The Artistic Director's View: Gecko in Asia

As part of our May 2018 tour of Asia, the social media account Hao Xi (Good Play) had a few questions for Amit (Artistic Director) and Rich Rusk (Associate Director). They talk about life on the road, updating Chinese classics, and the audience’s crucial role in Gecko shows…

When screening actors and actresses for a show, is dancing ability what you value the most?

Of course, their ability and talent as a performer is vital, but I also value their qualities as a human being. The journey and process of making a Gecko show is far broader and more in-depth than simply performing – it’s a living, breathing process, and so therefore the requirement of that person to be able to make offerings, to reflect, to dig deep into the stories of their life or their own subconscious, to interplay with how I see the world and how the audience might see the world, is really the most important thing. I would also say it’s very important that they are decent, kind, generous, fun human beings!

We know you receive many invitations from various arts and theatrical festivals across the globe. During these long-haul international tours, do you sometimes feel a sense of drifting?

I think, first of all, Gecko’s touring doesn’t tend to be huge periods of time away. In the UK, we just toured for eight weeks, and that’s the longest tour I can remember, but I went home on most weekends. I think I try to avoid being away from home for too long, to offset the potential for that sense of ‘drifting’ you describe. The shows are also very emotionally grounding for me. They allow me to connect with who I am, connect with my meaning and purpose in life, and so, for that reason, I don’t think drifting is the way that I personally experience touring.

Do you have any works that were inspired by your engagement in a foreign culture during your tours abroad?

I spent a number of years touring in South East Asia, where I talked with disenfranchised groups and children who live on the streets, as well as local artists, painters, sculptors, theatre-makers and dancers. I hadn’t formed Gecko quite yet, but those early experiences of touring in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos informed the early part of the journey and still informs me today.

At the heart of it is the idea that we’re all expressive, and everything we’re doing in life is an expression somehow of our emotional needs. We constantly express these needs physically, whether they’re subtle and small or broad and bold. I think it brought into focus how the physical expressiveness of a child on the streets of Cambodia, or the physical expressiveness of an adult artist, or somebody in any other environment, is doing the same thing, and it’s there to be read and to be understood. I think that inspired some very formative ideas of what Gecko is.

Last year, I went to watch your show The Dreamer – a production developed in collaboration with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre – inspired by two masterpieces, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Peony Pavilion.  There is a part in it where you use a dividing screen to account the story of The Peony Pavilion. Some of the audience find it quite interesting, while others think it only reflects your interpretation of China that’s full of classic imagery and ideas, however it is a lot different from the China that we are living in, what do you think?

Answered by Rich Rusk, the director of The Dreamer:

In my eyes, China is incredibly modern and fast-paced. It’s high tech and exciting. Staging the Peony Pavilion moments in the show was a huge challenge, I wanted it to have a classical feel but highlight the more universally relatable, and therefore modern themes in the story. I had the same approach to the Shakespeare elements.

The story may be about the old world, but themes of choice, loneliness, love, forced marriage, parental expectations and being ‘left over’ are very true and present today. The aesthetic of the screen may seem classic, but the story that the shadows tell is very much one of an independent, strong woman living in a world run by powerful men. In our story, it’s this ‘classical’ Chinese figure who inspires our modern day protagonist to stand on her own two feet.

You once mentioned in an interview that Gecko’s productions normally do not have a very obvious storyline, but nor is it completely without order. The audience should look at it by putting themselves in it and by combining their own experience. Will there be audiences who cannot ‘find themselves’ when watching your shows, or are unable to be impressed?

The shows have a pretty simple and clear journey if you wish to see it in that way, but it’s down to you personally how deeply you involve yourself with the experience.

I think nearly everyone can involve themselves on a certain level. It could be that you’re impressed by the visual imagery, the creativity onstage and the endeavour of the performers (which is always very high). Perhaps you simply follow the storyline. On the other hand, you might begin to see yourself very clearly, and you embark on the show as a metaphorical dream-like experience in which everything is ricocheted off the experiences of your own life.

