Worlds Apart

Over the course of the summer I have written about Shakespeare a couple of times. Today I am going to share two articles about two plays currently in production from opposite sides of the world. Firstly, Coriolanus directed by Lin Zhaohua for the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing in Mandarin and Hamlet, by The Wooster Group in New York. Both are currently on at The Edinburgh Festival.

The first is by Andrew Dixon for the Guardian, entitled

Guitar hero: Coriolanus goes rock

China’s most controversial director is bringing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to Edinburgh – with two heavy-metal bands in tow

It’s 45 minutes to showtime at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing. Backstage, actors in civvies are padding around, studiously avoiding the clock. Behind a dressing-room door, someone is making heavy weather of their warmup. Suddenly, the strangulated squeal of an electric guitar shakes the building, like a crack of thunder. No one bats an eyelid.

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The closest most British stagings of Shakespeare get to guitars is the occasional lute. But in China, it seems, they prefer their Bard a little gnarlier. This is The Tragedy of Coriolanus by Lin Zhaohua, routinely described as China’s most controversial theatre director. First performed in 2007, it is big in every sense: there’s a cast of more than 100, and the action takes place on a near-empty stage against a vast, blood-red brick wall.

But the real surprise is the soundtrack: two live heavy-metal bands, going under the colourful names of Miserable Faith and Suffocated, who slide in periodically from the wings and punctuate the action with frenzied surges of nu-metal. This might be the only version of Shakespeare’s tragedy – the story of a hot-headed general who goes to war against his own people – that turns it into a battle of the bands.

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The director is hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke in the theatre cafe. Were it not for the translator hovering at his elbow, you’d mistake Lin for an elderly caretaker: a slight, somewhat caved-in figure, his jacket hanging absent-mindedly off one shoulder. But, behind neat spectacles, his dark eyes are pin-sharp. He claps me on the shoulder as I sit down; I sense I’m being sized up.

First things first: why the heavy metal? “I wanted to use rock music to display the fierceness of the war, and the rioting of the citizens,” he says. “At first I wanted bands from Germany … I listened to a lot of them, but I didn’t like their electronic sounds. So Yi Liming, my designer, showed me around different parts of Beijing. I chose two of the bands I saw.”

The music certainly adds a volcanic energy. The text has been translated into contemporary Mandarin, and here in Beijing (unlike at the Edinburgh international festival, where the show will open later this month) there are no surtitles. The scalding force of Shakespeare’s verse, though, is echoed in the roaring guitars and pulsing bass. It’s a high-voltage experience, particularly when the Roman mob, dressed in semi-druidic robes, rush onstage brandishing wooden staffs – like a cross between a scene from Star Wars and Reading festival. In the interval, the musicians entertain the crowd, a flock of teenagers pressing close, clicking away with their cameraphones.

Lin smiles. “Some dramatists and critics don’t like the idea of using rock music, and they criticise my way of doing productions.” How does he feel about that? A shrug. “I don’t care.”

Combing the city’s nightspots for musical accompaniment sounds energetic for a director now in his late 70s. But Lin has never done things by the book. After graduating from the Beijing Central Academy of Drama in 1961, he joined the People’s Art Theatre (BPAT) – China’s equivalent of the RSC – as an actor, only to find his career stymied by the Cultural Revolution. Afterwards, he joined forces with the dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who would later win the Nobel prize. A trio of plays, beginning with 1982’s Absolute Signal, all but launched experimental theatre in China, with a confrontational, often absurdist style that unnerved the communist authorities.

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In the decades since, Lin has been prolific, flitting between new drama, stylised Peking Opera and ambitious reworkings of western classics. According to Li Ruru, an academic who has written extensively on Chinese theatre, Lin is “a major voice. He’s been doing experimental theatre for more than 30 years, at the absolute vanguard of Chinese spoken drama.” But his approach hasn’t always done him favours: one critic described him and Gao as “harbingers of strangeness” for their efforts to release drama from the straitjacket of Soviet-era social realism. The director refuses even this pigeonholing: “I have no style,” he has repeatedly told interviewers.

Anyone expecting peony-strewn chinoiserie – like that offered by the National Ballet of China two festivals ago – will be in for a shock. This is a Coriolanus of muscular clashes and brutal comedowns; of a leader always itching to administer the hair-dryer treatment, and who does nothing to disguise his detestation of the masses.

In the lead role is one of China’s most famous stage actors, Pu Cunxin: a disconcertingly polite figure who apologies for his sore throat – the consequence of competing with two metal groups. “It is an unusual way of performing,” he admits. “We don’t normally have this kind of collaboration in China. The noise is just so powerful on stage, but we need the rock music to express these emotions. It parallels Shakespeare’s ideas.”

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I’m struck by one moment in particular, where Coriolanus’s arch-rival Aufidius grabs a microphone during a battle scene, looking half like a wannabe rock god, half like a politician channelling the energy of the crowd. Politics are everywhere in Coriolanus: the play has been claimed both by leftwing critics as a primer on the dangers of demagoguery, and by the right as a lesson in the fickleness of the masses (the Roman citizens at first swoon over their apparently invincible general, then later turn on him). Given these paradoxes, it feels an oddly appropriate play for present-day China, a country nominally communist, but with an economy many capitalists would trade their copies of Milton Friedman for. On the short walk from my hotel to the theatre, two blocks from the Forbidden City, I drift through a shopping district crammed with western luxury brands; one window of a photography shop is jewelled with glittering Japanese cameras, the other with portraits of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. It would be harder to find a clearer image of Deng’s infamous”socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

What does Lin see in Shakespeare’s text? “The relations between the hero and the common citizens,” he replies. “In ancient Rome, people admired heroes. From my point of view, Coriolanus is a hero.” Is there a resonance with contemporary China? “It’s a good phenomenon if the play refers to current events. Those in power like to control citizens, and some common citizens are foolish.”

