Tag Archives: Beijing

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

Standard

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.

blur6.jpg

 

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.

blur4

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.

blur3

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’.

blur1

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.

blur5

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.

blur2.jpg

 

Advertisements

From Shuangjing to Mudanyuan

Standard

I’m standing outside the metro station, in a queue of fifty or sixty people, waiting for the metal grate to scrape open, admitting the next group of us.

I live in Shuangjing (双井) which is in the South East of Beijing (北京市) and work in Mudanyuan (牡丹园) in the North West.

Each morning I follow the same routine: Join the queue, wait and then scramble towards the train doors. Usually it takes two or three trains before I can get on.

While I wait at the station doors I watch the train come in, my early-morning mind compiling a list of things I need to get done that day.

The train doors line up with the station’s and both open together. No one exits the train. I’m looking at a solid wall of flesh and cloth. Someone behind me scrambles forward and presses themselves into the wall, bumping and jostling so the doors might just be able to close. I watch as the person’s identity vanishes in front of me, as they are moulded and absorbed into the wall.

It’s just past eight, I’m not in such a hurry. I’ll wait. The train pulls away.

A few trains later it’s coming up to eight twenty and I can’t wait any longer.

The doors open, the wall stands strong and I tentatively take a step towards it. As if they’ve been waiting for my first step the queue behind me makes its move too. I am pressed from behind into the wall and I can’t concentrate any more. The world blurs into a kind of fleshy brown and I’m knocked and squeezed on all sides. I imagine it’s like the opposite of being born. Soon I come to a stop, one foot on the floor, my body off balance. The doors shut and we move on.

I can’t move, and I have a problem. The next stop is Guomao (国贸), a major transfer station. I am pinned somewhere between the door and the middle of the train entrance. Around me people are pushing and sliding past one another. I feel hands, and stomachs and backs press against me. My nose and mouth are pressed into a woman’s hair, I feel someone much taller than I looming behind me.

We arrive at Guomao and the door opens. I’m lucky. I’ve managed to grab hold of a metal bar in the centre of the entrance. People flood out past me, like liquid fleeing an overturned bottle. I’m caught in the flow and hold on for dear life. Shoulders and arms bang into me as people barge past as if I am an obstacle that can only be overcome by force. My feet are snatched off the ground and I feel like I’m being pulled from a starship’s airlock.

The flow abates and I find my feet. New passengers embark. But I’m okay now, able to push myself into the aisle where I’ll be a safe distance from the doors.

Here I settle in for the rest of the journey, about forty minutes or so.

I feel pressure all around me. Smell the scent of sweat and perfume and breath. I find my mind wandering and I can’t seem to focus on what I’m doing there and even who I am seems hazy and unsure. I feel a rhythmic pulsing in my mind and all thought seems to fall away. We are breathing together, creating great fleshy waves that press against the sides of the train. My body dissolves and I am soaked into the whole. We are a single organism, pulsating and rippling together. Falling, swirling and morphing. Settling into the long tube-like shape of the carriage. A great, stinking worm with a thousand mouths, all groaning and grunting and leaking hot, coffee and cigarette scented breath into the recycled air.

We are blood, clogged and clotted in one of the city’s grubby arteries.

Each time the doors open some of the lumpy, sick blood spills out into other parts of the body.

Slowly, as my station approaches the carriage thins out and I’m able to move independently again. When I disembark the train I feel, at first, a kind of loss. Like I’ve just let go of something. I feel slightly dazed, unaware of where I am and what I’m doing. But soon, sense and thought come back to me and I remember.

I am Jack Owen. I’m on my way to work. I live in the city but I am not a part of it. I am a single entity again, with my own life and experience.

I let go of a breath I’ve been holding for god-knows-how-long. Relief floods over me as I exit the station into air that I can’t call fresh, but is at least more spread out than that of the train.

The experience is vanishing from my mind and will soon be all but forgotten. In those last fleeting moments of consciousness I thank life itself that I’m off that train but dread, albeit with an odd sense of longing, tomorrow’s journey, when the cycle will repeat itself.

Thou shalt not doubt thyself. Also; blog.

Standard

WeChat Image_20170706095042My last update on this blog was posted about three years ago. I stopped writing because I suffered a blow to my self-confidence.

Without going into too many details; a job loss, a broken heart and other not-so-little things hit me and my resolve faulted. The problem is that when such things occur I have a bad habit of trying to undo myself, something I will write more about at a later date. So, through teary-eyes and a hammering heart I deleted my personal acting and writing website, gave away my book and film collection and basically sought to remove myself from a life that had brought me pain. A little dramatic, I know. But I am an actor after all!

Throughout the past few years I thought about starting up my blog again but was always haunted by the thought that perhaps I didn’t actually have anything very interesting to say. Is my life even worth talking about? The problem has always been that although something cool might be happening I’ve had the lingering thought that it might all fall away the next week and I’ll again be stuck with nothing to say.

That was three years ago and since then I moved to Barcelona to spend two years performing in different towns and cities throughout Spain and Portugal, pretty much every day. I performed with a brass quintet. I did a tour in Moldova and Romania. I finished writing my first book and then followed it up with a second, and a third, and a forth. I rediscovered my heart and gave it to someone else and, as of writing, it remains whole and happily pumping along. Then I moved to China where I’ve been living in Beijing for a year teaching drama and directing my own shows. Soon I’m going to leave China to set off on another set of mini-adventures before trying to settle again in another country, I don’t know where yet.

So, I figured I might at least have some slightly interesting things to share and thought now is as good a time as any to get started again.

I don’t know why I’ve always worried about being uninteresting but I do realise that it has always stood in the way of owning my own achievements and experiences. In the past few years I’ve learnt that no one is uninteresting and every journey is unique. The only thing that ever says otherwise is our own self-doubt, which can be hard to overcome. But overcome it we must. And in an increasingly scary, divided world which sometimes seems geared towards discrediting the ‘average’ person, I think it’s important to share our thoughts and opinions; our stories and experiences of a life that can, and should, be celebrated.

So, I’ll start blogging again. Read if you fancy it.