Thursday, 5 November 2009

feet gas field

Now that I've been back a couple of weeks I've had time to dejetlag and reacclimatise to GMT and it's time to summarise the rest of a very full week in Hobart. Frank patiently and focusedly led us through development of the characters in the piece. Through various gently competitive games and much discussion we watched them grow and shrink and change until by the end of the week there was a general consensus as to how they would look and move, behave and interact. From very broad stereotypes they morphed into an opposite but equally broad stereotype to something in-between. This in many ways mirrors the journeys they take in the piece, their own - and the audience's - preconceptions being turned on their heads. I felt very privileged to be part of this process as my involvement is often much later in the process, and there is a general feeling that we're all very much on the same page.

It was great to get to know the chinese members of the team in a different context, as in China the meetings can often be quite formal and polite and it can be difficult to really get a point across. It also gave a chance for the western and eastern ways of approaching it to be clarified, and in particular, for Frank to feel assured that his vision is understood by all. Shi Lei, the costume designer, was concerned that she couldn't start to design costumes until she knew exactly who the actors were as usually she would be designing for known performers on the payroll of the CATC. Frank managed to convince her that the detailed work we'd done over the week was plenty to be going on with in terms of ideas, and that the actors were, in any case, going to be quite transformed from their natural body type in a quite cartoonish way. In fact just at the end of the last meeting she produced a beautiful sketch that really captured the essence of one character, and had since emailed drawings to all the team. Yigang, the animator proved to be a pool of calm energy oozing out lovely sketches all along the way [his version of Blowin' in the Wind' was also quite a revelation]. He naturally was very concerned about deadlines, as the animation process is going to be the most involved, and Frank's next task is to pinpoint all the areas of animation to send to him.

There was another wonderful translation moment during one of the brainstorming games which involved writing down qualities for the characters on pieces of paper. Alongside such terms as Deluded, Persistent, Regal, Shi-Lei had written 'Feet Gas Field' which had us all perplexed. She'd translated her chinese using the internet so it had become very literal. Much discussion with the translator it turns out the original mandarin actually translates as 'Charming', via putting one's 'feet' in the 'field' of people's company and changing the 'gas' or 'air' positively - get it?!

My productive involvement doesn't really take off until the beginning of next year when hopefully there will be animation sequences to put sound to. I left Terrapin with a CD of musical character thoughts which developed through the process, most of which were already outdated by the end of the week, but I feel I can really trust Frank to not take them as gospel as he understands the creative evolution these things follow. It was also great to meet Fin the writer, a real gust of positive energy who actually has been doing a fair bit of work for theatre companies in the UK with people I know - small world. He was also heading Brit-wards at the same time we were so we spent a happy short time in Hobart airport with him.

I take away many fond memories of Tasmania, particularly the casualness of the rich wildlife and the calmness of the roads. Most of all, though, it feels so close to home despite the exotic nature all around. I suppose it's English in its heritage and in its greenness and is also at the same latitude south as we are north which accounts for a lot of it. It's only on taking the long journey back over mountains and deserts that the distance at all comes into it. Even then it seems as if it's only round the corner and one could pop back there anytime; it is amazing that it's possible to travel such a huge distance in a relatively short time and maybe that creates a different mindset [the original settlers would have gone through the experience of a months-long adventure]. So instead of being blown away by being in such exotic climes it's like a breath of really fresh air coming into one's own home. I suppose 'Feet Gas Field' could quite sum it up.

With such an intense schedule in the final week as well as continuing to explore the island, at least gastronomically - HUGE savoury muffins from the Laundry Cafe in Salamanca Square, wonderful fish n' chips ('n scallops 'n squid) from Mures on the waterfront, a bottle of Tasmanian wine to gentle jazz in a wine bar-cum-bottle shop on Salamanca Place, not to mention really good coffee, well actually i think I should, particularly the flat white in the Tricycle Cafe - I simply ran out of energy, and sometimes internet connection, to do this blog. I'm sure I haven't really entered into the proper spirit of a blog which I assume is supposed to be in-the-moment thoughts, but I've tried to use it in a way that makes sense to me, and I hope to you, dear reader. It's like busking really - nobody has to drop a penny in the hat but they can if they want to. I'm not sure what's going to happen to the blog when I'm in Shanghai next year as I won't have access but hopefully I'll find a way of keeping in touch. My eternal thanks to Shona Powell at Lakeside for putting this opportunity my way and to Catherine for joining me on the adventure.