I want to find out about a previous Shakespeare production, Lin’s Beckettian staging of Hamlet, first seen in 1989. Performed in a rehearsal room at BPAT, the only prop a barber’s chair, it had three actors (one of them Pu) sharing the roles of Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius. Depending on your perspective, it captured either capitalist alienation, or the disillusion that followed the collapse of the student protests at Tiananmen Square. The parallels were cloudy – theatrical censorship is vigorously alive in the People’s Republic – but there to be seen.

Lin freely admits the show was unusual: in contrast to the traditional Chinese way of presenting Shakespeare, with wigs and western-style makeup (sometimes even prosthetic noses), his actors wore their own clothes, in a conscious decision to show the student prince as just another guy. But he is reluctant to open up on the wider issues. “I hate politics,” he says stoutly. “Hamlet has nothing to do with politics. It’s just about a person’s situation.” I can’t tell whether he’s genuinely uninterested, or unwilling to be frank with a British journalist. “I never discuss politics. I don’t think you can direct a production just from politics.” He isn’t even convinced, he says, he’s avant-garde. “I don’t have that concept. I just direct the production from my interests and from the needs of the play.”

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Our time is nearly up; his lighter is snapping impatiently. Last question: does he like being called a rebel? “I don’t have preconceptions about what I’m going to create,” he stonewalls. “I just follow my instincts.”

I realise as I’m rushed out that I’ve forgotten to ask one thing – why direct Shakespeare in the first place? Why stage reach for a playwright four centuries old? When I email, the answer comes back quicker than I expect. It reads: “It gives me the freedom to say what I want.”

537273_582437285116480_15271441_nInterestingly, the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Studio has it’s own Facebook page which is where all the above images came from.

There is a fantastic outline of him and his work here where he is described as a very controversial drama director in China…one of the most significant figures in Chinese drama history you can’t ignore – whether you love him or not.

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The second article today is also from the Guardian, by Hermione Hoby, exploring with the Wooster Group why, after all these years of experimental theatre, they decided to ‘do’ Shakespeare.

Wooster Group take on Shakespeare with Hamlet remix

Before Punchdrunk, or Complicite, or Forced Entertainment, or any other experimental theatre company you can name, there was New York’s Wooster Group, an avant-garde ensemble legendary not just for the work it has made since the 1970s, but also for the love affairs and betrayals that have coloured its history. As former member Willem Dafoe has put it: “You become accomplices in life. There’s a terrific power in that. The other side is, there’s no place to run.”

Since 1974 the company has worked out of the Performing Garage in Soho – a Manhattan neighbourhood once characterised by derelict lofts and heroin dealers and now given over to Prada boutiques and cupcake-centric cafes. This year they’re bringing one of their most successful shows ever – a remixed Hamlet devised from a filmed 1964 production starring Richard Burton – to the Edinburgh international festival.

I meet company members Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in the big empty black box of their theatre and, seated on the steps of the auditorium, Shepherd explains that he directed the play years ago as a student at Brown University. Ever since, he says, he’s had it stuck in his head. That’s not, it turns out, a figure of speech. “He has a photographic memory,” Valk explains, mock-wearily. “It’s kind of obnoxious at times.”

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The skill is what enabled him, for example, to memorise all 49,000 words of The Great Gatsby for Elevator Repair Service’s acclaimed stage adaptation, Gatz. Hamlet though, was rooted even deeper. Eventually, with speeches still running through his head, it began to feel “like something that needed to be exorcised”.

And so he persuaded Valk, who claims to have suffered from what she calls “Shakespeare deficit disorder”, to join him in after-hours work on the text. From that moment in 2006, very slowly, their production began to take shape.

It began with the two of them, but the woman who continues to hold the company together – the matriarch, you might say – is the quietly formidable 69-year-old Elizabeth LeCompte. The Wooster Group emerged amid the creative ferment of 70s downtown New York, but it was her relationship with Spalding Gray, the late actor and writer, that dynamised the company. After graduating from Skidmore College she got together with Gray – as well as Valk, Jim Clayburgh, Ron Vawter, Peyton Smith and Dafoe – with whom she went on to have a son and a 27-year relationship. Dafoe ended it abruptly in 2004, the same year Gray took his own life by throwing himself from the Staten Island ferry. Miraculously, she weathered it with the company intact.

Before she met Gray in the mid 60s, LeCompte had little interest in theatre and had studied art, thinking she might become an architect like her father. “I think maybe,” she says, “it was just a mistake – I got together with Spalding not because I thought I was going to get involved with theatre but when Richard Schechner [the group’s original artistic director] hired me, I realised that it was really a good place.”

By 1975 she was staging Gray’s famous Rhode Island Trilogy, an autobiographical work that details his childhood and the suicide of his mother through monologue as well as personal materials such as letters and photographs. In 1980, Schechner left, LeCompte became artistic director and they changed their name from the Performing Group to the Wooster Group. What drove them then, I ask. She inhales. “It’s hard to know … I don’t know whether it was just youth, because it wasn’t exactly idealism. We weren’t afraid of anybody. We had a certain kind of feeling of the world was ours, so we could do what we wanted.”

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The company seems to retain that sense of boundlessness, I suggest.

“You really don’t really know where you’re going to end up when you start,” she agrees. “And there’s something very exhilarating about that, but it’s also very difficult. In most theatres the director has to know what’s there so the other people involved can rely on her. I don’t afford anyone that comfort. I’m as confused as everybody else a lot of the time.”

When LeCompte began working on Hamlet, “I didn’t really think I was working on Shakespeare, I thought I was working out on figuring outabout Shakespeare. I kind of came in a side door.” That’s often the best way. “Well,” she says drily, “it’s the only way I can do most things.”

She remembered seeing the Burton production, which was directed by John Gielgud – himself a famous Hamlet – and thinking of it as experimental purely because the actor playing Gertrude wore not a bodiced dress and ruff, but a mink coat. “That’s what experimental was then!” she laughs. More exciting though was Burton’s futuristically named “Electronovision”, an innovation that used 17 cameras to film and broadcast the performance for two days in 1,000 cinemas across the US . In the Wooster production, that grainy 1964 film is projected above the set, forming a ghostly backdrop of a past Hamlet. The New York Times described the Woosters’ show as “an aching tribute to the ephemerality of greatness in theatre”.

Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos in Hamlet

Kate Valk and Ari Fliakos in Hamlet

“The whole metaphor to using the film is the ghost,” Kate Valk enthuses. “The ghost of all those performances!”

Scott Shepherd is a performer who invariably attracts adjectives like “indefatigable” and “tireless”; those seem entirely deserved when it emerges that he edited the entire Burton film into Shakespearean meter, in other words, painstakingly cutting the performers’ pauses so that the iambic pentameter is duly honoured with beats and stresses in the right places.

“This was an arduous task, yeah,” he admits. “To go in and cut pauses if they came in the middle of a verse line and then move them to the end of the verse line.”

It’s Shepherd-as-Hamlet’s imagination, so the premise goes, that creates the onstage action, in which live performers mirror the movements and speech of the actors in the 1964 projection. For all the visual innovations though, LeCompte insists that the text itself remains sacrosanct, and, “on a par with the visual”.

She says: “What I was doing, I realised, was trying to take this shard of what I could get from the past, from that production, and to reinterpolate it into something that made sense to me, in the future.” A brief pause, then: “But I just wanted to delight myself, frankly!”

Despite three decades of making work this is the first Shakespeare the company has ever done. (They’ve since added Troilus and Cressida, a collaboration with the RSC, to their repertoire.)

“I was not hip to the Shakespeare idea at all,” says Ari Fliakos, who plays Claudius and Marcellus, among other roles. Why? “I don’t know,” he says, “maybe it comes out of my allergy to theatre.”

Professing not to be a “theatre person” seems to be a common Wooster trait. Even Valk, who’s been described as “the Meryl Streep of downtown”, has claimed that acting is not among her skills.

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When I mention this tendency to LeCompte she laughs. “I like theatre people!” she protests. “But the process of making theatre in the commercial world I don’t like because it’s too formulaic. I really like to ramble for quite a while,” – and then she corrects herself: “I don’t like to, I have to. I wish I was faster, frankly – we’d be making a little more money.”

Like most members, LeCompte included, Fliakos came to the group through a side door, after hanging around there in 1996, answering phones and fetching coffee. “Everything was stimulating, everything resonated,” he recalls. “It seemed like experimenting with drugs all over again, it was a whole new experience I wouldn’t have expected in any kind of live performance.” He sighs: “The minute you try to describe it, not unlike a trip, it begins to dissipate.”

Every member I talk to about the Wooster Group speaks with this kind of ecstatic devotion. Nonetheless, the creative world of 2013 is a very different one to 1974 – financially and ideologically. LeCompte admits that, “in order to be able to keep the company together I have to be more aware of money, ways of living and ideas. It’s the terrible thing that it’s not hip anymore to not have money, or to be on the outside. It’s much harder for people to give up things that have money and status.”

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But there are gains, Shepherd explains: “Most people who are in acting are going from one job to the next, and it’s quite hard to develop a sense of continuity, that you’re engaged in building a body of work. And here that’s all you do. One piece bleeds into the other so you’re creating sort of an oeuvre and making something larger than a particular production, you know? This is about developing a philosophy of working, a way of working with a group of people.”

“It feels,” he says finally, “substantial.”

Again the reviews will be out soon for both shows so it will be interesting to see what the critics make of these two very different, culturally and artistically diverse reworkings of Shakespeare. However, according to one critic who Tweeted a few hours ago, the opening night of Hamlet didn’t go well:

domIt happens to the best of us, it seems.

Stringing Up Royalty

I have spent quite some time recently looking at puppetry as a world theatre form and I have some great things to share – very varied, from the ancient and traditional, to the contemporary and technological. I have always been fascinated by puppets, right from being very young and even now I have puppets in my house, collected from across the globe. There is something quite primal about the way they can be brought to life.

I am going to start with a puppet tradition that goes back at least 700 years. In Myanmar/Burma puppet plays have been performed since at least the 1400s. In the 1700s, the royal court began to formally sponsor and regulate the puppet theatre, causing it to quickly grow in prestige.

Htwe Oo Myanmar puppeteers perform a group dance of handmaiden puppets

Htwe Oo Myanmar puppeteers perform a group dance of handmaiden puppets

The Burmese court was concerned with preserving the dignity of its members and marionettes were often used to preserve the esteem of a person who had erred. For instance, the emperor could reprimand his children or his wife in this way by asking the puppeteers to put on a parable correcting errant children or careless wives about their reckless ways. While the reprimand would be obvious to anyone who was “in the know” it would largely pass unheeded by the people looking on, something that had a great deal of value in a court that could, and did contain hundreds of people.

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The Burmese marionettes also served as a conduit between the ruler and his subjects. Many times, people would ask the puppeteers to mention in a veiled fashion a current event or warning to the ruler. In this way, information could be transferred on without any disrespect. A marionette could say things that a human could never get away with.

In many ways, the Burmese marionette troupes replaced the actors of the time. It was considered a beheading offense to put your head above royalty, a fact which made standing on a stage difficult to say the least. Similarly, the laws of Burma were such that an actor could not wear full costumes if they were playing figures like royalty or holy men. While both of these facts would hamper the movement and stylings of a human actor, marionettes were not bound by such things and thrived in the vacuum.

In the 1800s, puppet theatre was considered the most highly developed of the entertainment arts, and was also the most popular. Though no longer as popular today, the tradition is still maintained by a small number of performing troupes.

A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppet handlers, vocalists, and musicians. Plays are based on Buddhist fables, historical legends, and folktales, among other stories. The shows are performed for adults and children together, and typically last all night.

