Sunday, October 22, 2006

Artist Links

I spent Tuesday at the Barbican: a British Council - Arts Council joint event celebrating the Artist Links China programme (complete with a bi-lingual book all about it) and launching the new Artist Links Brazil programme. As with lots of these sort of events, the networking over coffee, lunch and glasses of wine is probably the most important bit: in one day I manage to catch up with Valerie Synmoie, Shobana Jeyasingh, Sita Ramamurthy, Joseph Alford from Theatre O and Franko Figueiredo from stonecrabs, as well as encountering several people for the first time, many of whom I'd wanted to meet for a while. Louise Jeffreys, the Barbican's Head of Theatre, with whom I chat about Fred's Amrita group from Cambodia. Sarah Hickson, who I've spoken to on the phone and emailed a lot through ENO and British Council connections, but never actually met before: she's going to be Executive Producer at the South Bank from January, and she's very inspiring to talk to. Sally Cowling, the British Council's Director of Drama and Dance - she knows all about our recent project, which it turns out was the very first production in the Connections Through Culture programme (I didn't know that).

Much of the morning is spent looking at work created through Artist Links China. The programme has shown a strong inclination towards visual arts: I remember that when I first approached them about Dis-Orientations, I was told that they didn't feel theatre was really suitable for Sino-British work because of language barriers - how wrong we've proved them! If anything, the language barriers and cultural barriers seem to me to be more problematic in this work than they were in ours: there's not much that seems directly to engage in real dialogue - some of the visual responses to the travel strike Shobana, Sarah and myself as variations on "what I did on my holidays". It's exciting to watch Rose English's collaboration with Chinese acrobats - but the book reveals that the acrobats are doing exactly what they do in traditional circus - all Rose has added are the costumes, set and music. Is that collaboration? Or is it more like Merce Cunningham's approach: things are co-inciding in the same space, but without any necessary connection? So I'm heartened to hear Simon Kirby, the Artist Links China Project Manager, point out to his successors in Brazil that the programme should develop to take on board more collaboration and more work from forms other than visual art. To my mind, the two issues are related, and are probably the result of the programme looking at individual artists rather than organisations (even for our oblique involvement, the book cites my name, not that of the company). Theatre, music, dance, film - all of these are collaborative forms, which need some sort of organisation (and hence the use of language!) to get them going. But, of course, it's cheaper to fund an individual, and I do wonder whether this isn't one reason for these programmes. There's far less British Council touring than there was even a few years ago. They say it's to do with "shifts of policy", but it may also be to do with less money. Working with individual visual artists lets them be seen to be doing a lot of projects. It's "good value".

It's political considerations that have led to the choice of Brazil as their next target country, of course. China is the big booming economy, but the Foreign Office also pays very careful attention to India and Brazil when it comes to Trade, Industry and commercial decisions. These three are now the work-horses of the world. I must confess, I'd not really been attracted to the idea of working with Brazil. Unlike with China and India, there doesn't seem to be any readily identifiable tradition of theatre into which we could tap, unless you count carnival, which is already very present in the UK. But, as I listen to Adriana Rouanet from the Brazilian Embassy talking about Brazilian culture, my mind begins to change. She gives a brilliant and inspiring overview of the nation and its art, with lots of emphasis on the diversity of the place, and no governmental gloss on the problems. It's very refreshing, and I find the imagination beginning to tick. One idea from her talk especially sticks in the mind: the useful anonymity of the Brazilian passport. Since the country is so ethnically diverse ("anybody could be Brazilian", she says), and the passport comparatively easy to forge, it is one of the most popular passports for people on the run. Like Ronnie Biggs, I suppose. Another idea I like is the way in which Brazilian artists in the 20th century defined themselves in terms of "anthropophagism" - the country's indigenous inhabitants had been labelled cannibals, and so its artists came to celebrate their own cannibalistic tendencies, devouring what they found tasty in the culture of other nations, and spitting out the bones.....

After Adriana's talk, I chat with Paul Heritage, who teaches at QMC and has done lots of theatre work in Brazil over the years, including in favelas and prisons, running People's Palace Projects. He's very inspiring. Brazilian theatre, he tells me, is at its most vibrant in the poorest communities, among companies who would never get funded in the UK, because they wouldn't be able to fill in the forms, and they don't have established artists. "Here, it's all top down, " he says; "there, it's bottom up". There's a real hunger for culture in the favelas: a need for theatre which gives voice, worth and definition to people on the margins. And the work which they create is world class. Back home, I re-read Paul's essay on the favela-based company Nós do morro in Theatre Matters (great book). You don't want to be funder-led, but........ at least I can start thinking. Valerie asked me if we were interested in Brazil, and then suggested we have lunch again.....

