A Call For Action

ConstitutionFor those of us that teach and learn in the Northern hemisphere, the end of the academic year is soon to be upon us. I always quite like this period, as you tend to find yourself  developing new curriculum materials for the forthcoming year. This week I have been researching and writing materials for different kinds of documentary theatre, most specifically verbatim theatre and Living Newspapersand it is the latter I want to write about today.

Now my knowledge of Living Newspapers was not huge.  I knew that the form first emerged in Russia in the early 20th century, where it was used to present news and Bolshevik propaganda to the illiterate masses. Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky are connected with the genre, as are Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. The form included using lantern slides (projections), songs, newspaper readings, and film segments – so, very ‘multimedia’ for the time.  During my research however, I was intrigued to come across the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which in certain sources, is mistakenly claimed to be the originator of Living Newspapers. FTP was part of a government funded arts program established in the US in the 1930s,  which wrote and presented a number of Living Newspapers on social issues of the day. You can see some of the scripts here.  The Manual For Federal Theatre Project makes fascinating reading. Not surprisingly, the political ideology behind the Living Newspaper was controversial and the FPT was disbanded in 1939. However, as noted by Alexis Soloski in an article for The Guardian, the Federal Theatre Project

….codified the genre, drawing on techniques first introduced by Bolshevik artists and the Italian futurists. A series of documentary plays with an activist bent, Living Newspapers used theatrical techniques to render complicated social and political issues relevant and intelligible. Playwrights researched various topics – poverty, the invasion of Ethiopia, venereal disease – and then invented a narrative and characters to dramatise them. Low ticket prices made them accessible to a popular audience. Living Newspapers weren’t subtle – for better or worse. They simplified complicated issues and felt no particular compunction to represent all sides of an argument. Some of the scripts are quite preachy and end with a call for action, such as joining a union or being tested for syphilis.

It seems there are few companies currently engaged in creating Living Newspapers. One exception is C & T Theatre Company, who run a project for young people, called, not surprisingly, Living Newspaper They have created a series of ‘5 Rules’ – Be Funny, Be Direct, Juxtapose, Agitate and Let the Facts Speak For Themselves – with accompanying videos that tell you how to create effective Living Newspapers:


C &T have a global reach, having created Living Newspapers in Japan about passive smoking, in Australia about Climate Change and  lead workshops in Gambia about how to create online Living Newspapers using mobile phones.

Essentially all documentary theatre is political by nature, being a call for social action. In the U.S. The Civilians Investigative Theatre is leader in the field. In the UK, Common Wealth Theatre are a force to be reckoned with too.  The difference with the Living Newspaper form is that it is meant to agitate, to call for direct action with a view to bringing about change in a very visceral way. 

I think I’m off now to make my own, featuring a certain Donald Trump!

Vive La Revolution, People!

A Sensory Stage

logoI stumbled across this quite incredible TEDx presentation yesterday and just had to share it. It is given by Adina Tal, founder of the NaLagaat Theatre, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Clearly an inspirational character, Tal talks about how she came about forming the first blind-deaf theatre company in the world. I urge you to watch it.


To quote directly from their website:

The theater ensembles of Nalaga’at are composed of 18 deaf-blind actors. Some of the actors are completely deaf-blind, some have remants of vision or residual hearing. All actors have personal interpreters of sign language by touch, who accompany them during rehearsals and performances. Most of the actors have “Usher Syndrome” – a genetic syndrome in which the person is born deaf or with hearing impairment, and developes during adolescence to retinitis pigmentosa eye disease, leading to visual impairments and blindness..
Ongoing employment of the actors strengthens their self confidece, improve their interpersonal communication ability, reduce their social isolation and allows meetings with the seeing and hearing audience and with people with the same and different disabilities. Most of the deaf-blind people can communicate only with a person who knows to sign language by touch or to use the “glove” system (every joint on the palm of the hand is a letter in Hebrew that you can type on). Communication between the deaf-blind actors at Nalaga’at has developed in many ways, as every person in the group has different needs and abilities.


