Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Forum at the Stoop.

The students were excellent this morning and the forum sessions went really well. The set up this year was slightly different. We've crossed the road from the Stadium and reconvened at the Harlequin's ground The Stoop, slightly more intimate and manageable for everybody. We had groups of forty and ran four hour long workshops back to back. Exhausting, but as usual, highly rewarding.

In the main our play held the audience's attention although for a couple of the schools the idea of being involved in knife crime seemed far fetched to begin with. I sometimes wonder when I'm conducting forum what the best way to deal with spect-actors who feel they've already solved or avoided the 'crisis' presented in their own lives. As a joker my attitude is always to use them as 'teachers' asking them to show us how they've done it, but unless carefully handled this can bring an unwanted sense of moral superiority into the room.

It's why ideally you start by creating the piece with rather than for your audience and base it on their concerns rather than working to the criteria of an outside agency. Still the feedback from the Schools and the Police themselves was very positive and clearly the participatory nature of the work provoked some interesting discussions and improvisations. Given we only have an hour with each group I think we covered quite a lot of ground.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Dress Rehearsing James' Story.

Straight back to work and a chance to dress rehearse the new piece of work we've put together for the Youth Crime Conference with Richmond Police tomorrow. We're expecting to play to around 400 year nine students. Katie's been running rehearsals whilst I've been away and tonight was a final chance for an invited audience of students to put the cast through their paces.

Although the focus of the play has changed this year from anti-social behaviour to carrying weapons, the same basic issue of peer group pressure is at the core of the work. It's a thin line to tread, we neither want to patronise teenagers nor sensationalise knife crime, but in the end I think the team have created a scenario that feels both authentic enough to engage with and complicated enough to cause the audience to make some difficult choices.

The piece is slightly complicated in one scene where James, the protagonist, encouraged by his friends, verbally abuses his mother, to the point where she leaves the room in tears. Protagonist turns antagonist at this moment and we hope that for some in the audience that this dramatic change will prompt an immediate intervention. The situation can, with some careful diplomacy, we suggest, be avoided and the incident has a resonance with the main body of the play in that it asks questions about loyalty and self-esteem. I think the best forum work always occurs when the audience can empathise with both parties and the best rehearsals reveal strategies for moving forward rather than a definate blueprint.

We ran for a couple of hours with some excellent interventions, which really gave a great warm up and preparation for the morning.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

To Reprimand Each Inmate Who's In Late!

Final day in the East and I made my way over to Causeway Bay to see the noonday gun, made famous by Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It's a quaint ceremony, and a bit of a riposte to the Chinese insistence at playing the national anthem at the unforgiving hour of 8am down the shoreline in Bauhinia Square.

As if to underline the ritual's irrelevance the approach to the gun is almost covert. You have to go through the Excelsior hotel's basement car park and follow a service tunnel under the busy Gloucester Road. There's little encouragement to attend and only a handful of people find their way.

There is history here though, East Point was the first plot of land to be sold commercially by the colonial government back in 1841 and the site is still owned by the Scottish merchants Jardines, who originally fired the gun to welcome their Taipans into the harbour. This so offended a newly arrived naval officer, who felt gun salutes should really only be reserved for dignitaries that the company were ordered to fire the gun every day at noon for perpetuity. With near impossible access and dwindling crowds I'm not sure this is likely.

Nevertheless, for now, the tradition continues. The only time it's gone off later that the allotted was when Coward himself was guest of honour at the ceremony and breezed up, one can't help thinking fairly deliberately, at 12.03.

I headed back to the convention centre for the final recruitment session and fell into an interesting conversation with a young actor called Christy, who told me about a project she's been working on in Tin Shui Wai on the Chinese border. The town is really a series of high rise housing estates and has a tragic reputation because of the high instances of domestic violence, mental illness and suicide. Locally it is known as The City of Sadness. Recently arts workers have spent time in the town trying to create invigorating projects that help the residents explore ways in which they can see themselves as architects of their experience and look forward to creating a vision and then a reality for the town they'd like to see in the future. As Christy suggested Drama as a site for exploring possibility has a key role to play in this process.

As Hong Kong leaves its colonial past behind and inches forward to an integrated future with the mainland, it's clear that artists have a huge role to play in offering visions of the future on behalf of the 7,000,000 people who can't just pack up and head back to Europe.


Saturday, 25 February 2012

Expo-sure in the East.

A long day in the convention centre talking to parents and potential students. There's a scramble here with nearly every British University represented, giving a bewildering array of options to anybody looking to come to the UK for their higher education. It sadly brings into focus how unsubtle the process is. There are very few nuanced conversations about the teaching or research profiles of each institution, rather it's 'Englishness' that's being sold. A green and pleasant vision of fair play, Harry Potter and crime free cities.

