Category Archives: travel

Necessary perspective. Traveling for life.

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A book shop. Possibly the grandest I’ve ever seen.

Last week I paid a visit to Saint Petersburg in Russia, with the intention that me and my girlfriend will be moving there later this year. I think it was the first time I’ve actually visited anywhere before committing to a move. As anyone who’s followed this blog before will know, I’ve already visited Russia a few times now so I more or less know what I’m letting myself in for and certainly won’t be encountering the same kind of culture shock I did last year in Beijing. Even so, it felt important for some reason (perhaps because this time I’m moving more as a life choice rather than because I’m chasing a job) that this year I not make the move cold, as it were.

So I spent a week in the city with my girlfriend. I’d love now to write about the city itself, with its grand, elaborate buildings, winding canals, vastly deep metro tunnels and homey, soviet style cafeterias, but I feel as though I’m unable to. Mostly because, although I noticed them, these are not the things I was paying attention to.

I think it would be fair to say that I’ve been “traveling” (read; taking jobs in obscure places) for three or four years now, and I can’t easily remember the last time I lived in one place for more than a year. I feel that because of this, perhaps unfortunately, the wonder of traveling has worn off slightly for me. Add to this the fact that our visit to Saint Petersburg was informed by the idea that we’ll soon be living there and my perception became a little different. This meant that I viewed the city through a very different lens than I would have done were I just visiting, and to how I think I will when I finally return, whenever my visa clears.

When seeing a new place with the intention of making a life there, your experience of it changes somewhat. Gazing down a wide, tranquil canal at the fantastically named Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is wonderful, but the English bookshop just there on the left suddenly seems much more interesting. The hustle and bustle of Nevsky Prospect might be exciting but how is the local coffee and breakfast? I started looking out with excitement not for brilliant architecture but for shops selling boardgames and such tit-tat. I admired the many sculptures less for their own artistry but for how they might inspire me over the year or more to come.

I suppose it’s natural that in this circumstance my experience would be different to that of a tourist’s but it almost feels like a shame that my appreciation for such a historic, beautiful place was overshadowed by necessary and sometimes superficial considerations. Having said that, this was the whole reason for our visit and I can happily say that once I fully arrive there in the next month or so, I’m optimistic the city will lend me many much more interesting observations and stories.

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Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

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Creativity in the lines – Directing children’s theatre in Beijing.

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I’ve been racking my brains, daunted by the task of just how I can put into words my time in Beijing. How would I describe such a place, such an experience, such a feeling? I’ve still not worked it out so I’m trying to split it up into more manageable parts. Whilst thinking about this I realised that I very rarely write about my work on this blog so I thought that might be a nice place to start.

So, this year I’ve been teaching theatre and acting at a drama academy in Beijing, China. I work solely in English, teaching students who range from about seven to twelve years old. They tend to have pretty good to excellent English and those who are of a lower level bring so much enthusiasm and dedication to my classes that it’s anything but an obstacle. Throughout the year my students demonstrated extraordinary talent and such a mature, almost intense work ethic which never failed to impress.

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We split our year into two semesters, one was our ‘training’ semester in which we taught various aspects of drama and English. The second is the ‘production’ semester where we directed shows. We also, during summer and winter, ran five day camps where we would direct a full show in the week. So, as you can see, the majority of the work focused on directing.

I think the process of directing a show for a group of children is always difficult and complicated, but doing it in Beijing carries its own set of very specific considerations and requires a lot of technical juggling to make all the parts fit together.

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Firstly, a large part of the job becomes about parent management. Chinese parents are very involved in their children’s upbringing and education, desperate to make sure their child is learning to the best of their ability and being given the opportunity to challenge and push themselves. It’s touching to see the level of involvement and care but it can also manifest itself in an ugly tendency to compete. Some parents, in wanting their child to do the best they can, also want them to be the best in the class and so be given the most attention. Managing this becomes an art that starts with the script.

Many of the scripts we were given (no, we didn’t choose them ourselves) were quite awful. Many were badly written and those which weren’t were often inappropriate in terms of language level, cultural applicability and designation of lines. The first thing on the agenda is to cut the script to ribbons. Most of them (but not all, to be fair) are not designed to be given to classes of kids who should all have roughly the same number of lines. This means that we have to be quite liberal in the way we reallocate lines. Anything that can be spoken in unison is, anything that can be split between multiple actors is, anything too reliant on cultural foreknowledge is cut and many sentences are simplified in a big way. Already, I know we’re going to have problems with some of the parents not understanding why one character’s lines suddenly belong to five others, but that is my burden to bear. This first draft is all about mathematics, not about the story, my students skill or level and certainly not about making a well written show. More will change as we go, but this is our first draft, cut down from the usually bloated and inappropriate original.

