Lost in Chengdu – 21st UNIMA Congress and World Puppetry Festival, China

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Ive just recently returned from attending the UNIMA World Puppetry Festival in Chengdu, China. I went as Production Assistant for Joanne Foley, Australian Puppeteer with her company Foley Bergere and her street theatre show ‘CHAIR’. Based on Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’, Joanne has performed this work all over the world and especially for this UNIMA festival, had the script translated into Mandarin. She performed 10 times in all during the festival week, with only one performance in English. The audiences were surprised and delighted by Joanne’s performance, as she was the only foreign artist to play in Chinese.

With no access to Facebook  or Blogs, I kept my journal , heres some highlights!

Fri May 25th

Flying early morning from Perth, we arrive in Chengdu late in the evening to an ecstatic welcome from our language student volunteers, holding up placards and giving us welcome bags with t shirts, caps, programme and key ring’s. Gu Rui is our wonderful interpreter and guide, and each company is given a mobile phone to keep in touch. Driving through the huge city at night, the red neons shine bright on the grey urban environment, the city is as homogenised as any – with huge shopping malls, adverts for luxury goods and intense high rise housing. A very different place from Joannes experiences here in the early 80’s. High up in our hotel rooms, happy to have arrived with flight case intact, have a drink and relax, only to be told we have to off at 5am to rehearse for the opening ceremony!

Sat May 26th

Dawn, we are taken by buses along the ultra modern highways to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Park – everywhere are banners, building wraps and floral decorations for the UNIMA congress. The amount of advertising and promotion is staggering, and there is a growing realisation of how important to China this festival is. Breakfast is fast food – chicken burgers and hot orange juice. A riot starts when everyone realises there is no coffee. The worst coffee machine in the world at our dressing rooms – only makes 4 cups per giant syrupy bag. On this diet, we will all be supersize me by the end of the week! All day we are at the park, rehearsing in the grey cloudy hot polluted sky, the visiting companies enter on stage in a detailed line up with troupes of Chinese dancers and the traditional, state puppet companies. Over and over again, to the ear splitting shouting of the directors, everyone is drilled. By the end of the day, the opening ceremony is looking like a Disneyesque puppet Olympic spectacular with video projections, fireworks and Joanne being pulled along on a cart with the Egyptian Company Wel Ya Wei Puppet Theatre’performers. Instructions are shouted’ You must come tomorrow with costume and puppet,’ over and over,  Taken back to the hotel with a polite request we all go to bed! Great meeting other new puppeteers and old friends, especially catching up with Jose Navarro, Richard Bradshaw and Gary Friedman.

Sun May 27th

Very early start again, everyone off to the park to get ready and have more rehearsal for the opening spectacular performed for the invited dignitaries, lottery selected public and the congress members. The show goes up on time, despite the director shouting so hard into the microphone he looked like he was gonna bust a blood vessel. The show was amazing, and a credit to how puppeteers can get on with performing in any conditions, in any time, with any audience. Seeing the breadth of the puppet troupes from China with every technique, was amazing, beautiful rod female puppets with their water sleeves and bend backs floating in the air, mask changing warriors, Sichuan opera puppets and human performers with amazing costumes.

So when the opening ceremony was over, the general public, hundreds waiting patiently outside were finally allowed in and …..nothing. Nothing was programmed. It felt as if the organisers had put so much energy into the opening spectacular they’d forgotten to get any other programme ready. People drifted about, playing with stage props they found, and having constant photos with anyone with a puppet or costume. But nothing was happening on the main stage which was a shame, as there was far more capacity for audience in the venue, than allowed at the opening ceremony.

Then the thing we feared most happened, somewhere in the translation of the day’s events, Joanne was expected to do a short piece of her work , without her set, just puppet and costume on the main stage to a huge audience. To her credit, she did it, the first time speaking in Mandarin to a Chinese audience. As ‘CHAIR’ is an adult piece, I don’t think it was quite what the audience had expected after waiting for a long time for anything to happen. They clapped politely, but started complaining to the stage hands about the wait and lack of shows. We escaped to the heritage food quarter to the beautiful teahouse and a catch up with Lucile Bodson, Directrice – Institut International de la Marionette (ESNAM) Charleville -Mezieres.