Sometimes I'm shocked by how far other places will go to sign up students without really checking their English language skills or suitability for the course proposed. It all feels like a fairly dark art, mostly carried out by non-academics, who will never see the student again.

The students are also interesting. Places at Hong Kong Universities are highly sought, but each year a shortfall of around 30,000 find that they'll have to leave the region to continue their studies. Australia and UK are the top destinations, but in someways this is seen locally as a second division choice. Hong Kong is a high achieving society and although academically the students we met today are more than equal to the domestic students we attract to St Mary's the difference, perhaps, is that some of them carry a mark of disappointment. Again I felt that if we were more on the front foot we could make room to celebrate and champion divergent non-academic thinkers. Our largest cohorts - Sport, Education, Drama are all vocational in nature, I wonder whether, over time we can tackle some of the stigma towards non-academic subjects that many here feel.

For all my scepticism, we had a good team on the stand. Winston, Clarence and Tik, who do a lot of work for us in the Far East had flown in from Kuala Lumpur and together I think we were able to represent St Mary's in a realistic way. Our great strengths as a pastoral, tight knit community, close to London clearly does attract attention, but equally the gentle, village like atmosphere is not for everybody and ultimately it's not for us to force a decision on anybody.

I was pleased when things came to a close at around five o'clock and I could nip onto the Star Ferry back to Kowloon for a last night meal and an early night.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Rattling Across the Island.

A final free morning so I decided to take the rattling old tram which runs the length of the northern shore on Hong Kong Island. The route runs for 16 kilometres and at just a couple of HK Dollars a ride (about 16p) it's the staple transport for many of the workers in the residential areas at either end into the centre.

I took the the MTR out to the terminus at Shau Kei Wan, where the trams literally let off steam at the end of a run, before setting off again. I climbed to the top deck and took a front seat as we headed off through the crowded streets, past towering slum tenements. It took over an hour to make the journey through Quarry Bay, past North Point, Causeway Bay and Fortress Hill into the more familiar territory of Tin Hau and Victoria Park. I got off in Sheung Wan and made my way back through the old wholesale markets selling ginseng, ginger, birds nests, dried sea food and powdered deer antler. There aren't many Europeans or tourists in this part of town.

I wandered back down Hollywood Road, towards the centre, past the old Victoria Prison and the Governor's House. Impressive, but tellingly dwarfed by the new Bank of China, which was provocatively built to block the view from the house's terrace to the harbour, into Hong Kong Park and onto the British Council, to attend a briefing on tomorrow's recruitment fair.

The fair is being held in the huge convention centre on the waterfront. We're not top of the bill. That honour goes to a huge international fur expo. Lots of rich Russian buyers swanning about. Anorexic models trying to find their way to changing rooms and very heavy security. I found the unrepentant show of it all very unnerving. There's mega bucks here.

Before I headed back to Kowloon I went to have a quick look at Golden Bauhinia Square which was created to mark the return of the colony to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. For tourists from the mainland it's a must-see attraction. They pile off the buses to have their picture taken in front of the golden flowering bauhinia. Each morning at 8am the Chinese flag is raised here whilst the national anthem is blasted out. It's a small ritual, vital for reminding Hong Kong's residents that for all the European influences and heritage, the future belongs to China.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Connie and HKAC.

A busy day. I started off back in Sha Tin College watching a touring Commedia show that had been brought into the School by year 12 students from the neighbouring Li Po Chun College. In return the Sha Tin students gave a quick demonstration of Kabuki techniques and I got some time to chat to both groups about Drama opportunities in the UK. I've really enjoyed these visits and it's been fascinating both to see how the International Baccalaureate is setting sixth formers up for Higher Education and to understand some of the concerns that parents and students have about taking arts degrees at University. I hope we'll be able to come back into these schools as our relationship with Hong Kong develops.

I headed back to the Island to meet Connie Lam, the impressive Chief Executive at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. She, introduced me to her assistant Grace and ushered me into her cluttered office - books, plans, masks, posters and files everywhere. There was nowhere obvious to sit so we perched on the edge of the desk.

'This,' said Connie, holding up a model box 'is our newest venture. A museum celebrating cartoons and comic books. We were been given an old warehouse building which we've converted.'

'Are comics big in Hong Kong?' I asked

'Very big!' said Connie. 'Even as late as the nineteen seventies there were stalls on the street corners where kids could rent a comic book for a penny. They'd sit on stools on the pavement and read it cover to cover. You know Hong Kong has a big history of satire and subversion. When the British first came we parodied their ways through cartoons. Then in the years leading to the Chinese revolution of 1911 many satiric magazines attacking the Qing dynasty were published here. Not quite being England, we could attack the English. Not quite being China, we could attack the Emperor.'

