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…

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.

Missing in China 2014 - Rich's Blog - Part 2

LOCATION
A THEATRE IN WUHAN

INTERIOR 
Back of the auditorium…

“What was that?” exclaims Roz semi-hysterically. A hint of dread ripples beneath her calm, collected exterior.

“Where?” replies Nathan instantly, suddenly a sentinel standing to attention. Like a brave, wise, old brown bear he rises from his slumber.

“There, did you see that?” It’s not panic in her voice now, more disbelief. She is doubting even her own eyes – she needs Nathan (of all people) to validate her sanity (which is not an enviable position to be in…).

“No. What was it?” Nathan is shaking now like a kitten in a freezing puddle. His eyes widen like a pug; his nostrils flare like John Travolta’s dancing slacks.

“There was a ferret in the lighting box, a wild ferret!”

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – welcome to Wuhan. It turns out that the lighting box was in fact home to a wild ferret who, from time to time comes to say hello. Matt (our Company Stage Manager) has named him Keith. At this stage in our adventure in China I am not that surprised to hear this story. This is a country where anything can happen and I’m loving that.

We have just pulled out of Wuhan train station, a huge building housing two dozen bullet train terminals. The roof flows overhead like the underside of a giant tropical leaf, veiny and wiry. It’s impressive. Francois sums it up well, “Pretty amazing, huh?”
We’re flying along at 300 km/hour again, this time heading to Shenzhen, a place Gecko have visited before but I have not.


Wuhan was, like I imagine most of China is, fascinating to behold. Our lonely planet told us it was like three cities in one and it certainly felt gargantuan to us. The journey from the train station to the hotel takes us through the beautiful, shiny train station doors, onto the bus, then through what appears to be very poor outskirts to the city. Buildings look deserted but I am pretty sure they are not. Every scrap of land is farmed and worked and used. Older buildings, small and decrepit, form villages which seem to mark an older way of life, before the days of skyscrapers and Starbucks. Grandparents and children make up a lot of the population in these outer areas, we are told, as younger workers head to the cities to make money for their families. Truthfully it’s difficult to see if anyone is living in most of the villages we pass. Despite the obvious, almost Western glitz and glamour of Shanghai, it is here in Wuhan where I have been most aware of the steep divide between China’s mega rich and its waves of hard working, poorer communities. Village after village lines the outskirts, all the same – houses with ramshackle solar panels fixed to rooftops, presumably the only source of affordable power. Settlements drained of their youth by the pull of the mega cities. It’s another culture shock.

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Then the city hits. Carved in two by the might of the Yangtze River, it feels like it will just go on forever and ever. It’s so deeply grey here, I feel like my understanding of the word grey has changed because of Wuhan. It’s a concrete jungle which sprawls and spills out on every street corner. Wiry metallic vines climb out of windows and wrap themselves around generators and air conditioning units. A river of concrete carves its way up and over the roads to form huge pedestrian spaghetti junctions. I go for a run and find myself totally twisted up on myself, unable to find my way out of the maze of commuter routes. In the summer the heat in Wuhan is said to be intense and I can only imagine what that would do to smell of the city. It’s the smell of people living and working, the smell of standing water and kitchen scraps. It’s bracing but I think I’m used to it. Within seconds of the bus ride in the city you are likely to see someone selling a handful of freshly killed chickens, someone fixing a moped, someone driving up the road the wrong way, 10 cars honking their horns, a team of street sweepers armed with brilliant branch-brooms and someone spitting. Spitting is a big thing in China – despite the signs asking people not to. I have to say, I am still loving being here. As I mentioned before, I am not a big fan of cities in general but there is something about the calm chaos of China that makes these communities seem somehow more human… it’s a harmony thing that I can’t quite put my finger on yet.

Chris Evans remarked that he is surprised how chilled China is. “Food takes its time, commuters take their time. It’s as if the Chinese people (who on the whole seem to be very happy and content) have collectively realised that there is no point rushing!”