When you make something that is experiential and metaphorical, you have to give way to the potential for a range of different experiences to happen, but I try to make it in the most generous way, to try to hand people an invitation into a deep experience.

But if people have a more simple one, I think they tend to enjoy that as well!

Gecko performed Institute in Shanghai and Nanjing (China), and The Wedding at the MODAFE Festival in Seoul (South Korea).

The Producer's View: Gecko in Asia

We caught up with our Executive Producer Rosalind Wynn during our international tour with one central question in mind: what role does the producer play in international touring? Here’s how she replied…

One of the very exciting and unique elements of working for Gecko is the experience of international touring. Since joining the company in 2013 I have toured with the company to Georgia, Colombia, Russia, Poland, China, Mexico, Hong Kong, Macau, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Romania, Malaysia, Australia and Spain, some of these multiple times. We have also created an international co-production with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in China.

I’m writing this from Arko Arts Theatre in Seoul, South Korea, where we’re preparing to perform our international premiere of The Wedding to open the 2018 MODAFE (Modern Dance Festival). On this tour, we have already been to Shanghai and Nanjing in China with our Asian premiere of Institute.

It’s quite the puzzle of activity and availability. A total of 20 people have been involved across the tours, some working on both shows, some on just one, some also delivering workshops, and with additional meetings happening in Hong Kong and Taiwan for Amit and I.

International touring takes a lot of planning: we need to confirm the availability of our performing and technical team (who all work freelance), as well as agree the final deals and schedules with our international partners. We’re often programmed within a festival, so the international partner has many shows to organise across a short period of time. Sometimes, like with this tour, we have multiple weeks of touring and performing in different cities, but this is the first time that we’ve toured one show to one country followed immediately by another show to another, which came with even greater time constraints around visa applications and local performance licences.

It’s certainly not a holiday, with a busy and demanding schedule, always walking into the slight unknown and battling with language barriers. But it’s an incredibly rewarding and insightful way of working too.

The company has toured internationally since the creation of the first show Taylor’s Dummies. The work is created to have a universal appeal with the intention that each audience member will have a personal response to the shows, relating to a resonance with their own life and experience. With a reliance on movement, emotion, design and sound to tell the story, as opposed to language, the work is well suited to international performances and appeals to audiences across the world.

It’s fascinating to hear the response to the shows from different audiences. Across the years I’ve been interested by responses that seem to be very universal no matter which country we’re performing in, and some that seem very specific to a certain country and culture. Taking Institute to China, we were unsure of what the response would be in a country where mental health is still a hushed subject. We were very moved by audience responses: one audience member who had studied psychology had been moved to think about the mental health spectrum that we all find ourselves on whilst relating closely with the character of Louis, whilst another person identified with Daniel, always placing too much pressure on himself to achieve. Journalists, too, were keen to understand our project in collaboration with Suffolk Mind to explore emotional needs through physical theatre. Mental well-being is a big subject in China, and audiences were open in sharing their thoughts and experiences.

For Gecko, international touring is an integral aspect of the company’s existence. After our shows have been created and toured in the UK it’s an opportunity to share them with wide audiences for a number of years. But more than this, it’s a place of exchange where we’re able to share our working practice and also learn from our international partners and audiences, absorbing influences from different cultures into our work. This feels more true now than ever, where on arrival to Shanghai we were greeted by our remarkable performers and collaborators of The Dreamer, who shared the week with us and were on hand to help with any problems, including giving up a Saturday to take me on a mad shopping dash to replace a number of costumes missing from the suitcases!

Relationships like this are special and important, especially with the divisive politics we see today. We’ve had many brilliant conversations around the performances of the shows, not just with audiences, but also international higher education institutions and professional companies to provide training in physical and devised theatre, invitations to create site responsive work and possible future collaborations.

And tonight we perform The Wedding in South Korea, a show that looks at the relationship between the individual and the state.

Amid the possible collapse of talks with the North, tonight’s post show discussion should prove to be thought-provoking!