A Meeting of Cultures
Prof has front-row seat on development of theatre by and about Chinese
BY TERESA PITMAN
Prof. Dongshin Chang explores the fusion of Asian performance and western-style theatre. Photo by Martin Schwalbe
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Prof. Dongshin Chang, English and Theatre Studies, is that, despite a passionate interest in the 600-year-old Chinese art form known as kunqu, he's never actually been to China.
Chang first discovered kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, in his native Taiwan and was delighted to find a theatre group devoted to re-creating it in New York City when he moved there to attend university. He added an intensive program of classes with this group to his theatre studies.
“I took lessons for eight or nine years in the kunqu style,” he says. “I had to learn to sing, act and play musical instruments.”
Chang, who joined U of G this summer, explains that kunqu (pronounced kwin chu) is based on slow-moving, mellow music and minimalist staging, and was at first seen as an elite art form. Gradually, as more plays were written in the kunqu style, it became popular across China but was eventually superseded by Beijing opera, which is easier to learn and more colloquial. In fact, kunqu had almost died out completely by the beginning of the 20th century and was actually banned at the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he says.
Throughout this period, however, a few devoted followers kept the skills and traditions of kunqu alive, and it saw a significant resurgence in the 1980s, says Chang. After the United Nations proclaimed it a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage in 2001, the Chinese government began to fund performances and promote this traditional art.
Chang has taken this heritage and added a new twist. Drawing on both his kunqu training and his university studies, he wrote and directed the play Confessions for his theatre company, X-plormentals, as part of the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival.
The play was based on the Greek tragedy Phaedra but incorporated some kunqu techniques. It had a successful run of five performances during the festival.
His interest in theatre history and Chinese history were also combined for his PhD research at New York University, where he examined how China and the Chinese were presented in theatre productions in London from the Restoration until the turn of the 20th century.
“I'm interested in issues of race and theatre performances and how racial issues are treated onstage,” he says.
Although Chang found that most British theatre at the turn of the 20th century used traditional stereotypes for Chinese characters and settings (the triangular hat, lanterns, bridges, etc.), some melodramas featured Chinese villains. These villains were written into the script as crafty evil-doers, always trying to take advantage of the English characters. In addition, a few productions tried to incorporate some of China's theatrical techniques and approaches.
“I looked at the political, historical and social situations that caused those trends to show up at that particular time,” he says. “It was actually a very exciting time in the theatre, especially with some of the ways people brought Chinese traditions into things like British pantomime.”
It's that fusion of Asian performing traditions with western-style theatre that Chang is most enthusiastic about exploring in his own work.
Yet, with all his passion for kunqu and other eastern theatrical conventions, he has never been to China to see where it all began.
“I learned it all here in North America. I would love to visit Shanghai and other parts of China one day, and I believe I will. But right now, I enjoy visiting Toronto's Chinatown and Chinatowns in other cities, and understanding more about how people are interpreting Chinese theatre here.”