Saturday, March 28, 2009

SWAN Day Shanghai 2009

SWAN Day Shanghai at the Downstream Garage was a blast!  A great time was had from morning to night. What a great day to connect with celebrations around the world. SWAN Day truly provides a venue for generosity, for all to live a day through their better natures. I  must say I was a bit anxious about the planning of the event, but both reason and process were always strengthened by the purpose of the occasion--to connect and to create.

First of all, I feel very lucky to know Martha Richards, the brain and heart behind SWAN Day.  I love th epart where you can just declare a new international holiday, one that is not tied to religion or capitalism, one that celebrates women. She told me about SWAN Day one evening in New York, as inspired by WITASWAN (Women In The Audience), which is an 'informal alliance of women who have pledged themselves to help women film makers break through the Celluloid Ceiling.' Martha had basically broadened the idea of women supporting women artists, into an international realm, and to all who wish to support las artistas, even men.

Last year, for the inaugural launch of SWAN Day on March 29, 2008, I was at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville and Managing Director Jennifer Bielstein and Literary Manager Adrien-Alice Hansel were kind enough to provide venue and canopes for artists of the theater festival to learn from and mingle with women artists creating in Kentucky.

This year, I feel doubly lucky to have found such a cool spot in Shanghai.  As you might know, in China (well anywhere in the business world, really), the best and most optimal elements are accessed through guanxiology (loosely translated as 'connectionology' or 'who you know').  And so, the awesome chain from the Global Girl Grid starts with my knowing Lucy Burns way back when from New World Theater in Amherst, Mass.  When she heard I was coming to Shanghai, she introduced me to her UC colleague, the academic/choreographer Priya Srinivasan, who then knew the Downstream Garage from choreographer/dancer Nunu Kong, who was then kind enough to show me the way to the converted warehouse space. Turns out it is owned by a man who goes by King Boss, who lives in Shanghai 6 months out of the year, and provides the Downstream Garage for performances, rehearsals, meetings, all for free. The one requirement is that there should be no tickets sold, or if there are, that it is a minimal fee so that anyone can afford it.

And so SWAN Day Shanghai 2009 basks in the shine of much kindness and generosity.
Here we are en route, from bus to subway. I was met at 10 am on Saturday in front of our school--Lida Polytechnic Institute--by my new English Clinic students, about 10 of 'em, as well as my best Lida office pal Ivana Niu and also Katrin, an intern from Germany who has been doing research for the Lida Global Initiative.  After a 45 minute ride on the Pink Bus, we take the Subway Line 1, for 3 stops to the Caobao station, and take Exit 4 onto Longcao Rd., and we enter towards our site at 218 Longcao Rd.  
Once we arrive to the signposts, we start tagging with SWAN stickers so that our location can be better found ( the other 5 people who will join us).
Almost there--but all are still wondering what this SWAN thing is all about...
The front gate is swanned...
as well as a poster of Eve Ensler's ubiquitous and important piece, having just played at the Downstream Garage on March 7, the day before International Women's Day.  We climb another flight of stairs to the third floor and enter into a dark theater.  Soon, Xiao Zhou, the super cool caretaker of the Downstream turns on the lights. I had just visited the day before and found Xiao Zhou at the snooker table with a cig hanging from his mouth.  He's got a natural serenity about him and when I asked him when the Downstream Garage closes, he replied with a smile: Never.
Today is a global day:  Besides SWAN Day it's also Earth Hour, when cities around the world turn off their lights at 8:30pm for an hour to show awareness of our declining climate situation. But for this afternoon, there is light...stage light.
This is the set for the play that is running this weekend. Here Katrin and Ivana wait... do our guest artist Lucy Zhou's swans, the fancy ones (in their Sunday best), made out of plastic milk cartons...
...and another more modest swan watching as Lucy sets up her other pieces, all made out of recycled materials.
Lucy Zhou immediately invigorates her audience.  She was a middle school art teacher and always taught through the great Chinese virtue of thriftiness and 'fei wu li yong,' roughly translated as 'from waste make use.'  After she retired in 1991, she refined her craft and kept her creativity sparked, as there are always new products in new containers with new shapes, and thus new ingenious gems to be created.  
Here are flowers which she had given me when I last visited her.  They are made from wire and nylon stockings...there are lilies, a tulip and a rose.  A theme of hers is not only to reuse materials, but also to create beauty from discarded items.  Lucy herself speaks with great vigor, with natural humor, so distinct, so affable she is, gregarious, sharp, vital.  I always forget that she's 86 years old.
Lucy is a rare treasure, a creative soul who embodies living history. She escaped to Hong Kong when the Japanese overtook Shanghai, and went to middle school there, when she then saw the Japanese drop bombs on Kowloon. She could no longer study in either her home of Shanghai or Hong Kong, and so was determined to go to the interior of China, to Congqing (Chungking for you old colonialists) and finally did study art there.  She eventually returned to Shanghai and taught art in middle school.
Lucy used to raise money for poor people by, for instance, making picture frames out of styrofoam trays and selling them for 3 yuan.  I asked her why wouldn't people just save their own trays and make their own frames.  They hadn't thought of it yet, she replied, and besides, it was to raise money for the needy.  Here are some of her works along with some swanaphernalia stickers.
When Lucy heard that not everyone spoke Chinese, she started presenting by pulling out her English.  We started having a little Heckle and Jeckle routine because she would start asking me how to translate something from English into Chinese (my Chinese sucks!) and I would tell her to talk in Chinese--we have a whole table of translators--but she would go back into English, which right before our ears became better and better. She was downright fluent by the time she finished. This is the kind of inspiring and heroic performance that we playwrights are always working to render (right Mamet?).
A week before SWAN Day, Lucy had called me and announced that she had done a power point presentation of all her work; then two days after that, she told me she had selected some music to go with her presentation.  Turns out my computer couldn't read the music track on her power point so I played Bach's Goldberg Variations as played by Glenn Gould, which she quite liked.  You can see the swans on the screen, but she has a whole catalogue of work which she was more than delighted to explain.
Watching Lucy's power point presentation/global commercial for Apple product.

