Missing in China 2014 - Rich's Blog - Part 4

From Wuhan we take another bullet train at 300 km/h across misty hills and paddy fields for five hours to Shenzhen. If I’m honest I am kind of glad to leave Wuhan. I think it was my mid-tour slump, perhaps. I know that Chris Evans and Solene and Chris Swain really enjoyed Wuhan, but for me it was too cold and grey. Everyone has their favourite places, and I knew there would be colder places ahead, but Wuhan got into my bones…

Shenzhen, however, is a barmy 22 degrees when we arrive. The city is almost tropical; gone are the jumpers and wooly hats, we’re in a new climate here in the south. If you haven’t heard of Shenzhen there a couple of facts that are very important to know before we I go on: 1) It’s right on the border with Hong King and is pretty much the technology capital of China (if not the world) 2) The city wasn’t there in 1978. In 1979 the Chinese government wanted to create a new, vibrant, modern city. They created a series of zones which could enjoy tax-free trade – special economic areas. What happened next was incredible. The city is now a vibrant, often very beautiful combination of skyscrapers and street markets.

The warm weather is a nice boost for everyone, and whilst this is the first time that a few of us have found creepy crawlies in our room everyone is excited to explore another city. We suss the metro out pretty quickly and it’s not long before everyone is able to find late night noodle bars and pool halls and coffee shops. The theatre is within walking distance of the hotel and we have workshops there this week so we go in search of it. Here is a video I made of the walk from our hotel door through the backstreets to the theatre…

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This is the first city we have been to where trees and foliage have really been included in the design. There is greenery everywhere, and whilst it still feels like a monster of a city it’s nice to see some colour. Shenzhen is remarkably different to Wuhan.

On our days off Roz (producer) and I attempt some site-seeing but in Shenzhen there isn’t really too much to see. This city was a village as late at the mid-seventies. I think about how places in England have changed. Cambridge where I grew up has had masses of development in my life time, but the whole of Cambridge would fit into one of the small regions of Shenzhen. There are now about 30 million people living here. It’s amazing what you can do when you buy most of the world’s concrete and invest a few trillion into a place. Shenzhen is home to China’s technology markets. Every iPod ever made was manufactured here apparently. Every person in the modern world probably has components made in Shenzhen in their pocket, if not definitely in their house.

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Gecko have been here before. I had heard of its huge technology markets but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw here. On a morning off we head out in search of shopping and find the usual Chinese mega-malls, and expensive western shops (Gap, Levi’s etc.), but what we are after is the technology market. When we eventually find it my jaw hits the ground and pretty much stays there for the rest of the day. The first building we find (the size of John Lewis on Oxford street, maybe bigger) is just selling LED lights. That’s it. A thousand odd people sit at tiny booths tightly packed together over 5 floors, each booth selling a slightly different size, or shape, or quality LED light. Some are selling 1, or maybe 10 as a set. Others are doing deals for a million. Everywhere you walk there is a tea ceremony celebrating a deal struck or a fine bottle of wine being opened to impress clients who are buying in bulk from the factory. As we walk around I realise we are inside eBay – This is what eBay would look like if you could see it as a market. Flabbergasted we leave the LED world and go next door. This time there a four floors of different computer monitors and the components for them. Next door there is a megastore just selling different types of USB cables. And so it goes on and on. We buy a few cables and bits (knowing that they probably wont last long but are worth a punt). I find a few bits for about 10% of the UK RRP. Outside it is clear that this market goes on quite a long way. We pass Mobile Phone World, Camera World, Speaker World, Headphone World… it’s endless and it’s completely overwhelming. We stop for a coffee and take stock of what we have just seen. We all agree it’s an amazing experience just being there and a must for anyone visiting this infant giant of a city.

It’s the day before our first show in Shenzhen and Chris, Solene and I have a workshop booked with local students and theatre makers. Workshops (especially internationally) are always really eye-opening on tour, they provide a perfect way to connect with people and often lead to fruitful friendships between Gecko and teachers/students. I love them. I think they are at the heart of what Gecko do and at the centre of all great art for all companies and styles of work. Our first group is 25 people, the maximum for a Gecko workshop. As the students arrive it is clear that they mean business. There is no messing as they instantly find their own space and begin to stretch. Everyone is in theatre blacks, all clearly ready. We make several breakthroughs with the first group. We have very little time to work out what sort of work they are used to and therefore where we can push them, but soon enough Chris and Solene have them questioning their own comfort zones and suddenly the Gecko language is working beyond the language barrier. The time flies by and I tell the group very honestly at the end of the session that they are the most focused group I have ever encountered for a workshop. These guys take their theatre (especially their acting and dancing) very seriously.