'It's very healthy. All civilisations need critics. Do you think this outsiders role is still important?'

'Maybe. Let me show you the building.'

The site itself is really impressive. A spiral staircase corkscrews round the central atrium leading up to five floors of facilities. There's an arts cinema, a good sized theatre, smaller studio, a cafe and a light airy gallery. The main purpose of the Centre, in contrast to much of what I've seen here, is to engage local communities in the creation, as well as the appreciation of contemporary art. I explained a little about the aims of Drama St Mary's Applied Theatre Programme and we agreed we had much in common. It'd be wonderful to see if any collaborations were possible and I think we'll talk more when I'm back in the UK.

Connie pointed me to the exit, but I explained that I wanted to make a detour to the bookshop, which had caught my eye during our walkabout.

'Buy a lot.' She demanded as we shook hands. 'It keeps us going!'

The day ended in City Hall where I went to see Show Flat a new comedy of manners about the housing market in Hong Kong by Poon Wai-Sum, the Cantonese Alan Ayckbourn. It's been warmly received, but I was tired and couldn't really keep up with the surtitles. Interesting, to see what was essentially a bourgeois play about the rise of the Chinese middle class, however. I suspect it's a developing theme.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Happy Valley. The Last Outpost?

Wednesday night on the Island is race night and a thronging crowd head down from Wan Chai to Happy Valley for a weekly dose of thundering hoofed excitement. Unlike for the weekend race goers and gamblers at Sha Tin, The Valley seems to be much more of a social occasion. Beer tents are everywhere. A well dressed singer soulfully covers classic middle of the road tunes in between the races and glamorous people swan about talking slightly too loudly into their mobile phones whilst feigning disinterest and ignorance over which horse they've just put money on. Still the floodlights are on and with a bit of elbowing you can get right up to the rails. The sport itself is exhilarating.

Horses have raced here since the earliest days of the colony. By the mid 1840s The Brits had requisitioned the flat rice fields that used to be here, drained as best they could the swamp land and had created the track. It's been remarkably preserved and protected form urban planning in the intervening 160 years and now seems almost impossibly squeezed in between tower blocks and flyovers.

By eleven o'clock it was all over. Music pumped out of the loud speakers as the PA announcers told us what a fantastic night of racing it had been and encouraged us to return in fortnight. Laughing and singing the drunken Europeans scrunched their way through discarded plastic beer glasses to the exits, whilst an army of Chinese cleaners swept in to clear the debris.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

One Country, Two Systems.

With a free morning I headed north to Tai Po Market. I'd heard you could hire bicycles cheaply by the station up here and that a short peddle along the shoreline would take you into the Plover Cove Country Park.

Unfortunately by the time I reached the market the sky had cast over and things didn't look promising, so I headed for the Railway Museum, but being Tuesday - it was closed.

With the rain beginning to fall I decided the best way to make sense of the day was to catch a bus into the middle of the new territories and have a look round the Kadoorie Farm Conservation Centre, which one of the young artists at yesterdays exhibition told me is unlike anywhere else in Hong Kong.

The farm hugs the hillside, but has been carefully sculpted to provide irrigation terraces and orchards. Originally it was created after the Second World War by two Anglo-Iranian brothers who wanted to find a way in which the huge number of refugees and peasant farmers in the New Territories might develop self-sufficient practices. The farm has, ever since, provided a support, for the local community developing improved strategies to animal husbandry and even cultivating new breeds.

In recent years the farm has proved an important rehabilitation centre for animals rescued from the smuggling trade. If they can they release these animals back into the wild, although many become tame during the process and live on in the relative comfort of the farm.

I climbed two hundred or so metres up the hill before I hit the rain again and retreated back to shelter. It's such a peaceful place, in sharp contrast to the neon, rabbit run mania of the main island and it's fascinating to see a different side of Empire from the rather ashamed colonial picture so often painted. Clearly the brothers were benevolent, altruistic and through their endeavours offered both the hope and food which sustained and saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.

Back in Hong Kong this evening I spent an hour or so wandering around Soho. An impressive series of covered escalators takes you from the Central Market, up high to the old colonial houses on the mid-levels. The escalators run up hill for all but the three hours of commuting in the morning when the ex-pats glide on to them and are taken swiftly down the Peak and into their banks and businesses by the harbour. Of course I imagine if your work is as a domestic service to the wealthy then this is the one time you need them to go uphill to take you from your high rise apartment at sea level in Kennedy Town or Shek Tong Tsui to your place of work. Once you've finished cleaning then the escalators are reversed again and once more completely useless to you. The rich always seem to win.