The Burmese puppetry figures of “nat-ga-daw,” or the spiritual medium, at Khin Maung Htwe’s home theatre

The Burmese puppetry figures of “nat-ga-daw,” or the spiritual medium, at Khin Maung Htwe’s home theatre

The puppets themselves are marionettes, ranging in height from about one to three feet. Nearly all are stock figures, changing their names but keeping their characteristics for each play. Some of these puppet types have been standard for centuries—especially those developed from Buddhist fables, which probably formed the puppeteers’ first repertoire.

As Myanmar emerges from years of political and social isolation, it is not surprising that traditional puppet troupes are emerging as a potential tourist draw (as they are in other countries across the world). However, it is clear this is also being done by a drive to hold on to centuries of cultural tradition. Two companies that are particularly gaining a reputation are the Mandalay Puppet Theatre and Htwe Oo Myanmar. The website of the former is packed full of information from how to make your puppet (provided you are a master craftsperson) to how to manipulate them, to a description of all the puppet characters.

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A transcript of this video can be found here.

On Saturday, The Irrawaddy published an article by Kyaw Phyotha about U Khin Maung Htwe who founded Htwe Oo Myanmar

Bringing Myanmar Puppetry Back to Life

YANGON — Sitting in his makeshift theater at his home near downtown Yangon, U Khin Maung Htwe is dreaming big.

“I want to have a museum or center focused on Myanmar puppetry,” he said, caressing a stringed wooden white horse, one of the figures from a set of 28 Myanmar marionettes.

As well as running a theater, U Khin Maung Htwe is director of the Yangon-based marionette troupe Htwe Oo Myanmar. “Here in Myanmar, there’s no place to go for anyone, both locals and foreigners, who want to learn about the arts,” he laments.

Khin Maung Htwe poses with puppet U Min Kyaw, one of the famous pantheon of 37 spirits, who is fond of drinking and merrymaking

Khin Maung Htwe poses with puppet U Min Kyaw, one of the famous pantheon of 37 spirits, who is fond of drinking and merrymaking

When he established the troupe in 2006, the one-time sailor’s ambition was more humble: He wanted to showcase Myanmar’s traditional performing arts to tourists in a fitting environment.

“I did it because I wanted to see people enjoy our puppetry in the way it is supposed to be enjoyed,” he said, explaining that hotels and expensive restaurants offer so-called traditional puppet shows to attract foreigners. “They treat puppetry like a side-dish to tourism.”

After struggling for seven years to get his idea off the ground—including making 10 overseas trips, from Thailand to Austria—Htwe Oo Myanmar has gained popularity internationally. Visiting Europe, he says, opened his eyes to the importance of opening a center to preserve the art form.

“After visiting puppet museums [in Europe], I have a burning desire to have a center for teaching, preserving and showcasing our puppetry here,” he said. “It would be very convenient for us to pass the arts on to younger generations.”

Myanmar puppetry, known as Yoke Thay, has a long history dating back more than 500 years. In a similar fashion to other folk plays around the world, Yoke Thay functioned as both royal entertainment and mass media, spreading stories of current events.

But Myanmar’s tradition of puppetry is also unique.

“Our tradition is unlike any other puppetry from neighboring countries. Ours has its own unique styles in every respect, including the way to manipulate the puppets and their design,” said U Chit San Win, the author of “Yanae Myanma Yoke Thay Thabin” (“Myanmar Puppet Theater Today”). “In our Yoke Thay you can enjoy all the Myanmar arts, like dancing, music, sculpture, sequin embroidery and painting.”

The puppetry performance of ba-lu, or ogres

The puppetry performance of ba-lu, or ogres

U Chit San Win says Yoke Thay is not on the verge of extinction due to a number of puppetry courses taught at universities. But in general, he says, the traditional arts are unfashionable.

“Young people find it very boring and difficult to understand because even today the Myanmar puppet performance is still very traditional and using old Myanmar [language],” he said. “This means Yoke Thay has seen a serious decline in local patronage and it survives on tourism.”

This could explain why Htwe Oo Myanmar has battled for years to recognition at home, even as it has found interest abroad. When Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008, causing tourist numbers to fall, the troupe was forced to move to U Khin Maung Htwe’s living room, now hastily converted into a stage when tourists arrive.

He said while neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam are attracting international visitors with their puppetry, the Myanmar government does little to promote its traditional performing arts, “because they are paranoid about being labeled a ‘puppet government,’” U Khin Maung Htwe said.

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More than two years after Myanmar’s military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government, many still wonder if the current administration isn’t just a puppet of former military strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

“Instead of what they are doing now, the government should have more concrete plans for our Yoke Thay,” U Khin Maung Htwe suggested. He sees a puppet museum or center becoming a focal point for puppet masters in the country to collaborate with each other to preserve and promote the arts.

“It would help us generate ideas about how to breathe new life into our dying arts, too,” he added.

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Telling Tales

One of the most engaging performance I have seen was given by a professional Jamaican storyteller.  She was telling the tales of Anansi the Spider to over a hundred 5 and 6 year olds in a school hall. She was compelling to watch and I have never seen little children sit so still, for so long, utterly transfixed – as were the accompanying adults. I was reminded of this when I listened to this interview by theatre director, Emma Rice. She is currently Artistic Director of the international, UK-based theatre company Kneehigh.

Essay: On Directing – Emma Rice

riceIn it, Rice explores the role of the director as storyteller, and elaborates on the undertaking that transforms a text into a fully fledged production. It is part of  a series the BBC are broadcasting this week and I will share some of the others at a later date. For any of you yet to cut your teeth in a directorial role, it is a great listen. In an earlier interview with Dan Rubin, Rice said:

Theater is storytelling. Sometimes it becomes about lots of other things, but ultimately human beings like to come together and be told a story and to be transported. There’s something very simple about that notion. I think there are probably very few great stories, and the great stories have survived because they hit a fundamental human nerve. So Cinderella is a classic story because there aren’t many of us who, when we were young, didn’t feel unloved, didn’t feel ugly, and didn’t feel that the world was turned against us. So those stories are told for good reason. They speak to us on a very profound level.

