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Chinese theatre on American campuses: A story of challenge, love and hope

By Sicheng Luo (People's Daily Online)    13:19, September 17, 2019

"I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

------Oscar Wilde

Theatre, “the greatest of all art forms” according to Oscar Wilde, is becoming increasingly popular among the Chinese audience, and a representative group of them are university students. Theatre clubs are ubiquitous with university life, providing young theatre enthusiasts a space to concretize their imagination and artistic aspiration.

On the other side of the Pacific, many clubs created by Chinese students on American campuses are trying to perform plays in Mandarin, establish Chinese theatre communities, and promote Chinese performing arts culture. Towards the end of April, the Chinese Theatre Society at Brown University performed its first theatrical production - also Brown’s first theatrical production in Mandarin - a modern Chinese play, Rhinoceros in Love. About one month later, the Mandarin Musical Club from New York University (NYU) presented the Mandarin version of Man of La Mancha in the performing arts center Symphony Space in Manhattan. Wuming Theatre Club from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a more extended history. It was established in 2014 and has produced many impressive works, including Mr. Donkey, a well-known black comedy. To produce these non-mainstream Mandarin plays at American universities is not an easy task.

Motivations and goals: enthusiasm and a sense of duty

“Many Chinese students who study abroad, including me, are enthusiastic about Chinese theatre,” said Hanhui Li, the producer of Brown University’s production Rhinoceros in Love. She regards this enthusiasm as the ultimate force that motivated her and her colleagues to start this Chinese Theatre club at Brown. “In China, we have so many excellent artists and works, like Meng Jinghui and Lai Shengchuan, but we do not see a lot of them in America. We wanted to create this club so that people who love Chinese plays get a chance to express their passion and share it with others.”

Malu and Mingming (male and female protagonist) on stage (Brown)

Yihui Shen, the producer of the Mandarin version of the musical Man of La Mancha, from NYU’s Mandarin Musical Club, explained, “because we were in a foreign country, everyone in the club was thrilled that we had the chance to reproduce this classical musical in our native language. We were so empowered. We felt invincible.”

Besides their enthusiasm, members from these three student organizations also talked about their sense of duty to promote the influence of Chinese performing arts and even Chinese culture in general.

“Four years ago, before our club was established, it was surprising to find that no Chinese theatre clubs existed in either Harvard University or MIT, where the population of Chinese students was quite significant,” said Gao Ping from MIT’s Wuming Chinese Theatre Club, “So, our long-term goal to start this club was to make the culture of Chinese performing arts more influential in Boston and at the same time contribute to the cultural diversity there.”

The cast and the staff in Brown Chinese Theatre Club: photo taken on stage after the performance (Brown)

Diligence and ingenuity: down to the smallest detail

Although practically speaking, producing these plays is just an extracurricular activity, these students have made painstaking efforts to maximize the effects of the final performance.

The most unforgettable scene of Wuming Club’s play Mr. Donkey, for director Yuning Su (Emerson College), is the scene in which one of the protagonists, the blacksmith, is on his way home with another female character called Jiajia. “We put a big light-permeating screen on stage as a background and a light source behind that screen. The actors were in between the light source and the screen. The audience could only see the elongated shadows of these two characters.”

The cast during rehearsal (NYU)

The effect is always proportional to the effort. Yuning explained, “The only thing the audience could see was the movement of their shadows. Therefore, every single detail, including the angle of the actors’ bodies, whether they should straighten or bend their back and how their movement corresponded to the lines, was carefully designed and rehearsed.”

It is the same case for Brown University’s Chinese Theatre Club. Every week, the directing group of the production Rhinoceros in Love would meet to discuss, analyze and adjust the script. Yiwei Chen, a sophomore from Rhode Island School of Design, right next to Brown University, is responsible for the stage and prop design for this production. One of the major installations she made is a giant clock positioned in the middle of the stage, which is repetitively mentioned in the play. “I tried to align my design with the story and message told in the play,” Yiwei said.

Reverberations: “We see our own lives in the stories on stage”

“Everyone in our club was so touched by the play. During the last scene, many of our actors who were listening cried backstage,” a member of Brown’s Chinese Theatre Club told us. “I believe that one important reason that this play so touched us is that it resonates with us. Yimei Liao, the writer of this play Rhinoceros in Love, once said in an interview that this work marks the end of her youth and she can never write another work like this, because ‘this kind of power and passion only exist when you are young.’ We are graduating soon, so we are also at the tail end of our carefree lives as young college students. So, this play was performed at the transitory time of our lives, and is monumental for us.”

Group photo taken after performance (NYU)

Challenges, solutions, and prospects for the future

During the process of producing theatrical works in Mandarin in the U.S., these students have encountered various obstacles. For example, as “minorities,” these clubs were destined to have more difficulty in terms of finding sponsorship.

Another typical challenge is that most of the actors have no prior experience in acting, so they must spend more time imitating, learning and practicing through trial and error. The director Yuning Su from MIT’s Wuming Club majors in Directing and Film Studies, so he has pertinent theoretical knowledge as well as practical experiences, and tried his best to utilize his expertise in their production. “Before rehearsals, I would arrange training for our actors, just like what I have learned from class. We spent almost every weekend learning, practicing and making progress.”

Although these challenges were tough, they also contributed to the unmeasurable emotional rewards and satisfaction members felt after a successful performance. They were delighted to see that besides the Chinese audience, there were also non-native speakers in the audience, and some of them even posted their fondness of the performance online. Students from MIT’s Wuming Club told us that they asked a professional translator to produce an English version of the whole script to ensure those non-native Mandarin speakers could experience the charm of their production. 

To promote Chinese performing arts in America is a long-term goal for students in Chinese theatre clubs. They all noted how happy they were to see some progress made, but in this English-speaking society, they still have a long way to go. In the future, they will continue producing high-quality productions in Mandarin, trying their best to enrich the lives of Chinese people who live in America and offer a means for other people to learn more about Chinese culture.

Group photo (MIT)

The author Sicheng Luo currently studies Comparative Literature at Brown University, and will graduate in 2020.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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