Jim's Richard III Blog

What had started as a blog of Richard III rehearsal process at Cal Shakes has now evolved or devolved into a small novella. The author is petrified to change the name for fear it'll disappear, and wouldn't know what to call it anyway. Many stories are included and questions are even answered sometimes!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Teach Me Stuff

As long as I'm on the topic I'll tell some more stories about that production of M. Butterfly and the lovely people in it; it gave me a window into another culture--it's people, theatre and language and I have many memories of it.

We were about 2 1/2 weeks into rehearsal by this time and I'd not only become friends with the Chinese cast members, but was giving all of them English lessons of some kind--Luyoung mostly just with inflections of words and how they informed the sense of what was said in English and I helped Man out with his grammar. Ding was another matter; he was the eldest, about 48, and spoke next to no English--the two others coached him and taught him some words but it was difficult for him to form sentences or even words sometimes.

I realized how much I'd taken language and the ability to use it for granted and found myself wondering how terribly helpless it must have made someone like Ding feel and when Man asked me on his behalf if I would help him speak English I agreed. And somewhat reluctantly I confess--I couldn't diagram a sentence if you asked me to, but I was equipped to at least help him with conversational English.

So we made a trade--the would allow me to do warm-ups with them every morning and then I would teach them later in the day.

Now these guys had been in training since they were about 8 years old.......
We'd start the day with stretches, they would practice some of their dance moves--some of which I learned (and all I have forgotten) but there would reach a point in the warm-up that I'd just have to sit back and watch as Man would practice his back flips--doing 15 or so in the same spot and then move across the room still flipping. I still have a photo of him with a perfectly composed expression on his face, arms crossed -- which in itself is not unusual other than the fact that he's almost 4 feet in the air with both legs out in a complete split. Even though they went easy on me I could hardly walk the next day.

Oddly though, Ding never participated in these sessions, and one day I jokingly asked him as he watched us with arms folded, "Ding aren't you going to warm up?" He smiled, thought a bit and carefully said, "Don' haff to." and he was right--he didn't--he would go on cold and be perfect every night in those intricate Opera sequences. Amazing.

Ding was my toughest pupil, not because he was a bad student but because I had to teach him how to make some of the sounds themselves--the Chinese language is created very much in the middle of the mouth while English is much more forward and some of the sounds we use simply don't exist in Chinese--Ding had a hard time with the letter "T" and "Th" sounds were very difficult; he initially would thrust his entire tongue out of his mouth and I would have to carefully illustrate where tongue placement was for certain sounds.

But we progressed to the point that we could actually talk--very simply at first, but we talked. I'd begin by asking him what he did that day, and Man Wong would be on hand if there was something he didn't understand. He'd reply and I'd correct his syntax or word, have him say it again and keep talking.

After awhile they started calling me "Teacher" and even though I protested would address me very formally by that name. They were quite firm about it, insisted on it in fact, and so I found myself reluctantly but graciously accepting the title. Teachu Djim.