I have hesitated for a while to engage with the increasingly ubiquitous “[insert own subject field] in times of Covid-19” catchphrase, or variations thereof. This is because of some personal reservations about the appropriateness of turning a public health emergency — and immense human tragedy — into the latest academic mantra while the global pandemic is still in full swing and no foreseeable end (or “post-coronial” condition, as some are calling it already) is yet in sight. At the same time, on a professional level, I have been observing how the coronavirus crisis has profoundly affected my two main research areas, Chinese and theatre studies, and perhaps permanently altered the ways we think and work in these fields.
The past months have seen a proliferation of opinions on China’s pandemic response and the strategies of viral containment adopted by governments across the Chinese-speaking region. The media have sometimes presented the varying degrees of success of these measures as evidence to the effectiveness, or not, of authoritarian versus democratic regimes. Meanwhile, an escalation of racialized discourse on COVID-19 has given rise to a spate of virulent xenophobic attacks against ethnic Chinese people worldwide.
As for the theatre, as a sector that relies substantially, if no longer exclusively, on physical proximity in a shared time and space, protracted lockdowns, venue closures, and travel restrictions have forced an almost complete shutdown of its embodied and live dimensions. But the new anti-pandemic guidelines have also fostered creative responses to the COVID-19 crisis and imaginative approaches to developing and sharing work virtually, in remote conditions and between distant bodies.
To some extent, the current pandemic reality brings new challenges to the performance model that my latest book, published just weeks before the new coronavirus reached Europe, defines as “transnational Chinese theatres”. Transnational Chinese theatres is a method of intercultural collaboration that connects communities of practice across the contemporary Sinosphere. It posits the existence of a rhizomatic ecology constituted by mobile networks of relations between practitioners based in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and ethnic Chinese communities worldwide. The broader geopolitical variation of this model, transnational Asian theatres, expands its conceptual remit to encompass exchanges not only within the Sinosphere but also across Asia, particularly East Asia, to explore practices of historical cross-referencing of political processes and collective memories through collaborative performance-making.
The concept of transnational Chinese theatres frames the history of Chinese-language theatres as a history of journeys. Transnational Chinese theatres are forged by the movement and circulation of people, technologies, and creative formats, and foreground the production of performances through travel, sustained person-to-person interaction, and embodied collaboration. But now that movement has stopped, and remoteness has replaced presence as the main mode of interpersonal contact, what kind of transnational journeys can there be? How can theatre travel? What kind of intercultural collaboration is possible? How can transnational Chinese theatres be produced and performed, now and in the future?
Although the global pandemic has disrupted the usual processes of devising, performing, and touring collaborative work, transnational Chinese theatres continue to be produced and disseminated in physically distanced and, primarily, digital settings — via video conferencing platforms, online streaming services, and social media. The virtual communities brought together through these channels of digital transnationalism have accepted the new pandemic reality not only as an inevitability but also as an opportunity to cultivate new modes of making and sharing theatre. For instance, Beijing-based director Wang Chong of Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental — an important figure in China’s postmillennial new-wave theatre — released an online theatre manifesto shortly after the première of his online production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in early April. In Wang’s pandemic-inflected version, Gogo and Didi are recast as a heterosexual couple in a drama of confinement and forced separation during the lockdown in mainland China. Produced by the Guangzhou Opera House in partnership with Tencent and live-streamed on Tencent QQ in two parts, the production counted almost 300,000 audiences — a number that would be inconceivable for an experimental work presented in regular “live” circumstances.
This proves that transnational connections can still be established in pandemic times, yet by simultaneous remote participation in place of corporeal closeness. As Wang declares in his manifesto, “[we] theatre artists, having experienced ‘the death of theatre,’ shouldn’t and can’t stand by awaiting our doom. Online theatre is no death knell for theatre, but a prelude to our future.”
Wang’s participation in Trialogue, a series of online conversations initiated by director Liu Xiaoyi (Singapore) between Liu, Wang, and River Lin (Taipei/Paris) may suggest just that: a prelude to non-mediated trans-Chinese collaborations in a future post-COVID-19 world. At the same time, Trialogue may be seen as a digital-age revival of the seminal Chinese Drama Camps that the late Singapore theatre doyen, Kuo Pao Kun (1939–2002), convened in the 1980s, sowing the seeds of the rhizomatic kind of interculturalism that defines transnational Chinese theatres.