Until then, fair dinkum, zài jiàn and here are some more pictures:

Left to right: Production Designer: Kate Davis, Animator: Zeng Yi Gang, Costume Designer: Shi Lei,
Terrapin Manager : Kevin O'Loghlin, Writer: Finegan Kruckemeyer, Director: Frank Newman, Composer: Matt Marks

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


Hallo, and welcome to the Australian arm of this blog - to welcome you all, here's a song from Banjo the koala;

Today was the first of 4 days here in Hobart, Tasmania that I will be working with Terrapin Theatre. I actually arrived in Australia with my partner Catherine a week ago last Monday. We spent 2 nights in Sydney, taking in the sights; Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and had some odd little fauna moments. I was fascinated by Ibis acting like pigeons, domestic rabbits wandering around under the Bridge and large bats in evening trees. Just before we left we discovered Surry Hills, a really cool area with great cafes and overpriced second-hand shops.

We took the plane to the little airport in Hobart last Wednesday and have had a great time driving round and meeting more wildlife and sadly a lot of deadlife in the form of roadkill. Apparently it's a very common sight in Tassie where there is apparently more indigenous species than almost anywhere else - if you hit a kangaroo or wallaby you're supposed to check the pouch to see if there's a live joey there and take it to a sanctuary. We were also told that any roadkill should be pulled of the road into the bush so that scavengers like tasmanian devils, who have bad eyesight and hearing (although a sense of smell that can sense a meal at 2km) don't get hit too.

I don't want to make it seem a downer here - quite the contrary. There are entirely empty, wonderful beaches just about everywhere and some amazing widlife to see - we actually had an eagle fly across the road just in front of the car with a fully grown rabbit in its talons.

On the evening after our arrival we drove (via a place called Cygnet where we had an amazing and terrifying banoffee pie) to a lovely little town called Franklin where Frank Newman had invited us to see their show Helena and the Journey of the Hello. It was a wonderful, poetic piece which led us through the imagination of the (wonderfully pupeteered) Helena and the absconding of her parents. There was some really clever moments featuring iphones used as blocks of light dancing across the stage, and becoming the eyes of the mother as well as placed in front of a microphone becoming another character. It was also the first time I'd met Fin (Finnegan Kruckmeyer, the writer, who's also writing 'Picures') and Kevin O'Loghlin, Terrapin's General Manager.

On the Sunday Frank took us all out - myself, Catherine and Shi Lei and Yigang from China - the costume designer and animator for 'Pictures', respectively, for a drive to another beautiful beach and a really friendly cafe where I sampled a wallaby and venison burger (Skippy and Bambi as the chef called it). Frank's very cute 4-year-old daughter Sienna also kept us all very much entertained.

So today, Tuesday, was our first proper day of work on the project up in Terrapin's rehearsal workshop in the lovely Salamanca Arts Centre. Kate, the designer was there and she was the final member of the creative team I had yet to meet - she'd come over from Melbourne with a cold. Frank skilfully and patiently led us through the shape of the piece. There was a classic translation moment where Shi Lei was asked how many people worked with her in the costume department at CATC. There was quite a long back-and-forth conversation with the translator and much nodding and reiterating before the translator came back with the answer "six". The table dissolved into laughter. The process is inevitably slower when everything has to be translated but it also means that things can be absorbed and cogitated on more. The translation also extends to cultural differences in interpreting how the piece can look etc and that was something we began to explore. For instance, an angel is mentioned in the play, and that is a concept that does not really exist in Chinese culture so at the end of the day we were assigned the task of finding images of angels, as well as other things, to bring in and compare.

