Thursday, March 22, 2012

Deeper into Devising

We're now a long way into the devising process, and a strong sense of the play is starting to emerge. Perhaps inevitably, in a play with three actors, it's an eternal triangle of sorts - though not at all in a conventional sense. What's exciting is the way in which things which initially appear to be obstacles are becoming the most important aspects of the piece. An obvious example is language - though we knew that before we started - but also the way in which some actors respond to particular types of stimulus, while rejecting others very strongly, can reap great rewards. Lu Xun's stories, which I had thought might form the basis of the plot structure, turn out to be very unpopular with Chinese people of my generation, who associate them with the Maoist indoctrination of their youth. I don't think the stories are Maoist - but that's the cultural baggage they have acquired here, and we'll be in trouble if we ignore that. But, in rejecting the subject matter of the stories, we've been able to make a much more interesting use of their structures - in such a way that you won't even know they are there when you see the play.

Ning Li, our new performer, is fascinating and brilliant. He's never done devised work before, but you would never know. He's improvising in both Chinese and English, researching, suggesting ideas, playing with technology and getting very excited about choices of music. The majority of his work is in film, and that shows in the way he brings together different elements of performance, as well as his ability to shift between theatricality and a much more low-key style.

Tomorrow, we are taking a train to Ningbo, to our first public involvement in the piece. We're doing a workshop session with students at the Nottingham University campus there - perhaps including some of the group whose response to Re-Orientations was so inspiring. This is a new venture - I've never involved a creative audience so early in a process before... and I'm very excited about it.

I'll let you know how it goes....

Monday, March 19, 2012

Devising behind the firewall

I feel like a smuggler. When I've been to China before, writing this blog has been OK, even though I sometimes haven't been able to read it. Facebook and Twitter have long since been barred here - and now it seems that Western blogs are also subject to the Great Firewall of China. It all seems very strange and ambiguous, given that the Chinese version of Twitter, weibo, is much larger than its Western counterpart, and was buzzing all week with political gossip around the ousting of Bo Xilai. Anyway - for whatever reason - I am sending this post out by email so that Sheelah can put it online from the office. All very under the table in smoke-filled rooms.... very Shanghaiese.

We gathered on Wednesday morning in the rehearsal room at SDAC. Tony Guilfoyle had flown in from Quebec, where he's been working on the new Robert Lepage production, so he's been battling with a 12-hour time difference. For Dori Deng, who grew up in China, it's a homecoming: she's never worked in her home country before, and now she's experimenting with multi-media and bilingualism. I don't know what I'd do without her shuttle diplomacy! Song Ru Hui, who cooked up the idea of this new show with me back in 2010, is probably even more intense and fascinating than I remember her. She's always incredibly truthful and engaged when she performs - and for precisely that reason she can't do it until she's 100% sure of and committed to what she's doing.

Our new addition is Ning Li - and he's a real find, courtesy of Nick Yu and Jackie Zhang from SDAC. Li started his career in Shanghai, but has been in Beijing recently. He's also lived in the States, and is married to an American, so he has a foot in both cultures. Devising is totally new to him, but he has shown a wonderful openness in these first few days.

So far we have spoken to people from the business world - both English and Chinese; talked amongst ourselves about the current historical moment, about culture, identity and change; played games with language and style; experimented with cameras and the web; improvised scenes and potential stories. As usual in work of this kind, the great benefits are the things you're not looking for, and the knowledge that people bring of their own culture. Yesterday Li and Hui gave me a totally new idea of what it was like to be a young Chinese person in the 1980s - leading to a very intense and touching scene, redefining how I would think of a lovers' parting.

It's very early days, and we're still unsure of what this play will be. But it feels like something very exciting is happening. Let's hope it doesn't get censored!

Sunday, March 11, 2012


So, here I am at Auckland airport, waiting for the overnight flight to Shanghai. Very excited to be starting work on our next creative process, and also by the work I've seen here over the last ten days. One of the main reasons for coming to Auckland was the Pasifika Festival, which Rosanna was instrumental in starting some 20 years ago, and which she's been telling me I have to see. Auckland is the world's largest Polynesian city, and this Festival is the largest Polynesian cultural event. Some 100,000 people passed through yesterday. I was one of them.

What's remarkable about Pasifika is just how "grass roots" it is. Every island community has its "village" within the site, with a stage for music, dance and ceremony, plus stalls - most of which are dedicated to their food. It's an alcohol-free zone, and there's a huge stress on family - from elders to babies. I ate far too much and bought a bark painting from the Solomon Islands.

The most interesting aspects are, of course, the quirkiest. To see Samoan tattoo artists at work on the back of a man's legs is a rare treat. To encounter the traditional dances of Tuvalu, being performed not for an audience but for the community itself, in a closed circle, is another. The people of Kiribati had one of the few more politicised displays in their village - pointing out that global warming is destroying their homeland. In just five years, it is likely that this sovereign nation will be submerged. The world doesn't even seem to have noticed.

For me, the lesson of the day is to do with community engagement at the grass roots level. If we can find a way to harness the community spirit of Pacific people in London (and our current work with Ngati Ranana is definitely a move towards this) and to relate that to other communities, then we will be moving towards what Festival is all about. This doesn't mean losing sight of high culture - it means getting it to intersect with an audience which cares.