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Response

I'd been meaning to record some of the responses we had to the show for a while. This is from Angharad Wyn-Jones, the director of LIFT: "Dis-Orientations is a revealing insight into the complexities of intercultural and same gender relationships in contemporary China. It is a richly complex production, with great performances from two singers from the Shanghai Yue Opera. I feel privileged to have seen it."

This is from Xinran: "I have learned a lot from Zhang Ruihong...she is the real soul of Chinese Opera... Thank you for letting me learn from you all..."

These are from our audience research questionnaires:
"First play I have seen. It was a fantastic experience" (from an 18-year old)
"Great. Engaging and moving. Beautiful and poetic."
"Fantastic! Can't understand why it's not sold out!"
"Thank you. It was beautiful, considered, touching, imaginative, refreshing and brave. I see a lot of theatre and that's the first cross-artform / cultural piece that has worked I have seen for a long time."
"Flawlessly brilliant"

There was also one which said the piece was "selfish"..... I guess because this person found it hard to follow. You cannot please all of the people all of the time.

There were lots of good things dotted around the web - I'll just put in two. This is what Yein Chin wrote on
"Of all the plays I've seen so far this year, this was by far the best. The story was thought provoking. In the light of sexual awakening, individuals rediscovered love and lost love in the fusion of West met East, Ballet and Chinese Yue Opera. Some visual experiences were so hauntingly beautiful that they left me a sense of nostalgia and melancholia. Superb performance from all actors. I was deeply moved."

But my personal favourite, on the same site and on, is from somebody called "jonocambs", and says:
"Of all the multicultural art events I have seen over the last few years, this theatre production is probably the one that has had the most profound effect on me. It is the kind of theatre that bombards you with a hundred and one ideas and possibilities, leaving you so shell-shocked that its full effect won't sink in until a couple of days later. The relationship between the traditional Chinese yue opera and the stunning naturalistic performances of all the cast was sublime. The yue opera itself was totally unlike anything I've seen before... a real eye-opener and a gust of pleasant, fresh air. The story was a bit confusing in places, but I didn't mind when I was so submerged in the sheer beauty and musicality of the production as a whole. Moments of silence, awkward mis-understandings between cultures and people, are combined with vibrant yue singing, graceful movement sequences and thumping techno. The design is fabulous - it doesn't impede on the action at all, and yet forms a superior foundation for the questions asked in this piece that asks so many. I really loved the video segments, which is strange because I never usually like video in theatre. It added a new dimension to the piece. The acting was really superb, especially the guy playing the gay Chinese man and Madame Mao - he had so much energy. I've not seen two very different cultures and a world as diverse as Shanghai presented on stage in such a convincing and deceivingly powerful way as this production did for me. It is the best show I've seen all year. There is something for everybody. And it was really good to see such a mixed audience as well, about half the audience were Chinese or Asian. Is this the future for theatre? I really recommend it!"

Now, we may not have done that well financially - but I reckon this makes it all worthwhile!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


I spent this morning back at Riverside Studios, talking to Louise and Alex about the show. It's not all doom and gloom - quite a lot of the discussion is about the show's beauty and the incredibly positive response it's got from everybody who saw it. We all know where the problems were (see previous blog posting!), and it seems the low attendances haven't put them off the company. Louise says she wants to keep the relationship, and that, of all the "slavery shows" landing on her desk for 2007, ours is by far the most exciting. That's been the response from lots of other people too - so I think the future looks much rosier than one might expect.

Very interesting conversation with David Zoob at Rose Bruford: he thinks that if we'd done a similar show with a similarly high-profile visiting performer from the Middle East, we'd have been everywhere. He's probably right: it's all a matter of which war the press have decided we're fighting at any given moment. A bit ironic given that all the news programmes last night were suddenly being broadcast from Tiananmen Square: thanks to the antics of North Korea with their nuclear tests.

Dis-Orientations isn't over. This morning, as I sat on the train to Hammersmith, I found myself re-writing a scene. I'd felt for a while that the rhythm of the play was wrong in the section around the lovers' quarrel, that it all happened too fast and didn't really explain what happens to Alex. Today I realised it had been staring me in the face since Nancy did her response to the interview with the Chinese "lesbian" (I put the word in inverted commas because the woman herself rejected the label) back in the first week of rehearsals. The scene has to be about Song's identity - the fact that sexuality alone is not sufficient to constitute an identity in China. It's under the surface anyway (this is surely why she moves the focus to her mother), but it needs to be put into words. So - there we are - we have to do the play again!

It's infuriating that I probably would have got to this after a couple of performances, and been able to rehearse it in, except that the moment press night was over, all my attention and energy went to selling the show. Hum...........

