Last June in Shanghai I was invited by Shanghai Theatre Academy professor William Sun to sit in on a meeting with Thomas Richards (son of the distinguished American director Lloyd Richards), Jerzy Grotowski’s chosen heir to his artistic legacy and director of the Work Center in Italy since Grotowski’s death in 1999. I commented on the irony of coming all the way to China to be exposed to exciting European creative work that I have little access to in my own country, and I recounted my life’s sole experience of seeing authentic commedia dell’arte-performed by a visiting Italian troupe in Shanghai a decade earlier.
If that cross-cultural encounter had been evidence of China’s long-standing commitment to international theatre, the months after Richards’s trip testified that this commitment has only deepened of late. In October, the Shanghai Theatre Academy hosted an International Little Theatre Festival, featuring productions from various countries, including the United States. Beijing’s Central Experimental Theatre, which contributed four entries to the festival, had only weeks earlier exported a production to Japan, and it subsequently sent plays directed by experimentalists Lin Zhaohua and Meng Jinghui to Germany for a Chinese arts festival. Recently, other Men productions had traveled to Tokyo, Hong Kong Berlin and Torino, Italy.
Interaction between the Chinese and global theatre communities is no new phenomenon. Scores of theatre artists from Europe, Asia, Australia and North America have visited China in cultural exchanges since China re-opened to the West in the late 1970s. Noteworthy Americans like Arthur Miller, George White, Charlton Heston, Robert Scanlan, Arvin Brown and Margaret Booker, for example, have traveled to the mainland in the past two decades to direct Death of a Salesman, Anna Christie, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Crimes of the Heart, The joy Luck Club and Fences, respectively—and leading avant-gardists Lee Breuer and Richard Schechner have both supervised productions of native Chinese plays.
But recent years have seen an interesting development in Chinese theatre’s internationalist ambitions. Instead of inviting the occasional individual to direct, design or perform in the People’s Republic—to serve, more or less, as a mentor to their Chinese counterparts—China’s theatrical community has now begun to participate in more ambitious projects, integrating foreigners into the process of creating plays and productions while maintaining Chinese authority. In some cases, theatres have also begun marketing shows to China’s growing number of foreign residents. And the country has increased its export of productions to international festivals, while hosting more of its own, like the one that followed Richards’s Shanghai jaunt. When considered together, these trends suggest that, as the country looks toward hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese theatre is also opening itself to the world in a new way.
This new internationalism descends from a century-old tradition of receptivity to foreign muses. As an artistic form imported from the West via Japan by leading intellectuals nearly a hundred years ago, spoken drama in China has been distinctly international since its introduction. Preceded by centuries of xiqu (classical opera) in more than 350 regional forms, huaju (spoken drama) was adopted as part of the New Culture Movement’s effort to use vernacular forms in literature and art in order to address pressing social problems of the day. In the wake of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), republican reformers like Sun Yat-sen looked to the West for political and scientific models. A particularly successful stage adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House debuted in 1914, for example, dramatizing the debate in post-feudal China over the status and rights of women. Through numerous revivals, “Nora” became an icon of social progress in subsequent years.
Focused during the first few decades of its development on adaptations of Western plays and native dramas imitating their forms-the works of playwright Cao Yu, for instance, were heavily influenced by Eugene O’Neill-spoken drama in China soon became a propaganda tool for national defense in the face of Japanese aggression during the 1930s and 1940s. The Communist government, after 1949, continued this trend, tolerating only plays that supported the Party’s ideals and promoted political education of the masses. Spoken drama was actually removed from the national stage during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when the theatrical repertoire was limited to eight model classical operas created specifically for mass propaganda.
But even during these comparatively inward-looking decades, foreign influence continued, as mid-century Soviet artists came to China to train theatre practitioners. In the late 1970s, translations of foreign dramas once again became available, and in the 1980s Chinese artists and intellectuals began to travel abroad in large numbers, bringing back new ideas for theatrical expression. Adaptations of western works are still popular these days, but today’s crop looks radically different than their predecessors—with experimental productions such as Lin Zhaohua’s versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Richard III, and Meng Jinghui’s revisions of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Genet’s The Balcony, Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug. Both directors have tackled Faust, Meng’s being an unabashed collective rescripting of the legend entitled Bootleg Faust.
It is against this backdrop that one must view the new internationalism—a phenomenon vividly illustrated by three recent stagings in China. Wu Xiaojiang’s A Doll’s House and I Hear Love—both productions of Beijing’s Central Experimental Theatre—and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center’s variation on Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s An Ordinary Day all transcend straightforward adaptation, reflecting just how much internationalization of Chinese spoken drama has changed in recent years. Long after Nora became a household name in China, Wu’s new version of Ibsen’s classic has created a cross-cultural Nora for the new millennium, while his other production contributed to a newly established sympathetic and collaborative friendship with Japan after decades of animosity between the two countries. And the Fo/Rame piece featured a bilingual foreigner in a lead role for separate Mandarin and English performances—a first for Chinese theatre—reaching out to an unprecedentedly international audience.
