The Faces Of A Master

Bianlian_FotorIn my school we are in the process of writing a new curriculum for our younger students and one of my roles has been to gather together materials for an online course to compliment and enrich the taught classroom practice. This week I have been working on a Mask unit and it suddenly struck me that there was one particular practice involving mask that would be perfect for that course and one that I have not explored here on Theatre Room. 

Biàn Liǎn (变脸) or Face Changing has a long and traditional history in China, first appearing in Sichuan Opera during the Quing Dynasty, almost 300 years ago. Opera in China, it needs to be understood, takes many forms, depending on where it originated. Here in Hong Kong we have Cantonese Opera, as I have written about many times before. However, Sichuan Opera is a little different to most traditional forms. It tends to be more ‘play-like’ and less constrained, with more entertaining elements to enliven the performance. These included sword fighting, fire eating, beard-changing and Biàn Liǎn. Now if you live outside China it is unlikely that you will have ever seen Biàn Liǎn. It is a closely guarded art form and taught only be a few old masters, although it is seen more often today in other Asian countries. Before I go any further, have a look at this:

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It isn’t surprising that information about Biàn Liǎn in english is quite limited, but you can get a decent understanding its history and how it works here and here.

MTMyNTgyODAxODQzMjVfMQThere a number of rumours surrounding Biàn Liǎn which I quite like. Firstly that the secret of Bian Lian leaked out during a 1986 visit of a Sichuan Opera troupe to Japan. Indeed, the Japanese are big fans of the face changer (and see the video below). Secondly, that Biàn Liǎn is one of the traditional arts protected by Chinese secrecy laws although officials of the Ministry of Culture of in China have stated that this is not true. Thirdly, Hong Kong Canto pop star Andy Lau offered to pay Bian Lian master Peng Denghuai 3,000,000 yuan (which is about US$360,000) to learn the techniques. Although Lau did learn the from Peng, both deny any money changed hands. If it did, Lau wasted his cash as he seems not yet to have mastered the art. All three of these rumours are touched upon in a South China Morning Post article from 2010, which you can download here The Secret Art. The SCMP also have a video interview with another Biàn Liǎn master, Wai Shui-kan which is worth a watch:

One more video, from NTDTV is another interesting source:

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Although I have not had the pleasure of seeing a full Sichuan Opera, I did see a Biàn Liǎn performance in Nanjing a couple of years ago and it was breath-taking. A captivating, magical theatrical feast.

Their Voices Are Far Too Few

Voting comes to a close tomorrow in the world largest democracy. The Indian general election has lasted 6 weeks, beginning on 7th April, with over 814.5 million people eligible to vote. Much has been published about the state of the nation and one article that particularly caught my attention was by Anupama Chandrasekhar and Akash Mohimen for The Guardian. Chandrasekhar and Mohimen are playwrights and in their piece The threats to political theatre in India: fundamentalism and escapism, they explore the integral role theatre has played in India’s freedom struggle in the past and question its purpose today, reflecting on censorship, audience expectations and the new voices seeking to be heard.

Anupama Chandrasekhar

Elections in India have always been high-decibel, high-emotion events, a period in which art and artists are most vulnerable to attack by fundamentalists. Twenty-five years ago, the street-theatre playwright and director Safdar Hashmi was killed in the middle of a performance during local municipal elections near Delhi. Last month, when the country was in the throes of electioneering, Evam, a Chennai theatre group, was pressurised by the police departments of three cities to cancel their shows of Ali J, a monologue on what it means to be a Muslim today.

Anupama Chandrasekhar

Anupama Chandrasekhar

The increasing number of fundamentalist groups targeting theatre companies across the country has become a cause for concern. A website of a fundamentalist group lists six plays they’ve had censored within the last three years, among other films, TV shows, commercials and books.. India was once far more tolerant of political theatre. While there was the odd case of a play being banned (the ban on Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder was later revoked), explicitly political plays were allowed free reign in the 1970s (barring the Emergency years) and early 80s, particularly in my hometown, Chennai. As a child I watched in Tamil insightful political explorations in many guises: satires, spectacular mythologies, powerful social realism and laugh-a-minute drawing-room farces. Social realist Komal Swaminathan, satirist Cho Ramaswamy and mythologist Manohar were household names then.