Our first show in Wuhan was Matt Hales’s first show without me helping him through his track. Naturally he smashed it and is now a fully functioning part of the MISSING team. It’s a huge relief for me as I get to watch the show again and actually do what I have come out here to do: help the performers make the show great. Matt, as a vegetarian, has struggled a little to find food that is safe to eat, especially as we tend to find ourselves eating in places where no one speaks any English. Matt has come up with two ways of combatting hunger. 1) Pizza. He loves it. Wherever we are he has an eye out for pizza places; he says they are really expensive and not that nice, but they are keeping him alive… 2) He has asked Maggie to make him a lanyard with the words “I am a Vegetarian” on one side and “Can you point out the nearest Pizza?” on the other (or so she says – she could have written anything on there really…). Anyway, he wears it all the time, along with a pretty amazing beaver hat. As you can imagine, he’s getting some looks – the locals love him. But he isn’t hungry anymore.

Ooh oooh, a flock of cranes just flew past! Amazing, I wondered if we would see any white cranes on this trip. I can tick that off my list…

We’re in the hills again now, it’s very beautiful, misty and iconically asian (mental note – must look up what a flock of cranes are called… thinking about it they are more likely to have been egrets… white cranes are pretty rare aren’t they?).

Of Wuhan, Chris Evans says…

“The city I enjoyed the most was Wuhan.  I still don’t know who in the company is the culprit, but let’s say that the universe wrote in giant letters ‘Happy Birthday’ on the roof of some random nearby rooftop, so that on the morning of my turning 30, I would read it from my hotel window on the 15th floor.  It was great to share my birthday with people I love dearly (and see the most often) in a night of karaoke, drinking, and quitting smoking. Oh no wait, that was just me.” 

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The show in Wuhan feels more like the show we all know. I really enjoy the final show in particular, it’s probably in my top 10 MISSING performances ever. It was firey. I think this show is at its best when it’s a little dangerous, a little unexpected – I use the word ‘prickly’ and the performers often look at me like I am nuts (they are right of course). The audience were with us from the off on both nights here. We were told before that Shanghai audiences are more open-minded than the other cities we would visit. But I think the show really resonated with our audience here. Perhaps it was because the performers had recovered from the travel, or perhaps it was to do with the space. One Chinese audience member was in tears after the show and Roz sat with her a while as she talked of having a heavy heart thinking about her own life and being so grateful for being able to see theatre from the UK again. We also had several audience members who came to both nights of our performances in Wuhan as well a group of Gecko fans who had seen THE OVERCOAT years ago, one of whom told us, “MISSING was worth the wait and was much better than THE OVERCOAT”. I agree. Chris Swain isn’t sure, but that’s because he is a fool. I forgive him almost instantly for his error.

There is a warmth and excitement in the audiences here, the Chinese people we have met really do love theatre! Before we arrived Tim Crouch sent us a lovely message saying, “We have warmed China up for you, Gecko.” Perhaps that is true. I can’t wait to ask him how his (brilliant) ‘I Malvolio’ went down here though, with the speech barrier and the cultural differences – particularly in terms of humour. I am sure it would have been fascinating to perform such a wordy piece here, and with all his skills as a performer I have no doubt it would have worked, but there is something fascinating about the way theatrical communication works in this part of the world.

Missing in China 2014 - Rich's Blog - Part 1

So much mystery surrounds any trip to China, so much excitement, oodles of preparation, hours of waiting in line for Visas, millions 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 team to produce the best possible 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) are all really up for it. We mean business. We want the show to be the very best it can be and 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.

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I am nervous about the tour. I have read so much about China and tried to prepare myself for the experience, but I know that there will be surprises around every corner. I must – as is always the case when Amit 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 with even more emotional impact. I am keen for that to continue in China.

The plane touches down in Shanghai, after about 10 hours and a brief stop-off in Paris 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, “Dive in, its the only way!” 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 too which is just fantastic. 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.

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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) 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.


27th November 2014

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!

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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.”

‘PAUSE’ – Our friend Mr Song has just delivered a cake…!

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…OK, cake devoured – ‘PLAY’.

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.

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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. Two words that describe Amit perfectly. I’m waffling now, maybe it’s the cake. Mmmm cake.

