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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.