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Dis-Orientations did its last performance on Sunday. A bit unsatisfying, like all last shows. Everybody striving to make the perfect performance: but of course, there is no such thing. Like all the rest, it will be remembered by those who saw it as what it was - a passing, ephemeral moment in time. We had a group photo taken before we went our separate ways, then Al and Roshni piled the set and costumes into a van, and I drove it up to the Wood Green office, where it's all now back in storage until there's the possibility of revival, or the third part of this trilogy.

On Monday morning, I took Ruihong to the airport. For the first time since a brief "chat" in rehearsals, there is nobody there to interpret. Lots of smiling, nodding and sign language, then a big hug and she's off back to Shanghai - with nothing but a suitcase of costumes we need to return and a hefty make-up bill to show for her having been here. And yet what an impact she made on everybody who saw her perform. Xinran, William and I took her for lunch in China-town last Friday, and I tried to explain to her how very deeply the audience responded to the spiritual truth in her work. But I'm not sure she really got it, through these layers of linguistic fog.

Xinran tells us that she once met Mme. Mao: and that, unlike in Ieng Un's performance, she was actually very "feminine". I remember reading how she had wanted to wear a dress on the night she took the Nixons to see The Red Detachment of Women, but realised that it was impossible in the atmosphere of her own Cultural Revolution. Maybe, Xinran says, our character should revert to femininity in the build-up to her suicide. An interesting idea for next time......

And so many people are keen on a next time. Xinran and William Ong are sure they can find a huge Chinese audience and a huge media buzz for a revival, and Ke Yasha is talking about a tour of China. Those who have seen this work respond so incredibly to it.

BUT - and it's a very big BUT - not that many people have seen it. I've been leaving this out of the blog, because I wanted to generate a bit of marketing spin, and what I'm about to say isn't positive and upbeat. The fact is that our audiences have been small, sometimes embarassingly so. It got better as the run went on and word of mouth got out: the last few shows were far fuller. But that isn't enough - and as a company we are now looking at quite serious financial problems. I don't yet know exactly how serious - but the board are worried. They've been brilliant through the run - Owen and Deborah have thrown themselves into emergency marketing and press work, with a very real effect, but we've just not generated the sort of buzz we had with Bullie's House, although the ingredients (Riverside Studios, visiting star, fascinating culture) are very similar. Why?
  • The weather. The hottest September since Oliver Cromwell was alive. Not great for anybody making theatre, which is an indoor, spring and autumn industry. The moment Ruihong got on the plane, autumn descended, a month too late. We had hoped for an October run, but in the venue market you take what you can get.
  • Not enough press. We had no pre-press at all, and very few reviews. Some of the ones we did get (especially in the Chinese and gay press) came too late to have the real impact. And the one key one for the mainstream, Time Out, while it was good was not quite good enough. I don't think that's a reflection on our work - it's just the taste of the individual writer, as all the web comments disagreeing with her prove.
  • Maybe the marketing wasn't in quite the right places. This is hard to tell: I usually think marketing only works as a support to the press coverage - it creates awareness and then the press / word of mouth says that something you know about is something you should see.
  • Blinkers. This is an ongoing issue with our work, but this show has made me feel it particularly acutely. So much so that, when Xinran and I were giving our post-show talk, I said that I felt ashamed of my culture. I do. Zhang Ruihong is one of the world's great actors - she is a Class A national performer in China, and China is one fifth of humanity. But our society is so inward-looking, so incapable of seeing beyond its own nose, that our work gets dismissed as "some Chinese thing at Riverside". Less significant than another revival of Ben Jonson or David Hare. I think this is particularly the case since our reviewers are brought up in a literary tradition of criticism and like to write about writing - which there wasn't much of in this piece. This is why Bullie was safer ground for us: they'd all heard of Tom and could write as if it was "his play". They want to write about the achievement of an individual, not a collective - totally the opposite approach to Chinese culture.

I don't want any of this to sound like sour grapes - it isn't. This production was a great success: the most beautiful, moving and profound thing the company has produced in its eleven year history. A necessary and a real engagement with another culture, setting up and using real dialogues between people, languages, ideas, histories and forms. And that ground-breaking quality, that newness, is exactly why it didn't sell. What sells is the easily categorised. The familiar. What people think they want (until, of course, they see what they really want - which is the unexpected).

I talk to Peter on the phone from Vienna. He reminds me that London's response to his Peony Pavilion was just the same. A flash-back to 1st August, and my first meeting with Nancy Crane. We talked about that production, and how we both felt that it was one of the most important theatrical experiences of our lives. What we'd both forgotten, until Peter reminds me, is that the Barbican theatre was virtually empty.