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.