The rise of fundamentalism has been an obvious deterrent to serious political theatre. But a bigger and more insidious threat has been what Brett Bailey would call the “sanitized demands of the market”. There’s a growing tendency to provide safe, escapist entertainment rather than dialogue with the world around us. While the older generation of theatre practitioners like Mahesh Dattani, Sunil Shanbag, Maya Rao, Na Muthuswamy, Gnani Sankaran and Mangai Arasu continue to ask urgent questions about who we are as a nation, many of my generation appear to have fallen prey to the exigencies of the market. Neil Simon and Yasmina Reza are Chennai’s two most popular and frequently staged playwrights of the English language. The pattern is eerily similar in other cities too.

Disconnect by Anupama Chandrasekhar at the Royal Court theatre

Disconnect by Anupama Chandrasekhar at the Royal Court theatre

In this din of safe comedies and news channel-induced hysteria, there are new voices seeking to be heard: Irawati Karnik, Abhishek Majumdar, Neel Chaudhuri, to name a few. The young Chennai director Aruna Ganesh Ram recently embarked on a pan-Indian verbatim project this election year to explore the concept of freedom. Director Quasar Padamsee’s project So Many Socks, based on Tenzin Tsundue’s collection of poems and stories, explores Tibet, nationhood and the individual. Swar Thounaojam, a Manipuri playwright and activist, wields the English language as a weapon and a tool to explore her subaltern identity.

But in a country with a population of over a billion, their voices are far too few.

Akash Mohimen

Traditionally, theatre has been an integral thread in the social fabric of India. It was used to spread news, socio-political awareness, propaganda and entertainment. Theatre played a vital role in India’s freedom struggle, bringing messages preached by the leaders to communities hundreds of miles away. It was one of the many sparks that gave rise to one of the world’s largest freedom movements.

In the 21st century, Indian theatre seems to have lost some of this spark. Political plays are few and far between.

Akash Mohimen

Akash Mohimen

Barring the continuous adaptations of Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar’s texts from the 70s, there are only a handful of political plays doing the rounds.

There are plenty of contemporary writers trying to strike a balance between storytelling and shedding light upon important topics that have long been untouched. But audiences always prefer to keep such productions at arm’s length. They jump to conclusions that they are depressing and preachy; the message going around these days is “make them use their brains”.

I believe the reason for such a mind-set is lack of awareness. Audiences have little or no idea of what’s happening beyond their own city limits. When they hear about a play on the Kashmir issue, they immediately shun it, rather than become intrigued by the theme and witness a tale of friendship, lost innocence and survivor’s guilt.

The influence of the motion picture industry has affected theatre ticket sales. People would rather spend 400 rupees for a multiplex ticket on a Sunday, than 300 rupees for a play at Prithvi theatre. And their reason is mostly the same: escapism.

With such a thought process, it is fast becoming difficult to stay afloat by practising theatre alone. No matter how passionate one feels about this medium, one needs to branch out to films, commercials, event management and education to have some sort of financial support. There are few who can truly say that they earn their livelihood out of theatre.

Mahua by Akash Mohimen

Mahua by Akash Mohimen

Despite corporate funding over the last few years, most productions barely break even. In fact, some lose money each time the actors step on stage. But they keep coming back year after year, because of the sheer love for the stage.

Theatre in rural India remains the truest form of Indian theatre. There are parts of the country where, every festive season, a performance will be organised free of charge. A performance could be put together by a teacher, farmer, policeman and postman, where the whole village will participate. Irrespective of subject matter or story, they will lend their ears. The laughter and tears of the audience are a major adrenaline rush for the actors and musicians on stage. Everyone involved is as moved as the audience watching.

Anupama Chandrasekhar and Akash Mohimen are part of the Royal Court’s writing programme in India

Voices Within

A quick little post from me today. An episode from a BBC World Service programme called  The Why Factor.