Lucy told yet another great story about how her school was having difficulty after the Cultural Revolution.  There was a whole generation of students who did not study, as they were either busy being Red Guards or staying away from the chaos.  School was not available (the Cultural Revolution went on for about 10 years) and so there is a 'lost generation' that did not have the intense discipline and memorization training that is Chinese education, not to mention all of the anger and frustration and lack of socialization skills as their formative years were spent in anarchy.

Lucy Zhou said to the school's principal:  'give them to me, I'll teach them.'  She had taught these students' parents and their older siblings and so they were willing to come to her class. Lucy showed how these gruff students behaved by herself doing a little karate kick into the air, 'bohng' she'd say simultaneously, demonstrating how they would enter and kick the door shut. She told them:  'We are not going to read books, we are going to use our hands and make things.'  

She first had them draw, and said they were less talented than kindergartners (they were about 18 or so).  She gave them clay and asked them to make a ball.  They could do that. Then she asked them to flatten it into a pancake.  They were very talented at that. She would then have them bring tree leaves to class (ones that had fallen on the ground, why pick off the perfectly good ones?) and then have the students place the leaves on the clay pancakes and use thread to trace out the shape and then fire them in a kiln and glazed.  Slowly the students had something to focus their attention on, and had their confidence built by feeling productive.