The funny thing about juggling the lines is that despite their insistence that the lines be reallocated with mathematical precision my student’s parents do not often share their children’s English abilities. More often than not we’re performing to an audience who don’t understand what we’re saying either way. This changes the way we direct and deliver the dialogue. Lines now need to sound impressive rather than actually being perfectly articulated. Tone, pitch and rhythm of the dialogue becomes of utmost importance as we cut and rewrite along the way, making sure everything carries a kind of singsong quality. Jokes are built up with rising tone and punchlines are delivered to sound like a drumbeat. At the same time our actors have to reiterate all this with their movements, undulating like waves with the rhythm of their speech and punctuating their meaning with gesture and pose. During rehearsal, it can sometimes look like some sort of bizarre Meyerhold etude before being pared down to something more manageable later.

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This rhythm also informs the overall structure of the show. Again keeping in mind the fact the audience won’t be following us it’s important to keep the show flowing whilst putting an emphasis on visual action. Logical story telling tends to take a backseat to movement and action and this is, admittedly, exacerbated by the fact I tend not to prioritise linear narrative in theatre at the best of times; a product of having studied experimental theatre arts.

When working with young students it becomes very important to keep everyone as active as possible so whenever I can put everyone on stage, I will. This is a matter of logistics but also a hangover from a lot of my own theatre work which included large scale casts. A lot of the work becomes about the placement of students on the stage. I go to bed dreaming of geometric patterns formed of Chinese children dressed as sheep or broccoli. When successful the result of this is beautiful. A Kaleidoscope of action and sound which can be mesmerising and impressive in its simplicity. I often worked with ideas adapted and simplified from Greek chorus or, more often, from the way Kantor used procession and group postures. As often as possible I would have actors appear from and vanish into the collective in order to create a sense of ensemble which, as I discovered early on, was not typical of Chinese drama education which tends to focus on ‘star mentality’.

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Something else I played with, especially towards the end of the year, was the actor’s journey rather than the character’s. Most of the audience were made up of friends and parents so the actor’s story became just as, if not more, important than that of the character. This culminated with a moment in my last show where one of my Witches jumped into the role of Lady Macduff in all of one second. My co-teachers were desperately telling me she needed a costume change which I didn’t want to make time for, knowing the rhythm would be thrown off. I was sure that the audience were more invested in the actress than the character so that even if our simple signifier demonstrating the change wasn’t clear enough (which it would never have been considering not all the audience would even understand who Lady Macduff is or why there are witches hanging around everywhere) it didn’t matter. The audience won’t care if she’s the Witch or Lady Macduff, I said, because she’s Connie. They would be following her journey as a performer from one scene and character to the next over the technicalities of the story. This was one of our most successful scenes in the end.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but these are some of the ideas I’ve been playing with throughout the year.

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Almost every decision made during the direction of these shows is underpinned by a logistic, mathematical need. Lines are counted and made equal as is the placement of performers on the stage (we can’t have certain actors downstage more often than others for example). The actor’s presence on the stage is checked so that if someone has been in the ensemble for a while they must (damned be the story) feature prominently in the next part. Delivery is designed in a non-naturalistic, descriptive way partially to help the audience understand and partially to entertain without them needing to. The funny thing is that fitting all these sliding parts together and trying to keep everyone happy actually sort of forces you to adopt a more expressive, less linear mode of performance which can be understood and enjoyed by all. I found many creative doors opening before us in part because of this focus on technical direction.

My year in this job has certainly taught me a lot of tricks when it comes to the directing (and writing) of plays. These are tricks that I’ll be taking with me whether I continue to work with children or with adults. It’s taught me to embrace and explore inside a forced structure and that creativity sometimes lies in the lines of a page rather than just between them.

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Into the Siberian Hellscape…

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What do you think of when I ask you about Siberia?

There’s a book I’ve kind of been interested in reading recently. It’s some bizarro thing set in Siberia and if you read the reviews a lot of them start something like this; ‘In the frozen hell that is Siberia…‘ or ‘Set against the background of the Siberian hellscape…’. I’m sure you’ve come across similar things when and if you’ve ever heard anything mentioned about Siberia. I remember showing my girlfriend an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D where they were looking for some sort of secret based hidden in the region (‘if you want to build remote, build Siberia’) and the team was shown struggling through the howling snow to infiltrate the base buried in the permafrost. I guess this view comes from the image of Siberia as it was rather than as it is now. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s newfound love Sofya shows her dedication and selflessness by exclaiming ‘I will follow you, I will follow you everywhere. Oh, my God! Oh, how miserable I am! […] I’ll follow you to Siberia!’ The most positive thing Chechov could bring himself to say about it was that ‘even in Siberia there is happiness.’

I’ve known for the past few years that, at some point, I’d be heading to Krasnoyasrk (Красноярск) the third largest city in Siberia. I’ve known this since I started seeing my girlfriend who just so happens to be from there. When I recently asked her if I should buy a new coat before going she answered with a curt ‘of course not’ in a tone that both amuses and terrifies at once. This confused me slightly, as I don’t own a coat at all. How was I to survive the frozen hell without one?

So, imagine my surprise when we land in the tiny Krasnoyarsk airport and continue to drive through the flat, green countryside which, believe it or not, reminded me of home. What surprised me more though were the next few days in which we were greeted by bright blue skies, temperatures up to 30 degrees and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a while.

