Programme note for performances at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre
by Michael Walling
I first came to Shanghai in 2005.
As a Westerner, I found many aspects of the city oddly familiar: the teeming commercial streets, the designer labels, the mobile phones, Starbucks and McDonalds. But these familiar aspects of globalized culture were made strange and disturbing by being placed alongside things so deeply unfamiliar to me: buckets of live crabs, Taoist temples, intricate calligraphy, yue opera and tai-chi in the parks. In Shanghai, Starbucks didn’t seem quite the same as it did in London. The great German theatre artist Bertolt Brecht would have understood this and approved: his theatre depended on people seeing things that they had previously accepted in new ways, and so coming to regard them as strange. Questioning their assumptions. Theatre is only interesting and useful when it is strange.
In RE-ORIENTATIONS, I wanted to make a play that would be able to address both Chinese and Western audiences at a moment of very rapid change in global history. I wanted to put on stage the sense of dis-orientation, re-orientation and estrangement that I experienced on my visits to China. I wanted to raise questions about how we are going to live side by side in the ever more globalised world of the 21st century: how we are going to negotiate our differences, to maintain our distinct identities, to respect one another’s histories, cultures and moralities.
In order to do this, we had to find a way of making the play which did not privilege any one point of view above another. Because the play was going to be about globalisation and its effects on people in Asia and Europe, it had to encompass multiple viewpoints. So the play could not be written by a single writer, in a conventional way: it required the input of multiple authorship in order to work. The process of making the play has been one of dialogue, debate and interaction between artists from wildly differing backgrounds. As such, it is a microcosm of the larger-scale interchange which is currently happening between our cultures.
We started work at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in early 2009: and I’m hugely grateful to this Chinese partner organisation for the way they have embraced the project in all its complexity and with all its challenges. At that time, there were five Chinese actors in our team, three English, two Swedish, one Indian, one American, an Indian dramaturg, two French choreographers, a Chinese associate director and myself. There have been subtle shifts over the two years, but the core team has remained remarkably solid.
We had no single common language. Many of our early experiments were around language – and some of these have grown into scenes which you will see in the play tonight. We had no single theatrical tradition, but drew off a wide range of cultural forms, most of which appear in some way in the production. We had no story – although we did have the ghosts and traces of two earlier plays which some of us had worked on, and these became a starting point for the new piece. For three weeks we trained, improvised, researched, moved and danced, discussed, laughed, wrote, rejected and selected material. We showed some of it to the SDAC management, who were intrigued enough to take things to the next stage.
We met again later that year. In the meantime, I had worked with another dramaturg, Brian Woolland, to structure some of the improvised material into a possible shape for the play. This inevitably threw up a whole series of new ideas, scenes and lines of work. As we made these new pieces in the jigsaw, again through improvisation and debate, we also started to bring in visual ideas. We played with video cameras, projected images and computer graphics. It seemed right to use these new theatrical languages, since already there were so many languages and performance forms in play, and since the emerging work was about people who would live surrounded by contemporary technologies. Technology, every bit as much as the cosmopolitan city, represents the contemporary global space.
This second development period led to two work-in-progress showings, but this was by no means the end of the story. The invited audience for those showings contributed in a very real way to our process. We went away and re-thought whole storylines. A major character was cut completely from the play. Another actor changed, and new ideas resulted from the replacement. A few weeks ago, at London’s Soho Theatre, we finally performed the play for the first time.
The play you will see tonight is not quite the same one that the audience saw on that first night in London. It’s carried on growing and developing. And there are certain moments where we’ve wanted to speak directly to you in Chinese, where we had previously spoken English to a London audience.
And you will change the play as well. You will laugh, if you laugh at all, at different moments from the audience in London. You will identify with different characters in the cross-cultural scenes, because they will be closer to your own experiences and understanding. You will find different things familiar, and different things strange. And so, tonight, you are also a part of this ongoing process by which we make a live performance, which we hope is meaningful.
I don’t believe that a play of this kind is ever really finished: but this is one version. It’s a great privilege to bring it back to Shanghai, where it began. In so far as anything has a home in the 21st century, this is the homecoming of RE-ORIENTATIONS.