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Drama "Teahouse" wows American audiences
www.chinaview.cn 2005-11-16 10:09:17

    BEIJING, Nov. 16 -- Every town in America has at least one Chinese restaurant, but Beijing-style teahouses?

    That is definitely a first even in the shape of Lao She's immortal play put on by the Beijing People's Art Theatre.
Every town in America has at least one Chinese restaurant, but Beijing-style teahouses?
A scene from "Teahouse," staged by Beijing People's Art Theatre, is known on the stage of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington DC in late October. [Xinhua]

    When the curtains rose at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington DC in late October, the sight of a bustling Beijing teahouse, circa 1898, took audiences by surprise. "It was visually stunning," said Alicia Adams.

    Adams, Kennedy Center's vice-president of international programming, was instrumental in bringing this production to the United States. She first saw the play two years ago in Beijing, but had already zeroed in on it a year or two earlier.

    "I had always been impressed by the artistry of the company, and knew immediately I would want it in our festival during my preliminary research on arts and artists in China," she told China Daily in a recent interview.


    "Teahouse" is the first Chinese drama production to be presented in the US, said Lin Zhaohua, artistic director of the Beijing People's Art Theatre. It is part of the Kennedy Center's Festival of China with more than 50 performances including three symphony orchestras, a ballet and the China National Peking Opera.

    The difficulty of presenting a Chinese-language play was obvious. "I was worried that audience here would have the language barrier," admitted Lin Zhaohua during the Houston leg of the tour.

    "But after performing on both coasts, I can tell you that American audiences have been more responsive than a typical Beijing audience."

    Lin credited the success partly to the excellent subtitles, based on a translation by the late Ying Ruocheng (1929-2003), a veteran of the company who was himself in the original cast.

    But there were other forces at play as well. To start with, a significant portion of the audience was Chinese American, with various degrees of familiarity with the language. For those curious about a Chinese play but with no prior knowledge, the Kennedy Center had educational programmes before the opening and even a panel discussion with the actors on board.

    "Our audiences could gain an insight into the background of the play as well its performance history," said Adams.

    For the rest of the tour, which will go around the United States until late November, local presenters also are holding seminars to shed more light on the play.

    In places such as Houston, local Chinese-language media have been providing continuous coverage even before the troupe arrived, turning the play into a focus of attention for the community as well as an opportunity for greater cultural awareness.

    But most of all, Adams and presenters like her want to arouse interest in an authentic Chinese play among a Western audience, "done in its original language," she emphasized, and they are willing to take the risks.

    Although one can never expect such an endeavour to be as popular as Chinese acrobatics or Peking opera, Adams felt this was the right time to expose American lovers of performing arts to the excellence of a Chinese masterpiece.

    To achieve the best possible attendance, the Kennedy Center kept ticket prices affordable. At US$22-55 apiece, the house was sold-out.

    Making it happen

    Prices were somewhat higher in other cities because "we do not have any government subsidy," said Yang Jun, an official at the Chinese Civic Center, a Houston-based community group.

    It was a daunting task to get a 58-person performing arts troupe from China to tour in the United States. "The props alone take two trailers and have to be driven from one city to another," explained Yang.

    As participation in the Kennedy Center's Festival of China was part of an official cultural exchange programme, the Chinese Government covered artists' fees and international airfare. The Kennedy Center paid all the costs after the company landed in Washington DC, which included transportation, hotel, daily as well as production and marketing expenses, disclosed Alicia Adams.

    Despite the full-house turnout, the cost could in no way be covered from the ticket proceeds. "It was deficit spending," she said. "But we made sure everybody who was interested would have access to it." This is contrary to the practice in China where presenters typically push up prices to sky-high levels to establish the production as a first-class one, at the expense of leaving seats unfilled.

    To maximize the reach of the production, Adams called up the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and arranged the tour venues. In fact, once the Kennedy Center performance was finalized, performing arts agents and representatives around the US came forward with more offers.

    Just as other shows from the festival, the "Teahouse" company also went on tour "most of the legs arranged by itself," said Adams.

    Performances outside the Kennedy Center have had to rely on ticket sales and private funding, which is called "people-to-people cultural exchange" or "commercial performances" in diplomatic parlance.

    Future shows

    Now that American audiences have a taste of an authentic Chinese play, would more productions be forthcoming?

    "This opens the door," said Adams, who thought the Kennedy Center's invitation to three Chinese orchestras was even more risky.

    "We are committed to theatre productions that are done in the native languages. It's important that Americans hear other languages and see what is being produced in other parts of the world. We've done it in Spanish, Portuguese and some African languages."

    A few years ago, a performing arts festival at the Lincoln Center in New York staged a massive production of "Peony Pavilion," a Chinese play more "ancient" or "classic" than "Teahouse." Originally a Shanghai company was to participate, but it was substituted by an ad-hoc group of Chinese American performers, due to reasons other than artistic.

    Lin Zhaohua, current director of "Teahouse," is also confident about future exchanges. American and European presenters are interested in Chinese plays, he said, but he would like to see not only classics like "Teahouse" being "exported," but also contemporary fare like "Nirvana of the Uncle Dog."

    Since its premiere in 1958, "Teahouse" has had a cumulative run of more than 500 shows, which is a rare triumph in China. However, successful plays, especially musicals, tend to have much longer runs in the United States.

    Broadway shows customarily play eight times a week and run for months and even years. Will "Teahouse" and other classics run continuously in a city like Beijing, at least a few months a year?

    Lin did not hold his hope high. "In China, a play like that has to have big stars to draw people in night after night. But it's impossible to have actors like Pu Cunxin and Song Dandan all the time." This is a reference to two of the stars in the current cast who are better known because of their television appearances.

    "But we can produce four to five new plays each year and one to two from the old repertory," he added.

    Asked whether he needed to tone down some of the Beijing dialect for the sake of understanding since even audiences of Chinese descent could be from Hong Kong or Taiwan, Lin laughed: "No, I didn't change a thing. It's just as it's played in Beijing and people are fascinated by it."

    This was confirmed by Adams, who said audiences at the Kennedy Center "deeply appreciated the work."

    However, she had one regret and that is the play's ending, when the proprietor of the teahouse commits suicide after years of struggle.

    "That's a startling thing to see. I don't think Chinese people will ever give up on themselves. Their resilience has been historically spectacular," she said. "Every time you think there's been defeat, they rise again. They've continued to progress and become stronger as a people."

    Adams sounded the same note of optimism when she voiced hope of growing acceptance of Chinese performing arts in the United States.

    (Source: China Daily)

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