This links nicely with an article by Swati Daftur that was published in The Hindu last weekend. The article, titled A Twist In The Tale, talks about the resurgence of professional storytelling in India and how it is no longer just a means of entertainment or passing on cultural heritage.

Storytelling is no longer just about entertaining children. It is now used, in different contexts, to teach and train grown-ups.

“Animals do not tell stories to each other. Humans do. That is how we make sense of the world. So storytelling is essential to being human. Everyone tells stories…We are just not aware of it”, says mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik.

Indians are big on stories. This is a land of myths and mythologies; of tales with pious men and brave gods; of stories with carefully masked do’s and don’ts; of tickling anecdotes and gruesome monsters. We have always loved a good story, and we’ve always had storytellers. But, from then to now, the face of storytelling and storytellers has morphed and evolved into something more commercial and professional, but also less localised and farther reaching than ever before.

In the face of rapid urbanisation, mushrooming malls and multiplexes, this ancient art form is somehow making rapid inroads. The Indian storytelling revival has come of age. Stories are no longer just what you hear on lazy afternoons at your grandmother’s house.

In the late 1960s, the Global Storytelling Revival began, with people trying to connect and associate with the past and the present. This involved finding and exploring heritage, identifying with one another and, of course, some good old-fashioned entertainment. Today, India has also joined the movement with its own personal rendition of the revival. With its already rich culture and heritage, and hundreds of traditional storytelling styles and traditions – villu pattu, bommalaatam, phad, chitrakatha and harikatha, to name just a few — the revival has brought together old forms and new applications to storytelling. Efforts made both by the government as well as NGOs, institutes, groups and private players have helped revive and transform storytelling.

Brought on by the revival is also a new and exciting phenomenon— that of professional storytellers. We are in an age where professional storytelling is a legitimate, accepted career choice. Today, there are institutes and colleges that will take you in and teach you to tell wonderful effective stories, and then send you off into the world to actually earn your livelihood by this art.

The Chennai-based World Storytelling Institute, co-founded by Eric Miller and Magdalene Jeyarathnam, is one such example. A veritable home for professional storytellers, the institute brings together threads of different storytelling techniques and styles. It makes use of both the digital as well as the traditional platforms. The institute holds workshops that use storytelling for therapy, healing, environmental issues, educational purposes and countless other projects. Its workshops play with different ideas and forms of storytelling. One striking example is of workshops dealing with animal stories where every animal featuring in a story is supposed to represent an aspect of the human personality (a fox and his cunning, a lion and his fairness, a horse and his loyalty). The institute also has sessions that specifically retell and discuss episodes from an epic. Every story has a purpose, and participants attending the workshop take away everything from management skills to moral lessons.

While The World Storytelling Institute uses both traditional and digital methods to practise and teach professional storytelling, Geetha Ramanujam’s Kathalaya, in Bangalore, keeps the art form free of digitalisation. Ramanujam, the Director of Kathalaya, believes that the storytelling baton has not yet been passed permanently from bards and folk artists to bloggers and the twitterverse. “It is possible for professional storytellers to stick to the traditional art form and still keep it interesting. When I make presentations myself, I don’t use power points and multimedia, but the reception has always been great. At Kathalaya, I’ve tried to make sure that we keep the old ways of storytelling alive. And it does work. We have hundreds of interested people approaching us for workshops in both personal and professional storytelling.”

Top: Devdutt Pattanaik, Geetha Ramanujam. Below: Jeeva Raghunathan, Eric Miller.

Devdutt Pattanaik, Geetha Ramanujam, Jeeva Raghunathan, Eric Miller.

Together Geetha Ramanujam and Eric Miller have founded The Indian Storytelling Network, an online portal and confluence inspired by the International Storytelling Network based in Spain and marking the Indian chapter of the Global Storytelling Revival. The Network, in communication with other storytelling organisations around the world, facilitates and assists storytellers as well as festivals and conferences. Its goals focus on reviving and building upon the country’s storytelling traditions and acting as a bridge between performers, trainers and audience.

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A professional storyteller has myriad options available to him/her today. The art form isn’t just a source of entertainment any more. From schools and colleges to multinational companies and NGOs, stories have found a place in previously unthinkable places. Management trainees, business experts and educational institutes are fast discovering the benefits of storytelling. “It’s always more interesting to learn something through a story instead of mugging up dry facts. And if it’s told in an interesting way, stories can stick with you longer than any academic or instructive lecture,” says Priyanjalee, a management trainee who has attended workshops organised by Kathalaya. Professional storytelling has indeed complemented learning in a number of contexts, both professional and social. With a little rearrangement, a makeover and a brand new outfit, storytelling isn’t just a way to pass the time of the day anymore. It’s a very useful tool with corporate, humanitarian, psychiatric and educational benefits. The opportunities, instead of shrinking, have exploded with this added qualification actually giving trained professionals a leg-up.

There are certain key requirements for a professional storyteller. The idea behind professional storytelling involves not only effective communication but also the need to engage, inspire and motivate the listener. The qualities at once help the audience as well as the storyteller become a better trainer, speaker and communicator. For example, in management storytelling workshops, the idea is for a leader to illustrate a better future for the company via stories that might not directly involve a corporate setting, but still includes lessons that benefit one in a corporate environment. One of the more popular stories that work in a corporate setting happens to be the simple, yet ingenious, fable of the hare and the tortoise.

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After years of being recognised as a source of entertainment, storytelling is now being viewed as a powerful tool for change and the overall development of an individual’s personality, as well as an effective method to address social issues. At once informative, educational and entertaining, professional storytelling is becoming a regular feature at schools, as it is both effective and captures the interest of students, explaining concepts faster than regular textbooks might.

On storytelling’s modern-day reiteration, Jeeva Raghunath, a professional storyteller and one of the pioneers of the movement in Tamil Nadu, says, “What happened within four walls of a house first spread and became a community event. Then, when it turned professional, it became a trade. Now the demand has turned it into a contemporary skill that is required in many fields like therapy, corporate, education, communication, and presentation. Basically, with changing times, due to the lack of comprehension of the old art form, contemporary storytelling has indulged in taking storytelling to another level. Storytelling is turning into a rare but growing commodity and storytellers are becoming brands.”