One particularly delinquent student, who was a thief, exercised his ingenuity in Lucy's art class. When working with plaster, Lucy could not figure out how he could carve it to look like lace. It turns out this student had submerged the hardened plaster in water and so was able to better sculpt with precision. Lucy said that this student taught her a new technique. When the principal of the school was to visit the art class, all the students put their favorite works on display for him to see their progress. This student proudly presented his 'plaster lace.' After the principal's visit the 'plaster lace' went missing. The student was devastated. Lucy told him, 'now you know how those who you stole from felt.' She told our group that she only half-taught him, that if she had been a complete teacher, she would have asked who of the students took it, and had it given back, and thus teaching fairness.  But she chose not to.  She chose not to, in her mind, completely teach him. 
Before completely sitting down, she read to us her own paraphrasing of a George Bernard Shaw quote: "The reason for the old people to exist is: they have a bundle of mistakes as a living example for the next generation."
Mutual swanning...
Collective swanning....SWAN Day Shanghai 2009
After Lucy Zhou's riveting presentation, we joyously snacked and then I conducted a playwriting workshop.
I read the scene that started me as a playwright.  It is from Last of the Suns, which is based on my Yeh Yeh (paternal grandfather).  The scene happened when I was a sleepy teenager, awoken one morning by the constant button-pushing beeps of the microwave. Turns out Yeh Yeh, who was like 90 at the time, was trying to warm his tea but could not find the start button.
Everyone brought their favorite snacks.  Yup, those are cornuts in the chartreuse star, which was recently brought by a visiting friend from the U.S.  CRUNCH!
After the Promptor Exercise was administered, all wrote for 30 minutes. We then had a gas reading the scenes:  some love miscommunications, a few ponderings, a ride to the countryside, many secrets, all very lively readings.  At 5pm we finished, applauding the generosity of the afternoon. I'm encouraging all the participants to post their scenes on the SWAN website. 
Here is Emma, one of my writing students from last semester, who is not only a playwright, but also an actor and director.
So thrilled with SWAN Dan I am...
Lucy's flowers...
My new student Abigail from Guangzhou, and the ever helpful Ivana...
And Ike, sporting swanware.  Ike is cool and embodies what Gail Rubin wrote--that for a truly feminist revolution to take place, the men need to be liberated as well.
We were all headed for a meal at Heji Xiaocai, one of Lucy's favorite restuarants in Xujiahui, but she had to get going.  Here, while I'm calling a taxi to accompany her home, all are still ignited by Lucy's presence.
How better to finish off SWAN Day than with an awesome Chinese meal...
Jellyfish, tender beef and mushrooms, pea shoots, chicken and crispy peppers, seafood soup, sauteed baby bok choy, spicy tofu, bamboo tube rice, specialty steamed chicken, chili pepper fish (many of us like it hot!) and the Shanghai dessert called 'wine nanny.' And many ice cold Harbin beers.
The place was crowded, to the point where we ordered the 15 dishes first, so that soon after we sat, our food came.  Thing about China and food, it can handle masses of people pretty efficiently.  Thing about SWAN Day Shanghai, it was modest in number but felt inspiringly massive.  
I didn't see any purposeful lights out on our way home, though the way to the suburbs is pretty dark since street lights are not necessarily provided.  The whole bus ride home, Sarah, holding the flowers, was conducting a 'sa-jiao off' roughly translated as a 'sweet-talk off'--whoever sweet talks me the best-- because everyone wanted to take Lucy's flowers home.  On the left there is Alina, who was reluctant but did finally almost pull my arm off with her particular kind of sa-jiao.  The whole back of the bus was entertained by this impromptu competition, all the gals showing me their best charm.  Even Ike, was deemed a sa-jiao contestant in light of this day of equality, though he only had to use his smiling eyes.  I laughed with glee all the way home.

I look forward to SWAN Day 2010...wherever I may be in this great world.

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SWAN Prompt

No matter how many playwriting workshops I facilitate, I just never get over the thrill of a group of writers sitting around a table, pen on paper, scribbling a soulful whisper onto the page.  The second part of the SWAN Day afternoon saw scenes being written from the Promptor exercise.

There were seven prompts:
1.  a place
2.  an action
3.  anything to do with a swan
4.  a secret
5.  a Chinese phrase (or an English phrase if you are writing in Chinese)
6.  the first line of dialogue
7.  the last line of dialogue

Each person chooses a prompt which is not their own; these random elements are to prompt and guide the scene to be written.

The participants will post their scenes in the SWAN Day reports.  Here, I post my SWAN scene (after basking in artist Lucy Zhou's awesome teaching glow):

A:  Who are you?
B:  School
A:  What are you drinking?
B:  The students
A:  How can you drink the students?
B:  They are like water...with no form...flowing anywhere...if not contained.
(B drinks.)
A:  Hey
B:  gurgle
A:  Hey hey!
B:  gurgle gurgle
B:  gurgle gurgle gulp
A:  I'm, I'm a--
B:   gurgle
A:  Stop drinking me!
B:  AHHH!  (wipes mouth)  Get hold of yourself, then.
(A flaps wings like a swan--white feathers flutter everywhere.)
B:  I'm still thirsty.
A:  Don't drink me.  I must save myself...for myself.
(B accidentally catches a feather in its thirsty mouth, starts to feel uncomfortable.)
A:  I must, you know who I am, I must--
B:  cough cough
A:  I must--
B:  cough cough cough
A:  I must tell you something.
A:  Are you OK?
B:  (COUGH)  No! (COUGH.)
(A slaps B's back.  School coughs out a white feather).
B:  (ahem, ahem, kuh, kuh)
A:  Better?
B:  Sorry.  You were saying (pause).  You were going to tell me something.
A:  (Chinese)  Wo bao ta  (I hold her).
B:  Huh?
A:  I kiss her, too.
B:  Ah?
A:  And that is why I am like water.
B:  That is why when I drink you, I cough.  You are not for me to drink.
A:  That is correct.  You are school.  You are dry.  You should not suck out the liquid, the blood, the love out of the students.
B:  They leak out their own treasures.
A:  I hold mine.
B:  They know not what to keep.
A:  And so you should teach them, and not just drink them.
B:  To be or not to be.  That is a question.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Signpost Map to SWAN Day Shanghai