Frank also explained the technology of the moving projector 'machine' character in the piece and how that was going to operate. He also illustrated some of the illusions we'd be able to use and build upon, which I won't describe in detail here for fear of spoiling the final illusion. Suffice it to say it will be spectacular and there will be many techniques used for the first time. My job is to create the sound world of the characters, the environment and the movement of it all and I'm excited to really get my teeth into the multiple layers, the idea of 2-D and 3-D music and the largest birds-eye view to the smallest detail. I think I can learn a lot from the local birds of prey who can pinpoint a rabbit in a field from a mile away and zoom straight in without detection.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Asparagus Ice Cream


Ok, it’s time to tie up the rest of the weeks’ blog, as it is 2 months later right now and that isn’t really the point of a blog…So I will attempt to summarise as I realize I’ve been writing mini essays that I’m sure no-one will read.

Of course the whole point of the Shanghai trip has been to pave the way for the creation of ‘When The Pictures Came’, a new piece by Terrapin Digital Puppet company from Hobart, Tasmania. I’ve been commissioned by Shona Powell of Lakeside Arts in Nottingham to write the music for the piece which is a 3-way collaboration with The Childrens’ Art Theatre of China. It’s a novel way of working for all concerned so it was a momentous day on the Tuesday when we all met at the CATC for the first time. We were treated to an amazing umpteen-course meal including the freshest fish I’d ever tasted served in a sumptuous room by white-gloved waiters. It must have cost each person the equivalent of at least a weeks’ dining in restaurants.

Then there were the first round of auditions by Frank Newman of Terrapin for the Chinese actors for the show, and it was interesting if rather frustrating for Frank to see what odd pieces had been prepared. Most were rather twee, one could say cute, smiley dance routines and panto-like physical comedy routines. The CATC has a standing company of around 50, which is rather hard to imagine in the UK, and the style of teaching, not to mention performance is very fixed and traditional in the unimaginative sense. Not all the auditionees had prepared anything, and they all seemed to be the youngest, least experienced, so it appeared there had not been an attempt to enthuse them with the fact that a really exciting international tour was in the offing.

Frank ended the session and went off to consider his options whilst I went over to look for music shops on Fenyang Road, around the Music Conservatoire. There wasn’t a great deal of choice as regards traditional Chinese instruments as most were large glossy music stores speacialising primarily in violins rather than the Chinese-Magic-shop-in-Rupert-the-Bear types that I had hoped to find. After quite an embarrassing non-conversation in one of the biggest shops in which neither of us could understand the other I ended up buying the cheapest Chinese instrument I could find. Apparently it’s called a hulusi and it comes from Yunnan in the south. It looks a little like a snake charming pipe but sound sweeter. As I left the shop I embarrassed myself further by failing to find the exit – in my defence there were a lot of glass walls and doors; the staff had a good laugh anyway.

On the Wednesday I had a chat with Frank in Costa Coffee in the morning in which we thrashed out how to proceed and I burned him a DVD of hundreds of pieces of music I’d written. There had been an idea for the Shanghai Conservatoire to be involved in the project and for me to act as mentor to a young Chinese composer, but that had now fallen through due to the difficulty of getting them to a meeting and was probably a collaboration too far anyway. In its stead we decided to push for some budget for session musicians in China to record the final score for ‘Pictures’.

The afternoon was spent in a second round of auditions. Frank began by doing his very best to explain just how exciting the project could be to the five remaining hopefuls and proceeded to take them through status exercises and impros. They mostly did pretty well, though it was clear that they had never done anything like it before – it seems the method here is to be shouted at loudly. I played accordion to some commedia exercises. That evening we were treated to a meal at a Manchurian restaurant – Hu He is from that region – where the waitresses shouted their orders and greetings to each other in perfect call and response and meat was served in the form of whole legs of lamb which otherwise staid businessmen ate with transparent plastic gloves. We ended the evening in an ice-cream parlour/bookshop where I tried asparagus ice-cream, which was surprisingly tasty.