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 – 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)!

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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!”

Missing in Russia 2014 - Rich Blog - Part 2

Voronezh! A place I had never heard of until this trip. A city of about a million people. A place that no Westerner has ever pronounced correctly, apparently. Even now as I write this, having just been been instructed how to say it by the experts, I struggle to get it right…

It’s a city covered in posters and banners for the festival that we are a part of. MISSING posters are everywhere, we can’t read them (yet) as they are obviously all in Russian. It’s not long before Ryen and I start trying to work out the letters, not just of the posters but menus, road signs and even TV news reels – it’s a challenge which dominates at least an hour a day, as we try to get to grips with the amazing Cyrillic alphabet. Our reading becomes a bit of an obsession, especially with Ryen who is far more confident with the pronunciation than I am!

The venue is a stunning 800-ish seater in the heart of the city, 15 minutes’ walk from our lovely hotel (which is decorated by some of the strangest taxidermy I have ever seen!).

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After settling in, we decide to investigate the area. Russia is not at all as I expected, it’s very difficult to explain why… Voronezh feels a bit like a British town like Bath or Norwich, only it is much bigger, it has an epic grandeur, and stone buildings line wide open roads, the original wooden buildings flattened by the war (making way for solid soviet statements). There are no ‘shop fronts’ anywhere. Commerce is not the defining factor of the architecture here; it may feel old-fashioned but only perhaps to a Western mind used to city centres sculptured by NEXT and M&S… Finding a supermarket here is really hard work. Trying to find a bottle of water on one occasion, Georgina ends up in a pet shop!

Bars and cafes are easier to find. One restaurant we visit is called ‘Barack O’Mama’ and it serves American-style food. Another cafe we dive into, to avoid a torrential downpour, is decorated like Kings Cross train station! The bar beneath our hotel (with the most enthusiastic waitress ever) is called ‘Bar-Leskone’! There are surprises around every corner.

Voronezh, like Moscow features a number of impressive Orthodox Churches. Irina takes us to a new one – only 10-15 years old she tells us. I have a very complex relationship with religion of all kinds, but I am always excited to see new places of worship, I like the human activity. As Solene covers her head to be allowed in, we are told that a lot of the churches in Russia are quite new because religion was of course against the law until relatively recently; many churches were destroyed. Inside the building there is a sense of very deep, serious faith. There is a library silence in the large room. Religious figures whisper instructions of prayer and advice to the worshippers who circulate the room paying their respects to various iconic figures and areas of the building itself. I leave very quickly, I feel like a tourist in a private place. This is not the viewing gallery of the Sistine Chapel…this is more like walking into someone’s house. I leave and wait outside, I put my hand down onto a stone pillar only to find that it isn’t stone at all. Most of the building is made of MDF, plasterboard and even plastic, made up to look like stone. Having been to some of the oldest and most iconic buildings across Europe I find this prefab, knock-up church strange at first. But then I think, why not? It’s cheaper, it’s quicker and it does the job. It looks amazing and the people inside, the people it really matters to, clearly love it deeply. This is the first time on my trip to Russia where I come face-to-face with the idea of what we see being different to what is really going on. It won’t be my last.

Very few people speak english – our brilliant interpreter Sasha looks after us wherever possible. I find myself pointing and smiling a lot and it leads to quite a few mistakes when it comes to ordering food. Ordering a small tea leads to a pitcher of beer on the table. None of us mind at all, it encourages us to pick up a few phrases and it isn’t long before we are trying to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye, yes and no in terrible Russian accents. Our Russian friends laugh at us all the way. Our sound guru Nathan is the best at speaking the lingo – perhaps it’s because he’s good with sounds? Perhaps he is just making up words… I’m not sure. You can never be sure with Nathan.

The get-in goes well. The local crew are really responsive to our team, Laura and Mishi have a great stage crew and everything goes in ok. Next door we begin work on the show. Francois and Solene have only performed the show in Bogota and so it’s essential to make sure the company are ready; next thing we know, we are in a tech and preparing for the first show.

