When I picked up the phone at the English Teaching Theatre office one autumn day in 1999, the caller said: “Hello, I’m calling from Shanghai, China.”
Because he sounded a bit like one of our actors, I assumed it was a joke call. I replied: “Marvellous! Well, you’re through to the Duke of Edinburgh. How can I help you?”
There was silence for a moment. Then the voice said, rather timidly:
Oops. I should have checked that it really WAS a joke call before doing something like that.
“Sorry, who did you say was calling?” I said, trying to recover the situation.
“Did you say ‘the Duke of Edinburgh’?” the voice asked.
When we had established that the call really WAS from Shanghai, from the British Council in fact, and that I actually WASN’T the Duke of Edinburgh, the conversation proceeded rather well.
“We were wondering if you would be able to send a group of actors to China next year,” said the man, who said his name was David Wang.
“China next year?” I repeated, loud enough for my partner Doug Case, who I could see sitting at his desk in the next office, to hear. He looked up from what he was doing. “China????” he mouthed silently, wide-eyed. “Yes!!!” I mouthed back, also wide-eyed. Doug nodded his head vigorously. So did I.
“Absolutely!” I said.
“I haven’t told you when we want you to come yet,” David Wang pointed out.
“It doesn’t matter when,” I replied. “We’ll be there any time you choose.”
“Excellent,” he said. “In fact, we’d like you to visit us for two weeks in March, one week here in Shanghai and another week in the south in Guangzhou. Is that all right?”
“Marvellous!” I said. Oops, that’s my Duke of Edinburgh voice again, I thought.
“There’s one more thing,” he continued. “In addition to shows in schools, we need some training workshops for teachers. Is there anyone in your group who knows anything about training English teachers?”
This was getting better by the minute. I resisted the urge to shout “Is the Pope a Catholic???” (ie ‘Yes!!’), and answered very calmly that yes, there were people at the English Teaching Theatre who could do training workshops for teachers. I explained, however, that we didn’t usually ask the actors to do this. If they wanted training as well, they would have to invite six people, five actors and a trainer.
“No problem,” he said.
So, it took a phone conversation lasting ten minutes to organise what was to be the first of three English Teaching Theatre tours to China.
As soon as it was confirmed, we selected a team of actors from a pool of about thirty and the accompanying trainer from a list of one (me). Doug and I then sat down to work out what material we would put in the show, and – just as important – what we would leave out.
We had established with David Wang that the main audiences would be Junior and Senior High School students, aged between 14 and 16. Perfect age for the show, but how would Chinese teenagers who had had no contact with native English speakers deal with our sketches and songs?
When we asked for some background information, the British Council were, as usual, extremely helpful and told us that the students would be incredibly enthusiastic.
“Have you ever done shows in Asia before?” they asked.
Hm… well, yes. We had done three tours to Japan in the 1980s, and it had been very difficult getting the audiences to participate. Part of the problem had been that they were mainly rather serious adult English learners. We told the British Council people about this.
“Oh! China will be completely different!” they promised.
How right they were.
In the meantime, we chose our best sketches and songs and scrutinised them for cultural content that might not travel well to China. We finally came up with a show which we thought ticked all the right boxes when it came to accessibility.
For anyone who never saw an ETT show, it was a pretty formulaic beast. There was an opening song, during which the actors divided the audience into two or three parts, engaged with them and got them to yell out some short responses. Audience and cast were thoroughly warmed up by the end of it.
At that point, four of the five performers exited (exeunted?), leaving the fifth alone on stage to do a short link into the opening sketch.
One of the lines that we usually gave to the link-person went something like this.
“Well done! You all sing BEAUTIFULLY! I can’t sing … but I AM beautiful.”
This, believe it or not, usually got a big laugh.
An actor called Mark was cast to do this link. When we were rehearsing it, Doug came through from his office and said: “I think we have to drop that ‘I AM beautiful’ line.”
Doug’s very reasonable point was that we really had no idea how Chinese teenagers would react to a line like that. Would they think Mark was being serious? At times like this, we tended to take the safer route, and the line was dropped. Mark looked a little disappointed, as it was his first funny line in the show.
And so it was that five actors, Lizzie, Wendy, Mark, Garry and Nigel, plus your humble blogger KW in attendance as training person, flew off to Shanghai.
Our itinerary notes said that our accommodation in Shanghai would be at the Rui Jin Guest House. I must be honest and say that I wasn’t expecting anything very special when I read that. I imagined Rui Jin to be some hard-working Chinese lady who would provide good wholesome breakfasts for us.
There are moments when I lack imagination….
In fact, the Rui Jin is one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in. It’s a very nice building surrounded by beautiful gardens in the French Quarter of Shanghai. My room was enormous and very comfortable. Everything was huge – the bed, the television, the music system, the balcony and the triple-size jacuzzi in the bathroom.
We arrived at the hotel at about midday and we all decided to have a nap and then get something to eat in the evening. I closed the heavy curtains and slept for a while in complete darkness. As often happens, I woke up later without a clue where I was or what time it was. Thanks to the heavy curtains, it was so dark it could have been the middle of the night.
I walked over to the window, opened the curtains and was met by blinding late afternoon sunlight. I opened the door and walked out onto the balcony. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw three women in the garden below my window. They were looking up at me. They were all wearing wedding dresses.
I looked beyond them and saw more brides walking round the garden. I wondered if I had died and gone to heaven.
Ooops.. too long already… I’ll explain more about the brides, and say what happened when we actually did a show – next time!