Wales Week 2012, Chongqing, China: better than the X Factor

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.  This is his second account of the experience as it unfolds.

Day 3 and 4
by Simon Pirotte

Just when you thought that the experience could not get better…

Day 3 sees a continuation of rehearsals with both sets of students from Chongqing and Wales. Chinese students have done their homework and are growing in confidence. The bus journey to the Chongqing School of Performing Arts is a joy. We learn a traditional folk song on the bus. Chongqing students are very patient – each sits next to a Welsh student as Arthur, the leader of the Chinese student group advises me that “one to one tuition is best”. He decides to take on the biggest challenge … me! I look around and can see each double seat full of earnest concentration. Chongqing students are keen to share their beautiful folk song and Welsh students do not want to let the side down and are tenacious in every element of pronunciation. Our Chinese counterparts have demonstrated a fantastic work ethic as they grapple with the text of Under Milk Wood … the very least we can do is demonstrate our respect for their culture by returning the compliment and getting it right. It is an evocative song, created by the workers at ancient Chongqing harbour, and we sing as the bus trundles through the Chongqing streets. The pace of the song picks up as we all become more confident. Again there is laughter (there is always laughter!). I am afraid that we have made it sound a little more like a song from the terraces of a football club but Arthur assures us that we sound great. We announce that we would like to share our national anthem … there is a respectful silence … and then we sing: “Delilah”. More laughter…

We arrive at the school and we are greeted by an electronic sign above the entrance saying “A warm welcome to Coleg Powys and Coleg Morgannwg”. So thoughtful, but we are nervous because this is starting to look like a big deal! Time in the venue is tight so we need to be efficient but everyone knows their job and we crack on.

Day 4

The day begins with notes to the performers and costume work whilst I take two students for an interview with a magazine called “Hello Chongqing.” Once again, the students from Coleg Powys and Coleg Morgannwg are excellent ambassadors for their country. Here they are in Welsh Government offices in Chongqing with an interpreter and answering questions as if it is the most ordinary thing in the world.

Today sees the first performance. And it is a day none of us will ever forget. More hard work and our Chinese friends impress once more with their application and preparation. Everyone is flexible and we adjust to a changing environment. I worry for the member of the school’s estates team as he frantically fixes a curtain on top of a 30 foot ladder. In my head, I am “managing risk!”

The performance begins with speeches. Mr Wen is here – a very important person from the Cultural Bureau. He is introduced and stands to great applause accompanied by patriotic music through the speakers. I am introduced and music plays for me as I stand for the exchange of gifts. It is the theme tune from The Magnificent Seven. Students are far too professional to laugh at me (they reserve that for later) but we all realise that this is going to be a very different experience.

The venue has become packed. Everyone is so inquisitive. We are inundated. There are cameras everywhere.

Chongqing TV is here and a piece on the visit is going to be run to an audience of 30 million. We are twice as big as the X factor!

Students look at me and they look bewildered by it all. The atmosphere is electric and full of anticipation.

The performance begins and we all feel incredibly proud. After two days of rehearsal, our Chinese actors are speaking the words of Dylan Thomas alongside our Welsh actors. The students’ generosity shines through. They look fantastic … I have never seen costumes so well presented thanks to our Coleg Morgannwg students. The biggest compliment I can pay all our performers is that seeing the play with a mixture of Chinese and Welsh performers also seems the most obvious thing in the world.

The Chinese audience talk through the performance. This is not disrespectful … it is their cultural response. They are engaged but discuss the piece as they watch. In one moment, our actors transform their physicality from humans to chickens and this gets a spontaneous round of applause. The audience likes this bit! In fact, they like the very visual sections and moments where actors have really used their physicality to tell a story. After our performance, students from the school perform some of their work. We see some excellent precision and comic timing in one piece. We also are presented a song from The Sound of Music in Chinese. The work is disciplined and engaging.

A workshop follows the performance. More and more students want to join in. The room is now packed with audience members working with cast. They are even translating lines from the play into Chinese as well as delivering the text in English. If you are looking down on us Dylan, I am sure you will be smiling!  After the workshop, students are mobbed. It’s like Beatlemania! Some are giving interviews in front of flashing cameras. They are accomplished diplomats! We cannot leave.

Everyone wants to talk about the piece and have a photograph taken with a Welsh student. There are discussions about creativity and discipline and the similarities and differences in the arts in both cultures. This is better than the X factor!

We leave and have dinner with our Chinese friends. Talk is constant. Photographs on phones are shared and discussed. It strikes us how simple photographs on phones can stimulate the most fundamental cultural discussions: fancy dress parties, Christmas, National Service…

We learn that yesterday was Yolanda’s birthday. She is a Chinese student. We are mortified that no one told us that it was her birthday. In the restaurant, we sing her Penblwydd Hapus. They all learn this song and we sing it a few times. Yolanda tells me that she will remember this birthday forever… she has never had a song sung to her for her birthday but she and her friends will sing this when it is one of their birthdays and spare a moment to think of her Welsh friends.

As we leave the restaurant, a Chinese student says “Nos da”. Someone has taught her it.  Boden, one of our Chinese performers, and interpreter for the day, wants to hear me say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch again. There is no bilingualism strategy here… but Welsh and Chinese blend together amidst the smells of the Chongqing street stalls. A Welsh student has “to begin at the beginning” translated into Chinese and we plan how we can incorporate this and our recently learned folk song into our performance. Students tell me about the thought behind the gifts they have received from their Chinese friends and we all feel very humble. Learning is everywhere. So is “differentiation” and all those other educational terms and strategies that are sometimes so difficult to grasp in any meaningful way. We are buzzing with it all.

I think I should have measured our students before they came out here. They seem two inches taller.

It’s a wonderful world…

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About Claire Roberts

Claire.roberts [a] colegaucymru.ac.uk
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