Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jin Xing

Jin Xing, the famous dancer, came to visit our workshop today. I'd wanted to set up a link between her and this project ever since I met her in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, and read her book last year. In England, the book is called Shanghai Tango - which is not a very good title, and is not her own. Jin Xing wanted to call the book Halfdream - which is also the name of one of her pieces, and comes far closer to echoing her life. But the publishers and the marketing men won the day.

Apart from being China's greatest contemporary dancer, and the founder of the only private dance company and the only private festival in the country, Jin Xing is also famous for having changed sex. Born in a male body, she rose to the rank of colonel in the Chinese army (admittedly in the dance troupe), and was astonishingly tenacious in her campaign for gender reassignment surgery. As you'd expect of so determined a person, she is outspoken and enjoyably forthright in her views on Chinese and Western cultures; theatre, dance and politics; gender and sexuality. Her presence alone is a huge help to the actors who will be playing gender-ambiguous characters - it's wonderful to watch Qi as he studies her way of moving, the way she holds her body, her energy.

In Jin Xing's opinion (and mine), Chinese culture has traditionally been very open in its view of human sexuality. It is only since Western influences arrived that anyone has disapproved of sexual practices outside the mainstream. She says that there were often lesbian couples in China who lived together and loved one another, but who did not necessarily express their love in a sexual way. This idea develops further some of what Hui was suggesting in the workshop as a possible development of the Song-Alex relationship: we could think about the tendency of the West to sexualise emotions and to make the relationship with the lover primary - as opposed to the Chinese privileging of emotion over sexuality and family / community above personal fulfilment. Not quite sure how to do this in performance, but it's an exciting way forward.

Meanwhile, we develop the play's cacophony of voices. There are some very beautiful sequences, especially in visual terms. The text is still a long way off, but that's to be expected. With work of this kind, the writing comes at the end.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Many Cultural Experiences

The workshop grows. Friday afternoon was incredibly exciting - we found a very theatrical way of creating Sammy's sister's response to his life in Shanghai, which led to a really powerful climactic moment. Great to find these plot points through physical action, rather than by talking and thinking.

On Friday night, we were all the guests of Zhao Zhigang and the Yue Opera Company at the Yi Fu theatre. I hadn't seen Yueju with men in the cast before: it's a new innovation and I'm not totally sure that I approve! The story of this piece came over as rather sexist - the hero is in love with a young woman, but his parents make him marry another. The wife manages to bring him back from his pining sickness, and seems generally rather wonderful, but both she and the girl he loves end up killing themselves, while he finishes the piece contemplating it all rather poetically. If Ruihong or another female performer were playing the hero, then the patriarchal assumptions behind the legend would be questioned and de-constructed by her very presence: you would get not only the story but also the female viewpoint on that story. In a more "realistically" cast version (which, incidentally, is also less choreographed and codified than the all-female performances I've seen), you only get the patriarchy. Which said, it was wonderful to be back in the Yi Fu, and to hear the singing and the orchestra again. The designs are beautiful, too, even if the snow machine is very noisy! The audience amazes the European performers, who are astonished by all the talking, the lack of applause at the curtain call, and the rush towards the stage to take pictures of the stars.

Saturday night, by contrast, finds several of us visiting Shanghai's new gay scene, to research the background to Sammy in the plays. We manage to find a gay bar called Shanghai Studio, concealed in a deep cellar behind a red door in a back alley of the French Concession. Literally underground, the bar is very smart, very Chinese (down to lattice screens secluding different seating areas), and very safe in ambiance. Nancy gets into conversation with a young girl who wants to be a make-up artist, and she in turn introduces "a little boy" calling himself Barry, who wants to be an actor. Barry is a very shy, gentle person, who is overjoyed that there are British performers in his orbit, and who (like Sammy) does drag performances in this gay club. He shows me images of himself in wig, make-up and fish-nets on his laptop - and promises he'll send me some on Facebook! This is very valuable research - and I hope he'll follow up on the contact, so I can put him in touch with the appropriate actor. But for now, it's good to know how very real the world we've been creating seems to be.

