Monday, September 26, 2005

Je ne suis jamais allée en Chine

Much of Saturday is spent at Rose Bruford College, wearing my other hat as a tutor on the Distance Learning Programme. I do a workshop on space for the theatre students, and lead a discussion about "what is art?" (based around Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper sculpture) for the opera ones. Since I met Nesta the other day, I've been feeling that these two hats are actually getting a bit closer together, and today confirms it when Jayne Richards (who runs the Theatre Studies programme) suggests that she should use Dis-Orientations as the case-study for a chapter she's been asked to write in a new book on devised theatre. This is really good news for the company: anything that shows we're being taken seriously, and that our practice is worth studying and recording. Jayne is amazed when I say she can come and watch rehearsals: apparently most people are very precious about this, especially for devised work (I suppose the crazed secrecy surrounding Mike Leigh's recent process at the National is a case in point). I don't see why people think like that: we aren't in all honesty doing anything secret, really. And it's contradictory: why advertise a piece as "devised" if you won't allow anybody access to the process? Why make the process an issue if you're not willing to talk about it?

To the Barbican for The Dragon's Trilogy: a revival of the first Robert Lepage production I saw, a full fourteen years ago. I'd been full of ambiguous anticipation for this: hoping to relive the mind-expanding and emotionally wrenching experience of 1991, and dreading that it will all be a terrible let-down now I'm older and "wiser". I needn't have worried. This production remains one of the finest pieces of theatre I have ever seen. What's extraordinary is that it should still feel so innovative after all this time: there are still so few practitioners who dare really to take risks with the poetry inherent in the form. Most of the profession are still enslaved to showbiz or naturalism.

I'd wondered whether the play might be a useful pointer for my work in China, since I remember very well the elements of Chinese theatre in the piece, and the sense of a dialogue with the Orient. But, coming back to it now, it doesn't feel to me as if it's really about China at all - as the very first line "Je ne suis jamais allée en Chine", bears witness. It's about the Québécois , their struggles (especially in terms of language) to find identity for themselves both within Canada and in dialogue with the world. The Chinatowns of Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver become images of that: little islands of a different culture, which remain unknown and perhaps impenetrable. Certainly in the early sections, the Chinese characters (most of whom are literally faceless) never move beyond opium-den clichés, but in a way that's the point, since these Chinese are imagined by young girls playing. It's only in the final sections, when a real Japanese artist comes into the life of the Québécois artist Pierre, that there is a real engagement. And so the play ends with Pierre's decision to visit China as a way of moving himself forward, as an artist and perhaps also as a human being. This is a moment which is full of personal resonance for me today.

Haili's been sending me advice about the little presents I need to give to the people I meet. The only rule is that they shouldn't be made in China. Trying to buy things, this proves easier said than done!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Market Forces

Haili has sent me her dissertation, which is about the Yue opera's evolution in the post-Mao era. It's fascinating. A lot of her argument concentrates on the financial aspects of production (which are always crucial, of course), and the shift from a Maoist model of Communist art funded entirely by the state to what she calls "marketisation". During the Cultural Revolution, there was no Yue opera at all (and there are some horror stories about what happened to the performers), and only approved pieces like my old friend The Red Detachment of Women (which is "quoted" in Nixon in China) were approved. Yueju was revived under Deng Xiaoping, and started to accommodate itself to the demands of a new audience. Strangely, in becoming more commercial, Yue also seems to have become more radical, at least in terms of gender politics. Haili explains how a piece called Butterfly Dream, which was aimed at a younger, more Westernized, female audience, uniquely ended with the female protagonist turning against her husband (who has disguised himself as a young seducer in order to test her out). What Haili doesn't discuss is how the fact of an all-female cast affects this perceived feminism in the piece: is it easier for a female protagonist to rebel against the male when that male is in fact female, or does the all-female Yueju provide a safe space in which experiments in feminism can be conducted?

