Whose memory is it anyway?

Tanya Gerstle, University of Melbourne

Interdisciplinary Black Box Workshop, Thursday 7th of June, 2012, University of York

Black Box at the University of York

A black box theatre; a dozen or so performers improvise. We have been given certain ‘colours’: walking, running, stopping, falling. So we run, walk, stop, fall, gradually synchronising step with each other, attuned to the movement of the group, the sounds, the silences, the shapes in the space.

I sit down to spectate and catch my breath, surveying the scene that I have just been a part of. In one corner a woman reads Israeli poetry in English. I know it’s Israeli because the poet pronounces her name Channa, and the dates in her poem – 1942, 48, 67, 73 – turn the falling bodies into dead bodies in front of my eyes. A tall young man duets with her, his countertenor bringing in strains of late mediaeval church music. Two people sit on chairs centre stage. A young girl in a bright green top begins to crawl between them, her long, black hair hanging loose. Time passes. I’m on stage again, sitting on one of the chairs. Tian, the Chinese girl in green, and Channa, the Israeli poet, are kneeling in front of me. Tian is playing with a shadow puppet. She speaks softly in Mandarin as her gilded puppet glides over to comfort Channa who is praying in Hebrew. At least, I think she is praying. The tall young man in a white top is now standing on the other chair, still singing in his strange, high voice. The director, Tanya, comes up behind me. ‘Where were you during Tiananmen?’ she whispers. ‘Can you remember?’ I nod. ‘Go to the microphone and tell us,’ she prompts.

I go the microphone, acutely aware of Tian, kneeling centre stage, head bowed, playing with her puppet. She is completely oblivious of what I am about to say. ‘1989…’ I falter. ‘1989. I’m an undergraduate in London. I’m standing outside of the Chinese Embassy. Many of us are standing there.’ I can see it in my head at the same time as I see the black box around me. I glance sideways at Tian and wonder if she is listening to me or if she is concentrating on the story she is telling in a language nobody else in the room can understand. I don’t think she can hear me, and I continue. ‘I remember the images on our television screens of the students, the images of the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. There is a young man in a white shirt, standing there, clutching a white plastic bag. He is stopping the tank. In 1989. In Tiananmen Square.’ The eccentric, white-topped countertenor on the chair sings on, above us all. Tian’s puppet continues to dance. I step away from the microphone. The walking, running, stopping, falling starts all over again.

Afterwards, we sat in a circle and deconstructed our performance. Mary Luckhurst, one of the TFTV lecturers, had come in half way through. ‘What were you saying when I came in?’ she asked. ‘Was it a memory?’ Yes, it was a memory. My memory. Afterwards she stopped me by the door. ‘That was extraordinary,’ she said. ‘I walked in and this man was singing, and these two women were kneeling, and Tian was there playing with her puppet, this young Chinese girl, and then you spoke. Suddenly everything changed, and it became about that moment, it became about Tiananmen Square.’ And of course that was Tanya Gerstle’s intention. She too had seen something dark and symbolic in Tian’s crawling across the stage, although for all I know, Tian was just being a cat. Through that young Chinese body, Tanya’s memory was stirred by what is, for all Westerners over a certain age, the over-riding image of contemporary China. She shared that memory with me, I shared it with Mary, and together the director, the author, the performers, the spectator/auditor all brought them together to create a narrative that spoke truth to power.

(c) H Graem

But what of Tian? What did she see? What did she think of her role in this dramatization of a collective memory? Was there any truth in it for her? She wasn’t even born in 1989, and in China it’s only the Mothers of Tiananmen and a few others who bring that image of tank and student to mind when they think of that place. Most of the other billion Chinese have moved on, and it’s not for me to judge here whether that is good or bad. Tiananmen Square is a place of jubilation – the place of spontaneous celebrations when China won the Olympic bid – and a place of relaxation, for a stroll across the nation’s public space, amidst the kite-flyers and the old ladies practicing Tai-Chi, with the hawkers selling souvenirs or offering to take a photo in front of the guards on their little pedestals, who like the Queen’s Guards at Buckingham Palace, are not allowed to smile at anything or anyone.

2 thoughts on “Whose memory is it anyway?

  1. Thank you for encapsulating the essence and energy of that 2 hours we created together. It amazes me how curated improvisation depends upon collective memory. Its components are made through creative associations, but those associations depend upon a performers life experience. It is this juxtaposition of points of view that makes the improvisation interesting.


    • It was such a powerful afternoon, Tanya, and (unexpectedly) enabled me to experience in my own performance, and the performances of those around me, the very things I am thinking and writing about at the moment. I only wish I access to how some of those others responded. I plan to email Tian, and may bump into Channa one of these days, but what about that young man, singing on the chair – where was he coming from?


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