I walked Hollywood Road to Lan Kwai Fong, full of antique shops by day and trendy bars by night. They were heaving. Hong Kong, even in the middle of the week, is, provided you've got the cash, a non-stop party city. One country, two systems.

Monday, 20 February 2012

HKCAC and The China Club

Spent the day at the Hong Kong Communication Arts Centre in Tin Hau with Dr Eng talking through some of the possibilities for future collaboration between the Centre and Drama St Mary's. We're hoping that they'll host a third year top up of our degree from September this year.

Dr Eng was keen to show some of the institution's work and so I spent the afternoon over at the Central Library looking round a very impressive exhibition of student art. The centre has a really pro-active relationship with the communities on the East of the Island and alongside the undergraduates' art were special areas dedicated to local schools. HKCAC offer the exhibition and the prizes - competition is very important here, even in the Creative Arts. It's a soft marketing exercise that helps celebrate local creativity.

The Arts have a credibility issue out here and are very often seen as a second class subject in comparison to Medicine, Law or Business Management. This is borne out by the small number of 16-18 year olds who study the related subjects. I think we can contribute significantly to changing these attitudes. The building of the Kowloon East Arts Complex will provide a huge boost to the creative industries - especially as a high speed rail link is planned to bring the 13,000,000 people who live over the border in Shenzen, within half an hour's reach and what's needed at local level is a persuasive argument that suggests it's this younger generation who need training up to fill the space with performers, technicians and innovators. I wonder though whether Hong Kong, as a trading port, is more used to shipping in what it doesn't produce - opium, horse racing, art - rather than learning to do things for itself.

The debate was carried on during a lively dinner, organised by Peter, at the sumptuous China Club at the top of the old bank of China building -which in the 1950s was one of the first skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Now it's brick facade hard to spot amongst the sleek metal giants which have sprung up in the last thirty years.

We were joined by Kevin Thompson and Connie Lam, who run the Hong Kong Centre for Performing Arts and the Hong Kong Arts Centre respectively. Local directors Sean Curran from Theatre du Pif, David Yip from Theatre Noir and Gerard Tsang from the Hong Kong Dance Company, Mark Howard, the British Council director for Singapore, who's in town for a few days and Level 3 Drama St Mary's student Jocasta, who's on placement out here with the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation.

It was really inspiring to hear about some of the work going on out here and get a sense of optimism from those producing them. Behind the brand image of the international companies are some really exciting projects which look carefully at ways to tell stories representative of the huge diversity of experiences and histories in the region. It struck me that in the, careful and strategic, negotiations over what a Chinese Hong Kong might look like, the local artists have a huge protectionist role. We're 15 years into the handover now and only 35 years away from full integration. The theatre will be the site where the evolving possibilities and inherent dangers of this transition will continue to be explored. Making sure the conditions to allow the creation of these texts is absolutely vital to the future of the many communities that make up the Hong Kong.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

10,000 Buddhas. 80,000 Gamblers.

Sunday in Hong Kong and I headed back to Sha Tin. The town itself is one of the largest in the New Territories, with almost a million people packed into its tower blocks. I left the station, crossed a busy road and following the signs, began to climb up to the town's main attraction the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery - a kind of pseudo Disney land temple perched high above the smog.

The climb was long, but the way enlightened by a guard of life size golden Buddhas. Each made of fibreglass and pulling a different pose and attitude. It felt like a talent show.

The monastery was founded in 1951 by the teacher Yeut Kai, who carried most of the materials up the hill himself and although you never quiet escape the feeling that the whole complex is surrounded by corrugated iron and barbed wire, wafts of incense, trickling water features and crowd of local worshipers, just about save it from falling into the snap happy hands of the tourists. In a quiet pool, a family of turtles contemplate the comings and goings, whilst we crowded into the main temple, where nearly 13,000 Oscar size Buddhas line the wall.

Back down the hill I hopped on the MTR and headed a couple of miles north to the Penfold Park to catch another Hong Kong ritual in action. Every Sunday a crowd 80,000 converge on the race track, many coming over the border form mainland China for the day to get their weekly fix of the gee gees.

Horse racing is given the same level of analysis, gossip and debate as football is in the UK and for many of the punters who sit working through complex mathematical equations to select the permutations that will outsmart probability its clear that this is a way of life. Perhaps it can be explained by the simple fact that gambling plays on importance the Chinese attach to the twin concepts of pattern and fortune. There are few moral victories here - just the triumph of arithmetic and sequencing over chaos. Each defeat adds a little more statistical evidence which in time will lead to a bigger victory. Wisely the Jockey Club maximise the betting revenue by only charging a quid to get in.

