2003 Student-Faculty Fellows: Bard College
Exploring Communication in the Absence of a Shared Language:
A Cross-Cultural Production of “The Good Person of Sichuan”
Mentor: Professor Jeffrey Sichel, Department of Theater
Students: Jacqueline Anderson ’05; Crichton Atkinson ’05; Hunter McClamrock ’04; Richard Saudek ’06; Joanne Tucker ’05
Research trip to China postponed to Dec. 2003-Feb. 2004 period because of 2003 SARS Crisis
Abstracts of Reflections and/or Research
To imagine a project as grand and complex as this one is one thing, and to see it come to life before one’s eyes is something quite different. Thanks to ASIANetwork, not just myself but many others were able to see productions of the work of students, faculty and professional artists in China and the United States who collaborated over the course of five months, from September 2003 to January 2004.
This was my third trip to China for this project. What was most amazing was to be actually working, rather than to be merely talking about it. There were two interrelated areas in which I experienced a great deal of personal development: first, how the Chinese run a rehearsal process, and second the ways in which the Chinese organize their universities and view education. In truth theatre is a fairly universal language, and the ways we work are amazingly similar. We label things and events differently but the process is still similar. A great example is in issues of censorship. While I had started out worrying about censorship, I found that the greatest risk is self-censorship, and that the risk is not just in China but here in the United States too. Either it is a party boss, or a commercial producer, artists are always being pressured in insidious ways. The Chinese are used to it. In America, I don’t think we are aware of censorship as we should be. This was a unique and valuable experience for my students and me. It was a huge amount of work, but the payoff was more than equal to the price.
I was interested in the collaboration of the Shanghai Theater Academy and the Bard College theater department for many reasons. I had never left my country before, and knew that the experience of immersing myself in another culture would be beneficial to my education, and my self. When I was in China, I learned as much about the culture as the history of Chinese theater; and neither experience could be described as more valuable than the other. Everything I did was a learning experience, even down to the smallest daily task.
During the two separate rehearsal processes, I recognized many differences between the style of theater taught at Bard, and that taught at the Academy in Shanghai. When the students at Bard work on a piece, we are more concentrated on the natural progression of the piece. When the students from China worked, I found that they had much higher expectations for their first time running through things, be it running a scene or designing movement.
The experience I gained in Shanghai will stay with me for many years and if nothing else, it will keep the theater world in perspective for me. When the world seems too small, I can think of my friends working in theater in China, and when the world is too big I can remember how possible it was to communicate with other students through our bodies and not our words. Theater goes past language, and past nationality, to a place where people can communicate free of the very things that make us different.
I am endlessly interested in relationships that are hard to define by past interaction. Even with my semester of Chinese, getting around the country successfully was difficult without a bilingual friend. When I walked around the city alone I was more aware of being in China. My single adventures through the city allowed me to absorb more from my surroundings, however, my relationship with the group was the most cherished signifier of the trip for me.
We often resorted to physicality in order to display the meaning of a word or phrase. The physical variations of terms described the individual while we all explored language through their bodies. Using physicality to describe language created a new connection to generally unexamined signals. Our relationships were simplistic in that they were based on our natural desire for interaction. We exhibited how friendships are based largely on a desire to relate. We explored how communication is the basis of relationships, and played with the liberal nature of the term.
Relationships are essential to theater; to generate such unusual ones with my peers was the strongest theatrical element of the theater exchange. We explored the ways communication expresses, its fluctuation in application, and how it can detach or meld individuals to each other. The rotation that these relationships created within myself was so soft that it floated me between unconsciousness of change and an overwhelming desire to sob from heightened stimulation. I left knowing new kinds of love in relationships that had been in a time capsule and intrinsically unique. The exchange was so simple and subtly profound that its nature is evocative of change.
W. Hunter McClamrock
Being involved with the intercultural production of Gods and the Good Woman both at Bard College and in Shanghai was an experience I won’t soon forget. The thought of traveling so far to a country so different was unbelievably exciting. The fact that we would be working on a play made me desperate to go. I greatly enjoyed studying the Chinese language. The class was quite intensive and made a big impression on me. I thought the language itself was beautiful and fascinating, plus we got a nice overview of Chinese culture which certainly helped to prepare us for the journey.
I am very proud of the work done by all in regards to the play; but the real project was bringing together two groups of people and against some odds, working together successfully. Not only was the work successful, but the relationships formed as a byproduct were strong and will last forever. I will keep studying the language, because now I have an even stronger motivation. I want to be able to communicate with my friends and hopefully continue to work with them. This project has given me enough inspiration for a lifetime, because I’ve learned that even the most far?fetched ideas are possible. I’ve stopped looking at the differences between China and America and their people, and only see the ways in which we are alike.
When I was accepted I was extremely thrilled and now I am able to look back and reflect on the experience. I have memories of staying up nearly all night after rehearsals sitting and talking with the Chinese actors. I can remember the feeling of my jaw dropping when I saw their amazing skills and physical talents onstage for the first time. I know now I won’t ever forget the Shanghai skyline, with its futuristic and utterly foreign feel. These memories and more I have, compartmentalized in my head. However there is an overall sense of appreciation and respect I now realize fully. I have a great respect for seven wonderful performers and beautiful people all the way across the world. In addition, I have a deeper understanding of the uniting power of theater.
In China, it is harder to describe my feelings of deep euphoric confusion. It is, as they rightfully say, a world away. But we, as Americans, already had deep and close friends waiting there for us. The rehearsal process was not dissimilar from the previous one a couple of months earlier. But by this time our friendship was absolute and true. It was absolutely interesting interacting with them in their environment. The roles were reversed and now the Americans were the ones with delight and amazement in our eyes as we stared at the city around us. I cannot describe in words how incredibly educational (the real kind of education) this experience was for me. But I can through theater … and I think we all did.
I am not sure I can think of a way in which my relationship of the past year with China’s people, language, culture, and theater has NOT had an impact on my life experience, worldview, and career plans. In fact, I became so enamored with the place that I backed out of an opportunity to study Intensive Russian and travel to St. Petersburg this spring for a program with a similar goal of a bilingual, cross-cultural theatrical collaboration, instead choosing to continue my studies of the Chinese language, as well as of Chinese history. Upon the Chinese students’ arrival at Bard in September, I have since been inspired to look into both traditional and contemporary Chinese literature, film, and theater, as well as survival stories/personal accounts of women and men who struggled through and survived the Cultural Revolution. I am slightly obsessed and jumped at the chance to continue the language in school for both my love and natural inclination for it, as well as for the opportunity to partake in the trip that the class culminates in: a 9-week journey to Beijing and Qing Dao.
Though China remains so new and sometimes utterly unfamiliar, I realize in retrospect, that its differences are less glaring than I had expected. It was the humanity behind the project that fostered its success-for we were all people involved-and the endeavor to create something theatrical together and in our everyday lives regardless of the other culture’s presence was what bound us to one another and served as a bridge between two previously unacquainted, but actually very parallel, worlds. As for the differences and potential tensions, political perhaps, which do exist, I can already see the beginnings of a healing process in which the catalyst was theater and exposure to one another as the initiation of change and progress. This is stimulating because it is not everyday you witness something like this happening, history in the making that is, and it is so much more exciting to experience and contribute to it academically and artistically firsthand than to read about it in a text book.