Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Frustrating Morning

A rare thing during rehearsals - time to do the blog. I'm in the Rose Bruford library, upstairs from our rehearsal room. This morning had originally been down as a full call - but then it transpired that Ruihong had to report to the police (which seems to be a government scam to get yet more money out of people with work permits), and Ieng Un volunteered to take her. So I'd thought I would work with Haili and Tori on the central relationship of Part 2 - only for Tori to phone in and say she's got food poisoning. So - nothing to do this morning apart from catch up on production things. Props, costumes, videos, programmes and marketing. And the incredibly complex sound plot. Maybe it's just as well given that this is Al's first day with us as Production Manager - but it still feels frustrating, especially since yesterday was a Bank Holiday. I'd already made use of that time to catch up on admin.

It's emerging now, this play. Very different from the way it was in February. More allusive and elusive, more dreamlike and intangible. This feels appropriate to the material. As people often say about China: the more you know, the more you realise how little you know. So if we try to give clear answers, we'll only end up selling the story short. It's far better to hint at possibilities, and to empower the audience into thinking for themselves. So the scene which used to be a sort of history lesson on the Cultural Revolution is transmogrifying into a dream-like mixture of the death of Shanbo and a child's view of those years. Much more truthful to our sources (which are our performers), and so to the reality of how we experience the world.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Zhang Ruihong

Haili and I collected Zhang Ruihong from Heathrow on Sunday afternoon. To be honest, until she finally stepped out of the Arrivals door, I'd still had a nagging doubt as to whether we'd finally manage it. But we did. And now we're doing something that nobody's ever done before.

Ruihong is smaller than I remember her from Shanghai, and looks even younger than she did then. I know from doing the work permit application that we were born in the same year, but she looks about 25. We communicate through translation - William and Ieng Un both speak Mandarin, and Haili can translate simultaneously, which is incredible though sometimes a bit daunting. Once or twice I've had to stop her, so that I can think as I speak, or so that I can watch Ruihong's face and gestures as she speaks, and only get the rationality of language after the emotion in her response.

Emotional response is the key to her work. From the very first day she brings a new theatrical language onto the stage. It's not just Yueju, though of course this is her rich tradition, and she's very proficient in it. It's also an ability to work through the vocabulary of the form in a dialogue with other artists. We are able to create through the coincidence of Yue music or movement with English words, or projected images, or other music, or even naturalism - and each of these forms becomes richer and newer through the dialogue. Because Ruihong is such a sensitive artist, and her tradition is so mythic and so "unreal" (or real in a Platonic sense), it gives a holiness to the work - even to scenes which would otherwise seem squalid. Like Yeats: "Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement".

The other enriching thing is the experience of Chinese history which Ruihong and the others bring to us. Today we were working on the Cultural Revolution (and making the play far less of a history lesson, far more of an emotional journey). Ruihong told us her childhood memory of hiding under a table while the beatings were going on. She remembers the people with placards round their necks, and visiting her father (himself a theatre director) in a labour camp. It suddenly makes us all feel more responsible to this work, to these stories. Because these things happened. To someone in the room.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The First Week

Friday night, and the first week of rehearsals is over. It's flown by. Slightly odd not having Zhang Ruihong with us yet (she's performing tonight in Hangzhou), but in a way it helps that we acquire a way of working amongst the English speakers and people used to devising before we throw in somebody who is neither. Already the process feels very rich. We've avoided simply using the script of the first version - almost every scene is being re-made through improvisation, and so is becoming very real for this group of actors. And we're finding new scenes too - bridges which take us over the yawning chasms which existed in the piece at its work-in-progress stage.

Wednesday was really amazing: a day spent pooling background research and knowledge. Amanda's parents turn out to have met in Shanghai in the 30s, where her mother was a famous writer and glorious decadent. As before, Haili is full of insights into Chinese culture which constantly dis-orient the rest of us (in a productive way). We were talking about the Beijing spring, and she told us that her mother had told her she should not join the students, because it felt like the start of the Cultural Revolution again - and that meant the government had no choice but to stop it, so that the tragedy was not replayed. I'd never heard that idea before - but it has the ring of terrible truth to it. Nothing is ever so simple as it seems - and this process is about the search for true complexity.