I paid a little more and ended up in the members enclosure watching the protocols of the parade ring and the ceremonies of victory as each winning horse was photographed with its owner and trainer. This part of the paddock fondly remembers the colonial past. It's blazers, button holes and binoculars all the way and a sense of Sunday afternoon slipping gently by. Some races are won, some are lost, what's important is the maintenance of the distant memory of life far beyond the South China Sea.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Bee.

Trevor and Nancy's last day in Hon Kong. We headed back to the Cultural Centre to catch the matinee of The Bee an adaptation of a short story by Japanese writer Yasutaka Tsutsui, which has been hauled in from the Soho starring Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni, who occasionally lectures for Drama St Mary's.

The show is a deeply disturbing morality tale centred on Mr Ido, a Tokyo business man, who returns home one night to find that his wife and son are being held hostage by Ogoro, an escaped convict. Unhappy at police and media efforts to resolve the situation he takes matters into his own hands, storms Ogoro's own flat and enacts a kidnap of his own.

What begins as Dario Fo-like absurdity soon takes on a darker side as Ido begins to grow into the role of violent fugitive, repeatedly raping Ogoro's wife, whilst cutting off the fingers of the boy to send through the post as a tit for tat response to the convict's own torturous behaviour.

Hunter is hugely impressive as Ido. Compact and committed, she is the fulcrum of the show, brilliantly shifting from slapstick to more complicated moments of self-gratifying sadism. Her cross gendered casting is playfully mirrored by director Hideki Noda, who casts himself as Ogoro's abused and ultimately submissive wife.

Hong Kong seems very much on the international touring circuit and this year sees the 40th anniversary of the arts festival. Once again I couldn't help notice how coiffured and monied the audience were. I'm looking forward to seeing what the city produces for itself.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Sha Tin, George V and Tezuka.

Early morning trip up to Sha Tin College in the New Territories, one of five English Secondary Foundation Schools in Hong Kong studying the International Baccalaureate. We were given a warm welcome by Neil Harris' who's been teaching Drama out here for over twenty years.

He gave us a tour of the School, which is perched high on a hill, giving great views over towards the Chinese border and we talked for an hour or so about the prospects for Drama graduates out here.

Neil felt it was a really good time to come out and set up a company. He thought it pretty simple to hire venues and put work up. I got the impression that for all the highly branded work that is brought in for the prestigious Hong Kong Festival there was enough interest to sustain a whole range of start-up or newly created work and that with perseverance and best foot forward you could quickly establish a reputation in what seems to be a fairly small pool of practicing companies.

We headed back into Kowloon and over to the King George V School, another of the foundation Schools to interview sixth former Liberty, who's applied for the Applied Theatre programme. The School itself is one of the oldest in the territory and was used as a Prisoner of War camp, some reports suggest a torture chamber, during the Japanese occupation in World War II. They proudly proclaim that within minutes of the Japanese surrender a Union Jack was once again flying over the buildings. The first to be raised in Hong Kong.

Liberty did well and we were happy to offer her a place for next year.

This evening we headed off to the HK Cultural Centre, the huge bowed theatre and concert hall on the Kowloon waterfront, to see TeZukA, a new dance piece created by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, celebrating the life and work of Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka.

For all the technical virtuosity of the dancers and the clever, cleverness of the projections, which animated the back cyc, it was a strange, soulless evening, where the scale of the production overtook any possibility of intimacy between the audience and the work.

The real problem is that the choreographer didn't trust his own image making, often making the performers deliver the dullest of biographical detail in order to explain the abstractions made on stage. A shame really as I'm not sure knowing much about Tezuka the man was a pre-requisite to enjoying the playfulness of the work. In fact the finest moments came when the dancers replicated the flow of a paintbrush or, in the most inventive sequence the folding and smoothing of a sheet of paper. For most of the evening, however, the technology overwhelmed the human figure, leaving us rather adrift.

The audience, Hong Kong's great and good, were polite rather than ecstatic at then end. Culture consumed. Home to bed.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Macau. The Outpost of Chaos.

With no scheduled meetings today Trevor, Nancy and I decided to catch the turbo ferry out to Macau 45 miles west across the Pearl River delta. It was a slightly surreal and disconcerting experience.

The enclave, which was first established by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, provided the prototype for Hong Kong. It became the first European base in the far East creating the possibility of regular trade with the Chinese empire. Although distrust initially existed between the two superpowers, the Europeans earned their place both by successfully managing to clear the Pearl River estuary of pirates and by carrying Chinese goods to new markets in Japan and India. This arrangement led to 442 years of Portuguese administration.