Since the forced interruption of venue-based performances in Hong Kong, Zuni Icosahedron has streamed a mixed program of archival recordings of past performances (e.g. excerpts from the Journey to the East series, originally prompted by the 1997 Hong Kong handover) and live premieres of new music- and theatre works on the company’s YouTube digital theatre channel, Z Live. The practice of creation through transregional collaboration that Zuni has pursued since the 1980s persists in the group’s pandemic-era production. Co-artistic director Mathias Woo created Read Sing Eileen Chang (live-streamed in August on YouTube) in partnership with musicians, performers, and visual artists from Taipei, Hong Kong, and Beijing to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated Sinophone author, Eileen Chang (aka Zhang Ailing, suitably portrayed wearing a surgical mask in the production poster). A testament to pandemic-driven challenges turned into creative solutions is also the arrangement of 300 cardboard silhouettes of “animal spirits” in the auditorium of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre during Zuni’s first live performance in months, Spirits – Piano Solo Storytelling — a collaboration with Taiwanese actor and director Sylvia Chang — to maintain the mandatory distance between seats.
Concomitant with the postponement of performances in Europe due to the pandemic, Zuni co-artistic director Danny Yung’s latest production, The Interrupted Gengzi Dream, premièred on 30 September at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity to a small invited audience and was live-streamed on Z Live in late October. The production brings together a Hong Kong cast, vocal contributions by Singaporean actors and Chinese Kun opera performers, and traditional Indonesian masks resulting from previous collaborations between Yung and artists from these regions. The Interrupted Gengzi Dream adapts elements of Yung’s repertoire — most notably, his long-term intercultural experiments with The Interrupted Dream, a celebrated scene from the classic Kun opera, Peony Pavilion — to the new context of 2020. In the Chinese calendar, 2020 is the Gengzi year, which recurs every six decades and is “often a year of turbulence in Chinese history”, according to the production notes. It is worth noting — as the performance does not fail to remind us, more or less explicitly — that 2020 will be remembered in Hong Kong not only as a year of pandemic but also as a year of protest.
A substantial portion of Transnational Chinese Theatres is devoted to developments in the Hong Kong performing arts in the years immediately preceding and following the 1997 handover. This is on account of the city’s status as a crucial site for inter-Chinese and inter-Asian exchange and, along with Singapore, as a key bridge for artists from Taiwan and mainland China to connect at a time when direct contact between the two societies was not yet possible. However, the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill of 2019 and, above all, the National Security Law (NSL) passed in Hong Kong on 30 June 2020 pose yet another challenge to the conceptual premise of transnational Chinese theatres as a method and praxis that enables minor (e.g. informal, grassroots, horizontal, infra-national) networks of relations which are relatively immune to governmental interference. The opaque and yet potentially wide-ranging remit of the NSL bears implications for the free exchange of creative practices and critical ideas across the Sinosphere and, perhaps, across the world. It is somewhat heartening, however, that deeply critical work is still being made in Hong Kong and shared with the transnational theatrical community in these times of pandemic and protest.
A meaningful example is Candace Chong Mui Ngam’s play, May 35th, which memorializes the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 4 June 1989 (May 35th is a covert reference to June Fourth that Chinese netizens have used to bypass online censorship). May 35th premiered in Hong Kong in 2019 but, during the pandemic, became available to a far larger audience thanks to Facebook and YouTube live-screenings of its “Gengzi edition” on 3 June 2020, on the eve of the anniversary of the massacre, as well as to the October 2020 broadcast of an anonymous English-language translation as part of the Columbia University School of the Arts International Play Reading Festival, hosted by the renowned American playwright of Chinese heritage, David Henry Hwang.
Another reason for discussing May 35th within the framework of transnational Chinese theatres is that Chong’s text reverberates with the strategies of mnemonic cross-comparison of traumatic national histories that I identify as distinctive of this model. The emphasis placed on the perspective of the mother of one of the student victims and the interweaving of the repressed memory of Tiananmen with allusions to recent episodes of brutality in Hong Kong are strikingly resonant with motives found in The Mother Hen Next Door: A Tribute (2010/12) and The Spirits Play (2011/12). Both works feature motherly archetypes to inter-reference traumatic events in the modern history of the region, and both are examined in my study as illustrations of a trans-Asian theatre of memory that is shaped through cross-border collaboration.
Although by no means exhaustive, this brief reflection ultimately wishes to acknowledge the resilience and resourcefulness of many practitioners in the face of the multiple and complex challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to them, ranging from practical constraints to political restrictions. In pandemic times, transnational Chinese theatres may not produce the intimate, embodied connections that are core to its method of performance-making and performance-sharing. Nevertheless, it can still enable meaningful creative interaction, reinforce solidarities across distinct social realities, and continue to provoke, connect, and comfort us in times of insecurity and isolation.
This article originally appeared in the SOAS China Institute blog series.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.