Today is Sunday, and the SDAC turns off its heating system. Rather than have the cast shiver through the day, I try to get the Chinese performers to guide us around Shanghai. It doesn't really work, since almost all the things I thought we should see - for example the notorious Sex Museum - turn out to be closed or defunct. At least we are able to submerge ourselves in some Buddhist culture at the Jing An Temple. Ru Hui shows me the little private rooms along the sides of the temple, where families come to observe various forms of ritual and prayer with the help of the monks. Most interesting for us are the prayers for the dead. In one room, there is a large family praying for a woman who died exactly ten years ago in the Chinese lunar calendar. With the usual Chinese politeness to interested foreigners, they invite us into the room, and tell us about what they are doing. The woman's dignified photograph is displayed on a table, surrounded by offerings of food and incense. There are boxes of paper objects - houses, cars, TVs, money - which they will burn as part of the ritual.

I ask Hui if this event has to be after ten years. No - she says a family can do it whenever they like - and then explains that in Chinese culture there is a word which means that something is "meant to be". These rituals happen when they are supposed to happen - when the people involved feel that it should be done. And she adds, very movingly, that until two weeks ago she had not known that we would be doing this work together. This, she says, was meant to be.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Zhang Ruihong

Ruihong came in to the workshop today. She was around for the last part of the afternoon, when we were sharing the results of the day's work. Some interesting material from the Indian storylines in particular, with a bond being found between Marie and the fisherman. We've also been looking at night journeys in the Chinese story - but that remains bogged down in the representational. I need to find ways of breaking out of this. It's constantly proving tricky to get people to perform the dream world of the play. In Dis-Orientations, this was easier, because Ruihong and the Yueju provided an alternative reality - we did not have to invent one. I feel the key this time may be the Nack and Swedish folk myth - but I've not yet made the links work in practice.

Ruihong has said that we will go for dinner - what I didn't realise was that "we" would mean the entire company, in the VIP suite of one of Shanghai's most exclusive restaurants, and that she would pre-order the meal with incredible care and pay for the entire party. She is quite unbelievably generous and very charming. My already huge admiration for her grows again....

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bullfrog, Tortoise, Jellyfish and Snails

Those are just four of the things I've eaten since being in China. Most of them down to a banquet-like event last night with Zhao Zhigang, the Vice-President of the Yue Opera Company, and, that rare phenomenon, a male Yueju performer. I remember him coming to London a few years back, as part of the In Gesture and Glance season at the Place, when I was just beginning to research this Trilogy. He tells me that it felt a bit odd that he, a man, was being asked to represent the traditionally all-female form, and that he needed to do it as if he were a female xiaosheng performer. All very confusing! The reason for meeting him is to talk through our relationship with the Yue company - Haili has suggested I have a talk with him before meeting the really senior people, since he is very frank. It's helpful to have his advice on strategies and his cautions.

Meanwhile, the workshop moves on very creatively. We had a bit of a dip in the middle of the day, when the room got insanely cold, and we were working on more textual ideas. But there is some terrific stuff emerging. Of our Chinese actors, Qi Bai Xue is beginning to develop the character of Sammy from Dis-Orientations in really endearing and inspiring new directions; and Song Ru Hui is (appropriately enough) taking on Song, and allowing her to become more mature, as she should in her grief and loss. Wang Jue is making a new character, Sammy's sister, and is finding a really strong story around her husband deciding they have to abandon their baby. The husband is being played by Wen Xiao Wei, who is a very physical performer. Today, he and Huang Chen found a wonderful way into a scene of ritualised mourning - beginning as two young lads in a bar telling Julian about rituals, laughing and joking at it perceived old-fashioned absurdity, they slowly began to be taken over by the power of the thing. It's amazingly moving. The scene grows to take in other people - as have most of the really strong pieces in the play so far. It's the simultaneous telling of multiple stories that will make this work really well.

Great to be surrounded by a larger directorial team: Mahesh, Denise, Micha and Ling are all invaluable to me. I wonder how I ever managed devised pieces on my own. Well - maybe I didn't!

And by the way - tortoise is cooked in the shell, which is then smashed. It tastes a bit like runny lamb. Not unpleasant once you get used to it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Too many words

A fascinating day's devising. I feel I have to find strategies to limit the actors' recourse to words. Even though we are working across languages, it's still very easy to slip into chit-chat in the course of improvisation, rather than initiating actions. I've got a few thoughts about how to do this tomorrow.