Nalaga’at means “Please Touch” in Hebrew and the centre that houses the theatre company, also has a restaurant, The Blackout where diners are served in total darkness by blind waiters and Café Kapish where the serving staff communicate with you in sign language.


In an article for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner says that watching the company is a compelling, idiosyncratic and joyous theatre experience. Entitled Blind Man’s LoafGardner paints a very  vivid picture of the whole Nalaga’at experience. Wonderful.

Puppets in Penang

Puppet HouseI have just returned from a short trip to Penang, Malaysia and while I was there a came across a real little gem, the Teochew Puppet and Opera House Museum. Based in an old shophouse in the George Town UNESCO World Heritage site, it tells the story of a Chinese puppet and opera form I had never come across before. To call it a museum is a bit misleading, as they also stage puppet performances and operas on the premises, as well as leading workshops in both forms they promote.

To give it some context,  Teochew is a dialect that is native to the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong, whose people spread across the region in the 19th Century (and later, the world), taking their culture with them.

In an article for New Straits Times, Pauline Fan gives a short history of the Museum which is now run by the a 5th generation opera performer and puppeteer, Ling Goh. In another, for the Malay Mail, Vivian Cheong gives a more detailed sketch of family, which is quite fascinating.

Although the Opera House doesn’t have it’s own website, it does have a very well kept Facebook page, here,  which has much more information.

If you find yourself in Penang, I thoroughly recommend a visit and if there is no one else there when you drop by, you will get your own personal tour, as I did, as well as some hands on experience with the puppets themselves.

A Birthday Blog for the Bard

As the world marks the death of William Shakespeare, 400 years on, there have been many celebrations of his work across the globe. Today I want to share some of them – the ones that have particularly resonated with me.  Here in Hong Kong, we have just had the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performing some of the Histories, all the Henries, in repertoire, to great acclaim. The company then moved to Beijing, where those plays have never been been seen before. My first offering, therefore, is a lecture by Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC,  given upon his return from this tour. Entitled Is Shakespeare Chinese? , Doran speaks beautifully about the universality of Shakespeare, and for those of you that follow Theatre Room, you will know that this is something that often raises questions for me….but more of this later.


As a theatre practitioner, generally people expect you, firstly, to love Shakespeare with a passion, and secondly, to have seen every single play he ever wrote. My answers to both of those inevitably provoke a surprised response, which I secretly quite like. Recently, one of my students, Nadia, chose a speech from King John to use in a solo performance employing some of the techniques of Jerzy Grotowski. The outcome was stunning, the words brought alive in an incredible way. I have never seen or read King John but that performance has now compelled me to do so. This brings to me to my next share, a series of Shakespeare’s monologues and soliloquies performed by some of the UK’s most respected actors. Filmed for the The Guardian and presented in two parts, they are very compelling viewing.



An accompanying piece written by theatre critic Michael Billington, also for The Guardian, explores three of the films in greater detail. Connecting to this, in an article for The Independent, journalist Oscar Quine interviews Cicely Berry (pictured below), who has been voice coach at the RSC for over 45 years. Known to be a force of nature (Berry has worked with some of the best known actors over the last half century) the piece, The RSC’s formidable voice coach reveals how to capture the sound of Shakespeare, makes interesting reading.


Another two-part documentary really caught my imagination. Made for the BBC and written and presented by historian Simon Schama, eponymously titled Simon Schama’s Shakespearesthey explore the world of Shakespeare and how it shaped his writing. They are both worth a watch as Schama manages to vividly connect the plays and their characters to the contemporary world in which they were written to exist.



And finally, in the interests of balance, another BBC production from their programme strand Arts Nightin which writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr champions some great Renaissance dramatists who, he posits,  have been neglected because they worked at the same time as William Shakespeare.



Frantic Moves

A very simple first share today, marking the 300th post on Theatre Room.  The first of two videos from Frantic Assembly about their working and devising methods.  Absolute gold and a great insight into a company widely recognised in their field as makers of innovative collaborative physical theatre. IB Theatre Arts students take note – your CP on a plate.