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My journey began in outskirts of the city itself. At first glance this area was almost the way I expected. Slightly rough around the edges. All cracked concrete and battered cars. Being a somewhat slight Englishman I couldn’t help feel intimidated at first, however once we moved towards the city centre this roughness began to seem almost charming. Lovely wooden buildings which range from quaint to impressive line the streets and wherever you go you can find wonderful bronze statues, all representing artists or individuals of particular importance to the city. There’s a sense of rugged pride to be found here.

IMG_20170731_164300I remember that during my trip to Moscow several years ago the thing I was the most impressed with were the sculptures and the same can be said for Krasnoyarsk, although the wooden houses are a close second here. In particular there is one sculpture that really set my imagination on fire. Called the ‘Rivers of Siberia’ it portrays the main river, Enisei (Енисей), which flows through the city. Enisei is portrayed as a huge, muscular man behind whom is Angara (Ангара), another (female) river. In legend there is a tragic love story between Enisei and Angara. On both sides of the sculpture stand six more rivers, each portrayed IMG_20170731_150535as gorgeous, ethereal Siberian women, which flow into Enisei. It’s a wonderful piece that, even though the water feature wasn’t working, set my mind racing. What’s better is that you can turn around and see Enisei right there in front of you, in all his glory. And he is glorious. A massive body of water which flows right through the city, big enough to house a few small islands, one of which has become a popular meeting place for families and young people. Here, at this time of year, people meet to skate, bike and walk among the comically tame wild gophers. It’s not technically a huge city park, but that is what it felt like.

In one place on the island there is a grand tree with an overhanging branch. Hanging from the branch is a sign that reads Лукоморье (Lukomorye: Blue Bay). It refers to the name of a fictional land in Russian folklore which Pushkin used in one of his fairytales. This tree is referencing a particular passage from his poem Ruslan and Ludmila.

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There’s a green oak-tree by the shores
Of the blue bay; on a gold chain,
The cat, learned in the fable stories,
Walks round the tree in ceaseless strain:
Moves to the right – a song it groans,
Moves to the left – it tells a tale.

I was also taken to visit my girlfriend’s family Dacha (дача). IMG_20170804_163858

A Dacha is basically a plot of land on which the family grows vegetables. There are also houses on the Dachas, some of which are like modern homes and others glorified sheds. On my girlfriend’s land there is a small wooden shack hand built by her great grand father during the Soviet era.

So that’s the city, now into the hellscape. Krasnoyarsk is one of those cities where an hour bus ride can take you right out into the surrounding nature. During our trip we went to visit a nature park which is home to Stolby (Столбы), large rock pillars that range from being big to absolutely huge. To put into perspective; we climbed up one of the more or less averagely sized ones to eat lunch and found ourselves looking down at the tops of the forest trees. They’re quite magnificent and the fact you can climb them without anyone shouting rules at you feels like a real adventure. Whilst up there, it felt as though we were on top of the world. Siberian forests seem to stretch on for eternity and standing on that rock, looking into the green-clad distance it’s impossible to grasp the scale of the place, especially for a Brit, whose entire county would fit into Siberia multiple times. We spent hours walking through the forest, carefree despite roadside signs informing us (only in Russian of course) what to do if we come across a bear. Fortunately, but also somehow disappointingly, we didn’t see any bears but there are also chipmunks who, like the gophers, are surprisingly tame, so that sort of makes up for it.IMG_20170803_160227

But Krasnoyarsk doesn’t only have trees, it also has water, and a lot of it. If you follow Enisei you’ll travel through the countryside and to a huge dam and hydroelectric station which apparently, a local told me, would drown the entire region in 15 minutes were it to stop functioning. Luckily it does function and by doing so it stops the river from freezing during winter and results in some bitterly cold, refreshingly clean tap water. On the other side of the dam is what I heard referred to as the ‘Krasnoyarsk sea’. A huge artificial lake (one of the largest in the world) surrounded by hills and mountains. Needless to say it more than earns its name.IMG_20170801_205701

I just spent a week in Krasnoyarsk and I could continue writing for hours. It’s a city that seems to keep on giving. There is beautiful and interesting architecture, a deep sense of history, mountains, lakes, trees, gophers and chipmunks. At once it’s industrial and rural, rough and elegant, harsh and welcoming. Throughout my entire time there I kept thinking it was like a fairy tale. Not that the city itself is particularly fairy tale like, but that there are so many elements to it that could be; the old wooden houses felt as if they had history laced into the grain; the Stolby looked like giant hands reaching up from the mountain when viewed from the city; the Rivers of Siberia and all the other brass sculptures dotted around the place seemed to have secret lives of their own.

It’s a place that has left me wanting more which is fortunate because at some point we will be venturing back so that I can experience the Siberian winter, which some of the locals claim is not actually that cold… Honestly, I’m not sure my delicate English body will agree.

One thing is for sure, I found it to be a tremendously inspiring city. After spending a year in Beijing which I have not, despite its many other merits, found an inspirational place I am returning from Krasnoyarsk, my mind racing and an outline forming for a new novel.