These are some notes on the conference held by the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR, 世界戏剧研究联盟) this summer (July 8–12, 2019) at Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA, 上海戏剧学院). I haven’t been to such a large-scale academic event in a while and it was a bit overwhelming at times, but thanks to a dozen panels going on at the same time, there was always something interesting going on. And I was in China for the first time, too…
See part1, part2, and part3
Some highlights from the last two days of the IFTR conference (see below for a list of the talks I attended, times are of the respective panel):
On Thursday, in the “Translation, Adaptation and Dramaturgy” Working Group, Barbara Leonesi (University of Torino) discussed a radical re-interpretation of Teahouse (茶館), a classic modernist play by Lao She (老舍, 1899–1966) that was adapted by Meng Jinghui (孟京辉, *1964). The production premiered at Wuzhen Theatre Festival last year, causing stirs (see some press coverage), and is now to be shown at the Festival d’Avignon (July 9–20, 2019), with a translation provided by Claire Conceison (who later wrote a post on the production process and the reception in France for the MCLC Resource Center). The synopsis of Teahouse on the festival’s homepage is short: “The life of a teahouse challenging the wheel of time to reveal the mutations of Chinese society and a yearning for freedom”. Leonesi’s presentation revealed the various layers of the production, from the inclusion of different texts by Lao She but also by European authors like Brecht, Heiner Müller and others, that lead to new subtexts, to the idea of the circularity and “destructive power” of time that permeated the production, visualized by a giant movable stage-construction (the “wheel of time”). Much food for thought—and the hope that this production will come to Korea, too!
Barbara Leonesi on Meng Jinghui’s Teahouse
The second presentation by Giselle Garcia (University of Exeter) deals with Makbet, a production by director Nonon Padilla (based on Rolando Tinio’s Tagalog translation) of, you guessed it, the Scottish Play (see a review by Mina Deocareza). The highly re-contextualized production (“Shakespeare localized beyond metaphor”) featured English surtitles, interestingly not re-translated from the script but reverting to Shakespeare’s original, catering to code-switching upper-class audiences who might feel more familiar (and comfortable) with the classical text than with the Filippino translation/adaptation. (I remember a similar situation, original Shakespeare subtitles for a localized adaptation, when attending a changgeuk version of Romeo and Juliet at the National Theater of Korea; of course, the status of English and the implications for theatre audiences are very different here…) Garcia interpreted the production as a “comment on the audience demographics” and the privilege it embodies, which becomes clear in the surtitling that catches the eye. The hierarchized bilingualism the production implies, thus my understanding, can arouse both the pride and the shame of the neo-colonial frame that Shakespeare evokes, contrasting it with the realities of the ruling regime of populist president Rodrigo Duterte that is referenced.
Giselle Garcia on Makbet
The following discussion suggested a clear difference (also depending on place, obviously) of global and local classics. In China, Barbara Leonesi noted, Shakespeare is nowadays basically “free-for-all material” that is used to speak to Chinese audiences, while Chinese classics (such as Lao She’s Teahouse) are treated differently, almost untouchable, “protected rather than deconstructed” – which seems to be one cause of the scandal over Meng’s adaptation.
In (South) Korea, where “canonical” productions of Shakespeare (especially of rarely played works) co-exist, , localized adaptations, cross-genre works, and other derivations nevertheless dominate are on the rise (see my post on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death). With regard to modern classics of Western origin, traditional productions seem to dominate. “Second” productions of Korean original works, on the other hand, are relatively rare, as smaller ensembles rather play new works than replay existing ones. An exception is an ongoing series dedicated to the “rediscovery of modern plays” (근현대 희곡의 재발견) by the National Theater Company of Korea (국립극단). (Just now, a restaging of the play Binghwa [빙화] from 1940, written by acknowledged pro-Japanese collaborator Im Seon-gyu [임선규], to be shown this September, has been cancelled amidst the Korean-Japanese trade war).
In any case, the discussion left a lot of intriguing open questions on the role of classics, translation and adaptation, horizons of expectation etc. in Asia and non-Western parts of the world in general.
On Thursday afternoon I took a bit time off to visit Shanghai with some colleagues.
We went to the City God Temple:
And a visit to Shanghai can’t be complete without this postcard image, taken at the Bund, or Waitan (外灘, lit. “outer beach”), as the riverfront is known in Chinese. “The Bund”, according to Wikipedia derived from Persian, means something similar to “embankment” or dam.
A curated panel by the “Historiography” Working Group early on Friday was just a wonderful start of the last conference day: three rich (his)stories about different times, places, institutions – a 19th century amateur theatre club in Berlin, an early 20th century touring theatre-turned national theatre in Australia, and a public theatre in the UK throughout the last sixty years.
Meike Wagner (Stockholm University) discussed how in the Berlin theatre club “Urania”, a “safe space” with its own democratic constitution that allowed for free speech, a “common language of citizens” developed. At the same time, this playground for civic society was characterized by the exclusion, at least in the early years, of workers, jews, and women, and the “educated performer” celebrated by members and their friends (a recommendation system allowed for associated to attend performances) stood in stark contrast to travelling performers of earlier times who operated on the brink of society.