There is a feeling I get whenever I am in the theatre, especially when it is with a show like MISSING which I have been a part of for the best part of four years. The inside of the theatre is the same everywhere in the world. I could be in Russia, or China, or back in Ipswich; when the lights go out and the music starts, it feels like home. Voronezh is just the same. Once the set is in and the tech begins, I find new confidence. I know the show works – Amit and the company have worked their arses off on this show for ages. The crew know the show and they are freakishly smart. The producers of the venue have already decided they like the show. All I have to do is make sure it is up to Amit’s (intensely high) standards.

We tech right up until the final minute. My favourite moment is when we have an interpreter on stage with a mic receiving notes from our english crew. She has a mic so that she can be heard by the lighting technicians focusing our front of house lighting, but it leads to a brilliant piece of performance – the back and forth between these three was a show in itself. It’s amazing how much extra time language can add to problem solving. Everyone works with patience and determination though and we are set to go. The show is ready. We don’t have any idea how many people are coming. There is a rather ambiguous 4-day holiday about to begin in Russia (a day of Russia?!), we hear. No one really knows but it could have affected ticket sales.

As it turns out the enormous theatre (with a beautiful acoustic) was full. Our local team told us afterwards that because Voronezh only really has exciting work during the festival it is really well attended, almost as if many people only attend the theatre during the festival and not for the rest of the year. All the productions we were able to see played to full houses, a testament to the marketing and the culture perhaps. This is a seriously cool festival.

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The show goes okay, I am very relieved. The audience love it: a 2-minute standing ovation with audience members climbing up onto the stage to deliver flowers at the end. The cast are happy, I am happy. Show two, notoriously a harder job, goes even better. The tech crew (who see the show the most) say it is one of the best they have seen for a long time – this makes me really proud.

To celebrate a few of us stay out late, chatting, digesting the week, relaxing properly for the first time. We are joined very late by Niko and Irina and the conversation quickly shifts to international matters. I have always been the person to ask the hard questions; it’s almost as if I was born to play devil’s advocate. I have no diplomacy, neither do I judge people for the actions of others. I just like to get to the bottom of things. The truth at the core of a person’s thought is always the most interesting place a person can be. It’s the same in the theatre. So I dive in with questions about Ukraine, homosexuality, oil, the USA, media manipulation, faith, the role of the man and a woman in modern society and everything that could possibly spin off from these rather controversial subjects. Niko and Irina answer everything, directly, intelligently, eloquently and with ease. Niko gives me books to read, Irina has a staggering confidence as she provides a totally new perspective of the way that the press and the West see Russia. She isn’t defensive, she isn’t aggressive; she doesn’t need to be. We are talking openly and it’s so refreshing we battle about everything, putting the world to rights; an English man, a Hungarian, an American and a Russian! We laugh and shout at each other until the sun comes up. Mishi in his infinite wisdom decides that it’s too late to say goodnight, so we say good morning and go to breakfast together… The new day has begun.

In short, I learn more about Russia in 5 hours than I did in 2 years of studying it in History. I learn more about our new friends in one night than I would learn about someone in the UK in a year! I was really starting to enjoy Russia.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not even close to being converted to the Russian way of seeing the world – I don’t believe everything I was being told, not by a long shot… But I do believe that the people talking to me believed what they were saying. I have definitely seen international issues, particularly political relationships, in a different light. Ukraine was hardly ever on the news in Russia. There was no BBC world service on my TV, no CNN. The images we see of President Putin glaring at the Queen are nowhere to be seen.

Later in an amazing exhibition I attended featuring defiant work throughout the 20th century I was reminded, “The power of the printed word in Soviet Russia was absolute. Orders to the masses were delivered by print. The people developed a relationship with print, leading to distrust, fear and disrespect …” Perhaps this history with the press has left the Russian people, those I met at least, skeptical about about how the press see their world…

 With all that chat out the way we head to a tiny, half-built airport and board a little plane. Next stop MOSCOW!!

