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.