Here is the front gate of the Downstream Garage/Performance Space where SWAN Day Shanghai will take place.  It's a little tricky getting here, so I thought I'd lead you through a signpost map to get to this yellow gate that says 'xia he mi cong.' It's a warehouse district so if you ask for 'xia he mi cong' people can point you to it as well.
You take Subway Line No. 1 to Caobao Rd. Station and come out of Exit #4 towards Longcao Rd.  Caobao becomes Longcao Rd.  Here is 218 Longcao Rd, a hospital, where you will enter to find the Downstream.  Once you see this, turn right.
This is the unseeable sign that gives you the actual address of the Downstream...200 Longcao Rd., but never mind.  (Anti-sign posted).
After turning right at the hospital at 218 Longcao, walk straight until you see this FOCUS sign and turn right after it (you're not going into Focus Base, but onto the road after it).
There you will see the neutralish 'mecooon' sign that has a subtle arrow pointing you leftward.  Go left!
And follow this...
You will see this means you are very close.  Look to your right and you should see the Yellow Metal Gate...'xia he mi cong'...Downstream...
Enter here...
Go up to the third floor.  This is Xiao Zhou...he is the caretaker of the Downstream.

You will enter, pass a snooker table and come upon the blackbox space where we will hold SWAN Day Shanghai.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

SWAN Day 2009

SWAN Day is being celebrated all over the world in two weeks on Saturday March 29, 2009.  It is an international holiday to fete and support women artists through a multitude of events including, readings, performances, panels, workshops, fundraisers, anything, really, that the host dreams up.  Last year, for the inaugural SWAN Day, there were 160 events/house parties in 11 countries.  The SWAN site helps you to plan, post, advertise and manage your event, and also check out events happening in your city, country and the rest of the world.

The swans you see above were made by Lucy Zhou Cuan Qing, an artist who makes such sculptures out of disposed materials, anything from plastic bleach containers to nylon stockings to styrofoamy apple protectors.  She will be one of 6 artists  SWAN Day Shanghai, that I'm hosting from 13:00-17:00 at the Downstream Performance Space in the Xuhui district.  After the artists talk about their work, I will facilitate a writing workshop for both Chinese and English writers.  And then us gaggle of gals will swan our way into the Shanghai night and continue celebrating.

Check out the International SWAN Day events, happening on 5 continents, from Argentina to Berlin, from Quebec to Kenya.  Also, for you Usians, you can see where the U.S. SWAN Day celebrations are happening in your city--participate or host an event of your own.  Think of all the women artists you love, whose work you support, and set aside March 28 to gather, toast, fete, and enjoy.  

I mean really, how often do you get a holiday where the only gift you have to give is good feeling and appreciation, and where a woman can be seen beyond being a mother, love object, or the cooker for the feast?  Good reason to celebrate.  Women artists are so neglected and pushed into the margins that one day of good international vibration will be an uplifting miracle and something to do besides mope about the economy.   

And now that more people have been pushed into the margins, what is there to lose in appreciating the strength and resilience of women who, despite all the pressures of the patriarchy, listen, follow and create their own voice?  Now that the good ole boys have run the machinery into the ground, one day to listen to the gals express may yield valuable content, at least nurse back a trust for truth and alternate ideas.

Happy Swan Day!

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March Forth: Usian

The date March 4th has become a personal holiday for me, a day devoted to progress, to progression.

I'd been wondering what moment would bring in the 21st century. 

I had been thinking movement-wise, through the arts, what would be that cultural moment that would define the genuine beginning of our century, would launch the beginning of this millennium. The 50's ended when Kennedy was shot. The 60's started with the Vietnam war. The 70's with disco. The 80's with shoulder pads and greed.  9/11 shocked us into the 21st century, but Obama, no matter which side you're on, has rung us in.

That strange effect of reading Zinn's People's History of the United States, when the result of the presidential election somehow, somehow made the words on the page resonate differently, track forward, literally making history history and not still a present reality.