For his 1998 A Doll’s House (revived in late 2000), Wu worked with Norwegian actress Agnette Haaland, who was living in Beijing due to her husband’s business assignment (Wu and Haaland had previously met in Oslo when Wu’s production of An Enemy of the People was invited to an international Ibsen festival). In Wu’s rewriting of A Doll’s House, Nora marries a Chinese bank manager Han Ermao (Torvald Helmer) during his overseas study in Norway. In a reversal of the current trend of Chinese overseas students marrying foreigners and remaining abroad, Han brings Nora back to China, and she gladly assimilates to her new lifestyle. As part of the cultural transformation, the Christmas setting of Ibsen’s play becomes Chinese New Year and the Italian tarantella dance becomes a Beijing opera performance.
The central conflict in the play thus becomes a clash of cultures rather than an issue of gender equality, with Nora gradually realizing she is trapped in an alien social environment—one in which her relationship with her beloved Ermao cannot survive. Shifting the time period as well as the setting—from Ibsen’s original 1880s Norway to 1930s China—Wu uses the play as a metaphor for Beijing in the 1990s, a time when, he feels, “modernization has brought a modern social illness.” The failed marriage of Nora and Ermao thus points to both the issue of transnational marriage—a practice that’s considered trendy in Chinese cities these days, but that Wu presents as socially destructive—and to the inherent trauma of Western neo-imperialism in China.
Ironically, while the play’s story was reworked to highlight the failure of a biracial cross-cultural marriage, it was presented in a fluid bilingual style that presented the illusion of seamless verbal communication between Nora and Ermao: While he addressed her in Mandarin, she responded in English, each of them peppering their speech with phrases of the other character’s native tongue. Haaland’s first language is of course Norwegian, but Wu chose English for Nora, he says, because “most Chinese people still consider English as a symbol of western culture.” The use of English also made the play more widely accessible to Beijing’s diverse foreign population, at least some of whom Wu hoped to draw to the theatre. Chinese surtitles assisted local audience members unfamiliar with English, while lengthy program notes in English provided a synopsis for foreigners who had no command of Chinese. So, in addition to its cross-cultural theme and its resourceful reliance on a western script and actress, Wu’s Doll’s House exemplified in a very literal way the Chinese theatre’s current interest in transcending barriers to international communication.
Taking on issues of social progress of quite a different nature two years later, Wu adapted a contemporary play originally produced by the Japanese Youth Theatre in 1998. Rather than an actual intercultural bilingual production, this international collaboration took the form of a partnership between two theatres, facilitated by the Sino-Japanese Theatre Exchange Association. Artists and administrators from Japan traveled to Beijing to share details of their production of Takahashi Masakuni’s I Hear Love, which had at that point enjoyed over 200 performances in a large proscenium theatre in Tokyo. Assuming their Chinese counterparts would simply replicate the production, the Japanese collaborators were unpleasantly surprised when Wu described his plans to rewrite the script, set the play in China and redesign the set for the Central Experimental Theatre’s studio space. In response, the Tokyo theatre proposed bringing its own production to Beijing and Shanghai to serve as a model for the local staging, and at that point the entire partnership nearly collapsed. Eventually, a compromise was reached: The story remained set in Japan, but the Chinese were permitted to design their own set and make limited revisions to the script.
One year previously, the Central Experimental Theatre had made a gesture toward mending longstanding Sino-Japanese tensions with its production of Devil Soldiers I Know (Wo renshi de guizi bing, more politely translated in the foreign press as Old Japanese Soldiers I Know). In Soldiers, an overseas Chinese student in Japan listens to the confessions of six retired service men who were stationed in China during WWII. The play recounts the atrocities they committed and their need for forgiveness and understanding; at one performance, an actual “old Japanese soldier” watched alongside 15 generals from the Chinese Army.
Like Soldiers, the significance of I Hear Love lay both in its goodwill efforts (through its artistic partnership with the Japanese theatre) and in its content, which was groundbreaking by Chinese standards. The play centers on a young couple, Ah Tong and Qing Ci. Ah Tong is a deaf-mute who “anticipates the voice of love” despite her handicap; Qing Ci is her boyfriend, a self-respecting, confident young man with permanently damaged legs. These protagonists, as well as the other characters, live together in a “handicapped” community where they can escape the discrimination of “healthy” society. The conflict in the simple plot surrounds the issue of Ah Tong’s mother objecting to her daughter’s decision to marry Qing Ci, despite the fact that he acted as her advocate when her neck was injured in a traffic accident caused by a hot-shot executive-and the fact that he has already impregnated her daughter. The overall message of the play is that “healthy” and “handicapped” people live in the same world: They must come to understand and appreciate each other, and must not continue to live separately. This is a revolutionary call in a nation that has consistently deflected public recognition of its physically disabled and mentally challenged citizens.
