Touring China | MISSING | GECKO
So much mystery surrounds any trip to China, so much excitement, oodles of preparation, hours of waiting in line for Visas, dozens of emails sent back and forth across time zones and above all so much good-will and positivity for the arts. There is a genuine desire on both sides of the world to produce the best possible work. Unusual work for audiences who have often never seen anything like a Gecko show.
Four cities await us over three weeks: Shanghai, Wuhan, Nanjing and Shenzhen all play host to MISSING.
Sitting on the plane from Paris to Shanghai it’s clear that our team (consisting of 5 performers, a lighting designer, a production manager, 3 stage managers, a producer and me- as Associate Director) are all really up for it. We mean business. We want the show to be the very best it can be. However, despite Gecko having a long standing relationship with our Chinese collaborators (via the British Council) we still don’t really know what to expect from this trip.
I am nervous about the tour. There, I said it. I have read so much about China and tried to prep are myself for the experience, but I know that there will be surprises around every corner. I must – as is always the case when Amit (Artistic Director) is not with the show – make sure the work is as powerful as it can be and as I think about the team we have now, I feel more confident than ever that we are ready for anything… We will be introducing two new crew members into the MISSING team in Matt and Emma which is a great opportunity to go over every detail of the show again. I have worked on MISSING since the very beginning (three or four years ago) and we are still constantly finding new ways to make the show work smoother, stronger and have even more emotional impact. I am keen for that to continue in China.
The plane touches down in Shanghai, after about 10 hours, as we taxi in we are greeted with a video demonstration of Tai Chi exercises designed to help us with our circulation after the flight. It’s not long before most of us are doing the moves in our seats and actually feeling much better for it (I did feel a bit of an idiot at first but then I thought, “JUST SAY YES!” That will be my mentality for this whole trip).
At the airport we are met by our Chinese support team – in Shanghai Maggie and Echo are with us the most, as well as a technical manager, a producer and various other lovely support people. We have a Chinese technical crew with us throughout too which is just fantastic. It means there will be more consistency.
We will learn later that Echo chose her ‘Western name’ when she was a child; as a proud book-worm, she took the name from her favourite author. She tells us that most Chinese children acquire a more western sounding name in school, often as part of English lessons. In her class, a list of names was written up on the wall and the class were invited to choose their favourite. I think this is fascinating: imagine the excitement of being able to choose your own name as a child. I would have definitely ended up as a Thunder Cat, or a Jedi or a Goonie… Hang on… perhaps it is not too late? Later we learn that there are loads of ways of getting a non Chinese name. Lincoln (a student we met) was named by his father because the name means ‘leader’ and he wants great things from his son... no pressure mate.
After a bus to our hotel we are straight out exploring the city. Shanghai is awesome – if you haven’t been I really recommend it. It’s easy to navigate, with a super cheap and clear metro system fully prepared for english speakers. Having recently braved the underground in Moscow (which by comparison is totally incomprehensible- see Russia Blog) it is a joy to jump on the metro in Shanghai.
Checked in. Roz (producer) heads straight off to the French Concession to meet an old friend. Francois (performer) has a friend here too – Francois has friends everywhere we go! Some of us head straight to the Bund (a touristy area along the river with views of the financial district and the epic sky scrapers) which is probably my least favourite part of central Shanghai. It’s great to see the city lit up and the cityscape along the river is very cool, but it’s the part of Shanghai that feels most like London to me… perhaps it’s the western influence in the architecture.
Later, everyone meets up for our first (of many) taste-tastic chinese meals. We order about 15 dishes of Chinese cuisine and as many beers, and I am amazed when the bill comes in at about £35 – for 12 of us to eat and drink like kings! We are stuffed and head back to the hotel to sleep. The streets are packed with people, tiny stalls on every corner; in a car park two restaurant employees are playing badminton in a break, further along a woman collects leaves into a pile and sets them alight – perhaps to keep warm? Outside our hotel music is booming from an amp and about 40 people are doing what can only be described as a kind of gentle line dance. They all know the routine, and in fact as you walk further you see other groups dancing different routines. It appears to be a kind of social gym. Echo tells us that is popular all over China as a form of exercise and fun. I love it.
I notice that some people appear to be wearing PJ’s in the street. Maggie tells us, “In Shanghai, some people like to wear PJ’s in the street.” I love this too…
After a day of get-in, Roz and I go to visit the crew at the venue. I can honestly say that the Shanghai Grand Theatre is one of the most amazing buildings i have ever been in or even seen. As I approach the building I am overwhelmed with a sense of how lucky I am that this is my job.
Later in the bar we talk about how lucky we all feel to be able to take our work around the world to such extraordinary places. Gecko work extremely hard for such privilege, across the entire organisation, but the perks of this job are particularly perky.
Don’t get me wrong, this is no holiday.
I’m shattered after the tech day, and even fall asleep mid conversation on one occasion as the jet lag finally beats me (imagine how tired the crew are on very little jet-lagged sleep going straight into three 12-hour days).
The performers are working very hard in challenging conditions and the tech team are working epic amounts to provide foundations for the work and the story to exist upon, but I think the whole team would agree that it is very special what we get to do for a living. The key is, make the space safe. Easier said than done in China.
SHANGHAI GRAND THEATRE
The Shanghai Grand Theatre seats about 1600 people (and also houses a 600 seater and a 150 seater). There seems to be hundreds of dressing rooms; I get lost in there every day. The building itself is designed in the shape of a Chinese symbol for Theatre.