I've also been wondering how the United States can solely claim the name of two continents as its own national adjective: American.

Being that the 21st century has a whole new set of complexities of its own, not quite able to be articulated with 20th century worlds, out times allow the chance to afford new labels.

Having taken the Implicit Association Test and seeing how loaded yet limited the term American can mean (it can do the dirty work of defining lots of super-mega-mentality dynamics mixed in with self, freedom, will and cash), I 'd like to try out a new word:


It takes a while to get used to anything new. Words need to be used to gather meaning, just like a language needs to be spoken to develop a personality.

My hope is that this is an alternate adjective for the United States, one that does not hog the name of two continents and starts there, onto a new trajectory of thought as to what it is to be usian.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

One Child Right Upfront

I just couldn't resist: seeing this kid making his way down the sidewalk with his mother's shopping bag, wanting to carry it for her. Why wouldn't he? He's number one, the only one she will be mother to. Out of pragmatism, the Chinese adopted the one-child policy in 1979, to curb the population explosion. The west would argue that it is a violation of rights, limiting how many children a citizen can decide to have. But once you are dizzy from the volume of people that inhabit a city like Shanghai, it is mindboggling to imagine what it would be like if all Chinese could choose how many kids they wanted to have. 
It is no wonder the 'octomom' story of Nadya Suleman, having delivered 8 babies in one egg-planting pregnancy and now a single mother of 14 children all iwwackily conceived, a human puppy pile if you will, was not widely reported here in China. When I told my students, they were in a way more astonished, more uncomprehending than the Zhuhaiyang Virgina Tech guillotiner story. (Yes, I am their tabloid.)
The Chinese are accepting of their one child fate--it really is difficult enough with one, financially and psychically, just as it has come to be everywhere else in the world. Every kid I see on the subway, the bus, looks secure and feels super-loved. Granted this is my projection, having seen so many a kid surrounded by parents and grandparents, particularly at the bundled up infant and toddler stage, everyone aglow, strangers happily interacting. It takes a mega-village...
There's lots of distractions, yes lots of this shocking pink for the girls, whole sections of malls just for kids, a wonderland of goods and shopping distinctly for the kids.
A friend of mine, Chen, who is an only child having lived in China til she was 6 and then grown up in Texas, told me that her only-child cousins don't seem as down to earth, as natural as her sibling'd aunts and uncles. There must be the bubble effect of the emperor, one in each household, where social skills are eclipsed or excused when you are the apple of so many people's eyes. But, as always, it depends on the parent's teaching, and there are as many kinds of kids as there are parents. Also, with all of the modernizing, (busy schedules, the new materialism) stuff can replace love when everyone is so busy.
As much love and adoration that are poured onto the single kids, the same amount of pressure and expectation is demanded in return. The guarantor of the parent's legacy and keeper of their lives in old age. Schoolwise, I hear that kids are so loaded with books at such a young age that they can't even lift their own backpacks. No need--lots of adult hands can carry it as they accompany their singular hope, their one investment to school.
The society and family are so watchful and regarding of the future generation that there is, for example, no law for legal drinking age. Not 21 or nor 18, none (yet).
There are still those families in the countryside that have more than one, and still privilege the son over the daughter, as they uphold feudalistic ideas. And there are those rich enough to live abroad, if they certainly insist on more than one (they can afford it too.)
But all in all, I see well-mannered kids. Schools play a huge part of disciplining students. The downside is that kids aren't given the freedom to play--studying is their first priority, coming from teachers and parents alike. Where play is not privileged, creativity and new ideas are spurned as well.  (But without discipline, no matter how original you are, the ideas cannot fruit).
And in a society where adults are adults and are not constantly chasing youth, dreams or a second career, the kids understand how important they are for the future of their country.
They are taught uniformly, by rote, through obedience, and sheltered from information and works that they government deems inappropriate or too burdensome for them to hear, to know. In this was, the government is the third parent, the fifth grandparent.

And so the social molecule shifts-- The nuclear family is China is 3. Future generations have no aunts or uncles or cousins--not bio ones at least. In that sense, family also shifts in that closer more bonded friendships, of choice, instead of assignment, can flourish where the sibling slots, where uncle and auntie spaces are not genetically determined.  The pragmatism of the Chinese character is reflected in policy and so this social tinkering, like that of any scientific willfullness shifts the natural course of the human species into extraordinary dimensions.
Any way you slice it, marching first, marching forward, never alone.

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