Missing in China 2014 - Rich's Blog - Part 3

In China we have had to do something we don’t do anywhere else in the world. We run ‘subtitles’ of our ‘script’ in Chinese throughout the show. It’s really strange to watch. In Shanghai they were in English and Chinese and I asked the performers not to read them or be distracted by them. I said, “Forget them completely and play the scene the way you think it should be in the moment.” Roz our producer has been working around the clock with Maggie (one of our local guides and  translators) to put together a coherent Chinese translation of a script that Amit, Roz and Daniel worked on back in the UK. Roz is desperate for the words we project to be in keeping with the ethos of Gecko’s work. She doesn’t want to make it too easy for the audience and give away too much.

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The reason that I find subtitles weird is very simple: I have never seen a Gecko script, not in 6 years, in fact. For lots of Gecko work (especially in devising) I try not to ask what the performers are saying in Japanese, French, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Hebrew, Chinese, Italian or whatever they may be speaking. By not knowing the words we can help keep the story or the emotion open and ready for the audience to interpret in their own ways. It took me a long time learning from Amit to understand what that really means. It’s not about gesture, it’s about an international truth that comes from an emotional performance. Of course the performers know what they are ‘saying’ and they take that instruction from Amit, but the audience in general don’t know. So it’s essential to make sure the piece holds together to someone who has no languages at all! Here in China with the script on the wall, Roz has worked hard to ensure that there is still room for the audience to insert themselves and their life stories into the work. She has shaved down huge amounts of the subtitles but I still find it strange that there are words on the wall in a Gecko show. Amit wants the show to speak from the heart to the heart. It’s really hard for us to do that with words in this style. Maggie has been great at this, helping us to give a gist of what is happening, keeping our audience on track. I wonder if next time we are in this part of the world the script could be developed by a Chinese artist?

With Matt firmly in the show now, Emma, our other new stage manager, is learning Laura’s track. Laura has been with this show from a very early stage and knows it as well as anyone and I am finding it fascinating watching her teach Emma her (very busy) backstage journey. Emma is doing great and already has over half the show under her belt. I feel I am seeing the work from the inside afresh by going over the minutia of the stage management. Finding stage managers with a passion for detail is one thing, finding one who can integrate themselves into the show/cast rhythm is another.  As a company we are using the time together to really secure every moment of the show before it heads to London in March (and even more international dates throughout 2015). We aim to have Emma fully in the show by the end of China! She’s going to be brilliant.

The theatre in Wuhan is freezing. Everyone is in good spirits about it but we are all kind of hoping that Shenzhen might be a little warmer. The performers didn’t even build up a sweat during the show – that’s a first. Ushers were all decked out in arctic gear and for a post-show discussion I stayed in my coat and scarf. There was a sauna-like VIP room of course… An interesting throwback to a time when artists were not given much respect perhaps – a freezing communal dressing room with no toilet or shower sat next to an ornate, carpeted, sofa-filled cozy for the important folk.

That said we are being so well looked after here, treated with utmost respect. Our local crew continue to be wonderful. Mr Song and his army tackle every problem as a team, with a smile on their faces (because they love their jobs!) and a determination not to let us down (that I actually find a bit moving), and it certainly motivates us to work harder knowing how much their crew are putting into the tour. Maggie and Ginger have been with us in Wuhan and they seem to have endless patience. Gecko may be very organised on stage as a company, but sometimes off-stage it can be like herding sheep, or children, or lambs (child sheep?) even… It drives Nathan crazy.

I am really grateful for a TV in my room in the hotel, it has been my little slice of home. HBO Asia pumps out one movie after another and when you need some downtime away from the crazy city (or the even crazier company) a cheesy Hollywood movie is just the tonic. Last night was World War Z, featuring Ryen (of MISSING and INSTITUTE fame! If you have seen the movie, he’s the first guy to be featured getting the virus in the first 5 minutes). You’d think all the plaudits of such a huge and important role in a critically-acclaimed film would have gone to Ryen’s head… And you would be right… I’m joking! He’s lovely really…

Here he is trying to be the Vitruvian Man:

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4th December 2014

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“They didn’t have crispy duck so I have ordered half a goose,” Francois announces as we sit around the biggest Lazy Susan I have ever seen to celebrate Chris Evans turning 30! It turns out crispy duck is quite hard to come by this far south. We enjoyed some in Shanghai but here the duck is cooked much juicier (it is also delicious). Food is a BIG DEAL for Gecko; and obviously Chinese food is pretty distinctive. China have been cultivating rice for about 8,000 years. In many places they still use traditional methods (because they are the best) on the paddy fields. Group dinners are always eventful, especially when there are vegetarians in the mix – the whole affair becomes part investigation, part guess, part adventure.

