Forget Year of the Tiger. At the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 2010 is all about The White Snake.
The Department of Theatre and Dance presents the English-language world premiere of the Jingju (Beijing opera) classic in conjunction with Mānoa’s Department of Music and the Center for Chinese Studies.
The play, which opens Feb. 5 at Kennedy Theatre, is produced and directed by the university’s resident Chinese traditional theatre expert, Professor Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak. Presenting the legend of the snake spirit who descends to earth as a beautiful woman and must fight to save her marriage and the life of her handsome husband is, for the director, a labor of love.
“According to my parents, I was a theatre person from birth,” Wichmann-Walczak says. She started ballet at age 3, participated in children’s theatre from age 4 and, when her diplomat father was assigned in Rangoon, studied and performed with legendary Burmese dance leader Amy Po Sein at age 8.
“The experience opened my eyes (and ears) to the wonders of performance beyond realism and initiated a life-long interest in Asian theatre,” she says.
Back home in the midwest, she chose Chinese as her foreign language at the University of Iowa. Inspired by a course in Chinese literature in translation, she pursued a double major that combined speech and drama education with Chinese language and civilization.
She continued her studies at UH Mānoa, earning her master’s and PhD in Asian drama and theatre. During her field research, she trained at the Jiangsu Xiqu (Chinese opera) Academy, receiving a certificate in Jingju performance training and becoming the first non-Chinese to perform Jingju in the People’s Republic of China. She was named the first honorary (and only non-Chinese) member of the National Xiqu (Chinese opera) Institute and has received the National Xiqu Music Association’s Kong Sanchuan and Second National Festival of Jingju’s Golden Chrysanthemum awards.
UH Mānoa’s Asian drama and theatre traces its roots to 1923. Arguably the largest and finest of its kind in the world, the program offers rigorous and in-depth training in Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian theatre.
In addition to collaborating with local community members and groups, the program brings master artists from abroad to assist in training students. The result is world premiere English-language productions of Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Korean and Thai theatre, as well as numerous original works influenced by or based on specific genres of Asian theatre.
Several UH productions have toured neighbor islands, the U.S. mainland and abroad.
“The creation of a new Jingju play is a fascinating process, extraordinarily inspiring to me as both an actor and a director,” Wichmann-Walczak muses. It is traditionally a genuinely performer-centered art form in which actors lead script development and composition of their own sung music. “Although playwrights, composers, designers and Western-style directors have been a part of Xiqu (indigenous Chinese theatre) companies since the 1950s, leading actors continue to participate in script development, composition and design,” she says.
The White Snake is based on a prize-winning 1953 script by Tian Han. The elaborate production includes a cast of 30, ranging in age from 18 to 45. In addition, a 15-member student orchestra is being prepared by Professor of Ethnomusicology Frederick Lau and will be conducted by Center for Chinese Studies Coordinator Daniel Tschudi and music student Beryl Yang. Another 20 students act as backstage crew, assisting with the set, props, lighting, costumes and make up.
The White Snake has been adapted by China’s National Actors of the First Rank Lu Genzhang and Zhang Ling and National Musician of the Second Rank Zhang Xigui. All three have been working with students at Mānoa since the beginning of the fall semester. As missionaries of Jingju, they spent as much as 50 hours a week teaching and coaching their young disciples.
Translated by Professor Wichmann-Walczak and graduate student Hui-mei Chang, the entire production is being supervised by Madam Shen Xiaomei of the Jiangsu Company in Nanjing, China. As it has in the past, the Jiangsu Department of Culture is helping support this project, providing almost all the costumes, instruments and props.
Jingju performances incorporate story, music, voice, movement, acrobatics and often martial arts—“total theatre” in the words of historian and critic E. T. Kirby. Jingju originated in the late 18th century when several older forms of Xiqu (Chinese opera) performing in the capital city of Beijing influenced one another. It became the dominant form of theatre in China in the mid 19th century and remains so today.
Elaborately costumed and made-up performers offset the sparsely decorated Jingju stage. A decorative backdrop and carpet typically stretch across the stage, but scenery is usually limited to few pieces, if any. Props often symbolize more complete objects or beings—a whip can indicate the presence of a horse, while an oar signifies a boat and a chair or table might represent a city wall or a mountain.
Conventions, such as an actor walking in a large circle to connote someone traveling a great distance, abound. Movements often culminate in a dynamic pose, or liangxiang, performed by a single actor or by a group of performers.
Originally performed only by men, Jingju began incorporating female actors in the 1920s. Most performers specialize in one gender and one role type and must master at least three of the four primary performance skills—song, speech, dance-acting and combat. Roles are divided into four categories—male, female, “painted face” (supernatural or superhuman beings) and clowns—with sub-categories for age, social or economic status and education.
Techniques learned over several years by students in China must be assimilated during a single semester at Mānoa. “It’s so disciplined, but as soon as you get that form in your body, it actually frees you,” says MFA recipient Nicole Tessier. This is her fourth Jingju production and a prime reason for her return to the university.
Cast member Maria Liu was among the students who toured China with a production of Yu Tangchun, the Jade Hall of Spring, in 1991. She spent several intervening years on active duty in the Middle East as an Air Force KC-135 instructor navigator.
Due to limited classroom space, the cast was frequently seen last fall marching, tumbling and running on the Kennedy Theatre lanai. Students also threw their feet head-high in a strenuous kicking exercise and executed vocal crescendos on a single syllable.
Meanwhile, faculty and staff members concentrated on an equally challenging exercise: fundraising.
It takes nearly $200,000 every three or four years to hold the Jingju resident training programs and mount the elaborate productions; even more to tour. “We have been invited to Shanghai in summer 2010, to be a part of the World Expo and the Shanghai International Arts Festival. All we need to do is raise the money,” Wichmann-Walczak says, bringing an ironic twist to the translation of the word Jingju: Songs of the Capital.
Attend The White Snake: Performances are Feb. 5–14; tickets available online, at outlets, by calling 944-2697 or at the Kennedy Theatre box office 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Monday–Friday after Feb. 1.
Support the Asian Theatre Program: Giving Opportunities.