I was very struck by the fact that probably the strongest scene today - perhaps the strongest so far - was one with very few words indeed. It's on a plane, with lots of slightly strange characters surrounding PK as she travels from China to India. I built it up slowly, using individual innovations from the cast, and then putting them together. The kind of specifics which work like this places on the improvisation seem to induce much more creativity than vague "a scene about this" direction. I have to learn to trust madness more.

A very strong discussion with the Chinese actors about aspects of the play's potential content. I'm made very aware that it's unusual for them to see both sides of an issue presented in theatre. Here, theatre often makes a very clear moral case, rather than exploring a conflict. We discuss the fact that Chinese culture, since ancient times, has had a concept of collective guilt - so if one Chinese person appears to be bad (in whatever way) on stage, the rest may feel this by implication. Mahesh also points out that we're in danger of conforming to the old paradigm of the Western world looking at Asia, and Asia presenting itself for view. We try to challenge both of these things - but it proves quite difficult to do. The stereotypes seem to be very ingrained in our subconscious minds - we have to jolt them into new perspectives.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chinese viewpoints

One aspect of play 3 which has really interested me as it develops is the focus on children. I suppose it's because Alex - Julian and Marie's daughter - dies in play 2, so there's an inevitable concern with parent-child relationships. And perhaps it all reflects on my own subconscious too - the fact that my children are greater and greater presences in my life and my mind as they grow up and acquire personality. It seems strange for a sequence of plays which so far has placed so much emphasis on same-sex relationships to talk so much about parenting - but the third play is spinning off from the other two with a centrifugal force that makes it wider in its focus. For one thing, it is now set in both China and India - and it may also take in England and Sweden too. I'm resisting all temptations to lead it towards closure, and particularly trying to avoid any neat coincidences.

Thinking about children made us wonder about the single-child policy here in China. I asked the two Chinese female actors, Song Ru Hui and Wang Jue, to improvise a scene in which a young mother gives up her child for adoption, and they dutifully did so. It was rather good - cold and bureaucratic. Then Hui said, through our interpreter Ling, that this was not a realistic scene for China. Why not? Because in China, you cannot give up a child to be adopted - the only adopted children are orphans. But that can't be true - I argued - because there are so many children from China adopted into western families, and they are all girls. That, it turns out, is because these are children who have been abandoned. I ask Jue to improvise a solo scene of a young mother leaving her baby girl by the road-side. She does - it's incredibly distressing.

Tony Guilfoyle and I ask Ling to make it clear to the Chinese actors that this is not a case of us having a go at their culture - we are genuinely curious about their world, and we want to know how it works and how we can relate to it. We ask whether we will be able to show a scene like this in China. "Of course!" comes the reply. According to these actors, there is a genuine desire here for theatre which tackles cultural and social questions head-on: in marked contrast to our western view of a heavily censored state. They become, not for the first time this week, very animated and inspired - telling us about different social initiatives around orphans, gender questions, HIV prevention.... In just a few days, they have really taken on board the extent to which, as actors devising this work, they have an authorial power and responsibility within it.

Exciting times!

The day off is Saturday - because it's Valentine's Day and our room is in use for a bash. Funny how the fate of an obscure Roman saint now dominates global romantic partying. We take advantage of it, and hit town on a Friday night, combining research and relaxation. Nancy, Tori, Mia and I find a horribly deserted girlie bar on Julu Lu, with perky young women trying way too hard to interest the few sultry men. Not exactly the image of the Whore of the Orient which Shanghai used to have - although I'm assured by the Chinese male actors that there are lap-dancing joints and strip-clubs all over the city, if you know where to look. We move on to a heaving, slightly posh joint, where there are loads of well-heeled ex-pats and glum-looking Chinese women in glamorous frocks. There are one or two transvestites too.....