Thursday was my last full day in Shanghai and I took myself off to Dongtai Lu, the antiques street – I took a taxi and had some trouble explaining where I wanted to go; I was obviously putting the wrong stress on the word ‘Dongtai’ and it seemed an odd conversation with me saying it and him repeating it back in some slightly different way that I couldn’t deduce. In the end I had to point to the characters in my Shanghai guide. The street itself was full of obvious reproductions of martial characters and ming vases in baffling numbers. Occasionally there were overpriced – and unplayable – musical instruments that they were mostly unhappy for me to try. In the end I bought a wooden flute and some strange metal instrument with an enclosed reed (like a bagpipe chanter) decorated with little metal dragons; for this I handed over a British twenty pound note, which felt like a fortune at the time, and I have to say made the woman very happy and her friends curious. I then carried on walking through the old town and towards Pudong, the area that’s being continually filled with skyscrapers, some with LED films and displays all along their many floors. It was certainly a day chock-full of shanghai old and new and if I go on about it now I shall never get to the end of this blog…..The day ended with a final meal on Barry at a Cantonese restaurant which was very different to Cantonese eateries in the UK – mostly vegetable-based and certainly not full of msg.

And finally to Friday morning – dropped off at the maglev (magnetic levitation train) and whisked away at 400kph to Pudong airport. On the plane somewhere over the sayan mountains equidistant between irkutsk and Ulan Bator–– is that Mongolia? There’s a huge lake next to Ulan-Ude– it’s massive – distance to destination 4035 miles tail wind 10m/h 3500feet –51degrees C – Novosibursk – Urumqi – ust-kamenogorsk- kansk – bratsk – krasnojarsk. Somewhere over the Russian plain I bumped into an old college friend who was returning from another Chinese city with 12 young actors from Plymouth who’d just performed Romeo and Juliet with 12 young Chinese actors who were in the plane behind on their way to a reciprocal trip. Small world.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Monday arrived with me somewhat refreshed and my first experience of the breakfast that was very kindly brought to me each morning. It took a little getting used to eating a little box of salad with quite strong-flavoured dressing, a little bread pocket containing crab meat and rather a lot of shell and a sandwich ranging from ham and egg (albeit a little five-spice tasting) to something more fishy and mayonnaise-ey. The salad always came with a little plastic disposable fork that cleverly had to be unfolded and clicked into position and less cleverly usually managed to refold itself during eating. I didn’t always manage to face the breakfast but I was always thankful there was something to start the day before going out.

I had time to kill before a meeting with Barry and Hu He so I took a walk down Nanjing Road, which is well known for being an interesting shopping street. Not particularly for me, though, as it’s full of international designer outlets like Gucci and Burberry and not especially Chinese – there was a very impressive mall that had about 8 floors, but again full of expensive shops. I didn’t get hassled much as a tourist apart from a couple of guys who surreptitiously pulled out a piece of card with pictures of Rolex watches, most likely fakes. I tried to explain that my favourite kind of watch was one that simply told the time and I already had one, thank you, but they didn’t really get it, although they eventually sussed out that I was a dead loss as a customer.

Here’s a sign I saw outside of a bar. It’s funny how just swapping two words in a phrase leaves you in no doubt that you’re in the presence of ‘chinglish’. Absolutely logical but just not quite right. Mind you, I dread to think what any attempt at chinese on my part would look like to the Chinese.