In the words of Ryen (performer), “It’s badass”.
We are in the main space and have already sold about 90% of the house. It’s very exciting.
Our Chinese crew are great. One of the team, Mr Song, worked on THE OVERCOAT last time we were here and is a big Gecko fan!
Chris (Lighting) says, “It’s great to have him on the team as he can help us explain to venues why we are so annoyingly particular about every detail of the show.” Mr Song gets it, as do all of our new friends on our local crew. I really enjoy getting to know the teams of people we work with on international tours – interpreters and assistants are the best tour guides.
It takes me about 5 days to overcome the jet lag, which is longer than usual for me. In that time our technical team have slaved through a 3-day get in and the performers have performed to thousands of people. For them there is no time to recover from the jet lag or allow the stomach to adjust to the distinctly different diet. We have a show to do and it has to be brilliant first time!
Show one goes really well with Matt (Stage Manager) completing his first run of the show pretty much perfectly. After the performance we host a post show discussion with about 400 people. It’s great to chat and one audience member remarks,
“It is so important to have you here and to have this conversation because it is so rare to be able to have this exchange with artists from across the world.” I manage to hunt her down later and we talk about theatre and the show until the venue chucks us out.
Two things strike me from the post show:
1) There seems to be a universal truth about Gecko shows, which is that people consistently find their own way through the work. It may be that they dismiss it or do not enjoy the style or it may be that it is like nothing they have ever seen and that it means something very profound to them. But we can be in Bogota, London, Moscow or Shanghai and people choose to insert themselves into the show.
One lady said very calmly, “I was Lily.” The main character.
2) I was struck by how irrelevant the multi language element of the work is here. It doesn’t make any difference for a Chinese speaking audience. They can’t spot the 9 languages in the show (they couldn’t even spot Chris’s feeble/valiant attempt to put some Mandarin in). That doesn’t matter to them. What matters is the emotion of the piece, the physical language. I find this really reassuring.
In England we often have people worrying about how much they can understand the words of the show. English audiences worry quite a lot about ‘getting’ stuff. We worry about being ‘stupid’, and whether everyone else ‘gets it’? Am I MISSING the story because I don’t speak French?
I never worry about being stupid anymore, but I did for ages; as an audience member I try to remind myself that the artist or company I am watching probably know what they are doing and I give myself over to that blindly.
I’ll worry about what I ‘got’ from the show later. Having worked on THE OVERCOAT (12 languages), MISSING (9 languages) and INSTITUTE (4 languages) it has never bothered me that I only understand the English words. I would love to hear this show the way an Asian audience does; totally foreign, totally reliant on non-verbal communication…
As someone who has worked on MISSING from the very beginning, I understand as much as anyone the faults it may have. No piece of work is perfect. But after years of scrutinising every moment of it, opening it out to more and more varied possible interpretations whilst honing the precision and physical skilfulness, I am confident that Amit has made something which really speaks to people in a very unusual way – A way which is nearly impossible to quantify, and if they jump into the Gecko world our audience really can experience a very special theatrical event.
The performers are world class and give everything, every show – as it should be, the technical team care deeply about the work and this is because they too realise that this is a show which moves people, often very deeply. Hearing the audience dissect the work so eloquently and having them offer up totally different angles on specific moments of MISSING really makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Our kind hosts later tell us that ‘Chinese Twitter’ is alive with people talking about the work, many of whom are saying that they went away with a lot to think about and discuss. I have always been a firm believer that if you are making work that lasts longer than the length of the running time then you are probably onto something interesting.
Great shows embed themselves in conversations in the bar post-show and often for days after…. great shows split opinions (I don’t like War Horse very much, for example…don’t hate me), great shows make you think about the world a bit differently, if only for a few days… But above all, great shows are brave and uncompromising.
So where do you go to celebrate after a show in Shanghai – A cocktail bar on the 87th floor of the Jinmao tower (a must, by the way)? Or perhaps a restaurant where you cook your own food on a kind of boiling hot fondu set (a lot of fun, not ideal for people who are rubbish with chop sticks)? Alternatively, there is always a street corner vender waiting to cook up something special, just ask our crew... follow the locals...
...There are a few sore heads the morning after our Chinese crew treat our tech crew to an all night meal and beers in the street after the second show (highly recommended)!
Shanghai is alive with food and culture and it really is massively diverse. You can spend £2 on a meal or go next door and spend £250. The very old city and the very new city somehow manage to inhabit the same space. Gardens and parkland take over any nook which isn’t taken up by epic sky scrapers (which make London look like a little village in comparison).
We walk around in awe, it’s a culture shock of the best kind. I am not a city person at heart, but I love it when a city knows exactly what it is and it goes for it. I love the chaos of Shanghai and its deadly silent electric mopeds which usually don’t have lights so you can’t see them until they are on top of you! Especially as they really enjoy driving along the path at night!
I love the kindness of the people I have met, the openness. Everyone we have met so far has greeted us with patience and understanding. Everyone is willing to help us.
There is a sophisticated theatre audience in Shanghai, an audience hungry to be challenged and excited and inspired. It was great to meet so many of our audience after the first show. Shanghai has set the bar very high for our MISSING tour of China.
Next stop, Wuhan. Lonely Planet describes it perfectly – “A gargantuan alloy of three formerly independent cities, Wuhan is huge!”