Monday, March 31, 2008

Street Theatre in Today China (Part 1)

The European street theatre tradition has grown into a fantastic development of acting and directing techniques, and dramatic structure as well, and those improvements have sprouted almost all over the world. Groups and companies like the Odin Teatret of Denmark, Tascabile di Bergamo and Teatro Potlach from Italy, have even created a new school within the theatre itself; La Fura dels Baus deserves a special chapter in this matter.

Latin America, Australia, the USA and Canada have joined their own traditions to these new ways of doing street theatre. Some oriental regions, like Kerala and Bali for example, have an enormous influence over these new ways of doing. The result has been stunning spectacles everywhere in the world: festivals, ceremonies, incursions in all kinds of mass-gathering, etc.

China is a different story. Chinese street theatre and all its performing arts have been hidden (and in one moment, during the cultural revolution, were almost erased) for many years; censorship and bans are common words in theatrical language here. Today, street theatre is fighting for its right to exist.

Street theatre is prohibited in China.

This is a strong sentence but also a misleading one. Well, not really, Street theatre is not banned in China; there is not one article in Chinese law banning street theatre, but we all know that not everything in law is written and clear. Chinese law prohibits any public demonstration without a permit from the police. Bad memories from the Tian’anmen square protest in 1989 are the origin of this ban, plus the usual censorship over any kind of public artistic expression. The Olympics and an impressive economic growth have not done anything for improving these conditions, and they’ve even pushed back any kind of improvement. (1)

There are no Chinese groups of street theatre in mainland China; groups and companies of traditional dance, commercial companies dedicated to creating mass spectacles, etc., yes, but nothing like the new street theatre I talked about.

Even with this dismal panorama, if we are lucky, we can find some ‘actions’ or ‘manifestations’ that we can call ‘theatre’. China is a huge country with dozens of cities with more that one million people and many things happen there, even that different kind of theatre.

My experience is centered on the two main cities, Beijing and Shanghai, as they are a good example of what is happening here.

Wangfujing and Chaoyang Park

Squares and streets can’t be taken by surprise and the police don’t give permission to perform to anyone without some link with the government; it is inside ‘special’ public places where we can find some kind of street theatre; talking about streets and squares, we have Wangfujing street, the most famous commercial street in Beijing, and Chaoyang park, which is also an amusement park.

The surprise that usually comes with the incursion of the theatrical play in the daily life of any street or square in the city finishes when the place is chosen for anyone and prepares the public for the spectacle, but it is also a common practice in the Western world: festivals have their own schedule and people know the who, where and when of performances and, of course there are laws that allow or not the spectacle to take place, depending of many factors, including security ones, of course. The difference in Beijing is that there are no other places to do it and you almost never find Chinese independent groups.

Till now (March 2008) I have not seen in Wangfujing any street theatre spectacle as we know them in Occident, but many touristic festivals and some dance group performances. I know by direct sources that some spectacles have been suspended because they didn’t have the right permits, and I have seen some foreign festivals taking place on this street.

Some photographs from Internet about events in Wangfujing:

Chaoyang Park (and its amusement park) is the main venue for festivals which use any kind of street spectacle; it has some squares just for performing arts and concerts. Foreign groups usually perform their street theatre here, and Chinese spectators react not much differently from a spectator from the Western world. I have never seen or heard about any Chinese groups performing here.

Video of Sychroswing by the Australian group Strangefruit:

Beggars in Shanghai

It is also possible to see some street spectacles from every day life: beggars playing music are the usual one.

In Beijing, begging is not permitted, but Shanghai is a slightly more liberal city and doesn’t care much about it, so I could find some examples of this street spectacle.

Fairs: Liulichang and its Chinese New Year fair

On some special occasions as important holidays the government organize fairs; millions of people enjoy eating traditional food, buying regional art-crafts and seeing spectacles; these spectacles are always tinted with Chinese tradition and none of them are “contemporary”: traditional chinese dance, traditional Chinese music and singing, Chinese opera and traditional Chinese acrobatics.

Liulichang street in Hepingmen, a very traditional street area in downtown Beijing, hosts every year one Spring festival (or Chinese New Year festival) fair. This 2008 I found, among millions walking all around, two interesting street spectacles: the dance of the lion and acrobatics with stilts.

Nuo Theatre and traditional open air theatre

Traditional theatre and dances are part of the touristic program of the Chinese government. Every part of China, every village, has one special program to attract tourists displaying their “cultural treasures”, many of them just recovered from their ashes after the cultural revolution in the 60s and 70s of the 20th Century, and many of these dances have also lost their religious origin.

Video of traditional Chinese regional dance:

Among these “cultural treasures’ we can find the Nuo theatre from Fujian province in the South of China, which is one of the last remains with religious-origin theatre. (2)

Video of Nuo theatre:

Now, two videos of Puppet theatre and Shanghai Opera both performed on Shanghai streets in 1927. These videos are invaluable documents about the way of perform Chinese theatre and how people used to see them.

(1) We have to see the reaction of the Chinese government to the riots in Tibet to understand that. Amnesty International has reported in March 2008 how the Olympics Games in China have also strengthened some forms of censorship in the country.
(2) Jo Riley in “Chinese Theatre and The Actor in Performance” (Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre. Cambridge University Press) explores ritual sources of Nuo Theatre and its similitude with Beijing Opera.


Any comment, please, if you want a reply write your e-mail. China has already blocked Blogger so I can't acces to my posts and read your comments (I can read them thanks I receive a mail with them)

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    your blog is great!
    I just saw the video "Chinese Opera performance in Shanghai" (1927-documentary film) on vimeo and youtube and would love to know the title and director of the German documentary from which you extracted it. I am co-editing a volume on Chinese Opera Film and would like to add a reference to this documentary.
    Thanks very much for your help!


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