Exuse me – take picture please?
I`m in Beijing, and with my lack of orientation and without knowing any Chinese signs, it is a challenge to find my destination. I have discovered a metro-map where the stations` names are to be found in recognizable and friendly letters. There`s even a dot marking my exact location. I feel a sense of relief running through my body, together with the sweat running down my back. It`s more than 30 degrees Celsius in the shadow and it`s very humid. I`ve already emptied three bottles of water.
There`s someone wanting my attention: Excuse me – take picture please? A Chinese lady in the myriad of people stands beside me with her cell phone and smiles. Oh, yes, of course I can take her picture. NO, no, no, she says – me take picture of you? Of me? Excuse me? I`m not a celebrity – she must be mistaken. I look at her a bit confused and she asks again – please? Yes, of course. She lights up – and she shushes people away and says: Smile! I smile, and she snaps my photo.
I`ve travelled six hours forward in time together with general manager of ASSITEJ Norway Ketil Kolstad and board member Eivind Haugland, to participate in the annual ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering.
As the relatively newly elected president of ASSITEJ Norway, this is my first Artistic Gathering – and my first visit to China. I`m overwhelmed. One thing is to read about the international ASSITEJ movement, it`s something else to experience it. I`m in Beijing together with delegates from all over the world, and we all work within the field of performing arts for a young audience. Artists, presenters, pedagogues – we all share a glowing commitment to the principle of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: that all children have the right to participate in the arts and cultural life. The different countries` delegates face different challenges creating and presenting their work, from censorship to poor working conditions.
The Executive Committee of the international ASSITEJ has set a three-year dramaturgy for the artistic gatherings, and the overall theme is TOWARS THE UNKNOWN. The gathering in Beijing has the subtheme; Imaging the future, the gathering in Kristiansand 2019 will be Confronting the present and we`ll end up with Beginning the journey at the gathering in Tokyo in 2020. China has chosen to focus on myths in their programming of the gathering. In the Chinese performances I see, there are dragons, fairytale characters, magic and wonders in visual fireworks presented with technique and precision as if from another world.
Norway was represented in the artistic program with Lise Hovik and Teater Fot`s production “Sparrow”, which had a touching meeting with the Chinese children in the audience. I addition there`s variety of workshops to join, where among many others the Norwegian company Lokstallen was represented with their work on “The Fairytale Path”.
Beijing is a metropole with its 22 million inhabitants – and the distances between the different venues and happenings are vast. I`m walking together with Ketil Kolstad, who unlike me has a “built-in” GPS, which could be very handy in a city with only undersized maps. What can look as a short distance in the map could be an hour`s hike. And half of the streets weren`t even marked in the map. Suddenly we discover we`ve been trapped behind some kind of a barring, we`re moving together with a herd of people toward a check-point. Ups – this must be the wrong, we assume, and we turn around. Suddenly two strict guards push us back into the queue while talking loudly in Chinese. We try to explain we`ve at the wrong place, but our language doesn`t work. In an inattentive moment we manage to sneak out on the other side of the street and we`re not stopped. According to Ketil`s inbuilt GPS we will have to walk for an hour around the Forbidden City in order to get to the right place. It`s a relaxed atmosphere in the streets, but it`s definitely more controlled than we`re used to. Going the opposite direction is not accepted.
The Executive Committee lead us through a three-days artistic encounter, where the goal is to get closer to each other and to share experiences, thoughts and ideas. On the second day we`ve been allowed to remove the chairs (not an easy request in China) so that we can sit in circles on the floor. The commitment on behalf of the performing arts for a young audience is genuine. In conversation – in the sitting circle, a young Chinese actor says: The most important and beautiful with children`s theater is to make the children forget all bad stuff – laugh and cry – but not cry that makes you sad. A young American actor replies: I don`t agree, I also want to make the opposite – theatre for children that makes them really, really sad could be a good thing.
No matter what – they`ve listened to each other. I`ve noticed the chime of conflict. We`ve discussed in eyes` height – and we`ve been each other`s target group without any other agenda than exactly that – and I think: That`s a rare thing, and anyone who has tried to reach a target group knows how difficult it is.
There are several networks within the ASSITEJ network, and I think that members of ASSITEJ Norway need to discover these and to use them. There is so much inspiration, professional development and competence to get out of committing. Use ASSITEJ! ASSITEJ is your network, no matter what affiliation. ASSITEJ is no competition, it`s merely a network established for you and your peers involved in performing arts for a young audience.
Next year it`s up to us. The ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering is coming to Norway. I hope that many – MANY! – Norwegian artists and professionals will attend – because I promise it will be so worth it. Many of those I met in China will be in Kristiansand next year. It will be quite different from Beijing, I tell my new Chinese friend whom I met at the artistic encounter – the scale of the city and the events will be different, not at least because we`re only five million.
– Aha! I understand Kristiansand is a small city, only five million people, he answers. – Eh, no, I tell him, Kristiansand is a inhabited by 91 000 people, there`s only five million people in the whole of Norway. I see my Chinese friend look at me with disbelief. – But we have plenty of space! I add – feeling it was kind of an awkward thing to say.
The lady at the metro station smiles and looks at me, we smile friendly at each other, and she thanks me again, beautiful, thank you and moves happily along. I`m left standing puzzled over the feeling of being so different and strange that it was worth a snapshot. And I
experience similar things throughout my stay.
The first flight home is supposed to take 9,5 hours. I`m going back in time – and will soon experience a real jetlag. It`s possible that we western delegates are a part of China`s soft power policy that is implemented downwards and probably also is reflected in the performing arts. At the same time I feel grateful that I`ve had the opportunity to get to know colleagues in China, and possibly get an understanding of what they`re working with. I think the Chinese participants also had a rewarding time meeting colleagues from every corner of the world.
I`m listening to the audio-book «Sapiens» by Yuval Noah Harari while closing my eyes listening to the meditative voice speaking of how our social structures are based on our imagination and through that our capacity to believe in myths. The myth of the dragons, the myth of communism, the myth of capitalism, of socialism, individualism – simply what we choose to believe or what we`re born into. All myths are constructed by our collective imagination, which gives us different ways of coexisting, says the Englishman in my ears.
– The most important thing I will remember from this trip, is the dialogue, the meetings, and looking into other peoples` eyes.
ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering, Beijing 17.-24. august 2018.