According to director Wu and producer Liu Tiegang, I Hear Love was the first play about relationships within the Chinese disabled community ever staged in China. It was also the first time those rehearsing and staging the show had ever entered various facilities for the disabled to experience the lifestyles there. Building on this series of firsts, the theatre decided to offer sign-language interpretation for the inaugural performance, and to especially welcome spectators with disabilities. One reviewer, noting the many disabled audience members at the opening, confessed that he was overwhelmed by the shedding of tears, the continuous laughter and the thunderous applause he witnessed during the performance. Another reviewer compared seeing the play to “drinking a cup of chicken soup for the soul” (the popular American cliche has, yes, hit China) and located the play’s success in its decision to avoid the tragic side of disabled life by emphasizing a spirit of increased mutual understanding, happiness and hope.
I Hear Love does boldly tackle the issue of discrimination against the mentally and physically challenged by the larger community, but it also idealizes the disabled community with its ultimate sweetness. The actors opened each performance bathed in red light, using sign-language to say, “I have a pair of magical hands that can transmit and express friendship, closeness and love. The change of spring rain can wipe away people’s withered hearts, and love can be felt in a soundless world!” As one worker at the theatre reflected several months after the show closed, “It was like Romeo and Juliet, but it was happy rather than depressing.”
Pushing the envelope in a different direction, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center adaptation of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s one-act play An Ordinary Day (retitled A Woman’s Last Day in Chinese) addressed the trauma of a young wife preparing to commit suicide. Presenting the issue of imminent death in Fo and Rame’s darkly hilarious style, the script includes passionate offstage sex and a prostitute’s telephone call graphically describing her accidental severing of a client’s penis during a blowjob-both distinct firsts in Chinese professional theatre.
If the play’s content was ground-breaking, so was the production aesthetic. Use of video in performances is still in an early experimental phase in China, as is the casting of foreigners in Chinese-speaking roles; this staging admirably incorporated both. It was, in fact, the first Chinese theatre production to feature a Western actor playing a leading role in separate Mandarin and English-language performances. In terms of new developments in the internationalization of Chinese theatre, it was no ordinary day at all.
But then, Charlotte MacInnis is no ordinary actress. A senior in the Columbia University theatre program, MacInnis was raised in China by her American parents for nearly a decade before returning to the U.S. to attend college. While living in Nanjing and Beijing, MacInnis and her sister Mika widely performed Chinese cultural pieces-such as classical opera and cross-talk comedy sketches-for both live and television audiences, and Charlotte had her own segment on a weekly Chinese game show, as well as roles in two TV mini-series. Her near-native Mandarin language skills made her the perfect choice for the first near-solo professional spoken drama performance by a foreigner, and her acting training made her capable of convincingly pulling off the role of Julia in both English and Chinese.
With its staging of An Ordinary Day, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center embarked on a new mission of drawing foreigners and English-speaking Chinese to the theatre in large numbers, with advertising and marketing geared directly to those communities (and increased ticket prices for English performances, reflecting the English speakers’ assumed affluence). The experiment was a great success; there is talk of touring Charlotte’s performance to Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and the theatre is currently running a revival of Ordinary Day in Chinese featuring a local actress. The original production was directed by David Jiang, a Shanghai native who has resided in the U.S. and Britain and is now dean of the drama department at the Hong Kong Performing Arts Academy. And just in case Ordinary Day‘s script, director and featured actress did not make it sufficiently transnational, a Hong Kong stage manager was employed, and overseas Chinese designers were welcomed home to participate in the project.
In addition to mounting productions like Ordinary Day, the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center has also begun collaborations with overseas-Chinese theatre troupes in the U.S.—the Bridge Theatre of the Bay Area and the Yellow River Drama Group in Washington, D.C., for example. Nor is the Center’s interest in cultivating relationships with Chinese-language theatre companies in the U.S. an isolated case. Artists like Beijing’s Wang Xiaoying have recently traveled to the Yangtze River Theatre in New York to direct Mandarin and bilingual productions of successful contemporary Chinese plays. And plans are currently underway for a public symposium in the U.S. that will reunite Miller, Heston, Breuer, White, Schechner, Brown, Scanlan, Booker and their Chinese collaborators to discuss their projects and the future of Sino-American theatre collaboration.
Though it represents only one of many nations that have sent artists to China, the U.S. bears significance as the country whose political and cultural relationship with China exerts the greatest influence on the future of the most populous nation on earth. And yet, while numerous Chinese spoken dramas have traveled abroad to participate in international festivals, the U.S. has yet to play host to a nonoperatic production from China. China’s dedication to international theatre has been steadfast throughout its history of working in the medium—even during prolonged periods of political self-exile on the part of its government. How long will it be before America’s commitment to international theatre extends to recognizing Chinese spoken drama?
Claire Conceison is a visiting assistant professor in the Residential College at the University of Michigan and will soon join the faculty of the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her book Significant Other: Staging the American in China is forthcoming from University of Hawaii Press.