Jeeva believes that adapting itself to changing mediums is a healthy trend. “Today’s contemporary telling is very different from the traditional styles. Similarly, the digital medium is yet another development; the only difference being the bonding that can happen only in live shows. This change is healthy but just lacks bonding and to a certain extent the stimulation of imagination”. Pattanaik, on the other hand, believes that while the medium might have changed, the human being has not. “I don’t see any real difference. If anything, now we have more versions of the same story and that confuses us. We wonder what is true,” he says.

Today, small and big institutes and groups of professional storytellers are reviving traditions that would otherwise have been long forgotten. For example, Dastangoi, the ancient Urdu storytelling tradition that involved oral narration, was revived by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain in 2005 in the capital. Today, their performances showcasing dastans or fables of fantasy, adventure, intrigue, romance and seduction, have become popular and well appreciated across the country and abroad. Farooqui and Husain have also adapted modern issues and subjects into Dastangoi performances, and their Dastan-e-Sedition or the Tale of sedition was a tribute to Dr. Binayak Sen, conceived during the period of his incarceration and the public outcry against it. The performance was also a part of the Free Binayak Sen campaign held in New Delhi in April 2011.

Acoustic Traditional, founded by Salil Mukhia and Barkha Henry, is another non-profit organisation started to revive and promote storytelling traditions like oral storytelling and tribal folklore, especially of mountain and forest-based communities. Started as a classroom project in Nepal, the organisation is now based in Bangalore. The goal is to preserve the myths, legends and stories of tribal groups, as well as to use these to connect to mainstream communities. Acoustic Traditonals holds The Annual Festival of Indigenous Storytellers along with regular storytelling sessions and workshops.

There is a lot that a story can do. It can affect individuals, or masses. It can bring reform and it can bring joy. It can be used to manipulate public opinion and it can spread misinformation and terror. Clearly, that is a fair amount of responsibility for a storyteller to take on. “Today, storytelling is also used as propaganda to shape people’s political views, as advertising to shape buying behaviour. So what has changed is that we now have an agenda that drives our story. We don’t narrate it innocently, unaware of the underlying thoughts or agenda. It tells us that some products and some services are better than others; it tells us who our heroes should be and who our villains are; they essentially shape the mind of the person who is listening” says Pattanaik.

Whether they use traditional or modern methods; whether they make twitter or a stage their platform, professional storytellers have carved a space for themselves. Skills you couldn’t learn in the classroom, lessons that chapters in your books couldn’t teach you, stories can. Engineering students, children with special needs, prisoners; stories can touch everyone and anyone who is ready to listen, to see and understand.

Cultural Revolutions

One of things I enjoy most about writing this blog is that I am always learning. So today I’m going to share something totally new to me, Ache Lhamo, Tibetan Folk Opera.

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Lhamo, meaning sister goddess, is a traditional Tibetan folk opera performed through a unique combination of dialogue, dance, chants, pantomime and songs. Based on Buddhist teachings and Tibetan historical figures, Ache Lhamo are traditionally stories of love, devotion, good and evil.

Lhamo has it’s roots in the masked dance-drama tradition of the Tibetan royal dynasty in the 6th to 9th centuries, but the development of Lhamo as it is known today is attributed to the 14th century teacher and self-made engineer, Thangtong Gyalpo. Thangtong Gyalpo developed a performance medium that told moral tales, based on Buddhist philosophy, in the words of the common people

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Lhamo is a day long performance played outdoors traditionally under a large circular canvas tent. Music is simple, however the cymbals and drum create remarkable atmosphere. Costumes generally imitate those of the Tibetan aristocracy, and some characters wear masks, which portray their personality with bold symbols.

Lhamo Masks

However, and not surprisingly, Lhamo now has a more political context. The role of China in Tibet over the last 60 years remains one of the biggest human rights tragedies. The suppression or tight control of most of the cultural and religious practices of indigenous Tibetans is well-known. Lhamo only exists in traditional form outside of Tibet where it has been kept alive by exiles.  The most famous centre is in Dharamsala, India, and is known as the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).  TIPA was established in August 1959, four months after the Dali Lama fled Tibet. You can watch one of their performances here:

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There is a facsinating blog post, The Wandering Goddess, Sustaining the spirit of Ache Lhamo in the Exile Tibetan capital written by Jamyang Norbu, that tells story of the revival of Lhamo following the Chinese occupation. It is clear from all I have read that the practice of Lhamo by the Tibetan refugee community across the world evokes nostalgia for a lost existence and the struggle for a return to the Tibetan Buddhist homeland.

Meanwhile in Tibet itself it has been ‘redeveloped’ by China following the Cultural Revolution and used to support Chinese claims to Tibet. If you want to read more you can do here, in a rather scholarly paper entitled Tibetan Folk Opera: Lhamo in Contemporary Cultural Politics by Syed Jamil Ahmed.

I said earlier, the music that accompanies Lhamo is traditionally played on a drum and cymbols alone – take a look at this dude:

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Norbu Tsering, was the TIPA opera master and drummer until he sadly passed away earlier this year. Another link with past traditions lost.

Hands Up

Roll with me today……there is a bit of a preamble before I get to the heart of my post. One of the many joys of teaching in an international school is that you are not tied to any one national curriculum, which means you can create a programme of study that you know is right for your students. We are currently reviewing the curriculum for our younger students, which is always fun and generates a lot of discussion. We have just decided to include mime mimeagain and it got me thinking about the the form. In the past we used examples from Charlie Chaplin and amongst others, Mr Bean. Thankfully we have moved on from that after we realised the real purpose of teaching mime was to get our students to consider and understand, more generally, the power the actor has to create belief for the audience by simply using their bodies.

What fascinates me is when I first mention mime, students default to this (right) as their understanding!