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Into rhythm

Day 4 of the workshop has ended, and we've established a working rhythm. Each day begins with movement work, led by Denise and Micha. Some of this is experiment and training, some of it is more focused towards potential use in the production(s). Then I will either lead an improvisation exercise for all of us, or (more often) divide the group up to work on distinct areas. Having several directorial types in the workshop makes this a lot simpler. While I work on one section of the piece, Mahesh applies his dramaturgical and directorial skills to another. Today, Denise and Micha were working with a third group. Yesterday, the split was a bit different - some actors worked alone, while Denise was with Mahesh and Micha with me. It seems important to keep rotating who works with whom, although I suspect that Mahesh may naturally acquire more responsibility for Indian storylines, while I work more specifically on Shanghai-based stories. This task has been made a lot easier by the arrival of Huang Ling from Guangzhou. Ling trained as a director in Beijing, and was more recently at Goldsmith's in London, where she met Penny. She's been interested in the project all along - so now it's great to have her in the room, where she can translate and assist to great effect.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Day 2

A more fruitful and exciting day. It's proving very valuable to begin the day with Denise and Micha's work - anchoring the performers in the physical, the musical and the rhythmic, and avoiding language barriers. After that, I worked with them on the idea of re-orientation, getting everybody to relate personal stories about life-changes, and then using these as the basis for improvisation and creativity. Some extraordinary things emerge: the story of a Chinese baby girl born with a deformed foot, whose father rejected both her and her mother - how could she give birth to a child who was both female and disabled? The story of a young man who came out to his parents, and then had to explain to them that he had fallen in love with a woman. The story of an actor suddenly walking offstage in performance - just realising he couldn't do it any more. This last becomes the basis for a really strong scene with the Swedish actors - a performance of Miss Julie which goes very wrong!

We watch the second play on DVD in the afternoon. Dis-Orientations is a much stronger piece than the first play. I think I'd always known this, but not realised quite to what degree. We are all in agreement that play 1 needs re-working substantially, with the confidence and boldness of play 2. Play 2 also has its problems, but they are more readily solved, especially with the Chinese performers in the room. It's still tricky to understand what they are saying, but they have become far more engaged and active. And - very pleasingly - they are arguing between themselves and finding new ideas. I think I need to exploit this, and find ways of building a more authentically Chinese voice into the piece.

The one undoubtedly Chinese voice there so far - Zhang Ruihong - is sadly missed. I just hope we'll be able to contact her soon. Ling / Elaine has now arrived in Shanghai, and will start assisting me from tomorrow. So I should be able to get some phone calls made soon.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The workshop begins

First day workshopping. As usual, I'm terribly nervous before we start, and feel fine once we get underway. We have five Chinese actors in the room: a lady in her forties called Song Ru Hui, a young girl called Wang Jue, and three young men: Wen Xiao Wei, Huang Chen and Qi Bai Xue. Only Xiao Wei has any real fluency in English, which means that they have a tough time watching Orientations on video - but we have to go through this just so we know the basic resources for the work we are doing. Faced with the image of homosexuality on stage in the play, they are more disturbed than they were by simply talking about it being present in the work at the audition. I find myself protesting over-loudly when one of them says that it simply isn't present in traditional Chinese culture. There's clearly a lot of discussion we have to have here.... On the other hand, Ru Hui has worked with Jin Xing, and does a very interesting improvisation around her sex change. Micha and Denise are brilliant in the morning session - finding ways of getting everybody to move like dancers, and at the same time bringing out the cultural differences really clearly. This is why I wanted them on the project - they are incredibly good at facilitating people's movement, in the same way I am trying to facilitate their creativity and acting.

Dinner with Mahesh - like old times. He is, as so often, a veritable litmus paper. Hold him up to something and watch the colour change - he can always tell you what works and what doesn't. He points out several key areas where the first play can grow and develop - either internally or into the third play. He's interested in Linda's relationship with A before the play begins: of course - if we don't see that then we don't know why she would go to such lengths to find him (her). And this will also make more sense of her developing sense of her own orientation. Tori, drawing off her Indian experiences, is also making some mileage here. Mahesh wonders if play 3 should not be set in London - but I rather resist that. I don't want it to feel as if people "come home". It's more intriguing if we set it in lots of places - if this last piece is about opening up the breadth of potential contemporary experience.