I finally reached the Peoples’ Square, where I was headed for the Shanghai Museum – apparently an amazing collection of Chinese history akin to the British Museum. I was first asked by a young guy if I would pose for a photo with his family, particularly his mother. It seems the sight of a westerner can still cause excitement in this most cosmopolitan of cities, particularly for the Chinese Tourist. Then, as I reached the museum I was told by another young man that I was actually at the rear of the museum and that the queues were very long. As I was running out of time I decided to give the museum a miss for the day – this man and his two friends then insisted I come with them to a tea ceremony around the corner. It turned out the three of them were visiting Shanghai from Xi’an, a 2-hour flight away and wanted to se the sights, one of which was this very famous tea house. It was on the second floor in a very unpromising-looking underground shopping mall and initially we couldn’t get a table. Ten minutes later we returned to be led into a incense-scented room with traditional Chinese music playing on the sound system and sat round a large table on which were jars of strange-looking teas. My new friends explained that one could choose up to 12 teas from the menu, but that had to be tasted in order starting at number 1. They seemed to be rather expensive at around 50 RMB (around £5) each. So I settled for teas 1-3 and a fascinating experience it was. The young lady serving the teas/performing the ceremony explained and my hosts translated as the first cup of ginseng tea was brewed then thrown away in honour of the tradition whereby the Emperor could be sure it wasn’t poisoned. We then were told to take the tiny cup of tea we were handed and move it in a circle around a small bowl for luck. I immediately lost my grip on the cup and spilt this valuable liquid over the table – there goes my luck, I thought, but they laughed and I was poured a replacement. The first two teas were delicately refreshing and the last very fruity and each were greeted by my friends by gasps of amazement and satisfaction – we regularly toasted each other with a ‘gambay!’ and acknowledged the quality with a ‘hen hao’ (very good) – they were very amused when I attempted to top this with a ‘hen hen hao’. When it was time for me to go I resisted purchasing a gift pack of teas to take away, unlike my companions who were eyeing up some very elaborate and expensive boxes, and was taken to find a cab by WuYou, who insisted he did, and went to meet up with Barry and Hu He.

From tea to coffee. In Waga’s, Barry’s favourite coffee place, I was introduced to Tonia, here to be an intern on the project. She’s studying in Perth, Australia, majoring in costume design and is able to take advantage of the fact that her father lives in Shanghai in the iron and steel industry. Barry again outlined the project, peppered with more political anecdotes and jokes about the steel industry for the benefit of Tonia’s father. (This was in reference to the current arrest of an executive from Rio Tinto, an Australian iron ore mining company based in China). We then went for food in a Szechuan restaurant. I struggled initially with the tofu in spicy sauce but appreciated the freshness of it; speaking of freshness, Hu He rejected the fish dish as those in the tank were dead, having been in there all day and only a live fish will do. Makes sense, I suppose, if you have the option. I’d heard that the food in China bears very little similarity to the Chinese food in the west, but in my experience the tastes are recognizable as Chinese but fresher and certainly with no msg. The protocol is that the dishes are chosen by one person, who also pays, who in this case was Barry, and tipping is never done. I caught sight of the bill and thought I was seeing the price for one dish for one person, but no, it was the cost of everything – if you stick to Chinese food in China eating is extremely cheap (pianyi), it seems.

Monday, 24 August 2009


I arrived in something of a jetlagged fog into the smog of Shanghai sometime on Sunday morning local time to be met by a wall of humidity and by an employee of the Children’s Art Theatre of China called Pan Tao, who asked to be called Peter (unless they are a Mister X or Madam Y, most people we met gave an ‘english’ name, which mostly I preferred not to use). He’s quite new to CATC and is an assistant in the production department, and a friendly and informative host he was as we rattled our way through the traffic from Pudong in the east to The French Concession area in the west where CATC is based. I was introduced to my apartment, which apparently had been kitted out according to the Japanese principle of ‘just-in-time’ as I was the first occupant. And a lovely apartment it is, all shiny and new with a water cooler and new chintzy suite and lampshades still wrapped in plastic. There was a bit of a welcoming committee consisting of the general manager, another lady from the office, an IT guy and the cleaner and they were all eager to see I liked the place as I slightly embarrassedly looked around and smiled and nodded, trying out the only Chinese I thus far knew; Ni Hao (hallo) and xiexie (thank you). How we laughed. Barry Plews and Hu He from Reckless Moments, the Shanghai-based producers, then arrived and we went for coffee at the local Costa coffee (where I am now) and we sat outside where Barry, an Australian who’s been here for the last 14 years, outlined the project in more detail and held forth on the complicated politics of China and how they impinge on it. Barry is literally ‘our man in Shanghai’ as he’s the only westerner doing what he does – bringing artists into China and creating collaborations with the Chinese, a very delicate operation at the best of times. He knows how the Chinese system works and if you give him the chance will explain it at length, with glee, and with the credulity that can only come with much experience of incredulous situations.

