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.