I have posted this before, but here is their excellent Frantic Assembly Resource Pack  too.

The Umbrella Revolution

10636707_355054934652158_6232680504221465809_oBefore I begin posting today, I am compelled to write a few words about what is happening in Hong Kong where Theatre Room is based. It would be entirely wrong of me not to, as Theatre Room has an international readership. As I write this on National Day, it’s hard not to be in wonder at what is happening on the streets of our city. The last few days have had us all running the gamut of emotions. Little else is being discussed, dissected, prophesied and judged. The Umbrella Revolution, as it has been dubbed, is a truly profound experience. I’ve watched my social media feeds turning yellow and at every

new image, I well with tears of pride and astonishment. There is a determination amongst the student occupiers not to alienate fellow citizens. Rather then, to convince them that it matters and it is important. It’s working. People are coming out to support them because of how they are conducting themselves, which says so much.

How long it will continue and what the outcome will be is unknown and uncertain. However, the hope and the passionate belief that Hong Kong’s future will be a democratic one is palpable. We know the eyes of the world are on us, as does Beijing. Where ever we sit, be it on the street, at home, at work or at school, we are waiting for what comes next. From my window, across Stanley Bay, is a PLA barracks, hidden and, I can’t help feeling, brooding. The basic law allows for their deployment, should the authorities be unable to cope with a situation. We all hope that the change of tactics by the police and the withdrawal of the riot squads make this a diminishing prospect. National Day always has it’s tensions but this year they are immensely tangible and it is troubling when you hear the words ‘Tianamen’ and ‘Hong Kong’ uttered in the same breath.

All that said, at the moment it is peaceful and the pervading feelings are of pride and hope for a future where people have the right to determine their own lives. My hope, with every ounce of my being, is that it stays that way.

Cultural Refugees

Much of our news during the summer has been dominated by what is happening in the Middle East – Gaza, Iraq, the marauding of the Islamic State, not to mention the horrific execution of American journalist James Foley and countless Kurds. The latter act in particular, as these events are wont to do, connected the horrors in the region to the rest of the world.

SyriaTrojanWomen 029

It is with considerable sadness then, that I read in The Washing Post the article  I am about to share. Earlier this year I wrote about a production of Trojan Women performed by women refugees who had been forced to flee from Syria, No Longer A RefugeeThese dispossessed woman have been invited to perform their play in Washington D.C. in September, but have been denied visas because they are, of course, refugees. A wasted opportunity for so many reason, I feel. Written by Peter Marks, it makes infuriating reading.

Visa denials scuttle play with Syrian actresses at Georgetown

It had the potential to be one of the most galvanizing cultural events of the season: a dozen Syrian women, refugees from that besieged country, performing in Washington a version of a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy revised to include their own harrowing stories.

But now the show can’t go on — simply because the women are, in fact, refugees. The State Department rejected the women’s applications for entertainers’ visas for the performances — scheduled for Sept. 18-20 at Georgetown University — because it is not convinced that the women would leave.

The decision has thrown into turmoil plans for the first staging outside the Middle East of “Syria: The Trojan Women,” a production organized by ­journalist-screenwriter Charlotte Eagar, her husband, filmmaker William Stirling, and Syrian stage director Omar Abu Saada. The Syrian women they recruited, living in exile in Jordan, are all amateur actors from varying strata of Syrian society and of diverse backgrounds. Some had never set foot in a theater before working on the play. But they wanted to come here, say Georgetown organizers of the event, to give their accounts of the toll the war has taken on them and their families.


“This is the greatest tragedy, because in the United States we really don’t have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS,” said Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who is co-chair of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which organized the event. “We are completely missing this absolutely vital human perspective of the war in Syria.”

“It’s really so sad,” added Abu Saada, interviewed via Skype from Cairo, “because me and all the team, everyone was very excited about this. Now it is so sad that they will not get the chance to do it.”