At the end of the day we were all taken for a celebration banquet, no time to change from working clothes, everyone very animated from the day’s events and hungry! We vegetarians are separated from the meat eater’s room, and had to leave before most of the food had arrived! Realised there was no festival club or place for all the artists to get together, so via the Americans and the Macedonians, two great bars back to back are found – one with a dance floor and the other cheap drinks.

Mon May 28th

Realisation today that that the artists are very seperate from the UNIMA congress delegates and distances hard to travel between shows aswell as  there is no itinerary for getting tickets to see each other’s shows. So everyone decides just  to go on the buses anyway with their passes and get in. Preparations for our Foley Bergere show today, and then off to see the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which was wonderful but very rushed, the Germans were left behind in the cafe. Wonderful to meet up with Heather Henson and her Ibex Puppetry Company, who as well as having awesome Creature shop puppets, also use amazing kites in a fusion of flying bird puppets performed by champion kite flyer Curtiss Leigh Mitchell in the work  ‘Celebration of Flight’ .

Tues 29th

Today we had three very good audiences for our shows at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Park, we weren’t really sure where the audience was going to come from, but there was a decent turn out of families with young children and older people. Joanne performed in Mandarin again after spending time with Gu Rai our interpreter, perfecting her tone and accentuations. Had some amazing responses particularly older women, who it seems really got the oppressive nature of the story, the Madame being overthrown by the maid, and then the maid being free to live her life! Very good stage management support ,and tech equipment on site.

In the evening, just going for a walk around the block with Katrina, Krume & Jordancho from Macedonia, we experienced the most amazing things! Dancing in the park with the local evening exercise group, eating fresh dumplings from the markets, finding cold beers and sampling the hot & spicy Schezuan speciality hot pot tofu with the restaurants homemade rice wine or fire water, foot massages from the whole family and then an incredible fire massage is viewed, where your back thru hot towels is literally aflame! Only for the more masochistic I think, it does hurt and bruise you, we later find out. Back at the hotel its street drinking with Peter Schumann and the Bread & Puppet people before going to the adopted festival bar to sample more rice wine and, catch up with the very beautiful Basil Twist.

Weds 30th  – What day is it?

Beginning to lose track of time as every night is festival party night and everyday shows to perform , and shows to see! Went to the Tibetan quarter today, with the Macedonians, and Jen Lea, our Tibetan bar hostess. Took a lovely walk about the Wuhuo Memorial Temple and soaked up the spiritual history. In the afternoon, went to see ‘The Hunger’ by Tinker Ting from Norway, directed by Dik & Vicky from Pickled Image in the UK. Despite being set on a Disney fantasy stage with a noisy family audience, the mood was adult & dark, and I was lost in this hungry world of paper, empty doll heads, and a strange mannequin desire. Fantastic somehow, to see two big, strong, shaven headed men  – Per Loset and Gisle Gjermundsen , beautifully puppeteer in complete synchronicity, with haunting visuals.

Got some upmarket free dinner at the UNIMA congress delegates hotel and then to see ‘Butterfly Dreams’ by Visual Expressions, USA with Bart. P Roccoberton – Professor of Puppet Arts at The University of Conneticut. Designed/performed by American Chinese artist HuaHua, for the first time she shows her beautiful mask and performance work in China after 20 years. The show is based on the famous Taoist poem, ‘Am I a man who dreams he is a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamt he was a man’ and one of the scenes was performed in the closing ceremony with amazing music.

Thurs 31st – Really Lost in Chengdu

Today was crazy, it started with singing karaoke in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Park to draw a crowd on stage 7, as it was a bit quiet. We performed three times and met up with Joannes old friend, Jean Kaplan, who turned up smiling on a Sedgeway and went for lunch. Ive taken to getting around the long distances on site by bicycle, which is much more fun than walking . Bluer skies and we actually saw a bird or two today.

Had a visit to the amazing Puppet exhibition, which shows all the traditional Chinese puppet traditions, is beautifully designed and had Chinese puppeteers demonstrating their work and contemporary collaborations from  America. Fabulous puppet collection ,which is due to tour internationally and then to have a huge permanent home in Chengdu.