Now whilst these basic skills are part of mime, they are just that and there is so much more. Yes of course there are a many famous mimes, Marcel Marceau (below) being one of the best known, painted white and doing their thing. But there is so much more to mime and I think this is what should be thinking about as we write our new curriculum.

1431271523_11eb419e08So I got researching and this is my post today – mime in the 21st Century.

There are mime festivals all over the world, for instance, in South Korea, and Poland. Similarly there are mime companies all of the world, E Movement Theater in Japan and Mime India to name but two. Now the reason I say this because mime is often viewed as a western theatrical tradition, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Consider Kathakali, Indian epics told with facial expressions, hand signals and body motions, and Noh with its use of mask work and highly physical performance style. In fact the latter was said to have influenced two of the greatest western mime practitioners, Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq. Even Butoh is considered by some to have its place in a (much) wider definition of mime, although I am not convinced myself.

One of the oldest and most famous mime festivals is the London International Mime Festival that began in 1977 and if you take a trawl through their recent programmes you can see that the definition of mime is far wider than we tend to think. Here are a few examples:

Yeung Fai’s Hand Stories from China

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Stan’s Cafe’s The Cardinals from the UK (and old friends of mine)

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and Hiroaki Umeda from Japan with two works, Haptic and Holistic Strata

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I’ve had the good fortune to see a couple of peices in the last year or so that I would absolutely consider to be from the genre:

LEO by Circle of 11

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and Aurélien Bory’s Sans Objet

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While I was researching this post I came across a couple of quotes from Nobuko and Terry Press that stuck a chord with me:

Mime is largely a misunderstood art form that needs a chance to redeem itself. This can only be accomplished …….by presenting Mime and Mimes that represent the Art of Mime and not the Tricks of Mime.

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The first time I saw the “Robot” I was very impressed myself but when there is a Robot on every corner the impact soon wears off.

I couldn’t agree more. Every time I see one of those street mimes, painted silver, I have an urge to run up and punch them!

There is a world of talented performers out there and most of them are not painted white or silver and they are most definitely not making walls!

Shadowlands

A great little article today about the history of shadow theatre, courtesy of Suite 101 and Cheryn Tan. I’ve added some images and video, and at the bottom of the page are some more comprehensive (and excellent) links.

The History of Shadow Theatre

Shadow plays depict fantastic stories of folklore and mythology, but their stories of origin are equally fascinating as they are vastly differing.

The differences of origins may be attributed – or may contribute – to the fact that the styles and cultural significance of these shadow plays differ from one country to the next. For instance, Chinese shadow plays usually depict history and the aristocracy; Indian plays are of religious significance inspired by epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana; whereas Turkish plays are comedic satires with witty banter.

China – Death of a Beloved

Most experts believe that the art of shadow playing originated from China during the Han Dynasty (206BC to 220AD). As the story goes, the Emperor Wu Han had many concubines, but one whom he loved most. When she died, he was so devastated that he lost interest in life, and neglected all his responsibilities. His councillors tried all they could to revive their ruler, but nothing could abate his sorrow.

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Finally, one of the greatest artists of the court created a puppet in the likeness of the emperor’s beloved using donkey leather and painted cloths. He lit a silk screen from behind, and with the movable joints of the puppet he imitated her graceful movements, even speaking with the intonations of her voice. Having his beloved seemingly brought back to life, the emperor was thus comforted and returned to his duties, much to everyone’s relief.

An alternative, though somewhat less romantic, explanation of how shadow theatre originated in China was because ladies were not allowed to watch live theatre performances, hence the most successful shows were staged as shadow plays in female quarters instead.

India – Dancing Gods

The art of shadow puppetry gained prominence in India in the sixteenth century, especially during the reign of King Kona Bhuda Reddy. These puppets are the largest in the shadow performance world; and the plays usually take place outside the temple of Shiva, the patron god of puppets.

According to folklore, in the days when dolls were just crude blocks, there was a toymaker who made dolls with separate jointed limbs. One day, his shop was visited by Lord Shiva and his wife, the Goddess Parvati. Upon catching sight of the dolls, Parvati was so entranced that she asked Shiva to let their spirits enter the dolls so they could dance. After she was tired out, they withdrew their spiritual selves and left. The toymaker, who had been watching the entire scene, was inspired to make the dolls dance again. He strung their limbs together and thus gave life to string puppets.

Turkey – Comedic Satire

Shadow theatre also features in Turkish performance arts, with most performances centred around the main character Karaghiozis. Karaghiozis is usually depicted as an ugly little man with a large nose, humpback and enormous black eyes. The legend behind this Middle Eastern incarnation of shadow plays tells of Karaghiozis and Hazvidad as they were at the construction site of a mosque. Instead of working, they were constantly quarrelling – but their verbal sparring was so amusing that their fellow workers would stop to listen to them, to the point that the completion of the mosque was in jeopardy.

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The Sultan that had commissioned the mosque was so livid that he had them executed. Later he regretted his rashness, and summoned his viziers to create puppets in their likeness, to perform their humorous squabbles as entertainment for the masses.

Besides China, India and Turkey, shadow plays are still highly popular in more than 20 countries around the world, including Indonesia, Malaysia and France. Their styles and cultural significance may differ, but one thing they invariably share is that they provide hours of entertainment for the audience.

 

A much more comprehensive source on all kinds of Indian puppetry can be found here. A great resource.

One for Turkish shadow puppetry can be found here.  Again, a great resource.

And a super one here on Chinese shadow puppetry

 

Theatre Apps

Something a little different today.  I’ve been looking at what’s available in the iPad app store for theatre people (free and paid for), and there is a surprising mix so I thought I’d share a few of them with you.  First my favourite in terms of design:

Evernote Camera Roll 20130519 141459Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 plays, 1945-2010

This is a beautiful interactive book that looks at plays that have been performed in the UK from 1945 to 2010. It isn’t just about British plays either – any thing that was performed during that period.  Reviews, interviews, production photographs and so on. Suffice to say I bought it.

