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Im/possible online creation (March 2021)

Communication is key to theatrical production. In this project communication has been tested to its maximum in the current climate of global travel restrictions. Challenge of communication comes from linguistic and cultural differences as well as space. The familiar scene of a stage rehearsal, with the Artistic Director sits in the front directing the performers, is no longer possible. Instead, everyone appears in one screen, so closely and yet, so far removed from reality. This is how our performance was created throughout 2021.

Whilst the initial inception of the project performance had been discussed in person in the seed fund Bridging the Gaps Shanghai trip in 2019, the realisation of the project only became a possibility within the last twelve months and of course, due to the Covid-19 pandemic all discussion and negotiation has necessarily been moved digitally. Initial digital conversations to instigate the project were held through emails and via the preferred social media platform in China, WeChat. Script rehearsals with finer points of artistic direction were subsequently held online throughout March 2021.

Zoom has been used previously for a number of UK-China meetings, our performer Rousang has found it difficult to operate. The initial claim was that it is difficult to maintain a stable link from the Shanghai Yue Opera House rehearsal room. Her personal preference is WeChat. Similarly, Steve struggles to use WeChat, which is not an app that is widely accepted by UK institutions and has only been available to the UK team on their personal devices, with varying degrees of reception and stability.

Unstable internet connection is indeed an issue but perhaps the main challenge lies in the effort to learn how to operate a new digital device. In the early stage of the rehearsal, it was constantly interrupted when Rousang lost her zoom connection and resorted to using WeChat, whilst Steve was unable to access his WeChat account from his studio. Constant dis/appearing whilst discussing the script puts increasing frustration on both sides.

This challenge is finally resulted by Ken ingeniously by placing two laptops - one on WeChat and the other on Zoom - facing screen to screen creating a new digital platform which we term 'ZoomChat'. ZoomChat becomes our new rehearsal platform bridging the communication between our UK based director and Shanghai based actor, and other team members.

ZoomChat may allowed communication possible but has not made it easier. Artistic Director Steve Ansell has worked with Chinese opera previously and has a good understanding of Chinese aesthetic expression which may have been alien to directors. This is further accomplished by his charming interpersonal manner. Unfortunately, all these excellent communication skills are lost in translation.

Digital, linguistic frustration is further compounded by UK-China time difference. In order to access rehearsal space at Shanghai Yue Opera House, meetings usually held early morning hours in the UK before the end of working day in China. Although artists are not known as earlier birds, Steve exemplified professional standard by attending each rehearsal at 8am UK time with a cup of strong coffee in hand.

Finally comes the film of the full rehearsal. I was joined online by Steve Ansell, Artistic Director of stage@leeds; at the other end of the space, another team assembled at Shanghai Opera House, with Rousang Wang on stage in front of the camera and a team from Shanghai Theatre Academy and East China University of Political Science and Law as the crew members. All set, action!