Untitled_FotorFrom sub Saharan Africa to the west coast tribes of Canada to the Mardi Gras of Rio, New Orleans and Venice, masks define realities – of religious belief, of healing power, of theatre and entertainment, of concealment and of memorialisation in death. They have been around as long as humanity and they evoke both fascination and fear. Mike Williams traces the power and culture of masks and asks why we have them and what they mean for us.

Click the icon below to listen to the podcast. Not entirely related to theatre but fascinating none-the-less.

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A group wearing masks of legendary heroes as they perform a dance in Minhe County of Qinghai Province, north-west China

A Fine Line?

So is it theatre or dance?

This is a question I often find myself answering. Actually, to be precise, is a question I encourage my students to find an answer to for themselves. DV8Tanztheater Wuppertal, SITI and ZenZenZo are amongst the companies around the world that fall into neither one camp or another. In the West this issue with classification is perhaps more significant than here in the East where ancient theatre traditions tend to be dance based. Even more contemporary theatre movements in Asia have a more dance related aesthetic, butoh being a perfect example.

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ZenZenZo

DV8 says of itself that their ‘work is about taking risks, aesthetically and physically, about breaking down the barriers between dance and theatre’. In its philosophy, SITI says that ‘The theater is a gymnasium for the soul’ and of course Butoh is also called the Dance of Darkness’. 

So what do we do when a form defies classification? Well, we call it physical theatre of course, the broadest of all definitions that is so over-used it is almost meaningless. It was therefore with great interest that I read a piece written by Katie Colombus, for The Stage entitled Let’s get physical with dance.

DV8

DV8

In it, Colombus explores her own assumptions about where the line is drawn -‘I generally belong to the art is life, movement is dance school of thought – if it’s physical then it’s dance, and theatre for the most part is always physical (unless we’re talking floating Beckett heads but this is rare in the extreme)’. She had been to see a piece by LA based company, Wilderness, called The Day Shall Declare It.

Let’s get physical with dance

I often have to answer the question “but why did they train in dance to do that? That wasn’t exactly dancing, was it?” when seeing contemporary work.

This week the roles were switched around when I went to see The Day Shall Declare It, a physical theatre piece by LA company Wilderness, choreographed by Sophie Bortolussi. I was interested to see how non-dancers would cope with choreographed movement, and how theatre with elements of movement is different from physical theatre, is different from dance.

I generally belong to the art is life, movement is dance school of thought – if it’s physical then it’s dance, and theatre for the most part is always physical (unless we’re talking floating Beckett heads but this is rare in the extreme).

The Day Shall Declare It is made up of Tennessee William scripts interspersed with choreographic interludes. The performers are not dancers, they are actors, and although some scenes look like dance phrases, there is a distinctly physical tone to the experience that is really very different from the dance work I’m used to:

More raw, less polished, not perfectly hitting steps or sequences, but committing to the physicality nonetheless.

It adds to the play an extra dimension of communication that really brings home certain points – the seductive tango of when a couple first meets in a post-depression dance hall; lifting and moving around each other in close quarters adding to the claustrophobia of their narrative, reaching upwards and outwards of their small-town banal existence; slamming against window boxes and flinging/falling face first over leather rocking chairs while quaffing bourbon in a squiffy homo-erotic party scene.

Artistic director Annie Saunders is articulate in her reasons for using physical theatre to make a point:

When the recession hit, the personal, private question of the meaning of working – “what do I want to do?” versus “what will I live on?” – seemed to become immediately, drastically public. I wanted to make a piece that explored this and looked to a similar historical moment, the Great Depression, and the extensive canon of American labour plays.

This piece is an effort to creatively conflate these period texts with a free-form theatrical model and contemporary movement score, echoing the responses of the current moment, such as Occupy Wall Street, which for me took on a powerful and spontaneous choreography of its own.

