Ten students from two of Wales’ further education colleges – Coleg Powys and Coleg Morgannwg – are on a trip of a lifetime, celebrating Wales Week in Chongqing, China (27 February – 3 March 2012), where they are performing a theatre production of Under Milk Wood and hosting workshops on costume construction, makeup and performance for their Chinese counterparts.
Simon Pirotte, Principal of Coleg Powys, is travelling with them. He writes of his first impressions of the first two days.
Days 1 and 2
by Simon Pirotte, Principal of Coleg Powys
Where do I start?!
Quite simply, Coleg Powys Performing Arts Academy students and Costume construction degree students from Coleg Morgannwg are having a life changing experience.
After a long flight, we finally arrived in Chongqing. We had a few hours between connecting flights, so we managed to take the fast Metro into Hong Kong Island. It was great to stretch the legs and watch the markets being set up on a Sunday morning at the waterside. Jet lag meant that we were wide awake just as Hong Kong was stirring in the haze.
Then, back to Hong Kong airport to continue our journey to Chongqing. We arrive in the city after a 28 hour journey, tired but excited. The bus from the airport to the hotel honked its way through the Chongqing traffic. Our driver, confident in his ability, waltzed through the lanes to the Harbour Plaza hotel. Our students were amazed at the sheer number of people (31 million in Chongqing!) and the vast number of buildings in various states of completion.
The hotel is fantastic! A 5* hotel right in the city centre. As Nathan, one of our students said “I feel like a king. I’m from a council estate in Leeds!”
Before a night’s rest, it was dinner and a quick line run of the piece. Some rose early for a swim or a workout in the gym before breakfast. Bacon and eggs or Dim sum? A tough choice!
Grace from the Wales-Chongqing Further Education Consortium and her colleague Yao Yao are looking after us really well. We then meet the Chinese students who will be working with us this week. Is this a mad idea? We are rehearsing and performing Under Milk Wood with them – what will they make of the piece?
After quick introductions, Viv Buckley from Coleg Powys leads the first workshop. Any apprehensions we have soon disappear. To stand in this room and see our Welsh students open their hearts to their Chinese counterparts is truly inspiring. And similarly, the students from Chongqing throw themselves into the piece. We reflect on how we would feel if the situation was reversed – imagine if someone told you that you were going to rehearse a strange foreign play in Chinese in just two days and then you were going to perform it with Chinese actors in various venues across your city and be the centre of attention to the media in a city with a population of 31 million! And yet, this is the scale of the challenge we are setting them. But they are “up for the challenge!”
It is little wonder that this is a city where almost half of the world’s laptops will be made – such is the scale of the “can do“ attitude here!
We perform the piece for them and start to fit them into the piece. There are some hilarious moments trying to explain how to say words like “Myfanwy” or “Llareggub” (at which point should we explain Dylan’s joke here? Read it backwards!). We are performing the piece in traverse style (audience on two sides) which our Chinese performers find quite strange – they are used to more traditional settings. Whilst actors rehearse, led by the Coleg Morgannwg team, design students from both nations are sewing and preparing hair/make up. We are rehearsing in the hotel’s business conference rooms. The man on reception gives me some strange looks as the cries of “what’ll the neighbours say!” in a hybrid Chongqing/Welsh accent ring out. This is obviously not the run of the mill business meeting to which he is accustomed.
The Chinese students are delightful. And it is clear that for them the feeling is mutual. The atmosphere of the rehearsal room is full of laughter but also full of discipline – we are performing this piece in two days’ time so we need to crack on!
After lunch, Viv continues to work with Chinese students and the Welsh contingent change and board the bus for an hour’s journey into the Nanshen mountains where they are performing a short extract for the launch of Wales Week at the National Botanical Gardens. Following the recent visit by the First Minister, the National Botanical Gardens of Wales are here to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to develop future projects together. Our students are followed by flashing cameras and the press. They feel famous: “I could get used to this!” says one. A blond student is asked to have her picture taken with a small child. She reminds her new Chinese friend of Adele. This is now her nickname!
The students open the ceremony. They are superb. Cool as cucumbers.
Remember the song … “Every morning I wake up and thank the Lord that I am Welsh”? This is one of those moments.
I, and Emma and Ian from Coleg Morgannwg, are incredibly proud of them. They look fantastic thanks to the design team. They also sing beautifully. A line from the play comes to mind. “Praise the lord we are a musical nation” says the Reverend Eli Jenkins. We are indeed!
A quick look at another performance space (we are performing the whole piece here on Saturday), another explanation about “traverse” theatre and the accompanying confused looks and it’s back on the bus to the hotel to continue rehearsals.
We get back to the hotel to find that Viv is now fluent in Chinese … well not quite. But she knows a few words and is keen to impress us with her new found skill. It has obviously been a productive few hours and we fit the new sections into the piece. Again, I am struck by the generosity of our students as they guide their Chinese peers through the piece. We feel like we have discovered the answer to World Peace! It seems so clear to us in that rehearsal space.
If every young person in the world could taste this experience, first hand, of sharing each other’s cultures, of teamwork, what sort of world could we live in?
As I write, it is 4am in the morning … I can’t sleep. Jet lag. But also I am inspired by what I have experienced today and my mind is racing. The world news is on CNN in my room. Conflict here … there … and everywhere all over the world. A world that is a million miles away from the atmosphere in our rehearsal room. We are all very, very lucky to have this experience.
After rehearsal, it is dinner. The British Council, who is very kindly funding this visit, take us to a fantastic restaurant. Mirrors and chandeliers everywhere. We have our own private room. Nathan feels like a king again! Yao Yao and Grace patiently talk us through each dish and our students are adventurous trying different tastes and textures. In the “Sky Lounge” back at the hotel we all reflect on the day. As we gaze out at the night enthralled by the lights of the Chongqing skyline from the 37th floor, we feel very content. We discuss teaching styles. Professionals from two of Wales’ further education colleges are sharing practice … not just from a Welsh perspective but from a global perspective. We could go home tomorrow and we have already experienced something incredibly special.
But we have more to achieve this week. The work has only just begun…