Doing admin each evening - annoying things like signing cheques and sorting out bank letters, dealing with the Revenue's Foreign Entertainers' Unit, checking the venue contract. Drafting the programme. It feels like there's more than ever this time - maybe the show is just bigger. In a way it's lucky the family have been away this week - hopefully I'll be more able to do the balancing act once they're back with me tomorrow.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jelly night

It's the evening before rehearsals start: and I'm nervous. I don't think I'll ever get used to this - the trepidation before plunging into a process. I always feel under-prepared, unsure of what we're actually going to do to make the thing happen, and convinced that I'll be "found out" as an incompetent charlatan. All of this will, of course, disappear the minute we start properly, and won't come back till opening night. But knowing this doesn't stop it.

I've gathered together loads of my books, videos, CDs and so on in research material, sorted out cheques to pay everybody, and realised that somehow a crucial CD from Shanghai has got lost and will have to be replaced. The leaflets and posters have arrived, looking stunning. It all feels ready to go.

Most crucially of all, Haili and Ieng Un are now in England. Haili got back on Thursday (no mean feat in itself, given the airport closures - lucky she lives in Manchester), after what sound to have been incredible picaresque adventures in the land of her birth. She was arrested by the Chinese police as a suspected spy...... somehow the British Embassy helped her get out of custody, but she still had a night journey on foot and slept in a stable..... I can't wait to hear more. At the moment she's driving down from Manchester to join Ieng Un in the Sidcup flat. He arrived on Friday. I'd spent the day driving a transit van, taking the set and props from the office to the rehearsal room. I then drove out to Heathrow, and took part in the disruption. It took two hours from his flight landing to the moment when I saw his face coming through. Finally got home at 11.30 - starving.

As Peter Sellars says on the phone from New York - it all goes to prove that this is the time when we should be doing intercultural theatre. So - here we go.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Cast at Last

One of the two actors I was waiting for came through - on Friday, after waiting for nearly two weeks. A lot of the delay was down to logistics. The other one didn't work out (wanting to put theatre on hold so as to get more TV - said the agent....), but I'm more than happy with the replacement. So - at least I have my cast and they are brilliant.

Amanda Boxer will be Marie. I worked with her in a reading years ago, and have kept my eyes on her ever since - a really brilliant actor. PK (if we end up calling her that - William says it means something rude in Cantonese) will be Nancy Crane, who was the Angel in Angels in America at the NT. At our meeting, I broke the ice by saying she'd done the most spectacular entrance in the history of the theatre.... and she returned the compliment for the arrival of ther plane in Nixon. So - we like the same sorts of shows. Both Nancy and Tony have been emailing me about research - it feels like we're rearing to go.

Thursday was the week's mad day. The morning began at Riverside for a production meeting with Babs, their Technical Manager. Standing in the space, the dimensions feel quite wonderful for the work. It's such an honest space - just a big room divided in two. Like the Cartoucherie. Bad news is that the venue's video projector won't be available to us - I start asking around and manage to borrow one form Wise Thoughts, who have the office next to us in Chocolate Factory 2. Straight from the Production Meeting into marketing and contract discussions with Alex, Louise's assistant. Somehow the proof of the venue brochure has the wrong copy on it- dash over to Simon's office and come up with new versions. Then to the National for a design meeting with Seema and Mark. He's on good form - also working on Love's Labours Lost in an American "summer of love" production, which looks totally mad and is going in to the RSC's Complete Works Festival.

Tickets are now on sale, and Simon has put up the beginnings of our micro-site: www.bordercrossings.org.uk/disorientations/index.html
The Index bit of that address might go once it's fully ready. I hope so - it isn't on the print.

Bad news on audience development - we didn't get an A4E award (again). This time because the accounts we sent in didn't have an original signature.... Valerie Chang is still doing the exhibition alongside the run, so something has come of it - but it means there will be fewer Chinese faces in the audience, which is a shame. The other interesting issue is the bank. I've been trying to get a meeting to discuss the fact that we're likely to go overdrawn during this project (since we don't get the Box Office or the last bit of the ACE grant till it's over). Several phone calls, but still no meeting. But we do have one ominous warning that Charity's accounts tend not to be granted overdrafts because they "don't know who we can hold responsible". Not sure what to do if we can't borrow anything..... Cross that bridge when we come to it.