After the meal we all head to the worst ‘ice bar’ I have ever seen. It’s so bad that it’s actually brilliant. Chris and Solene have befriended a local bar owner and his lovely parter Lemon (another great western name choice) and Chris wants karaoke to see in his birthday. So karaoke it is. The cocktails flow, the singing starts and Ryen makes a new friend in the shape of a very drunk local man called Fu’Ji who is determined to hold Ryen’s hand all night. There is a deep kindness in some of the people we have met, an openness to ask us questions about where we are from and what we think of China. Again we feel really welcome in the bar, safe and free to have a lot of fun. Soon everyone is dancing. Sat watching the gang with Nathan, I have an epiphany: I realise that it is probably worth 3-5 years of dance school and 10 years practice just to be able to dance in a bar as well as these guys do. They are awesome to watch, it’s mesmerising. I love it. I am too tired and sober (and scared) to dance tonight but a good time is had by all in the most unlikely of places! International touring is often about having amazing experiences in the most unlikely of places.

As I try to fall asleep, I think over our post-show chat in Wuhan. For some reason it wasn’t as fruitful as the one in Shanghai but we have definitely sparked discussion here; people were really connecting to the characters and the style. We also got the first question in ages directed at the crew. I wish more of the post-show chats involved the crew. Nathan answered (surprisingly) elegantly about the way Gecko work together to bring the ‘world’ to life. Later a huge bunch of roses was delivered to ‘bring honour to the crew’. Too bloody right! Good technicians up and down the country and indeed across the world are often forgotten. In Malta we were told that there are no professional technicians – it is still considered to be a hobby! When was the last time you read a review in The Guardian or The Times praising the performance of a lighting operator or a stage manager or a costume supervisor? We accept this tiny token of respect for the technicians (in the form of a dozen roses) from this really nice lady on behalf of theatre-makers everywhere working closely with their tech team to make exciting theatre happen.

Okay, pop that soap box back in the backpack… will no doubt need it later.

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Something I have noticed in all three of the theatres we have visited so far is the way the seats are labelled with numbers in some venues (not all). You could find seat number 1 right in the middle of the row with 2,4,6,8 etc. going to the left and 3,5,7,9 etc. to the right! This means whenever you buy seat number 1 you know you will get a seat in the middle! It’s brilliant. The row can be long or short, it doesn’t matter; the most central seat is always number 1. It’s the kind of crazy logic that would never happen in Britain just because the numbers wouldn’t be in order and that would be impossible to understand. Impossible! When I buy my first theatre (with all my masses of savings from being an artist for 15 years) I will number my seats in this way (later we will learn that not all Chinese theatres use this system and I am heartbroken)!

Since our first show here, something has been wrong at the end of the show. Our bows have been met with good applause but it has felt a couple of times like we weren’t really connected to the audience at the end of the show. It’s an important time, the wind down after a Gecko show. Amit, as with all aspects of the work, is meticulous about the way the show ends and the way the company bows. But our usual curtain call isn’t right here. We ask Maggie about it and she tells us that we bowed in an unusual way for a Chinese audience. The etiquette for bows (as with many other small details) in China is very particular. We are instructed to bow three times. Each bow should be followed with an exit. On the third bow the audience will show their full appreciation (bow one and two are traditionally more reserved). Maggie’s advice pays off brilliantly on our final night at Wuhan where the roof is pretty much raised at the end of the show. Always ask the locals!

I think the highlight of my week was just before the second show in Wuhan. We had just opened the house, the audience were trickling in, pre-show music was playing and we noticed that one of the screens for the subtitles wasn’t working. Enter the awesome local crew: Mr Song and two of his team. They stand beneath it for a second before briefly leaving. A minute later they return with a small wooden ladder and a flag pole. These screens have been a serious undertaking for this crew – on one day I remember they stayed overnight to make sure it was working and ready for our show… They assess the situation again before Mr Song instructs his man to climb the ladder and tap/whack the screen with a flag pole (flag’n’all). He does. Instantly fixed. A perfect tool for the job it would seem. They all laugh, the rest of their crew laugh, we all laugh. It was a beautiful moment of combined slapstick understanding, respect and fun. That could have been an hour of fiddling with wires and checking connections, delaying the show and putting pressure on everyone. But no need. Flag pole. Whack. Job done. That’s how I know we are in good hands…