Meike Wagner on Berlin theater club Urania
Laura Ginters (University of Sydney) traced the fascinating career of travelling theatre pioneer Kate Howarde (1968–1939). While maybe best-remembered for Possum Paddock, her 1919 play (later also a movie) that was set in the bush and became an iconic work of “Australian-ness”, her decades of theatrical activities shook up the imaginary binary of city and bush. When Howarde temporarily settled down, she opened up the “suburb” for art, turning the formerly female-connotated space, situated somewhere between civilized city and primordial bush, into a “third space” for theatre.
Laura Ginters on theatre in the (Australian) suburbs
Claire Cochrane (University of Worcester) concluded the panel with a critical discussion of the development of “The Rep” (Birmingham Repertory Theatre) throughout the last decades, from a small, modernist theatre of 500 seats that moved to a redeveloped area, the Centenary Square, and was subsequently integrated into a larger complex with the municipal library. An interesting talk of applied historiography, considered a “re-arrangement of the historical record”.
Claire Cochrane on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Together, these three talks were a perfect reminder of how fascinating historiography can be. I used to eschew bygone productions in favor of live performances I could attend in person, but the more I learn from research like this, the more I dig into documents myself, the more I appreciate the past in all its diversity and ambivalence.
In the next panel I attended, a talk on the use of chinoiserie in early (18th century) US-American theatre by Esther Kim Lee (Duke University) stood out. First, she showed how chinoiserie was common practice in interior design and persisted while pre-revolutionary (exterior) architecture, often modeled on European neo-classicism, transformed to post-revolutionary federal-style. In a similar vein, on-stage chinoiserie featured in costumes, stage and prop design, as well as make-up, confining the imaginary “China” to a realm of the “decorative, ornamental, theatrical”. While Chinese imagery remained firmly in this “heterotopia”, real Chinese migrants were excluded from society. A great presentation that sparked discussions on various concurrent issues, including yellow-face and colorblind casting.
Esther Kim Lee on Chinese imagery in early American theatre
During lunch break, the “Asian Theatre” working group had a book launch: An edited volume titled Modernization of Asian Theatres: Process and Tradition (edited by Yasushi Nagata and Ravi Chaturvedi, Singapore: Springer, 2019, DOI: 10.1007/978-981-13-6046-6). The book is available online for those with an institutional subscription. In the South-Asian market, the exact same book (with color plates instead of black-and-white, I believe) is available from Rawat Publications, Jaipur/India.
Book launch at the “Asian Theatre” Working Group
According to the blurb,
The volume discusses the conflict between tradition and modernity in theatre, suggesting that the problems of modernity are closely related to the idea of tradition. Although Asian countries preserved the traditional form and values of their respective theatres, they had to also confront the newly introduced values or mechanisms of European modernity. Several papers in this volume therefore provide critical surveys of the history of theatre modernization in Asian countries or regions—Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India Malaysia, Singapore, and Uyghur. Other papers focus on specific case studies of the history of modernization, discussing contemporary Taiwanese performances, translations of modern French comedy into Chinese, the modernization of Chinese Xiqu, modern Okinawan plays, Malaysian traditional performances, Korean national theatre, and Japanese plays during World War II.
Jean Graham-Jones, parting IFTR President, with conference volunteers
The end of the conference came a bit abruptly—like the rain that reached a peak when everyone gathered in front of the Experimental Theatre for a group photo (see the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s concluding report).
A bit surprised by the video that students had shot throughout the week and apparently cut the night before, thankful to the dozens of volunteers (one Mr Wang in particular), tired and at the same time eager to see more of this city, and wondering whether I’d be able to make it to Galway, Ireland next year, the conference concluded. I had still a few more days in Shanghai, though, on which I’ll write in the final part of this series, soon to come –
— 11–12 July 2019 (木–金)
- Barbara Leonesi, “Interpretation, Adaptation or Appropriation: Meng Jinghui’s Production of Teahouse”, July 11, 2019, 11am.
- Giselle Garcia, “Dislocated and Dangerous: Barriers in Makbet”, July 11, 2019, 11am.
- Meike Wagner, “Amateur Theatre, ‘Geselligkeit’, and Urban Culture in Berlin around 1800”, July 12, 2019, 9am.
- Laura Ginters, “Neither Rural, nor City: Making Theatre in the Suburbs: Kate Howarde and the National Theatre, Balmain”, July 12, 2019, 9am.
- Claire Elizabeth Cochrane, “The City’s Theatre: Arranging the Record of Change”, July 12, 2019, 9am.
- Esther Kim Lee, “Chinese Palaces in Early American Cities: The Circulation and Reception of Theatricalized Chinese Images in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York City in the Eighteenth Century”, July 12, 2019, 11am.
- Wei Zhang, “Sichuan and Classical Flavor in Theatrical Innovation: Hu Chengde’s Chuanju Adaptation of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, July 12, 2019, 11am.
- David Wiles, “Democracy and Theatre”, July 12, 2019, 2pm.
- Magnus Thor Thorbergsson, “The Viking, the Mormon and the Mountain Lady: Staging Hybrid Identities Among Icelandic-American Mormons”, July 12, 2019, 2pm.