Studying Theatre in Shanghai

In this special two-part series, Playwright Kate Mulley discusses her theatre exchange program in Shanghai and interviews two of Chinese classmates who studied theatre abroad in New York.

I settled into my seat, front row center and listened to the pre-show announcement. Moments later, the lights came up and a projection screen showed a woman speaking to a camera and then putting a mask. It’s the first performance of a Mandarin translation of my play The Tutor in the Share Youth Creative Theatre Festival in Shanghai, and I am watching the show completely blind hours after flying halfway across the world.

“How did this happen?” I think to myself.

Ben Hoover and I were the first participants in a theatre exchange program in China. All we knew before arriving in China was that we would travel to Shanghai and plays of ours would be translated and presented. We excitedly anticipated traveling to Beijing and walking parts of the Great Wall, seeing as much of China’s diverse landscape and population as possible, and collaborating with the artistic teams of our plays.

Our first morning in Shanghai, however, we learned that a full schedule of classes and excursions had been planned without our knowledge or input. We would be in class four days a week with a group of Chinese graduate students. These students, who dubbed themselves “The Silk Road”—because they connected the East to West—were our translators, tour guides, cultural ambassadors, drinking companions, and eventually, good friends. Our classes were taught in Chinese and translated by faculty with a range of fluency in English. At our first seminar, my play was referred to as “the best.” The absoluteness of this description was equal parts disquieting and intoxicating. No one had ever referred to anything I had written as “the best.” I liked it.

students posing for a photo
Kate Mulley and Ben Hoover (in center) with their STA classmates. Photo courtesy of Kate Mulley.

It was an experience I won’t soon forget and one that makes me appreciate once again both the universality of theatre and the small and large differences between the theatre cultures in the US and in China.

We took classes in the History of Chinese Opera, Directing Chinese Opera, Chinese Narrative, Dramatic Writing, and Eastern and Western Theatre Comparison. Prestigious members of the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA) faculty spent their mornings with us, lecturing for a spell and then observing as their monologues were translated and we diligently took notes. In our second week, we attended four Chinese Opera performances in a row at the famed Yi Fu Theatre with student translators flanking us and explaining to us what we were watching and how to behave. By the end of this operatic immersion we were shouting, “Hǎo!” with the rest of the audience after a particularly well-executed fight sequence or song, and taking pictures during the show.

Outside of the classroom, we spent our afternoons in coffee shops writing and observing. Coffee shop behavior was as much of an import as the beans, and these cafes were where “laowai” (Mandarin Chinese for “foreigner”) would congregate. These laowai lived their lives as normal whereas we were cocooned by a thirteen-hour time difference and free from (most of) the responsibilities of life back home. I learned enough Chinese to order lattes from convenience stores (“Ná tiě”), and dispel men on the street who wanted me to buy their goods (“bú yào”). At night we explored the emerging cocktail bar scene in Shanghai, where English and Chinese were heard alongside one another. Shanghai Theatre Academy generously provided us with a stipend to cover miscellaneous expenses, but it mostly funded trips to cocktail bars and sampling the myriad options at restaurants, and shopping center food courts throughout the city.

On Christmas Day, we had class in the morning and lunch in the canteen. In an effort to include our classmates in family traditions we were missing back home, we treated our classmates to an Italian dinner and arranged for a Yankee swap. A week later, we rang in the New Year in a saloon in the Former French Concession with some of our new Chinese friends.

As the weeks ticked by, we realized the presentations of our plays were approaching. We had very little information on how they would be produced, who would be performing, and when rehearsals would be. One morning we arrived in class to learn that we would be observing a rehearsal of my play, which apparently had been rehearsing for weeks without my knowledge. The play was presented fairly true to the original text (as far as I could tell without being close to fluent), though there was an argument throughout about how beer would be served onstage.

Throughout the rest of rehearsals, I was peppered with WeChats from my director and consulted about questions she and the cast had. But it was clear (given that I had not been included in casting or rehearsals prior to the performance) that the relationship between playwright and play was different in China.

In the end, the performances went well (Ben’s had some inspired elements from Chinese Opera, mine did not) and we flew back to New York a little in love with Shanghai, but happy to be back in an academic environment where we had a little more agency over our experience. We refrained from signing contracts that we were presented with because we didn’t fully understand them, and continued our lives as Columbia students and New York-based playwrights.

students posing for a photo
Kate Mulley with the cast and crew of The Tutor in Shanghai, August 2016. Photo by Diana Chen.

Then in September 2015, I learned from two Chinese classmates that my play would be performed again in China the following year. Attempts to get further information were fruitless and I finally learned that it would be performed in the spring four days before the first performance. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to get a visa in time and the show went on without me (or my full consent). I later learned that a subsequent production was being planned for August and through the generosity of the Columbia School of the Arts and Shanghai Theatre Academy I was able to spend six days in Shanghai seeing this new iteration of my play and reconnecting with the students and faculty of Shanghai Theatre Academy. It was an experience I won’t soon forget and one that makes me appreciate once again both the universality of theatre and the small and large differences between the theatre cultures in the US and in China. 

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Playwright Katie Mulley discusses her theatre exchange program in Shangai.

Theatre Exchange Program in Shanghai

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