My final afternoon here was spent at the Mangere Arts Centre - a new space in the Pacific Island area of South Auckland. Many of the same issues are being tackled here: the manager tells me about her desire to get colourful images into the windows, so it stops looking like an institutional building, and people get the idea that it's a welcoming, creative space. Today it's being used to give a "trailer" to the Urban Pacific Festival in Hamburg, with whom we're intending to collaborate in some depth. It's a very interesting look at some work I would never have encountered otherwise. The added bonus is that Lemi Ponifasio of Mau is there, and we're able to talk again, continuing the dialogue we had when Peter introduced us in London a while ago. Lemi is very anxious that any engagement with Europe should be at an 'elite' level - because that's the only way you validate Pacific artists and overcome the old stereotyping. I can see his point - though, of course, it's very different from what I've just been saying.....

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


I first met Hone Kouka and Miria George a few years ago when they were in England for Rosanna Raymond's Pasifika Styles Festival in Cambridge. They came along to the Border Crossings Laboratory and ran a workshop for us. In the workshop, Hone was very keen to explore ways in which Maori culture and ideas could be put to theatrical use. He worked on the movement styles drawn from birds, the haka, waiata and chants. At the time, I could see he was working his way towards something. And now, several years down the line, I've seen what it was.

Tu, his new play at the New Zealand International Festival, is a big step forward for Maori dramaturgy. Hone brings the Maori understanding of time and history into the play - in Maori thought it is the past that is in front of us, because we can see it, and in this play people quite literally look at the past. The cultural forms emerge beautifully out of the characters' need for self-expression, giving physical and poetic voice to their inner journeys. It's very exciting work. What's more, it's performed in an urban marae, which is an inherently theatrical space, and lends the whole a sense of community and ritual combined. The marae is traditionally configured like a traverse stage, and Hone uses that wonderfully to articulate confrontation and journey. It's a great night.

It also has a cast of ten and a big set, so I don't think it's going to be practical for me to bring it to the next Festival. Sigh.

Saturday, March 03, 2012


I'm now in Wellington as part of Creative New Zealand's Flying Friends programme - seeing Maori and Pacific Island work at the Festival here. I was on the same programme two years ago - except that then the city was warm and full of light, while today it is grey and soaking. We're supposed to go to the Governor-General's Garden Party later.....

Most of us who are here as international guests came directly from Adelaide. After the 600+ people there at APAM, and the relentless schedule, this all feels a lot more manageable. As happened two years ago, we were taken yesterday to the marae at Victoria University for a powhiri, and the Maori Elders welcomed us to the land. And then, something very remarkable happened. The day moved on to a mihimihi, with an invitation to us as guests to introduce ourselves and to say something in the sacred space of the marae. There were a number of First Nations artists from across the world there, and they all said how very special this event in Aotearoa seemed to them. A woman from San Francisco said it seemed to her that this country has acknowledged the indigenous culture in a way America could never do - that it is at ease with its emerging post-colonial identity. Merindah from the Australia Council's Indigenous board said that she had come especially to learn from the Maori about how to retain indigenous identity and assert it in the public space (echoes of our conversation with Rhoda the other day). I was able to thank the Elders for the gift they were offering us - a way forward for the world on the path of truth and reconciliation. Everyone who spoke said how very much at home they felt - even those of us who were as far from home as it is physically possible to be.

Last night I went to the theatre at the Te Papa Museum to see a new piece by The Conch, whose production Vula I loved at the Barbican some time ago. This piece is called Masi, and has a heavy autobiographical element, starting from photos from the courtship of Nina Nawalowalo's parents. He was a Fijian high chief - she was a middle-class girl from England. They play chess, like Ferdinand and Miranda. The show is very beautiful, with some wonderful Fijian dancers and musicians, and at the end the assertion of the Pacific identity as the whole theatre is transformed into a meeting house, like the one we'd been in earlier that day. There is an important indigenous energy coming from this part of the world.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Why don't we have an APAM?

At the closing lunch of APAM, I found myself on the same table as Jane Claire from English Touring Theatre. We'd both found the event incredibly helpful, and wondered why on earth there's nothing like it in the UK. The Arts Council are always talking about "capacity-building" - this would do it. Set up a forum for theatre companies to show and talk about their work, and invite promoters and venues from around the country and overseas. Dead easy. And think how much time and energy could be saved - farewell to so much of that tedious cold calling. Jane says she'll talk to the Arts Council when she's back in England.

Also on the table was Catherine Baldwin from Bangarra. Apparently Amy Hammond, who came to Origins 2009 with Windmill Baby, told her that the one person she had to meet was me - which was nice! I had thought that Bangarra's work was a bit large-scale for us (their last London gig was Sadlers Wells!), but in fact they turn out to have some really interesting projects in development which we could link with. And so do Marrageku. And so do Ilbijeera. And so do Yirra Yaakin. It's kind of amazing.... I email Emma and say that we could do a colossal and amazing festival if we had more resources. She asks how much we need.....

I spent the afternoon with my old friend Rhoda Roberts (in the picture), who used to run the Dreaming Festival - such an inspiration to me in developing Origins. Rhoda updates me on some of the issues facing Aboriginal people at the present, particularly around the ongoing intervention in the Northern Territory, and the big problems over developing culturally appropriate education. Apparently the government is stressing the need for children to be educated for work in something called "the real economy". To provide this education, they need to move away from the communities to "hubs" - which happens to free the land for mining. It's all a bit depressing.

Which said, Rhoda is never one for pessimism. She's been very excited by the Creative New Zealand event at APAM, where even the white CEO made the first part of his speech in Te Reo Maori, and the indigenous protocols were very carefully observed. She talks about pushing to get indigenous language and indigenous protocol into the Australian national identity - not just in terms of Elders doing a Welcome to Country, but white people also recognising that the indigenous culture is the national culture. She's right, of course. I so hope it happens.