The peninsula now is in a shoddy state. There are a few evocative ruins - the Monte Fort, the charming Lou Kau Mansion and the ruins of St Paul's church, complete with it's intercultural carvings featuring local floral - peony and chrysanthemum as well as a violent virgin Mary slaying the seven-headed Japanese kanji hydra. Beyond these few tourist attractions climb slum tower blocks stretching as far as the eye can see. It's a very poor town, filled with those who, one way or another, service the pleasure palaces which operate throughout the town. There's an unpleasant edge. A nightmare dystopia with helicoptors flying the rich in and the money out, whilst most of the residents desperately try to catch anything that's left to trickle down from the vast amounts gambled each day.

In the centre of town stands the outrageously out sized Grand Lisboa casino, a hideous kitsch golden skyscraper, blinging out as a beacon to the disparity, in middle of the grey. It's the most glitzy of the new American owned casinos, which have come in since deregulation exploded Macau ten years ago helping swell the city's annual revenue to a staggering 15 billion dollars. We went inside briefly to see if we could understand the pull; but all we saw were the dead eyes of the punters, who flock in, mostly, from China to throw their money away.

In 1841 Hong Kong was claimed by the British, partly as a reparation for Chinese attempts to crush the destructive Opium trade which had turned several million citizens into wasted addicts. For all the current economic advantages that China as a nation currently possesses, I couldn't help feeling as I watched the repetitive pushing of money into a slot machine, owned by a Las Vegas backed consortium, that the history of East/West trade relations, at least this side of the delta, hasn't changed a great deal.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Meeting on the Mid-Levels.

Late night flight back to Hong Kong where I'm spending the next week and a bit strengthening Drama St Mary's ties with the Hong Kong Communication Arts Centre and finding out more about some of the opportunities for the Creative Arts in South East Asia.

Hong Kong is eight hours ahead of us and so it was early evening when I touched down at Chek Lap Kok after a fairly uncomfortable and sleepless flight. A fast train to Kowloon, a taxi to the hotel and a quick wash and brush up before meeting up with Trevor, who's already been here for a couple of days, and his partner Nancy. Together we headed off to Hong Kong Island for dinner with Peter Upton, the head of the British Council in Southern China.

We were joined by a small group of local educationalists as well as School's Minister Nick Gibb, who is out here on a fact finding tour, and although half of us were suffering from varying degrees of jet lag, it was a fairly jolly and instructive evening. Immaculately hosted.

Hong Kong is currently undergoing a change from the 'British' A-level system to a 'Chinese' diploma structure and as with any change there is a certain amount of distrust about. Under the new system students will have core English, Chinese, Maths and Liberal Studies, which will be supplemented by a series of electives. The new exams mean that academically successful students spend three years in senior secondary education and four in University. One, apparent positive about the new system is that all students stay in education until they are 18.

One of the challenges for us is understanding what kind of skills base this new diploma provides. Our initial sense of Hong Kong students, partly backed by some of this evening's discussions, is that they are hard working, highly organised, and keen on structure and system. There is a belief and trust in authority. From our point of view it'll be interesting to see what is lost and what is gained in this socialising educational process and whether we can find a way for students out here to bridge effectively into our Creative Arts curriculum.

At ten the evening ended and so we headed out onto the street, the bright light's of the city twinkling below us, and hailed a cab. We traveled back with Stephen Tommis, who runs the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education, and who seems to be working hard, and slightly against the grain, to encourage differentiated teaching practice across the region. It's going to be a fascinating few days.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

New Work for the Police.

Spent the morning in College reworking our forum theatre play for Richmond police's community safety day. It's the third year we've taken the commission and it's always interesting to revisit the work and bring in some new actors. Katie, who's a veteran of the previous two incarnations, is going to direct whilst I'm away in Hong Kong, so today was really my only chance to work with the new actors before the dress rehearsal in a fortnight's time. I'll return to share the jokering with her.

Alongside Katie, we've also kept Michael from last year's cast and are going to use his experience by casting him as chief antagonist. It's a step up from the protagonist role he took on last year, but is richly deserved. He's made huge strides as a performer over the last year.

With Michael's promotion and the unavailability of some of the old cast we've been able to bring in four new actors from Level 1. Carl is our new protagonist, Leah plays his frustrated Mum, Maya is the School teacher (a new character this year - offering a different version of authority to the police) and Jess comes in as the love interest.