Georgetown officials were offering “Syria: The Trojan Women” as the launching point of a two-year festival, underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, aimed at reducing ethnic and religious misconceptions by examining the culture, history and politics of the Muslim world. Flummoxed by the State Department’s decision, they are scrambling to salvage the event by turning it into a conversation with the women by remote hookup from Amman.

The scuttling of “Syria: The Trojan Women” is the second major setback in efforts to bring groundbreaking theater to Washington this fall from hot spots around the globe.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer based in Fairfax, Va., who was engaged by Georgetown to consult on the “Trojan Women” application, said the denial of the women’s visas reflects a broader problem: “What’s in play is the growing involvement of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] in visa affairs, in a post 9/11 environment,” he said. “And it is affecting the arts across the board. It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved” for visas for artists.

The play, first performed last fall in a community center in Amman, Jordan’s capital, splices into Euripides’s tragedy about the surviving women of a brutal war the tales of the Syrian refugee women, some of whom lost husbands and other relatives in Syria before fleeing to Jordan. As Eagar described it in an article she wrote for the Financial Times, the production makes the leap “from Greek spears and the Towers of Ilium to air raids, mortars, snipers and shattered homes in Homs.”

And the experience has proved a profound one for the women in the play — so much so, Abu Saada recounted, that one of the actresses decided a few days before the Amman performances that she would for the first time uncover her head in public.

Plans for the North American premiere in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre were augmented by an invitation to the women from Columbia University to give an additional performance in New York. None of this was persuasive to the State Department. Although a visa for the event was granted to Abu Saada, who still maintains a residence in Damascus, the women’s applications were turned down this month by consular officials in Amman.

In a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, a State Department official, Michele T. Bond, said that the women “were refused under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” That part of the code requires applicants to prove that they have a residence abroad and, according to the department, that they have “no intention of abandoning” it.

An additional wrinkle in this case, the department told the university in the Aug. 18 letter, was that there was no firm assurance from the Jordanians that the women would be allowed back into Jordan. “As you are aware,” wrote Bond, the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, “a significant complicating factor in these cases is that the applicants have no assurance they will be permitted to return to Jordan following their trip to the United States.”

Derek Goldman, artistic director of Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center and co-chair with Schneider of the laboratory, said that efforts to secure the visas involved contacting former and current Middle East diplomats, and even those with connections to King Abdullah II of Jordan. “We thought there was so much going on our side,” Goldman said, “and that basically it should be unimpeachable that these women should be able to get here, and that it would be so obvious that they would go back.”

Of the possibility that they would seek asylum, Schneider said: “I honestly thought the fact that these women had dependent small children and dependent parents [in Jordan] and none speaks English, and they don’t have any connection in the U.S., what would be the likelihood under those circumstances that that would happen?”

To add yet another twist, Abu Saada said that he learned Thursday that the Swiss government had approved visas for the women for a visit of the production to Switzerland in November. How or whether that might possibly alter the decision by the U.S. consular officer in Jordan remains unclear. As Ginsburg noted with chagrin, the decision of the officer in the country involved tends to hold a great deal of sway within the State Department.

Goldman and Schneider say they are determined to go ahead with a program involving the play. On Sept. 19, they have in mind an evening titled “Voices Unheard: The ‘Syria: Trojan Women Summit’ ” that will include excerpts from a documentary, “Queens of Syria,” about the play and a live feed from Amman, so the women can participate.

Abu Saada and two other members of his creative team who received visas are being encouraged by Goldman and Schneider to travel to Washington for the event. But as of Thursday, the director was on the fence. Without his Trojan women, he is not sure he has the heart for it.

“I’m still thinking what is the right decision,” he said.


