China-UK physical theater coproduction ‘The Dreamer’ seeks to challenge Chinese audiences

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/2 18:28:41

Promotional material for The Dreamer Photo: Courtesy of Tang Shi


Promotional material for The Dreamer Photo: Courtesy of Tang Shi

She stands in front of us behind a white and plain Chinese screen on which her black shadow stands in the center of a big round circle of light, like a live action shadow puppet show. Dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, she holds a peony flower in one hand while she dances, then turns around and slides her other hand - fingers positioned to look like an orchid flower - along her chin.

Although her facial expressions cannot be seen, the woman's femininity, playfulness and gentleness burst out from the screen. She is Du Liniang, the heroine from the famed Kun Opera The Peony Pavilion, written by Tang Xianzu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

But what audiences in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province, watched during the opening day of the Nanjing Youth Drama Festival on Saturday was anything but a traditional Chinese opera. The Dreamer is a physical theater production coproduced by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC) and the British Gecko Theatre in 2016 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of drama icon Shakespeare and his contemporary Tang's deaths. Inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Peony Pavilion, The Dreamer follows modern metropolitan woman Helena as she travels through layer after layer of complicated dreams to deal with her anxiety and find peace of mind.

The cast is from the SDAC, while the director, movement director, composers and stage effects specialists are from Gecko. So far, The Dreamer has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017 and the Auckland Arts Festival in 2019, each time earning highly positive reviews from critics. The play's executive producer Tang Shi told the Global Times that The Dreamer is constantly evolving and getting more and more fleshed out. The version performed in Nanjing is the third iteration and will continue to tour other Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Chongqing. 

Beyond language

Created during brainstorming sessions between the Gecko and SDAC, The Dreamer does not have a script as language is not the main means through which the plot is portrayed or emotions expressed, instead the physical movements of the performers take center stage. The Gecko has earned itself a high reputation for itself in this area through famed works such as Institute and The Overcoat.   

Relying mainly on body language and one's breathing to create an immersive and overwhelming stage play is not something many Chinese performers have experience with. Chris Evans, a Gecko performer and the movement director for The Dreamer, told the Global Times that they spent a lot of time convincing Chinese performers that they were free to use their hands to express everything in drama and that their bodies could be as expressive as their hands. 

"Chinese drama is rooted in language," Evans said, going on to explain that they made a "magical breakthrough" during training.

Rich Rusk, the play's director, further explained that because every performer on stage needs to constantly be moving all the time, they limited the time to 70 minutes to keep them from becoming too tired. 

Chinese performers left a deep impression on their British coworkers. Rusk praised the Chinese team for their ability to work as a team and help and support one another. Chinese performers' professionalism and hard working spirit also earned them Evans' respect.

Growing cooperation

Evans was very optimistic when asked whether he thought Chinese audiences would accept the show. 

"I don't think it's a huge stretch for Chinese because they are very open minded," Evans said, adding that Chinese audiences have encountered different forms and genres of stage plays ranging from foreign classics or new productions coproduced by multinational teams.

Many classic Western stage works such as ballet Swan Lake or opera Turandot have become very familiar to Chinese audiences and frequently appear in theaters around the county. When the immersive theater work Sleep No More landed in Shanghai in 2016, it quickly became a phenomenal success in China, earning a 9.3/10 on Chinese review platform Douban.

International stage play cooperation is extensive in China. For example, SDAC conducts two to three international cooperation projects with artistic teams worldwide every year. Meanwhile, Rusk arrived in China on Friday to prepare his second coproduction based on the ancient Chinese work The Classic of Mountains and Rivers, a collection of Chinese myths. 

Reflecting on and comparing her tour experiences in China and abroad, Tang said what stood out to her was the different stage play watching habits of Chinese and overseas audiences. "When Chinese audiences learn The Dreamer was inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Tang's The Peony Pavilion, they will try to rationally work out the connections between these works from the perspective of their scripts," noted Tang. She pointed out that foreign audiences tend to simply appreciate the show using their senses because they are more familiar with different forms of stage plays.

She admitted that one reason that Chinese approach plays this way is because dramas are usually very script oriented. 

"But we should not indulge people's watching habits. We should also challenge them. I believe there will be more and more Chinese audiences who can understand poetic and metaphorical storytelling methods," she said. 

Newspaper headline: Get moving

Posted in: THEATER

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