Missing in Russia 2014 - Rich's Blog - Part 1

As a company, international touring has always been at the heart of what we do at Gecko. Over the past 10 years we have toured to over 20 countries, playing international festivals from the USA to China, Japan to Bogota, and most recently we took MISSING to Russia. Our Associate Director Rich Rusk was with the company throughout the 10 days; below are his thoughts on an extraordinary trip to Moscow…

When I told my mum that my next trip with Gecko would be to Russia, a two-venue tour which included Moscow and a smaller city called Voronezh (pretty close to the border with Ukraine), you can probably imagine her response. “…Be careful,” she said with wise eyes and a tiny hint of terror. The press has obviously been heavily focused on this part of the world recently and as a company, concerns were voiced. “Will we be safe?”, “What do they think of the English at the moment?”, “Are we doing the right thing going to a country with such a strong stance on homosexuality?”, “Will the tensions with Ukraine escalate when we are out there?” etc. We had also heard about recent boycotting of British companies and Russian funds being withdrawn from projects in Moscow featuring British Artists. This was a complicated, delicate decision and it made me nervous.

I decided to speak to Amit directly about how I was feeling (I know I wasn’t the only person in the company who had done so). We talked about the politics; we talked about how positive the British Council in Russia had been, how they had done everything in their power to ensure our safety, build strong relationships with the venues we would be visiting and how important we were to them and the work they have been doing. Amit’s personal view on the trip was simple: “We have a piece of art that means something to us and to other people. We are not going to directly affect the policies of the country by going there, but we will hopefully affect some of the people. We will aim to entertain and inspire our audiences and give them a different way of looking at the world.” We have this way of thinking everywhere we go, including the UK where our government isn’t exactly 100% behind the arts! As individuals of course we are aware of what has been happening in Russian politics over the last few years; as artists working with the British Council we decided, as a group, that we would go to Russia and focus 100% on making the show the best it could possibly be.

We meet at the airport very early, the technical crew, the performers and me. Amit is joining us for two days mid tour to attend press conferences. In terms of the quality of the show, I am in charge for the whole trip. As if I wasn’t nervous enough…

We fly to Moscow, which is only 3 hours away! When we arrive we are greeted by the Chekhov Theatre Festival International Projects Manager, Irina Shcherbakova. She will be our guide, our organiser and our companion for the entire trip. First stop Voronezh (Воронеж), a city to the west of Russia, where we are performing as part of the Platonov Arts Festival http://en.platonovfest.com – a festival with a great line up! I was shocked by how comprehensive the festival programme was. We leave the airport in Moscow and head straight to our train, it’s a 12-hour journey to Voronezh from Moscow and so we try to find some supplies and we get ready for an adventure.

We are four to a cabin and it’s pretty cramped, a little bit like being inside a moving tent. The entire team is too excited to sleep; card games and conversation keep us buzzing late into the night. Eventually a few of us decide to explore the train. It’s not long before we discover the restaurant carriage and cold beers are ordered – finally a chance to sit with our new friends to talk.

I knew that if I was going to spend two weeks with our new Russian colleagues I would need to establish open and honest relationships. The only way I know how to make work is as part of a team who can speak openly. I wanted to tell our new friends about our initial worries about coming to Russia, to break the ice. We sat together drinking local beer and within minutes the ice was smashed. Myself and some of the team had a chance to question Irina on Russian cultural policy, artistic opinions regarding companies from the West and even about the current attitude towards the English in Russia.

As our host in Russia, Irina naturally had a responsibility to be reassuring and spoke very elegantly about her government, the way theatre works in Russia and about how important her work with the Chekhov Festival was. She spoke about her personal opinion of the world she is working in, citing arts cuts, challenges with the cultural ministry, how important the British Council and other partners were to the organisation she works for. We all got on well with her immediately. I knew that we wouldn’t need to worry about political spin from her or any of our Russian team. We talked about languages and how Gecko uses language, about companies we all knew, about festivals we had all attended, companies we loved. These were artists just like us, these were people who believed deeply that we should be there and that we would be welcomed by Russian people and audiences everywhere we went. My concerns, for now, were gone. We had made new friends. Now it was time to prepare for the first show…