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.