This year the police have asked us to look a little less at anti-social behaviour and joint enterprise and look more directly at both knife crime and domestic violence. Richmond has one of the highest rates of domestic assaults on parents by teenagers in the country. Worryingly it's a growing phenomenon, particularly in affluent areas like ours. It's a sensitive issue to tackle in a half hour workshop, but working with Carl and Leah we've brought it in as a sub theme to the main thrust of the work. It's a tricky idea for us to incorperate, not least because in classic Theatre of the Oppressed terms it shifts the protagonist from the teenager to the parent, which gives the audience a troubling dilemea over whose problem to focus on. The last thing we want is to hector our audience with a didactic attack on teenagers in general, most of whom wouldn't dream of hitting their parents. The attack, if we chose to go down that route, has to result from a build up of problems rather than being unprovoked.

We had a really good three hours in the theatre going through the script that the company had put together last Thursday and managed to road test some of the more likely interventions from the floor. The Level 1's seemed to have quickly grasped the basic principles of the work, but Katie's really keen that we dress rehearse in front of a real audience before exposing them to the mass ranks of Richmond borough's year 10 students.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Extraordinary Year.

More work in class going through the vast amount of literature dedicated to Lewis Carroll, his life and work. We're inching closer to a structure for our show but there's still a link or two missing, which means we need to keep looking, even as we start to script.

One idea is to look at the two boat trips, carried out in the space of little over a year, both beginning at Salter's Boatyard underneath Folly Bridge, one going up river for a picnic next to the ruins of Godstow Abbey and the second coming downstream to Nuneham Courtney. The first marks the birth of the fictional Alice, the second, the end of Carroll's friendship with the real Alice. In between, it's clear that the two became too close, certainly for Alice's mother, Mrs Liddell's comfort. For all involved it was an extraordinary year.

The trip to Godstow on 4th July 1862 is well documented. Carroll had already known the Liddell sisters for several years, had taken their photographs many times but on this memorable summer's day the Carroll began to tell a story with Alice as the protagonist. She begged him to write it down. The day after on his way to London he sketched out some chapter headings.

It took him a while to put the story down and to illustrate it. Meanwhile he continued to spend time with children, taking them to see the fireworks in celebration of the Prince of Wales' wedding. He comforted them when their new baby sister died in May; but he also shared their excitement when the newly married Edward brought his bride to Christchurch three months later.

Then on 25th June 1863 comes the second trip - a more formal arrangement with the entire Dean's family and a couple of impressionable young aristocratic undergraduates, who were perhaps brought along to introduce, Alice's older sister, 14 year old Lorina, to the kind of men she should look to marry.

The party was too large to all fit into the coach arranged for their return to Oxford and so Carroll was asked to take the three sisters across the fields to Culham station to catch the train. This unchaperoned excursion was unusual and Carroll's diary entry makes it clear that he was delighted to be asked.

But then it goes quiet. Two days later Carroll is, rather unusually, forcefully demanding the children come to be photographed - but it's clear that what ever occurred on the journey back to Oxford had prompted Mrs Liddell to call time on Carroll's friendship.

So what happened? There are several theories, but the one that seems most plausible is that in the abandon of the moment Carroll and Alice played out a courtship of sorts. Did he propose (as Alice's son suggested to a journalist in the 1930s)? Did she tell him she loved him? Or, less evident, was Lorina the focus of Carroll's attentions (as suggested by Jenny Woolf in her recent biography?) Either way the sisters own excited retelling of events once back at the Deanery persuaded Mrs Liddell that they should spend less time in Carroll's company.

From this moment on Carroll seems a diminished figure. He completed the story for Alice and gave it to her as a present 'in memory of a summer's day' in November 1864, but when, a year later, John Tenniel asked him for an image of Alice to base his illustrations for the published version on, Carroll didn't send him any of the Liddell photos, but rather those of a new friend Mary Hilton Badcock (see image), whose large forehead and blond hair set her as the model for the immortalised image of the Alice of the books and movies.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

She Stoops to Conquer.

To the National Theatre to see a rumbustious production of She Stoops to Conquer. Period Dramas pose problems to twenty first century theatre makers. Are they spectacles? Are they social commentaries? How do we make their word play and plot twists relevant to contemporary audiences. The trick, which is brilliantly employed in Jamie Lloyd's production, must be to acknowledge and revel in the artifice; to heighten the characters and invite us to enjoy the dexterity of the players. It's a play for big actors.

Lloyd also draws on out own visual understanding of the late eighteenth century by creating a chorus of choreographed Hogarthian servants who hysterically underscore the action with jigs, acapella singing and a percussion orchestra made up of pots and pans. They fill the difficult Olivier stage and bring a modern sense of cohesiveness to the work.