Theatre expressed through movement is rather more sophisticated than merely being mime (thank you, Barrault). Part of it is the focus on the body, the unctuous flow between narrative, physicality, storytelling and expression from actor to actor and to the audience. The best thing about it is the fact it isn’t a slave to music or time signatures or phrases, it can flow purely from the momentum of the moment.

As far back as Artaud, theatre practitioners were encouraged to have a closer experience with the actors – scripts and spoken word alone being a metaphorical barrier to the audience. Since then physical theatre has thrived under DV8, Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, Motionhouse, Clod Ensemble and Theatre De Complicite, to name but a few, all companies fluent in both verbal and physical dexterity. Here the actors certainly have a more direct relationship with the audience, we are spoken to, moved around the space, sat by.

Part of it is how the piece has been created – often through group improvisation rather than simply reading parts. It’s an experience that brings you closer to your castmates in terms of proximity, intensity and impact. There is an excitement and chemistry that is palpable, particularly when in closer quarters to the cast (as is the case with Wilderness) – their collective energy and connection.

In essence the performance is more conceptual than a straightforward play, but it’s performed in a way that is intriguing and alluring. The integration of disciplines allows for further development of words, bodies and acting techniques. Expression and gesture can grow and when repeated the experience becomes more ritualistic, there are more layers to peel back.

The Day Shall Declare It hints at stories and alludes to events in distinct sections that don’t need to be understood in the way as linear narrative. It is more than enough to experience than to understand, as their reviews prove. Movement and speech are ultimately two instruments used for the same purpose – communication to an audience. Together, they are a powerful tool.

East meets East

A quick post to share an item from the BBC Hindi service, about the growing experimentation with physical theatre in India. The report is from the The Bharat Rang Mahotsav International Theatre Festival of India which is in its 16th year and features a Butoh inspired piece, Maya II.

Physical theatre draws attention of theatre-lovers in India

Theatre in India has often been deeply traditional, using storylines, dialogue and song to reflect issues in society.

But over the last few years at the annual theatre festival held in Delhi, a different type of production has been gaining popularity.

Inspired by their international counterparts, Indian directors are experimenting with forms of physical theatre which use light, sound and body movements to tell the story.

Click the image below to see the report by Divya Arya

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A Fellow Named Meng

The other day I posted about the superstitions that exist in western theatre, so in the interests of balance and world theatre traditions, today I have an extract from The Illuminated Lantern: A Short History of Chinese Opera which, not surprisingly, covers the same but in Chinese theatre.

In western theater, a number of superstitions have grown up among performers. Many words and phrases are avoided backstage, as they are said to cause bad luck. For example, actors never say “Good Luck” to each other, they say, “break a leg.” Whistling backstage is also said to bring bad luck. As is, most curiously, saying “Macbeth.” When one wishes to discuss Macbeth in the theater, one should always refer to it as “the Scottish play.” In Chinese Opera, similar superstitions exist.

The words Meng and Keng are particularly important. One should never say Meng at the back of the stage, nor Keng at the front of the stage. These prohibitions stem from the story of Yu Meng, a legendary jester who is said to have impersonated a famous scholar at the court as long ago as 403 B.C. The king was so impressed by the impersonation that lavish favors were bestowed (though respectfully declined).

Yu Meng

Yu Meng

Another superstition involves the doll that Chinese Opera troupes use to represent babies on stage. These dolls possess the soul of the child they represent. Before and after each performance with these dolls, the actors would pay their respects to it. During the performance, it was always left facing the sky, and afterwards, it was always packed facing the earth. The film Attack of the Joyful Goddess explores this superstition in violent, bloody detail.

Since the Opera often concerns itself with the supernatural world, it’s players must be ever more respectful of the laws of that world, and ritual and ceremony must be performed properly and with respect. Tales like the one which begins Hocus Pocus are often told of Chinese Opera troupes who visit a remote town and give a performance, only to find in the morning that the town did not exist and that they were entertaining ghosts. It is traditional that during some Taoist ceremonies, and especially during the Ghost Festival in the seventh month, an Opera Troupe would perform in front of the shrine, to entertain the spirits of that place. Ultimate Vampire begins with a performance of this type. These days, a TV may often be seen facing a shrine to provide similar entertainment to the gods. Though if I were an angry spirit, I can only imagine the suffering I would inflict on anyone who decided to set up a TV in front of MY shrine.

