When Joanna Dong, our Chinese Producer (who we have worked with since touring Finding Joy to Guangzhou in 2017) asked me if I could make a Walkabout show over Zoom in Beijing, for a festival in Shanghai, I thought, absolutely, what could possibly go wrong?
Three months on and I’ve learnt so much. So much has gone right…with a few hiccups along the way.
I trust Joanna inside out and we have a great respect for each other. She’s incredibly organised and professional; she pays early, gets contracts sorted early and makes every step of working in China pain-free. But Joanna only introduced this partnership to us and I’ve since learnt exactly who was taking all the stress out of our previous tours to China!
What could possible go wrong?
Put it this way, I didn’t think we’d need to add to our contract that the all actors couldn’t be changed half way through rehearsals…some things you just take for granted. FYI I refused to have my actors replaced. #mindblowing!
I wouldn’t have expected the postal palaver of the training masks being sent back to the Vamos Theatre office twice before finally arriving in Beijing. Though a combination of Covid and Brexit were to blame for that. I learned to avoid ParcelForce and use DHL for international posting.
I wouldn’t have expected one of the actors to announce in the final week of rehearsals that he had to go to Wuhan for his graduation and therefore we'd have to adapt to working with two actors in a Beijing basement acting with one in his kitchen in Wuhan.
I wouldn’t expect that the actors wouldn’t be given their costume and props until the day before the first show. I can't even talk about that discovery, it's still too painful to talk about!!
In making masks for every show I've ever made, it has been a very private affair between myself and Russell Dean our phenomenal mask maker. I send detailed character outlines, Russell sends a small maquette (little clay models) as a first offer that we discuss further. I don't share this process with anyone else...too many cooks and all that. But it seems that facial expressions, eyebrows, thin and fat faces, can be interpreted very differently on the other side of the world. Who'd have thought an angry, stern, high status mask with a wide face would be seen as funny and cute for having a fat face? Who'd have thought that our innocent fool would be interpreted as "vicious” because of his dark eyebrows? There were many conversations about “painting over harsh expressions” or not using the masks at all…I suggested we wait to see what the audience reaction was.
What went right?
From the get go I said that I wanted to work with Ding Ding, an amazing English-Mandarin translator and theatre specialist. Ding Ding supported us all the way through our tour in 2017. She also showed us such a good time in Guangzhou - from a mass outing to a massage parlour (which was possibly the funniest and most painful night of my life) to being the most incredible (sensitive, accurate, humorous) translator whilst performing and training in China. This time in 2021, Ding Ding began the rehearsal process for You Name It, We Bring It in her grandmother's house in central rural China and completed it in London, where she has lived for the last seven years. I could not have done this project without her. If you ever need a Chinese translator, I'll send her your way.
The designer, Yi, has been brilliant to work with and I've loved the way she has sent me full PowerPoint presentations of all the costumes and props!
The actors have been seriously hard working. Why is that no surprise? They were always punctual, hungry to learn and passionate about perfection. They were respectful, listened carefully and rehearsed endlessly outside of the rehearsal room. I could only hope that they would be allowed to be as playful as I've encouraged them to be...but I'd never really know...as I won't be there to see the show. I've received video footage, photos and audience feedback...it's not quite the same as the thrill of the opening night and seeing the reaction of the audience with my own eyes.
How did it go?
The festival organisers have fed back that audiences have LOVED THE MASKS (hurrah), “The surprise on the streets” and the most loved parts were the dances and the audience interaction. Apparently it has became the “hit of the festival” and people travelled a long way to see it. The audience sizes have been far greater than any crowd we have ever played to and most importantly the actors have loved every minute and that’s what I try to drive home when directing Walkabout - if you are having a good time, laughing behind your mask and playing really hard, then the audiences will do the same. And now for a serious sigh of relief! I think the hardest thing was building trust over Zoom - trust that the masks will work their magic wherever they are in the world.