point he asks: "What is the aesthetic of multiculturalism?" I don't know any more than he does - but it's certainly not the supertitle in a moment of intimacy.