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Basically just an ebook, but beautifully illustrated, on the history of Chinese theatre.

Chinese Theater for iPad

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For you techies out there are a number of magazines you can get for free:

Lighting and Sound America

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Make-up Artist Magazine

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For all things techie Stage Directions Magazine

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Now this is a super organisational app for stage managers, ShowTool SM

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An app to write plays with called, not surprisingly, Playwriter

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Now there are a few line-learning apps out there. This is one of the free ones, My Lines Lite

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And finally a series of free little apps that bring various forms of Asian puppet theatre to the iPad, Shadow Play Wayang Kulit

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Voices from the Heavens

Oh my goodness.  Every now and again I stumble across an amazing web-based resource that makes me wonder how I had managed to miss it before. I’d like to introduce you to:

CaptureIt is what it says it is – an archive of recorded interviews with theatre practitioners of all kinds. It was started in 2003 and is now supported by various museums and drama colleges with a growing archive of material which will be preserved for posterity.  All the recordings are tagged extensively, so it is easy to find things that are relevant to you. Click the banner above to access the homepage.

150257108_bf938d9394_mI’m going to start off by sharing an interview with Yang Quin and Mary Anne O’Donnell who are the two founder members of Fat Bird Theatre Company. They talk to Mary Mazzilli about what it’s like to make theatre in Shenzhen-Guangdong, the oldest and fastest-growing Special Economic Zone in China. This is the only independent theatre company that promotes experimentation and internationalism; they focus on social changes and are dedicated to transforming Chinese theatre through experimental workshops, guerrilla performances and stage drama. You can access the recordings here.

The gweilos are coming…

Interestingly, after writing my post yesterday, what should pop up in my twitter feed, but an article about the developing theatre culture in China – one that is driven as much by the growing popularity of western commercial theatre as the want to save the more traditional chinese forms.

…….the Chinese are particularly good at in the arts is that they get things done really quickly – they’re building concert halls, theatres and museums at a rate of knots…..

Beijing National Grand Theater, The Egg, Tiananmen, Beijing, China

The image above is of National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing – beautiful – and the one below is the architect’s rendering of Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre

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Mandarin versions of Mamma Mia! and Cats have staged almost 500 performances combined, playing across 19 cities and grossing millions of pounds at the box office, while negotiations continue for Chinese-language tours of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.

It will come as no surprise that I find this lamentable – is that all the West can export in terms of a theatrical tradition? I’m hoping that it is simply a way of getting a foot through the cultural door that will allow much more worthy work to follow.

I was slightly heartened by a quote from Nick Rongjun Yu, deputy general manager at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre:

For young people, theatre has become part of their mainstream culture. Spoken theatre is gaining bigger audiences……. there is an increasingly diverse range of plays translated from English to Mandarin, including adaptations of Shakespeare….and The Woman in Black.

I’ll leave you to read the article in full here and make your own mind up!

Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo survives by bending with the wind

So said Bruce Lee, apparently. The reason for me quoting the Hong Kong legend is that it is bamboo theatre time in his home city. Throughout the year in town centres, village squares, on football pitches and car parks across Hong Kong these beautiful temporary bamboo structures spring up and disappear.

shek oThey house Cantonese opera performances at festival celebrations throughout the year. They are works of art in themselves. For those of you have not visited Hong Kong bamboo is the king of construction. We might have a harbour skyline from the future, but the scaffolding that allows the futuristic skyscrapers to be built is bamboo, not steel, even in 2013. There is good reason for this, it’s not just tradition. Hong Kong suffers from typhoons (or hurricanes if you are from the Americas) so if a big one comes in, a flying tower of bamboo does far less damage than one of steel.

So, our temporary theatres are built entirely by hand, using bamboo, usually by fewer than ten workers, and they are held together with nothing but plastic ties. The biggest theatres can hold up to 6,000 people. This also means they can be built in the most unlikely places. The one above is the car park of a seaside village, Shek O. The ones below are on a rocky sea outcrop on the Po Toi Island.

Picture1Sadly though, in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that these beautiful buildings are being replaced by steel-frame stages, rather than bamboo, because, apparently, they are easier to assemble and require less-skilled workers. Such a shame! However, and even more sadly, the decline of the bamboo theatres matches the decline in the popularity Cantonese Opera itself. My students tell me that it is viewed as something for our grandparents.

There is a really interesting article here from the Urbanphoto blog with an interview with bamboo master Ying Che, who married into a family of bamboo masters going back three generations. I’ve Tweeted it too.

Hau wong - Tai OThere is a great irony in all of this though. In an attempt by the Hong Kong government to compete with Singapore as THE asian arts hub, we have under development a project known as the The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD). Located on waterfront reclaimed land, the district will feature a new museum of visual culture, numerous theatres, concert halls and other performance venues. It has been dogged by a series of problems, but is now finally making progress. I celebrate it – it’s a wonderful and expansive project. One of the first buildings to have its designs approved is the Xiqu Centre. According to the WKCD’s website;

The Xiqu Centre will symbolise the importance of Xiqu [Chinese/Cantonese Opera] and its rich heritage for our city. It was conceived to support and promote Xiqu as a contemporary art form making it accessible to new audiences, and keeping this remarkable piece of our heritage alive for future generations.

This is what it will look like:

west-kowloon-bamboo-theater-12So how did we celebrate the finalizing of the design for Xiqu Centre?

We built this:

west-kowloon-bamboo-theater-0In fact Ying Che and her family built it. If you click on the image below, you can see some images:

west-kowloon-bamboo-theater-2You can get a better flavour of the theatre in this video:

And why am writing about all this? Well I think Hong Kong seems to have managed to marry modernity and tradition in a way that other Chinese cities haven’t. I hope that by promoting Cantonese Opera and its heritage through the yet to be built Xiqu Centre will keep our bamboo theatres alive too. I’d hate to see them disappear and be replaced by their steel contemporaries. I hope the WKCD people see the beauty in building a bamboo theatre every now and again on their spanking new site. I think I might start a campaign……anyone join me?