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.

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