In 2014 I went to Beijing with a former student Shu Cao Mo. My assignment was to teach the children of migrant workers in the city, people who left a great deal behind to come to a city where they were second class citizens.
While I did do some light teaching with the kids I soon realized that my lack of Mandarin language and experience with teaching children all day rendered me inadequate for the gig. Luckily I was able to work with two groups of adult workers, "Eternal Flower" (female donestics) and "Labor Is Glorious" (mostly male workers). Along with the kids we staged a night of scenes written by both groups as well as cuttings from Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. We called the piece ART IS HARD WORK after the Andy Warhol quote and it played to a full house at the popular black box art house, Penghao Theatre in central Beijing.
While I was waiting to go into a show my first week in Beijing, a guy about my age approached me and asked if I was the Duke professor who taught improv. His name was Caesar Zheng and it turned out we had Skyped along with Shu Cao before I came to town. He asked me to pop by a tiny room in the theater to have a look at his newly formed improv group. I ended up staying for a few hours and missed the play (I still haven't seen an actual play in China).
Caesar and company hipped me to the fact that while there are many freelance actors and non-actor "civilians" who are hungry to learn improv and general acting skills, there are almost no teachers outside of the state-run academies. He and the others I met were largely working intuitively from third and fourth hand exercises they'd learned from actors who had studied in the West.
I ended up offering four to six hour improv workshops on nights when Shu and I weren't rehearsaing with the worker companies. These sessions were stunningly important for the development of my ability to work intuitively and problem solve as a teacher.
I get asked a lot if I know Chinese.
But everyone makes the same misteps in improv and the words just get in the way.
It's actually easier to tell if someone is being honest in another language.
We aren't dazzled by clever phrases or cultural references.
It's all raw material and obvious connection or distraction.
So in the summer of 2015 I wanted to go back. My previous sponsors, Duke Arts & Sciences, would not return my calls or emails so I was on my own.
I decided to go semi-pro and start a "non-profit" to cover my travel and hotel costs as well as pay stipends to other international teachers in Beijing who I had met in 2014 (including an Iranian movement teacher and American stand-up comedian).
Two of my new friends, Lingling and Sivani, kindly agreed to arrange for master classes I designed to be held at a Beijing dance studio. I'm still amazed by how just using WeChat (an app that's become China's equivalent of Facebook) and word of mouth, Lingling and Sivani were able to assemble an extraordinary group of 30 students for each five day intensive. The first was Improvisation (from the basics up to a long form final showing), followed by an acting seminar using Arthur Miller's The Crucible to teach the basics of Stanislavsky realism.
In 2016 I wanted to change things up by bringing some of my Little Green Pig posse over to teach with me. When I discovered that Lingling could only serve as Managing Director if we set up camp in Shanghai, I moved us there. After making offers to roughly ten artists I knew who I felt would be great teachers as well as artists, six agreed to dive into the unknown and follow me over. Germain Choffart (France), Tefi Crocce (Uruguay), Matt Hooks (US), Jessica Hudson (US), Mara Thomas (US) & Caitlin Wells made the cast of teaching artist decidedly more internationla and allowed me some down time to rest and regroup for the master classes I was teaching. They joined Iranian movement teacher Adel Andalibi and Chinese acting teachers "Big Leo", C.C., Dong Fen, Feng, Josephine, "Little Leo", Peter, Sivani and my co-artistic director Scarlett, making up an ideal faculty of friends.
Incubator 2016 classes:
Acting for the Camera
Acting for Children
Movement for Stage
Master Class: Ibsen's Doll's House
Advanced Long Form Improv
The classes were all exciting and deeply inspiring, due in part to the artistry of the teachers but also because of the feverish intensity with which Chinese freelance actors attack their training. Since there's so little access to focused, modern forms of actor training outside of the academies, workshops that Western and Eastern teachers provide are undertaken with an appreciation I've rarely seen in the West.
Durham May 20-30
Beijing July 1-5
Kunming July 8-18
For information and enrollment:
Shanghai Scene Final Showing
Losing it during an improv
Rehearsal with David, Dong Fen, Vicky and Scarlett
Final performance with Lingling and Forrest
David and Jaybird Tragic shower scene