International theatre students engage in in-person productions in post-pandemic China

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Photo courtesy of Yayapa Production

Joyca Jiao on stage with the Little Match Girl cast.

Lynn Yang, Reporter

Northwestern theatre students in post-pandemic China are engaging in in-person production, an opportunity that is yet to be realistic for their peers in the States.

Due to the travel ban between China and the U.S., most Chinese international students chose to continue remote learning this quarter at home.

For Communication sophomore Joyce Pu, life in Shanghai’s theatre scene has returned to a new normal. Pu partook in three in-person productions over the winter break for the Youge Theater Group, Shanghai’s creative hub for aspiring young playwrights to experiment with untested scripts.

Unlike a typical theatre production, where stage movement plays a crucial role in audience interactions, Youge’s New Play Reading Series focused on the script itself, Pu said. Instead of physically interacting with fellow actors, Pu said she expressed the character’s emotional rawness while staying still on stage.

Since Northwestern launched its remote learning policy in March, Pu had not performed in front of a live audience for more than eight months.

“This experience taught me why people choose theatre over digital productions,” Pu said. “You have that physical presence with the audience and the actor. As an actor, I learned so much from simply interacting with my audiences.”

While Pu chose a local internship, Jonyca Jiao, English literature & theatre sophomore from Xi’an, travelled with the Yayapa production team across China to stage “The Little Match Girl” in Shenzhen and Guiyang.

Directed by Greg Ganakas, “The Little Match Girl” was an American musical adaption of the iconic story by Hans Christian Andersen, depicting a young girl’s misfortune as she sells matches in the street on New Year’s Eve.

After a series of cross-continental Zoom interviews, the final cast was assembled and began a 45-day music training with Ganakas. Before meeting the audience, the cast hosted intermittent rehearsals throughout November and the first half of December.

“The rehearsal process was intense,” said Jiao, who starred as the hostess of the restaurant from which the little match girl was ejected. Jiao had to find a balance between rehearsals and classes, all while navigating a 14-hour time difference.

Instead of continuing her coursework remotely as an Art History and Theatre major, junior Coco Huang chose to take a gap quarter to work full-time at the Beijing Tianqiao Performance Arts Center, a comprehensive modern theatre complex that opened in 2015.

As the stage manager of Tianqiao’s New Play Incubator Project, Huang helped young playwrights pitch their scripts, recruit actors and members for their production teams and design the rehearsal schedule for individual performances.

Huang primarily contributed to a production of “Chun Shi.” Directed by Peking University graduate and freelance playwright Hongxuan Zhu, the show portrayed the life of two female physicists navigating their career before the Chinese Scientific Revolution’s inception.

Besides staging the evolution of Chinese scientific enlightenment, “Chun Shi” expanded on the Republic of China’s budding feminism ideals in the 1930s, Huang said.

As she continues her internship at Tianqiao, Huang plans to expand the venue’s experience with Western experimental theatre formats and site-specific performance. Going forward, Huang intends to help structure a series of workshops and public performances, joining forces with her fellow Chinese international theatre enthusiasts.

“Only when ‘Chineseness’ can outgrow Western identity politics, owning a space to breathe and enunciate its nuance, then can we truly claim an international presence,” Huang said.

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