Shakespeare Sucks

A beautiful spat has broken out amongst the literati Stateside this week, all sparked by a tweet from Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life:

Ira Glass 1_FotorHe then followed it with this:

Ira Glass 2_FotorSocial media went mad and it was picked up and discussed widely. The debate is fascinating and I thought I would share some of it with you. Firstly, and this is really worth listening to, a podcast from Born Ready. Director Steve Boyle and theatre producer Rob Ready discuss, to paraphrase Born Ready site, why Shakespeare has been elevated to something like a Prophet, and how his plays have become a point of shared experience and a cultural touchstone. I should warn you, however, that some rather choice language is used during the discussion.



Now, whilst Glass didn’t personally attack John Lithgow, to tie him in with a rant about the irrelevancy of Shakespeare was bound to cause an outcry. Firstly, Lithgow is akin to acting royalty in the US and secondly, North Americans really love their Shakespeare – you only have to look at the amount of Shakespeare festivals that take place across the continent every year and the fact that New York has been swamped with productions of late.

The reaction on social media was, it has to be said, highly entertaining as these pieces on CBC and The Wire highlight. If you click-through on the second tweet above, you can read it for yourself. Others have weighed into the debate, most, not surprisingly disagreeing with Glass – even Esquire, in a piece entitled SHAKESPEARE IS THE MOST UNIVERSAL WRITER EVER – Ira Glass doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

One of the best responses comes from the New Republic by Adam Kirsch, who calls Ira Glass a Philistine for saying Shakespeare sucks, while noting that he is not alone in this opinion:


 Does Shakespeare suck? Ira Glass, the host of the popular upper-middlebrow radio show “This American Life,” apparently thinks so; he tweeted as much after suffering through a performance of King Lear in Central Park. The backlash has been swift and severe, thus answering the question of whether there remain any literary taboos in the twenty-first century. Apparently, calling the Bard “not relatable” is still enough to get someone branded as a philistine.

I come not to praise Glass, certainlyI think he is a philistinebut also not totally to bury him. For there is always something admirable in speaking with complete honesty about one’s aesthetic reactions, even when those reactions are plainly wrong. Those who automatically praise Shakespeare because they know it is the right thing to say, or because they fear Glass-like ostracism if they say otherwise, may also be philistinesThe kind that Nietzsche, in his Untimely Meditations, called the “culture-philistine,” who “fancies that he is himself a son of the muses and a man of culture,” but is actually incapable of a genuine encounter with art. The first rule of any such encounter is honesty: If you fail to find what you are looking for in a work of art, even King Lear, you must be willing to admit it. Then you can move on to the question of whether it is you or King Lear that is deficient.

The truth is that Glass could have summoned some pretty impressive names to testify in his defense. George Bernard Shaw famously hated Shakespeare, complaining that “Shakespeare’s weakness lies in his complete deficiency in the highest spheres of thought,” and offhandedly claiming “I have actually written much better [plays] than As You Like It.” Tolstoy, too, had a low opinion of Shakespeare: “Open Shakespeare … wherever you like, or wherever it may chance, you will see that you will never find ten consecutive lines which are comprehensible, unartificial, natural to the character that says them, and which produce an artistic impression.” Shakespeare’s fame, Tolstoy concluded, was purely a matter of convention: “There is but one explanation of this wonderful fame: it is one of those epidemic ‘suggestions’ to which men have constantly been and are subject.”

But then, to be hated by Shaw and Tolstoy is itself a distinction. For these great writers, Shakespeare stood in their way as an indestructible obstacle, representing a way of writing that they opposed because they could not practice it. To Shaw, whose plays are political and polemical, Shakespeare was not political or polemical enough; to Tolstoy, who strove for organic naturalness, Shakespeare was neither organic nor natural. When T.S. Eliot declared that Hamlet was an artistic failure, he was not trying to make people stop seeing or reading Hamlet; rather, he was trying to get us to change the way we think about what makes a play successful.

