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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