I find her view that the market is the equivalent of freedom strange - though I can see why it may currently feel that way in China. The problem is that in the long run this will mean that it gets more difficult to experiment in the arts, and blandness will set in.

Market forces come into their own for us today, though. Our insurance broker has sent us a hefty invoice for renewal of our combined commercial policy. I'm about to sign the cheque when I decide it's a ridiculous amount, and phone another broker who contacted us when we joined ITC. The phone call saves us £500 a year.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Meetings with Remarkable Women

Thursday was spent dashing around a rain-sodden London. Coffee (really good coffee, actually) at the offices of LIFT with the new director, Angharad Wyn-Jones. We linked up via email quite soon after she arrived in the job - largely because of our mutual friendship and admiration for Peter Sellars, whose ill-fated tenure at Adelaide was a real indication of what an international arts festival really could be. Angharad is taking on the task of re-launching LIFT after its five-year "enquiry" period, and returning it to a festival form in 2007. Meanwhile she's setting up something called the New Parliament - a portable space for the crucial debates of the moment, which don't get aired in the more tired theatre of Westminster. We talk about the challenges of this, and particularly the problem of finding a ritual which will enable the space to function, without simply aping the rituals of an outmoded political process. This will in itself be a function of the intercultural dialogue she's setting up. She's watched the Orientations video, (and enjoyed it!): we talk about the intimacy required between artists of different cultures to make really deep collaborations happen - the way hosting people in your own home can be a really crucial part of the process (as we did for Lifati and Mahesh, and as Mahesh once did for me).

Dash across town to NYU in London, getting soaked through to the pelt in the process, and spend an hour with Nesta Jones, who's head of Research at Rose Bruford. She had been keen to host the Laboratory there (and was only stopped by other people's rapacity), and we look into doing this properly for the next lot of workshops. The only criticism we had was of the room (no natural light, concrete floor), so a nice studio will be a big help. Nesta's also keen to help with other aspects of research, including getting the interviews for the book I'm planning transcribed. And we talk about the possibility of Dis-Orientations workshopping or even rehearsing in the college, depending on dates. This might well work out. If the workshop were during their Easter break, then it could run into the college's symposium, which might be the ideal atmosphere for a really probing enquiry.

The last meeting of the day is with Alaknanda Samarth. We've been friends for a couple of years, and today she gives me her CV for the first time. It's full of totally amazing reviews for her performances in India and over here - though it's also quite short on credits.... Alak is notoriously selective about her work, so I feel pretty privileged even to get the CV, as well as the video of her Medea (the Heiner Muller version, which she did with the visual artist Nalini Malani). She was a big fan of Orientations (which she said was "like an opera"), and is excited to hear about the plans to move it on. We talk about the crisis of masculinity in the current moment: something of which we both feel horribly aware. What are supposed to be the positive aspects of being male today? I can't think of anything.... Men are supposed to be commended for showing their "feminine side", but the only "male side" we ever see in women is the ladette culture. Surely being a man is more valuable than that? So - there's a road for the play to travel along....

On Wednesday night, I saw a preview of David Edgar's Playing with Fire at the National. No doubt Michael Billington will be writing about the joy of seeing a big, public play on the Olivier stage - but I feel terribly disappointed that this sharp-minded playwright, whose Destiny, Maydays and Pentecost were such sophisticated, humane responses to crises on both left and right, should be defeated by the challenge of the multicultural. Even within white Britain, he manages to caricature Northern people (all nail bars and "Eh up"), and reduce New Labour to glib self-seekers (surely what's disturbing about New Labour is that it started from a genuine desire for a more just and equal society?). Of the Islamic voice, which ought to be at the centre of a play based around the 2001 riots in the North (never mind relevance to the present moment) we hear virtually nothing. We're left thinking that the problem is an internal Labour Party issue - old guard Northerners versus smarmy Southies - which misses the enormity of these events completely.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Talking to the Arts Council

