The story so far: March 2000: The English Teaching Theatre, five actors and your humble blogger acting as director and teacher trainer, have just arrived in Shanghai. YHB has woken from a post-long-haul-flight sleep to find the garden below his hotel room balcony full of women in wedding dresses. Now read on…
After my eyes and brain had adjusted (both to the light and the fact that the landscape was crammed with brides), I began to make sense of what was going on. There was a bower stage left as I looked at the garden. I think bower is the right word for it – a kind of wooden edifice with flowers and plants all over it. Poets write about bowers:
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Someone shouted from the bower and one of the brides pootled off in that general direction. Near the bower, there was a man in a brightly-coloured suit, and another man with some expensive camera equipment.
Ah, now I understood. The bride and groom were having their photos taken. I still thought it was a bit odd for 15 women to be getting married on a Wednesday, but eventually this was made clear, too. As some of you may know, it’s a Chinese tradition for the ‘happy couple’ to have their pictures taken in some leafy place a few days before the wedding.
The Rui Gin Guest House was a popular place for these photos, because of the abundance of flower-bedecked bowers.
The wedding dress the brides wear for the pictures is rented for the day. Their real wedding dress doesn’t make an appearance until the big day.
I didn’t have a camera with me that day, but here are some pictures I took during a later visit to China, when I once again bumped into a posse of brides having their pictures taken. These brides were further north in Qingdao, and it was a lot colder, which explains the unusual outfits.
Meanwhile, back in March 2000 and in Shanghai…
We were there to do shows, of course, not take photos of brides. So what actually happened when the actors got on stage?
Let me first remind you of something that had happened during the rehearsals for this tour. If you remember, my co-director Doug Case had had second thoughts about a line in the script early in the show.
Here’s a quote from my previous blog:
At that point (the end of the first song) four of the five performers exited, 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 Siddall 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.
This is the story of how that line was reinstated in the show…
After a day to acclimatise to the time difference etc, we set off to do the first show.
The British Council minibus approached the first venue, a huge, beautifully-designed modern high school. There were more than 3,000 students at the school, some of whom lived there, so it was part boarding school.
As we drove through the monumental iron gates at the entrance, we noticed that all the pupils were wearing a uniform, a dark blue and white tracksuit, with red flashes on the shoulder. Most of them looked very cool indeed wearing it.
We were shown into the performance area, which was actually a raked lecture hall. Raked seating, seating that goes up in steps, is good for theatre – easier for everyone to see, and easier for the actors to see the audience. Lecture halls are usually NOT good for theatre – no wing space and no walk-round, which means that stage entrances can only be made from one side.
This was indeed the situation. However there was a door stage right leading to a large room which was perfect for our needs. There was also lots of fruit and water there, not something we would generally find backstage.
The group unpacked, set up and then went onto the stage – ie the front of the lecture hall – to do some vocal warm-ups. I checked that the lights were OK, and the actors went backstage again.
Everything seemed in order, and we told our very helpful organisers that they could let the audience in. The doors opened, and a noisy throng of 15-year-olds burst into the room, screaming blue murder, as 15-year-olds do everywhere in the world (except Finland). Within less than two minutes, every seat was taken.
Time for our first-ever show in China to begin…
The first thing that used to happen in an ETT performance was the pre-show. The five actors came out from back-stage without fanfare and walked into the audience. Each of the five wandered to a different group of students and engaged them in conversation. It was our way of checking out the language level of the audience and identifying any possible trouble-makers (who we would generally bring on stage later in one of the audience-participation moments).
Not all the actors liked the pre-show but everyone agreed that it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t do it. Some actors were brilliant at it and Garry Fox, one of the actors on this tour, was one of the very best.
Garry emerged from backstage, started talking to the nearest group of students, and within seconds, there were gales of laughter from his corner of the room. I don’t know what he said, but he amused them enormously. The other actors began to engage with other sections of the audience, but most eyes were on the corner where Garry was entertaining his new gang.
I was by this time sitting at the back of the audience, at the top of the raked seats. After a few minutes, Garry trotted up the steps to have a word with me.
“These kids are excellent,” he said.
“It looks as if they feel the same about you,” I replied.
“I think Mark should put the ‘beautiful’ line back in,” said Garry. “Can I tell him to do it?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Let’s see what happens.”
The actors withdrew backstage and three of them, the non-guitarists, emerged almost immediately to open the show.
After two minutes of warm-up, the two guitarists came on. One of them was Garry, so the applause was amplified. The first song started. The response was incredible. It went down a storm, the applause was electric. Four actors left the stage, leaving Mark alone.
“WELL DONE!” he said, loudly and with feeling.
There was a massive round of applause, punctuated with whoops and cheers. I could see from Mark’s face that he hadn’t expected that.
“You all sing BEAUTIFULLY!” he said, enthusiastically.
The wall of applause and cheering was deafening. And the punch line still hadn’t arrived.
“I can’t sing….” said Mark.
“Yes, you can!” shouted one of the students, and the rest of the audience applauded loudly to show they agreed.
When the noise finally subsided, Mark delivered the punch line.
“….but … I AM beautiful!”
If Mark ever gets a bigger laugh in his theatrical career, I would love to be there to hear it. Laughter cascaded down the raked seating like a tsunami. I was beginning to worry that the audience were going to run out of energy before the first sketch started.
Thankfully, their energy levels remained constant, and it turned into one of the best ETT shows I can ever remember watching.
And so our China adventure started. There were two more tours to China in 2001 and 2002. There would have been more if we hadn’t closed down for good after the third one.
For me, this was the first of 12 visits to China in the next five years.
Why so many visits? Well, that’s another story…
Hope you enjoyed Shanghai Surprise 2000.