They know what it will take of them to get to the top in China and it is clear that this group have a great deal of training. It also strikes me how attractive they all are. Both male and female students were clearly very ‘good-looking’, in great physical shape and had an open, pleasant manner. I wonder if this is more of a necessity for training in China (I didn’t really know how to ask them after without sounding like a freak)? Do you need to be pretty to have a career in theatre? Are we still in that pit? I think we probably are… The second group was much harder for us, the group had somehow swelled to 35 people and was made up of a mix of professional actors and students. The energy was amazing – they were on the front foot from the very beginning, but the session wasn’t as exciting for them or us I don’t think. It’s tricky… in the UK we would probably have refused to do the session with so many people but when you are are a guest in a country like this it’s important to be flexible. Either that, or turn 10 people away. Because the group was so big we couldn’t push the individuals as hard as we would have liked. I think of Amit’s upcoming 5-day workshop as part of the London International Mime Festival in January – those guys are going to have such a brilliant time because Amit will really get to know them and push them as individuals.


9th December 2014

After the workshop we are invited by some of the students and the teacher to dinner. We say yes. Mrs Song and Lincoln take us to a beautiful Cantonese place, where they teach us how to wash our plates and cutlery with tea, as is Cantonese tradition. Mrs Song is a vegetarian – Solene is over the moon, finally a Chinese guide to veggie food. The food we eat is up there with the best we’ve had in China. Solene eats like a queen. I think it’s probably in my top 10 meals of all time, and it makes me fall in love with Chinese food again. We learn a little bit more about Chinese theatre. It is very clear that MISSING and the entire Edinburgh Showcase, of which we are a part, is pretty far from the norm in China.

Crystal and Mr Yuan who selected MISSING in Edinburgh in 2013 are revolutionaries in the Chinese touring network. They are passionate about introducing new ideas and new forms of expression to Chinese audiences and I think they are doing something really special here. Later I ask Crystal, “What are you looking for when you select work in Edinburgh?” She looks me straight in the eye and with complete confidence she says, “We only book the best. It can be in any form, but it must be the best”. I think of Tim Crouch, I think of Paper Cinema, I think of 1927 and I can see what she means…

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After dinner on the walk home, I see a dog hanging in the doorway of the butchers. China is constantly surprising.

The shows in Shenzhen are hard work. Laura (who has been working with Gecko for the better part of 4 years) is moving on and so she has been teaching her track to Emma. It’s a tough ask on the road: the whole company is required for stage management calls – its a wonderful opportunity for the performers to get some notes off me and each other and it allows us to go over moments a-fresh. Emma is picking up the show really quickly, as well as the get in and out requirements, and the rehearsals move smoothly. We always rehearse on the road with Gecko, but China has been a chance for us to look again at the way the stage management and the performers work as one. The first show in Shenzhen is clunky, the rhythm is off, backstage haven’t quite tuned into the overall flow of the piece, that is totally understandable and the audience wouldn’t have noticed, but we do.

It’s amazing how connected the company must be for this show to work. If anyone is out of sync it is excruciating to watch. I regularly find myself diving behind chairs and hiding during the show just because there is a beat slightly off. It’s even worse for Amit as he lives every second of the show when he watches it.

The post-show talk in Shenzhen is once again really good – excellent questions and brilliant perspectives on the show. I think we will all remember a very well spoken 11-year-old asking us questions about the languages and about what it’s like to have parents who argue. He also asked Francois, “Is the healer for real or is he mental?” A great question. Of course we didn’t give him an answer but let him decide…

After the show the boy’s 7-year-old little sister asked me, in a really inquisitive way, “What are we meant to learn from this story?” I asked what she thought. “I think I learned that if mum and dad argue then it’s probably not my fault.” Amazing.

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In Shenzhen I finally pluck up the courage to visit the legendary Chinese massage parlour, a few of us have heard that there was a good place in town and so we went for it. It was a very strange experience. We were greeted at the door by Natasha who looked like one of the post-apocalyptic bourgeois characters from The Hunger Games. She talked us through how everything works, then we were sent off into this strange cave of decadence, showers and saunas and hot tubs and all sorts first, then through to an epic bar where everyone was in PJ’s after.

This is a 24-hour operation on an huge scale. We’re hassled quite a bit as we get changed – everyone in the building seems to be working for tips. It’s all a bit weird if I’m honest, there is definitely an undertone of less savoury ‘options’ available to clients but we felt safe in our stripey PJ’s. The massage itself is excellent and as always I have a little snooze. Roz, Chris and Solene go for more physical experiences – more physiotherapy than relaxation. Solene has a terrible time, Chris has an amazing time and Roz is broken, officially. Afterwards the three of them look like they have been asleep for the winter and they have awoken fresh for a new year. For two days Roz can hardly move, which is very funny.

Shenzhen is also home to possibly the world’s best hot chocolate. As a hot choc lover I can tell you now that I am not easily impressed, but if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of an “Awfully Chocolate” store get the hot chocolate. It’s amazing. Later in the week we walk 30 minutes across the city to get another one…

I like Shenzhen, there is a buzz to it like Shanghai but it isn’t quite as grown up and grand (yet) and nowhere near as culturally interesting. But as a place to study human behaviour I bet it’s up there with the most fascinating. Being in the sunshine and around some trees is also a very welcome relief.