After a much-needed shower I took my seat in the Malan Flower Theatre at the CATC (which involved me walking all of 100 paces from my apartment) to watch their 2pm show. Parents and their single children gradually filed in – it wasn’t busy but bear in mind there are 2 shows most days of the year and this is a purely childrens’ theatre. The theatre has a proper auditorium and seats around 400; The CATC has a standing company of over fifty, which would be unheard of in the UK. When not actually performing, the actors are on a retainer which, although not a living wage, comes with health benefits and at least the promise of an extra fee for performing work throughout the year. The show began with an opening number not dissimilar to a british pantomime and with much mimed singing and miming of medieval European instruments including a very Breughel-esque set of bagpipes to Disney-esque music – in fact the whole thing felt very esque. The story seemed to involve a happy-go-lucky cobbler, played by a principal boy (woman) in true panto style, attempting to woo an unhappy girl and impress her parents. I was told later it was called something like Happy Hans – a true German-Chinese traditional tale (Chineutch? Deutschese?) – it’s a funny coincidence that members of the main Chinese ethnic group are also called Hans…or is it a coincidence? I can’t say I was gripped but you have to remember I’d been up for about 25 hours at this point and I was rather glad just to be able to go back to the apartment for a long sleep, broken only by the very edge of the typhoon over Japan and Taiwan.

Friday, 21 August 2009


It’s midday Friday in Shanghai, somewhere in the middle of Thursday night in the UK and all of you millions of followers must be wondering what has happened to this blog for a week. The truth is I’ve been unable to access blogspot at all in that time. I managed to get hooked up with internet access in my room and can get wireless here in Costa coffee on Zhenging Lu, but still no Or Facebook for that matter. It transpires that such free-expression vehicles are totally blocked over here. Opinion varies as to whether it’s to do with the Chinese authorities - who apparently scan every email in and out of the country – or the Russians, who are apparently also blocking certain sites around the world. I suspect it’s the former.

So, as my week in Shanghai comes to an end I’m putting this report together in Word, ready to paste in on my return. I’m having to try and summarise a pretty full-on week, which I was hoping not to have to do, as blogging should in essence provide the opportunity to be brief and instant. Many of my initial impressions and experiences have now blended into familiarity and history but I shall endeavour to convey them as best I can. The days' events may appear somewhat sporadically . . .

Saturday, 8 August 2009


. . When I said The Childrens' Art Theatre of Shanghai I of course meant The Childrens Art Theatre of China - sounds even better that. In my defence I was rushing around doing last minute toothpaste checks. Actually on the plane now at Heathrow hoping there'll be good Ba distractions, at least I got a window seat ,. Far too fiddly on this phone keyboard so signing off for now - see you in China olli.allah.laks olillemelal yukk predictive text woe trilc usingogog irw

...and off I bloggin' go

Unaccustomed as I am to public blogging, I start. In about 24 hours, all being well, I'll be landing in Pudong Airport in Shanghai, to be met by one of those signs you see people holding in films with a name on, only this time it'll be mine - "Matt Marks" is what it'll hopefully say and I'll be whisked off to my accommodation in The Childrens' Art Theatre of Shanghai. It's going to be quite an adventure and I'll explain more about it as I go along. I have my mandarin phrase books, my trusty Hohner student accordion, my MacBook and my nose flute (no, really) and I'm set to go. And now a little sleep before heading off to Heathrow...