Master of Puppets


“You ever want to be somebody else?”
“I’d like to try Porky Pig.”
“I’ve never wanted to be anybody else.”
– Easy Rider


When I was a kid I guess I wanted to be some kind of action hero: an Indiana Jones; a Luke Skywalker; maybe, at the very low end of that spectrum, a Bob Hoskins as Mario. One day I swung through the cavernous tomb of my own bedroom cupboard with a bullwhip that my aunt had brought over from India. the whip snapped, the railing on the cupboard collapsed and my mum frantically took me aside and told me I was going to have three kids and a mortgage instead.

My parents used to tell me off for staying up late, for watching too many movies, or for showing off to my friends. Overused parental catchphrases included “stop filling your head with nonsense” and “don’t play up just because you have an audience”. My kindergarten teacher used to call me ‘foghorn’, although that disappeared under a layer of shyness and social awkwardness a few years later.

Fact is, I now get paid to shout like a foghorn and play up to an audience. Turns out that filling your head with nonsense can actually be quite the lucrative investment. I’m not exactly flashing the qian but I can afford to live the way I want to for once. I don’t even have to dress like a hobo or live on junk food anymore (I still do sometimes, but I don’t have to).

 


“Ah,so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.”

– Doctor Who, The Three Doctors


 

As a college student, despite briefly flirting with the idea of training as a stuntman, a puppeteer or a functioning alcoholic, I suppose I wanted to be a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Harry Dean Stanton. I once jokily berated a new guy on my acting course for turning up in a Hawaiian shirt. “That’s my gig, man! I’m the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts around here.” For some reason, instead of socking me in the mouth or telling me to piss off, the guy just stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts; as, a few short years later,  did I.

Eventually I settled on the idea of just being me.

I sometimes lamented the painful truth that I rarely left the streets of my East Midlands hometown, but I always reminded myself that Socrates never left Athens. I visited Athens once and I thought it was a shithole. If his shithole was good enough for Socrates then, I reckoned, my shithole should be good enough for me. But then I became aware of an even more painful truth: certain parallels in questionable personal hygiene aside, I am hella not Socrates.

But eventually I had a wash, grew into my own skin, and became a little more comfortable with myself.

 


“A puppeteer told me he loved me today. I know, I can’t think of anything more pathetic!” – Catherine Keener


 

A couple of years ago, when I was looking for an escape hatch from Tongzhou (a slightly less comfortable shithole), I applied for a job with Sesame Street English as a curriculum writer. Sesame Street was and is one of the many ESL companies in the Jing that the guys I worked for in the suburbs couldn’t compete with on any level. Sesame Street was the sleek, predatory shark while the now bankrupt company I was with at the time were, even then, the upside down goldfish.

On the whole I like teaching drama more than ESL. Maybe I like it more than I’d have enjoyed writing for Ernie and Grover. My first full semester as a drama teacher is now over. A couple more days of teaching a summer camp and then I’m on holiday. I’d like to think that my grand, poorly drawn stage designs for next term will contribute to the juvenile drama centre equivalent of Michel Gondry meets François Delarozière, but the truth is gonna be… well, much less French for a minimum.

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I like my job here, even if I’ve always had mixed feelings about the theatre. I like anything that’s an art form, and I like a storytelling art form a thousandfold more. I like that theatre at its most basic is just one or more person performing in front of one or more other person, which is what I’ve been doing with me life since I was a kid.

It’s comforting and interesting to know that the cavemen in Wangfujing were once doing the Neolithic version of what I teach, and that future eight-limbed generations, perhaps people who don’t have to work for a living and can just tell stories for the sheer post-humanity of it, will be performing dramas long after someone’s pushed the big red button on our current society.

But British people are supposed to be cynical and rip the piss out of anything as wanky as the theatrical arts, especially if it’s popular in France.

I’ve got mixed feelings about teaching, too. Robert McKee, who’s not exactly short of opinions, once barked that “the world is full of people who teach things that they themselves cannot do” (and he must know, let’s be honest). Or, as the hoary old caveat has it: those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, probably just teach anyway.

Most teachers I know, when they are honest, will jovially admit either that they are doing something creative in their spare time and wish they did that for a living, or are approaching burn-out. Some, bless ‘em, are doing both. You can use your own imagination and judgement to decide which category I fit into.

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