No Ordinary Days: After a Century of Internationalism, Chinese Spoken Drama Goes Global in a New Way. (Where in the World)

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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 he 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 Meng 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. …