The big draw is Katherine Kelly, lately barmaid Becky from Corrie, whose celebrity presence and knowing winks to the stalls recall the glory days of Covent Garden, where the players made the audience feel they had a warm personal bond with those on stage.

She's ably supported by a cast of committed character actors. Steve Pemberton as Mr Hardcastle introduces the action with puzzled bemusement, Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan play the Tory townies Young Marlow and Hastings with perfect tongued tied confusion, whilst David Flynn, gives the plum part of Lumpkin, a real sense of being at home in his own beer swilling skin.

The stand out performance though belongs to Sophie Thompson as the affected Mrs Hardcastle, desperate to impress the young dandies she hysterically hides her west country burr behind a ridiculous elongation of vowels. Her actions perplexing her servants, family and guests alike. It's a brilliant performance from an actress totally on top of her game.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Jacobean Theatre Symposium.

A wonderful day at Kings College attending a symposium on Jacobean Theatre, which had been partly organised to talk about the forthcoming opening of the Indoor Theatre at the Globe which, funding permitting, should open in 2013.

As with the Globe itself the new site will help us understand more about the staging conditions of Shakespeare's time and bring a particular focus to his later works, many of which were written specifically to be played indoors at the long gone Blackfriars theatre across the river from the summer playhouses. It'll also bring us new discoveries about the work of Jonson, Fletcher, Shirley, Massinger, Ford, Brome and a host of, as yet, little known playwrights who continued writing into the Caroline period.

Already the Indoor Theatre has a fascinating history. It's shell has been in place ever since the rebuilt Globe was opened fifteen years ago. Sam Wanamaker, the canny visionary whose enthusiasm led the theatre to be built, put it in place in the hope that a future generation might find the investment to convert it into a Jacobean playhouse. At the time designs were based on the Worcester College drawings, which were taken to Inigo Jones' sketches of the Blackfriars.

Recent scholarship, however, suggests that these plans were probably drawn up some thirty years later by Jones' apprentice John Webb and is, mostly likely, the Sailsbury Court Theatre. Even if it's not quite as historically accurate as originally envisaged, the new theatre will certainly bring us closer to the intimate, auditory drama of the final years of the playhouses.

There was so much to think on but I was particularly interested in the descriptions of the gallants who, in the early years of the seventeenth century, would pay for seats on the stage so that they could upstage the performance. Clever writers, like Jonson, knew that their peacock posing and cocksure sense of entitlement couldn't be ignored and so began to write in commentary, banter and references to these early cavaliers who, of course, loved the attention, particularly when the actors poked fun at their dress sense, impertinence in invading the space, stupidity and general bad behaviour. The gallants were rich enough to ride these criticisms and the actors were resourceful enough to realise the play through to completion, despite the decorative imposition. It must have made for memorable evenings of raucous and witty exchange.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

What is a Philosophical Question?

Another fascinating lecture in the Knowledge, Wisdom and the University series organised by our colleagues in the School of Philosophy. Tonight's speaker was Professor Luciano Floridi who posed the never ending question about what constitutes a philosophical question, in doing so he tipped, if didn't quite knock over, a few sacred academic cows.

Again I was struck by how important it is for philosophers to open questions, avoiding the simplification that empirical or mathematical analysis might bring. Lucinao was quick to point out that most research funding - across all disciplines - is given on the premise that the results of the research might be expressed in these finite ways. This, he provocatively suggests, closes down enquiry and runs counter to the purpose of philosophy.

I have to admit that occasionally the ideas flew past me, but I did enjoy the way in which he repositioned, or perhaps even reclaimed, the role of philosophy in the academy as being a form of conceptual design, creating new ways or sets of questions through which we might continue to explore the world, rather than being for the pursuit of absolute truth. Other disciplines might go pearl diving for nuggets of evidence. Philosophy asks how we should pearl dive.

So a question like 'Does God exist?' is both fascinating and meaningless. Unless you are rash or possessed it's almost impossible to say Yes or No with much conviction. The only thing we can definitively say, perhaps, is that there is a question over whether God exists.

All this makes philosophy less a fixed discipline in its own right and more a tunnel through which questions travel en route to finding a discipline in which they can be housed and anlaysed. For example some problems which, historically used to be considered philosophical, have been discussed with an evolving sense of sophistication and understanding and, after many generations of thought are now better placed in the sciences: psychology has much to say on why we are attracted to certain features in the opposite sex and physics can, with increasing intelligence, offer an explanation of how the universe was created. In turn a fresh set of non-absolute questions enter the tunnel and the philosophers, through their love of rational disagreement, begin their job of opening them up.