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.

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