Long phone conversation with Nick at the Arts Council about the failed application to fund the research trip. He's very honest about what he calls "a paradox in the system", which is that while they encourage artists to research and develop work, they also need lots of detail on the expected results before they can fund that research. Apparently our application would have been stronger if there had been a list of people I would be meeting - difficult given that one reason for the trip is to find out who the people are that I need to meet! Still, he's impressed by the news from the Columbia Foundation, which he says makes an application for a touring grant more likely to succeed (I suppose on the basis that if somebody else has already made a decision, you're more likely to be right if you make the same one).

They've also sent me a consultation form to help with their response to the government's white paper on youth. Lots of the basic ideas in all this I agree with (of course) - arts are good for young people etc. But I'm very wary of the utilitarian tone of the whole thing, and try to indicate this in my answers. They ask what can be done to stop young people taking drugs, drifting into crime etc. If I'm expected to say "get them acting", I disappoint. This is really a question about the spiritual crisis besetting our society: and, while the arts certainly have a role in whatever regeneration can be attempted, it's not a simple thing like "provision of opportunities in youth theatre". We need to search for new routes to spiritual truth - and perhaps then we'll be able to convey them more widely through our fragmented world.

It doesn't sound very like funding-speak, does it?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Batman Dance

Relief from the weekend's traumas - the back-up copy I kept of the footage turns out to be of higher quality than I'd thought, and I'm able to construct a decent enough version of the DVD. It takes all day, but at least it's clawed back.

Meeting with Athina Fokidou - a freelance administrator who's keen to work with us. She's just started doing some fundraising for Stone Crabs on a commission-only basis, and is willing to do the same for us. Nothing to lose, I guess.

5pm and the phone goes. Henry Holmes from the Columbia Foundation in San Francisco, calling at 9am his time. It's the news I'd not been trying to hope for too much: they've agreed to fund Dis-Orientations with a big grant. This is fantastic on so many levels: for a start, it means that we know at this early stage the production will be happening. It means we don't have to rely solely on the Arts Council (though we'll ask them for a top-up); that we can make definite venue bookings rather than the usual "pencil tour" pending the ACE application; that I can go to China and put money on the table rather than tentative possibilities. Looking at the Columbia website (, I'm also very struck by the company we're in: usually these funds go to organisations like the National or the Almeida - so this is a big vote of confidence. I suppose it all goes back to Gary Thorne taking the initiative and bringing Henry to meet me at the office back in the spring. I owe Gary a serious drink.

When you run a company, the "highs" are quite few and far between - even though people tend to think they're the only reason anyone would want to work in the theatre. Opening nights are nice, a good review is pretty nice, and the moments in rehearsal when you really find something truthful are deeply fulfilling. But, for me, the moment when I find out that we will definitely do a project I've been working on for months is the one that has me doing the Batman Dance. So - I do it.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Not that I'm in the slightest bit technophobic - theatre always falls in love with its context, and that's the world of video projections, websites and blogs! But there are moments....

Through the summer, I've been editing a video of interviews and extracts from plays as a co-production with Rose Bruford College: part of a new Module I'm doing for the Distance Learning programme, on Post-Colonial & Black Theatres. It's ended up as five DVDs, and over the weekend I set about copying them onto a VHS tape for a student without DVD. When I got to the last DVD, I discovered the whole thing was in meltdown. Constant break-up, incomprehensible sound, totally unusable. So - the whole thing needs re-doing. What's more, it's the most complex edit AND the only one for which I don't have some of the original material any more. So re-thought as well as re-done. Just when I thought I might have a simpler week of it. Grrrr.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Investing in the future...?

Paul's creativity research is featured on the radio today: he's on Radio 4's Creativity programme (, talking about the experiments he's done with creative activities in brain scanners. Hopefully this is what we'll be building on as the work in Plymouth progresses.