Takes two hours to get back in the traffic , and even thought I’ve missed the bus,  I’m determined to see a show this evening, so I decide I will be able to find my own way with the map. It immediately starts raining, the map is a soggy mess and isn’t very accurate anyway, and I’m totally lost within a few huge streets! So I try to get my bearings but give up, flashing my UNIMA pass at a policeman, who luckily can speak a little English. Please help me get a car taxi not a rogue motorbike one, who been trying their luck circling me several times. Relief at getting in a dry car, and after much deliberation between taxi man and policeman as to where this theatre venue actually is, we set off. Taxi man keeps asking me in Chinese of course – is this it? Is this it? and i haven’t the foggiest. Finally he finds it, and with gratitude I open my bag to pay – only to find I’ve left my purse in my room! This also has the name of the hotel im staying at in it! Out of the dark comes a very kind stranger who pays for me, don’t worry he says, as he grabs the taxi. So full of thanks and damp, I rush into the venue and gratefully sit at the back with the families.  I relax back in my seat, to see ‘Impressions of Puppetry’ scenarios of different techniques and puppet styles from Sichuan Puppet Troupe of Zizhong including the beautiful rod water sleeve puppets.

Back on the bus, finally find Cariad Astles and we have a great catch up about British puppetry, so good to see her and head to the bar for a drink.

Friday 1st June

Today we play for the Children’s Day at the Jinsha Site Museum built on the 3,000 year kingdom of Shu. Despite the show being for adults, we had big family audiences and interesting responses from the audiences especially thesecurity guards when Joanne appeared in her body stocking.

In between our shows, I’m able to explore the archaeological dig and museum, soak up the incredible history and see the sun bird gold disk, Chengdu’s cultural emblem based on the creation myth.

The evening was spent singing Karaoke and dancing the night away to Balkan gypsy fusion folk music with French festival marionnettissimo artistic director Jean Kaplan and his gypsy music festival mega MC son Fabian.

Sat 1st June – Lost voices

Well, today we have very croaky voices, and we play at the Temple. This,  is what we have been told all week, and have invited people to see the show. But when we arrive, we realise it’s the very beautiful Ancient Temple Teahouse, a different place to the temple, and try to redirect people to us. But its very difficult to explain how to find us in the maze of small streets , which runs back to back with the Wuhuo Temple wall, especially when you are trying to tech the show and the technician is pulling out leads for no reason, and on his mobile phone! Can’t hear the sound from where the tech box is, so have to run up and down ancient rickety wooden stairs. Such a beautiful place that has delicate teas served and plays Schezuan opera and shadow theatre regularly, but with the worst toilet ive seen for a long time. Anyway the shows go pretty well, and then we were completely finished with our performances.

Big night out to celebrate! and also celebrate Penny Francis and Noriko Nishimoto receiving UNIMA Women’s Lifetime Achievement awards.

Sun 2nd June – Closing Ceremony

Had some time off, and then Tibetan lunch in the Tibetan quarter with friends before the performance by Peter Schumann, founder & director of the Bread & Puppet Theatre and Chinese Theatre Works called ‘Songs from the Yellow Earth’. This felt very political for Chinese audiences, scenes reflecting the suffering of the common people and their yearning for social stability, war and peace drawn from Chinese opera and poetic works from the ‘Book of Songs’. To see Peter Schumann and company perform was amazing, shadow play with bodies and rough cut outs providing the graphics, like Schumann’s woodcut prints accompanying his words.

Then the celebration of the closing ceremony,  some beautiful collaborations between international puppeteers and Chinese companies with all the performing companies winning an award!

Mon 3rd

The puppet circus has is leaving town and its all so quiet now. Last minute sightseeing and shopping before we all go our seperate ways and leave what has been an incredible experience of puppetry and people in China with memories of an amazing festival that will stay forever. Thank you UNIMA International and UNIMA China for creating this event!

Thanks also to Gary Friedman for links to his brilliant films and to Curtiss for fixing Foley Bergeres broken flight case.

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