Communication and Interpretation

As I was preparing to start my field work in China, I found myself apprehensive.  I had a carefully planned, psychology oriented study of depression.  Fate however, had other plans.  As I realized more and more that I would be unable to progress with said project, I began to search for alternatives.  When I began my education at William and Mary, I was an intended theatre major.  Theatre had been huge part of my life, particularly in high school, and I had studied world theater practices in detail.  Thus, it made sense to go back to a world that I was somewhat familiar and interested in.


Outside the theatre

When I heard about Peng Hao theater, and its commitment to helping the mentally ill through theatre, I was intrigued.  This small, independent theatre, which was previously a Hutong, encompassed two interests of mine.  As it turns out, Peng Hao no longer focuses on helping the mentally ill.  However, I have become very interested in the culture of this particular theatre as it is so unlike anything else I have experienced in Beijing.  My first field notebook entry commemorates and captures my first impression of the theatre: “Peng Hao (蓬蒿) is a small establishment…on the Dong Mianhua Hutong.  One enters into the café…[which] would be considered rustic with an exposed beam ceiling reminiscent of a tavern…The lighting is low and theatre themed, reminiscent of scoops and shakespeares…The mix of traditional Hutong elements and more modern elements suggests progress without losing roots”

My second trip there brought me closer to the heart of this culture through my shared experience of watching the actors rehearse.  The play was brand new to the theatre entitled 我可忴的马拉特 (三部对话), which is a play of three dialogues.  I sat next to my contact 丹丹, baking on the roof top in the summer heat, and quietly listened as the actors spoke in Chinese.  Then, to my surprise, 丹丹 turned to me and addressed me, in Chinese to ask if I had understood.  It caught me off guard as, till this point she had only spoken to me in English.  I replied that I had understood some of what was said and another actor chimed in, speaking English, to tell me they were deciding whether or not to cut lines out of the play.  丹丹 further told me she was unsure what to do with the play, in Chinese and English.  I believe they were trying to decide between saying lines and simply using physicality to get the message across.

This interaction, to me, was very significant.  As I had been previously addressed in English, the switch to Chinese was surprising.  As Chinese is her native language, I believe this to be indicative of a switch from teaching and explaining to simply being.  The use of her native language indicated to me that this was her world and that I had been transported into the heart of what the theatre was all about, as rehearsals are really the root of performance.  The responses in Chinese and English indicate a departure from the normal.  Based on body language and tone of voice, there was no irritation in using English, just a lack of the normality that the Chinese language, in this situation, held.  As theatre is all about communicating with an audience, I am not entirely surprised that the situation was clarified to me in English.  The relapse of Chinese, rather than being exclusionary or hostile, however, indicates to me further that, while theatre is about communication, it is also about interpretation.  By leaving me somewhat to my own devices, I was forced to work to decipher the deeper meaning in the conversation.  Like a good play, the actors and directors try and make concepts clear, however, some things are left to the audience to interpret.  Thus, on several levels the use of predominantly Chinese with short English phrases made sense.  The actors and creative director had reached out, like they would in a performance, but left some the hard work of interpretation up to me, also like a performance. Whether or not the actors and creative director were aware of it, they were behaving in as they would on stage, by presenting a topic, clarifying it to the audience, and then allowing for later interpretation.  Further, the combination of English and Chinese suggests adaptation without losing tradition, which alludes back to the theatre’s mission.