Ira Glass, of course, was not engaged in this kind of literary maneuver. He was speaking as a playgoer who found, evidently to his surprise, that King Lear was not providing whatever it was he expected a play to providethat is what “not relatable” really means. And even here, Glass is not alone or even a pioneer. Until the Shakespeare revival of the eighteenth century, King Lear was regularly performed in England in an edited version, in which Cordelia lived at the end. No less a Shakespearean than Doctor Johnson approved of this change, on the grounds that “the audience will … always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.” In other words, Johnson was saying that the devastating conclusion of Lear was not relatable; it did not tell people what they expected a play to tell them. (Similarly, Johnson remarked on the “seeming improbability” of Lear’s conduct in impetuously disowning Cordelia, and explained it by the primitivism of the England of Lear’s time; after all, he wrote, such barbarism “would yet be credible if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar.”)

If audiences today would not stand for such a prettified Lear, that is because our sense of reality, of how the world really works and is supposed to work, has changed since the eighteenth century. Lear is generally considered the most powerful of Shakespeare’s plays precisely because, in its unsparing picture of a violent, unjust, continually brutal world, it conforms so well to what our history teaches us to expect. In other words, Lear is all too relatable, though what it relates is deeply disturbing (as it was for Johnson, who objected to the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes as an unstageable obscenity).

If, in the face of this overwhelming power, an audience member remains simply unmovedif, like Ira Glass, he just thinks the play fails to workthen something has obviously gone wrong, not with the play, but with the spectator. Exactly what is wrong in this case is something only Glass can answer, but I have my suspicions. Not just Ira Glass, but all of us, are growing increasingly unused to the kind of abstraction that art requires. Lear’s plight is supposed to move us not because it is something that could really happen to usalready in the eighteenth century, Johnson found it incrediblebut because it is what Eliot called an “objective correlative,” an artistic formula for producing a certain emotion. The horror of life that Lear communicates is something deeper and more constant than the particular actions of its dramatis personae. The same is true of Oedipus’s self-blinding, or for that matter Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: We can only appreciate these stories if we imagine our way into them, rather than demanding that they come obediently to us.

Perhaps that is the difference between art and entertainment. And in a culture with so many proliferating sources of entertainment, the work required to encounter art is becoming increasingly unfamiliar. When people stop going to see Shakespeare altogether, we’ll know that we’ve lost this particular part of our humanityone which we have traditionally honored as among the noblest and most valuable.

William Shakespeare

The Guardian in the UK published a list of writers through history who have dared to rubbish Shakespeare, Shakespeare sucks: a potted history of Bard-bashing, while The New York Times ran an op-ed piece asking the question, Should Literature Be ‘Relatable’?

It’s a healthy debate, whatever side you are on. It is also noteworthy that Glass is clearly having second thoughts having faced the vitriol – the original tweet has been deleated.

I’ll leave you with BuzzFeed’s take on it all – Radio host Ira Glass didst belittle Shakespeare and the internet doth protest


Nothing To Be Sniffed At

aromaramaNow and again you come across something very different in the world of theatre and today I would like to share an article from the Clyde Fitch Report, by dramaturg and biological anthropologist Dillon Slagle.

In it,  Slagle interviews David Bernstein, who is a Scent Designer, an emerging field in theatre. Now this isn’t necessarily a new, 21st century thing. Indeed, American playwright and producer David Belasco toyed with the idea back in the early 1900s but it never really took hold.

Can You Smell That Smell? It’s Theatrical Scent Design

Theatre has begun to embrace a new type of designer. Their work is invisible, but, if done correctly, it can have a palpable impact on the performance. I interviewed David Bernstein about his work in the burgeoning field of scent design.


Dillon Slagle: On a basic level, what is scent design?

David Bernstein: I split up scent design into two categories. One is an ambient smell or scent, which is scenting the theatre or the performance space as the audience is walking in. It’s part of the initial impression. It’s more like an installation, so it serves to transport the setting, or to make it “other.” The second is more like scent cues. Rather than scenting the space when you walk in, it’s the introduction of aromas to coincide with the action on stage.

You can read the rest of the Q & A here and another interview with Bernstein here. It’s an interesting concept, and I guess with immersive theatre all the rage at the moment, it will have a place. Me, I think I’ll just stick with smelling the grease paint.

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:


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:


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.