T'ang Ming Huang

T’ang Ming Huang

The Patron Saint of Chinese Opera is T’ang Ming Huang. A figure or tablet of T’ang Ming Huang is set up in every theater, and incense was burnt to him before every performance. He was believed to have the power to make each actor perform well or badly. Military actors typically honor another tablet, representing the spirit Wu Ch’ang. This spirit was believed to possess special abilities, including the cruelty needed to wage a successful campaign. Four famous generals from the Warring States period were said to have this spirit’s ability bestowed upon them.

Opening a new theater is a special occasion for ceremony, to ‘purify’ the stage, and drive away devils and harmful spirits. The stage must be doused in dog’s blood or chicken’s blood, while actors appear on the stage dressed as spirits, carrying whips, tablets, and masks. This ceremony thus drives away the devils, placates them, and ensures that they do not appear on stage again.

Breathing Life

Peter Glanville

Peter Glanville

My first post today is a follow-up to an earlier one, On A Wing And A Prayer, about a puppet production of Macbeth and puppetry for adults. Theatre Voice has just interviewed Macbeth’s director Peter Glanville who talks about the show, puppetry in general and its popularity and you can listen to the interview here:

Director Peter Glanville talks puppets and puppetry

It is a worth while listen, as he talks about Bunraku as a puppetry form and why there is a trend for creating puppet theatre for adults. You are left in no doubt that puppetry is a thriving world theatre form that is increasingly being embraced by theatre critics and audiences alike. Long may this continue.

 

In the interview, reference is made to the Suspense Festival, which Glanville started a few years ago, which focuses on puppetry that is specifically made for adult audiences. This year’s festival is about to open, featuring work from companies from a number of countries, much of which has toured internationally. Check who is performing here and just what a diverse range of puppetry style are being showcased.

Theatre on a Tear Drop

I’m conscious that Reading Room hasn’t been living up to the Asia bit of its name of late , so I am putting that right today. Those of you that read me regularly will know that one country I hold dear for many reasons is India, and as a result I know quite a lot about its theatrical life. Not so for its south-eastern neighbour, Sri Lanka, though.  So I have been collecting a few bits and pieces that I want to share today.

09Apr07_125_FotorSri Lanka has been through years of bloodshed and struggle between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. It’s not surprising therefore that during this time the arts have struggled and many traditions have been hidden. One of the best sources of information I have found is the Active Theatre Movement which has as a goal, building a rich theatre culture for the nation development. The site isn’t very well maintained but there are some real gems on there. One that really interested me is Drama and Theatre Arts among the Tamils of Sri Lanka and is well worth a read, putting theatre in terms of the conflict and the traditions of the Tamil people. Also, much of the writing out there focuses on Sinhalese theatre traditions so this is a good, balancing source.

In common with a lot of asian theatre traditions, Sri Lanka’s is largely dance based underpinned by ancient ritual. Perhaps the one that is best known, is the Kandyan Dance – Uda Rata Natum – that originates from the ancient royal capital, Kandy. According to the legend, the origins of the dance lies in an exorcism ritual. However, today, the genre is considered the classical dance of Sri Lanka. You can read more here.

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Another, less formal dance genre, again from an exorcism ritual, is the Salu Paliya or the Shawl Dance. This is a comic dance featuring the spirit Salu Paliya wearing a white shawl. Salu brings the blessings of the goddess Pattini to the patient. The appearance of this spirit in the healing ritual known as the Tovil has a specific significance – although demonic in appearance, Salu acts as a clown and uplifts the spirits of the patient and takes away his fear.

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09Apr07_391_Fotor

The other notable feature of Sri Lankan theatre tradition is the use of mask, and again this goes back centuries and is rooted in folklore.