I'm spending the first three days of this week at the ENO. I think most directors tend to mix their company commitments with freelance projects, and when you work with a project-funded company like this one it's all the more necessary, for reasons of simple survival. But it does feel odd to be plunged into a totally different set-up, where many of the key issues (like casting, scheduling and - in this case - even the set and the structure of the staging) are totally outside my control. Even odder is the fact that these three days on Handel's Xerxes are a full six weeks ahead of the main rehearsal period. It's because Lawrence Zazzo, who'll be singing Arsemenes, isn't going to be in the real rehearsals for the first two weeks - so I have these three days to dip his toe in the water, helped by whoever else happens to be free. Luckily, Larry is a very intelligent and creative performer. Otherwise this would be distinctly tricky....

A letter turns up from the Arts Council, turning down our application to fund my research visit to China. This isn't the end of the world - we've got money in the bank which can pay for it (though obviously we'd sooner have used that for something else). What's more worrying is that this is the third application in a row to be turned down (and the other two were a lot more significant - which is why there's no full-scale production in this, our tenth anniversary year). I need to phone them and see whether we're doing something wrong. It really doesn't make any sense in the wake of two really successful productions last year. And we HAVE to get funds behind the new project.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Theatre of Science

Wednesday and Thursday were spent at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, doing a workshop in collaboration with their Theatre of Science project. It's an idea Paul Howard-Jones and I have been working on for a while. As well as creating the music for lots of our shows (most recently Mappa Mundi), Paul is also an educationalist and a brain scientist, with a particular interest in creativity. When we did the development workshop for Mappa (on a self-built stage at the bottom of his Welsh garden!), he became fascinated by the nature of the devising process, wondering what was actually going on in scientific terms to generate the material. On one level, this workshop is the beginnings of a piece of scientific research into the creative process (and we even mock-up a projected experiment with actors in a brain scanner); but it's also a seeding process for a play we could devise in response to these scientific ideas. We're really keen that there should be a proper two-way traffic in this work (most Sci-art collaborations I've seen have been plays which become a mouthpiece for science education - and that doesn't interest me very much).

It's only two days, of course, but these initial sessions do suggest to me that we really can do something which makes a piece of theatre which is fully engaged with (rather than simply illustrating) brain science, and which actually contributes, through the research into its making, to scientific knowledge. At one point Paul suggests an analogy between the processes he's seeing in the room and the creative workings of the brain itself: the space operates like the Working Memory, with the actors contributing Long-Term Memory (which is related, crucially, to culture), and their sensory experiences. The director (whom Paul links to the brain's Executive Control) has to relax the level of control in order for the free associations essential to creativity to occur. This makes a lot of sense to me; and I think it's probably especially true in intercultural work, where the "Long-Term Memories" are often so far removed from anything the "Executive Control" is aware of. Jeff Teare (a very experienced director who's sitting in as the Theatre of Science's note-taker / dramaturg, and ends up acting and contributing enormously to the work) comments that I tend to let improvisations run on much longer than other directors, and that this often leads to unexpected results. My guess is that this comes from having done intercultural work - I at least know that I can't predict what's going to happen next.

If we're able to push this project on (and I really hope we can), then I must be careful to make sure that it doesn't run away from the company's identity. I don't think it will - behind much of what we've done this last couple of days has lurked the possibility that it's only Western culture that identifies our creativity as an individual's possession: that creativity in other cultures is more related to the collective. Paul's scientific model raises the question of where the "I" is situated - in Control, Senses and Memory, or in Working Memory. But if "I" doesn't matter in this way, then the question doesn't really arise. So this could also develop into a play about identity (which, I tend to think, is what all good theatre is about).

There's a great moment of unintentional comedy when we ask Sophie Hobson and Clere Stephens to improvise with a prop brain. It starts to speak, move and so on - leading Sophie to say: "It's got a mind of its own, that brain". Now, there's a conundrum...