I'm glad to say, he goes with me on that one.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Arrival in China

A very exciting time for the company. After many, many months of planning, we are gathering in Shanghai to start work Re-Orientations, the third, and most ambitious, part of The Orientations Trilogy. I arrived yesterday, and have spent most of today working with actors from the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, looking for the last few people to complete the devising company. It's quite a complex job: I'd forgotten just how difficult it is to work through a translator. Metaphor and energy - the stock-in-trade of direction, become diffuse and elusive. Many of the Chinese actors I saw today were very young: I wondered whether they really had the level of experience needed to devise. Towards the end of the day, a more mature, very intelligent and very charming lady came in to the room. She has performed in lots of modern work, including Pinter's The Lover, which is the right sort of territory, but I think she may have been scared by the idea of devising, and definitely (no surprise here) by the idea of playing somebody in a lesbian relationship. The central tension of this whole project has always been and will always be that these Asian cultures, that are so rich in their responses to the complexity of human sexuality, are also the ones which are most prudish today. Still - this is the theatre where Nick Yu planned to stage Angels in America, so we can't be on completely impossible ground!

Today, the rest of the company assembled from around the world! Nancy, Tony and Tori - all old hands from Dis-Orientations - arrived from England, along with Sarah Swingler, who is new to the project. Radhakrishna, who started all of this with me in 2003 (!) on Orientations arrives from Bangalore, and Mahesh Dattani, my mentor and guru in Asia and gender and author of Bravely Fought the Queen, from Mumbai. Mia and Mikhael are here from Teater Eksem in Gothenborg, and so are Denise and Micha from a fleur de peau in Paris. We all go out to dinner in the restaurant next to the Yue Opera, where Ruihong took me a year or so ago. Sadly, Ruihong has been in hospital, and so is not well enough to join us. I'm hoping I can get in touch with her soon, and see if she might be able to come in and work with us a bit. It did feel very much as if she was our missing centre tonight. But still - what an incredible group of people to have gathered around the Border Crossings table.

And, I have to say, Penny Mayes has done an incredible job of organising this!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snowed Under

I'm sitting at the PC and able to write this because it's proved impossible to get to Sidcup today for the Dress Rehearsal of The Good Soul of Szechuan. In fact, nobody could get there - the snow lay so heavily across London (and still does). They've postponed till tomorrow - but I rather suspect the same thing may happen again. If so, then the poor students will be several days away from having run the play, and minus their director - since I'm due to fly out to Shanghai in a couple of days. The idea had been that this would be after the opening - now maybe it won't be. The positive way of looking at this is that it's a great opportunity for the student assistant directors - the negative way is that my schedule will be letting them all down rather badly. I know it's daft to feel guilty about the unavoidable, but I suspect it's a human characteristic.

For example - I feel very guilty that we've had to remove Ngapartji Ngapartji from the Origins programme. It's not my fault at all - we just didn't get the support we needed from the private sector. But I know how many people were disappointed by a decision I had to make. Still, we are managing to get a lot to happen - with Soho coming back into the picture, and various venues for films. I seem to spend every second when I'm not in rehearsals doing this Festival - no doubt the same thing will go on when I'm in China. I'm a bit worried by this - the workshop for the Trilogy is so important creatively, and I have to give it 100% attention. Still - it's a different bit of the brain. I've noticed while doing the Brecht that I've been tired from all the admin - but not tired at all when in rehearsals. And focused.

It's actually been a very helpful process in terms of preparing me for the workshop. Partly because the piece is set in China, and deals with economic inequalities. But deeper resonances were set off at the Barbican on Saturday by Complicite's new piece Shun-kin. It's Japanese, of course, rather than Chinese or Indian. But, like our work, it deals with complex sexual identities in an Asian context. In the programme, Simon McBurney speculates that "Such 'perversions' do not carry the same stigma in Japan. 'Kinky' relationships are allowed to unfold, at least in Tanizaki's texts, with none of the same anxious guilt we in the West might have about such things." I'm not sure whether this is true of contemporary China or India - although historically the cultures were very tolerant. But I do find the play's approach to narrative, distancing and ambiguity extremely useful. Simon uses Asian theatricality as a way of implying a shifting, unreliable narrative. That could be very helpful for us - I think Part 3 of the Trilogy has to resist the desire to resolve everything. In relationships, there are no final resolutions.