More about masks in the articles listed below, especially The Yakun Natima – devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka

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On of the best sources I have found is the Sri Lanka Virtual Library.  I have taken a number of articles from there, in pdf form:

Ritual Dancing in rural Sri Lanka09Apr07_316_Fotor

Mystery of the masks

Dance and music of the Sinhalese

Dances of Sri Lanka

Drums of Sri Lanka

Kolam, Sakari and Nadagan Theater in Sri Lanka

The Yakun Natima – devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka

Classical Dances of Sri Lanka

Did Sinhala Drama Originate in Christmas

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Building the House

In another life I think I would have loved to have been a theatre designer. They are artists, architects, engineers and magicians all rolled into one. We sometimes forget they are there, that the set is another actor in the space. In the next few days the World Stage Design conference opens in Cardiff, Wales.

WSD_Fotor

WSD is described as a celebration of international performance design from the world of theatre, opera and dance as well as public performances and installations in non theatre spaces that takes place every 4 years. WSD started life in 2005 in Toronto, Canada. In 2009 it was held in Seoul, South Korea. While reading about it, I also learned about OISTAT, the International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians a global network of theatre makers celebrating design and technology in live performance. The websites for both these organisations make interesting perusing.

I would really like to be at WSD, I think it would be a fascinating and exciting few days. However, I did raise a rye smile when I saw they were building a temporary, sustainable theatre for the conference, known as The Willow Theatre, lauding it as something new:

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Now I know that I have seen them being built for many years and in an even more sustainable way:

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The location for WSD2017 is yet to be decided, but perhaps they should start thinking about calling in the traditional bamboo theatre builders in instead? Mind you, one of the designers behind the The Willow is Chinese-american architect Tim Lai so perhaps it is just a modern take on a centuries old craft.

Power To The People?

6a00d83451688869e20120a72085e1970b-800wiA quick post from me today, a longer one coming tomorrow. You need to read my previous post, Worlds Apart, to make sense of this one. It is fascinating to read Lyn Gardner’s take on The Tragedy of Coriolanus by Beijing People’s Art theatre given what Lin Zhaohua has to say about his direction and why he does Shakespeare in China. A real East versus West cultural conundrum, I think. The review was published in The Guardian this week.

Beijing People’s Art Theatre go for bombast, but slack pacing and an underused chorus leave it more mediocre than menacing

It sure is big, and – with no less than two Chinese rock bands on stage – it’s full of sound and fury, but while Beijing People’s Art Theatre pump up the volume on Shakespeare’s tragedy of power and violence, the result is oddly muted. With its themes of arrogance, leadership, a discontented mob and democracy, this should be a fascinating choice of play for a company hailing from a country where there is no political opposition, human rights are regularly abused and protest is frequently stamped out.

But this production remains mysteriously opaque, offering empty spectacle in the place of nuanced political comment and metaphor. Unlike the Shakespeare that came out of Romania and Poland during their communist eras, it seems determined to offer no comment upon the society that spawned it. Maybe it says something about the contempt in which the mass of the people are held by the country’s political leadership that the mob here have a desultory feel, wandering around looking vaguely hippyish, waving their arms unconvincingly and muttering the Chinese equivalent of “rhubarb, rhubarb”. They are so under-energised that they are never a real threat to anyone, except perhaps to their own health and safety in getting on and off the stage without tripping over each other.

The slackness of the crowd scenes is reflected in a production which was first performed in 2007 – and which often looks in need of a jolly good dust-down. Even the aesthetic is inconsistent, at times pared down and stripped back, and at others including cumbersome sofas and carts. Like a great deal in this production, the ladders at the back of the stage are there for effect only, and serve no purpose.

It’s not all mediocre flashiness. Pu Cunxin’s arrogant Coriolanus enters with a rock-star assurance and has a rumbling power, like a capped volcano. The scenes between him and his mother (Li Zhen) have genuine power and tension, particularly in their final encounter, which seals Coriolanus’s fate. But overall an evening which is epic, but not in a good way.

 

Other critics took different views and raised interesting questions.  You can read them here, here and here.