Jumping into the deep end of contemporary Chinese theatre

Wow, it’s been a busy couple of weeks! It simultaneously feels like I just arrived in Shanghai, but also that I’ve been here quite some time. This is in part due to the intensive course that started out the program. The first day or so in Shanghai was taking care of necessities—setting up a bank account, getting a SIM card for my phone, buying some hand soap… all things that make you feel more like a person and less like a weary traveler!

Right after this our intensive course started, which both first and second year ICS students participated in. Essentially, it was an introduction to contemporary Chinese theatre taught by a visiting professor from MIT. She’s studied and been involved with Chinese theatre since the late 80s/early 90s, so she had a wealth of knowledge to share with us! She's back in the US, but she will remain a resource for us (especially with thesis writing). I especially appreciated the emphasis on the contemporary, since when I was in the US I had trouble finding information on what sort of work is being produced here and now. STA was generous and bought us tickets to three plays. Funnily enough, all of the plays we saw were Chinese adaptations of Western plays… quite the tie to intercultural communications already! Our days were composed of three hours of class in the afternoon, followed by seeing plays in the evening.

The first play we saw was actually the musical Jekyll and Hyde at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. It was essentially the Broadway musical, except that all the dialogue and songs were in Chinese. This is a bit of a twist—oftentimes in China, musicals from Broadway will have the songs in English and the dialogue in Chinese. Before the play, some of us got to meet the assistant director, since she was friends with the director of the ICS program and he went to see it the same night that we did (and we just happened to run into him at a random hole-in-the-wall noodle place beforehand).

While I wasn’t a huge fan of Jekyll and Hyde since that type of musical isn’t my favorite genre, it was interesting to observe the reactions of Chinese audience members. The man playing Jekyll/Hyde was very popular—there was extended applause when he entered, and he seemed to have quite the fan following. At the end, the curtain call was fairly long with a focus on him—my favorite part was when he ran back out onstage and a spotlight focused on him as he posed dramatically.  

  Outside the theatre... very grand, as the name suggests!

Outside the theatre... very grand, as the name suggests!

  The famous actor taking his extended bows!

The famous actor taking his extended bows!

Another cultural aspect that differs from Western conventions is theatre etiquette. In China, it’s quite common for people to take out their phones during performances, either to take photos or to surf the internet. I noticed this back in high school in China when I saw plays, but with the smartphone’s integration into society, it’s even more commonplace now. The way theatres in China combat this is that the ushers carry little laser pointers, and if they spot you using your phone during the show, they’ll point their laser at you. It’s definitely a good reminder, with a little bit of public embarrassment added in! (This didn't stop our professor from getting some snaps during the plays that we saw, which I actually appreciated...now I have photos from the shows, and not just of the stage!)

During one of our classes, we got to meet and speak with the actor Wang Luoyong, who runs the musical theatre program at STA, since our professor has known him for quite some time. He's been in a variety of films, and is the only Chinese actor who has starred on Broadway (playing The Engineer in Miss Saigon). If you're interested in learning more about him, here's an interview with him in a Shanghai expat magazine from a few years ago. 

  Our class taking a photo with Wang Luoyong!

Our class taking a photo with Wang Luoyong!

The second play we saw was Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo, directed by Meng Jinghui at Shanghai Art Theatre. Meng Jinghui is a rock star in the art world of China—his work blends the avant garde with the popular, as he is extremely well known in educated circles within China. I’ve been interested in Meng’s work for quite some time, so I was really excited to finally get to see a play directed by him my first week in Shanghai! It didn't disappoint—his style is very sleek and aesthetically 'cool', but doesn't feel pretentious as he still manages to warmly invite the audience into the experience that unfolds. The play was in Chinese and used a variety of techniques spanning from Brecht’s direct address and alienation, to Chinese opera poses (similar to the mie poses that actors land in Japanese kabuki... I still don't know enough about Chinese opera to name what they were!) to physical lazzi commonly used in commedia dell’arte. Personally I love Brecht, so the fact that the play started with the actors wandering onstage as themselves and then a sharp switch into choral speaking, and that when the play ended with the actors tearing down the stage background to a screen that said “the play is finished” in Chinese, meant that for the whole play I was totally onboard with the approach Meng took! Afterwards, we got to meet the actors and chat with them for a bit because our professor was friends with some of them. It was great to get to ask them some questions about the process of the play, as well as their experiences as theatre artists in China.

  The poster for the play

The poster for the play

  The stage before the play started

The stage before the play started

  The narrators of the story singing a song

The narrators of the story singing a song

  A movement sequence in the play

A movement sequence in the play

  The stage after the play (with the sign saying that the play is finished)

The stage after the play (with the sign saying that the play is finished)

  Post-show selfie with one of my new classmates!

Post-show selfie with one of my new classmates!

  Group photo inside the theatre with some of the actors!

Group photo inside the theatre with some of the actors!

  A photo with the actors with the show poster outside of the theatre

A photo with the actors with the show poster outside of the theatre

Also during this week, some of us got the chance to have dinner with the playwright Nick Yu, since (surprise!) our professor was also friends with him. Yu is Chinese’s most prolific and produced playwright (alive or dead), and he’s only in his 40s!  He is currently working on a musical focusing on youth in Shanghai in the 1990s, and we caught him after the first day of rehearsal. It sounded like an exhausting ten plus hours—as well as various designer, producer, and artistic meetings, there was also a full read-through. Apparently in China, it’s common for the read-through process to go like this: first the playwright will read the entire play aloud to the cast and creative team, and then the actors will read through the play out loud. Nick explained it as a way for him to set his intention for the work, but emphasized that he also wanted to set up a dialogue with actors and creative team, as it is a new work and changes are possible. I’d never heard of anyone doing this in the US, so it was really interesting to hear about this type of practice-- especially since I am someone who is interested in acting, writing and directing, so I'm interested in that process from multple perspectives. 

  After dinner at a great vegetarian restuarant with Nick

After dinner at a great vegetarian restuarant with Nick

The final play we saw during the intensive was Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters directed by Stan Lai at Theatre Above. The play is a classic example of scripted commedia dell’arte, and while it was in Chinese, it was the first play we’d seen all week that also had English subtitles! It was directed by Stan Lai, who is a Taiwanese/Chinese/American director and playwright. It was showing at Theatre Above, which is the first theatre Stan has established in Mainland China. The location of the theatre is on the top level of a popular shopping mall—his philosophy is that theatre should be accessible to people in their daily life. You should be able to go shopping, eat at a food court, and see a play all in one outing! We also had the opportunity to have a pre-show talk with Stan, since our professor is friends with him as well. He spoke about what it’s like to be an artist navigating multiple cultures (as we are), as well as what it’s like to be working in Mainland China. The play itself was fantastic—it was the first commedia dell’arte play I’ve seen in a long time, and it was a reminder of what a joy that form is...sometimes you jsut need to laugh!

  Our class at the end of the private pre-show talk with Stan Lai! (Obviously looking at the correct camera wasn't a collective strength of the class...)

Our class at the end of the private pre-show talk with Stan Lai! (Obviously looking at the correct camera wasn't a collective strength of the class...)

It was an exhausting first week in Shanghai, but also a great way to put my finger on the pulse of contemporary Chinese theatre. It’s made me hungry to see more work, as well as to start getting involved with artistic projects.

Stay tuned for a post about daily life at STA—the dorms, classes, food, etc!