Interview: Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera

It’s really easy to get excited about Chinese Opera. Not only does it delightwith its colourful costumes and idiosyncratic make-up but it fascinates with its unique sound, lyrical accompaniment, graceful nuanced delivery and energetic and irreverent clowns. After being thoroughly entertained by the Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera Studio at their recent performance at the George’s River Council’s Lunar New Year Festival I was very fortunate to have met their President, Sandy So Ping Chan, and have obtained an interview with her. Her Opera Studio is based in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Chinese Opera is a wonderful theatre form that I’m sad to say the general Australian public misses out on seeing because there is a ravine separating those who know and can access it and those who should know just what a theatrical gem they are missing out on and would be just as delighted as I am with it.

All of the photos are of the Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera Studio performing at the George’s River Council’s Lunar New Year Festival earlier this year.

1. How old is the Cantonese Opera? 粤剧有多长时间历史?

• 在明末清初起到今已有三,四百年歷史了。
There have been 3-400 years of history since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644C.E.) to the present.

2. Has the Cantonese Opera arisen from any particular Province of China? 粤剧是从中国的哪个省份起源的?

• 在廣東廣州佛山珠江三角洲一帶開始,初是以木魚,龍舟粵謳在民間興起,後不斷及收劇種的東西,而發展型成今天之粵劇曲藝。
It started in the Pearl River Delta, Guangdong Province. It started with a wooden knocker from a Dragon Boat and slowly absorbed the other opera’s essence, becoming today’s Canton Opera.

3. How does it differ from the Opera of different regions or cities of China? Are the stories, or music, or costumes or backdrops different? 粤剧和其他中国剧种有什么区别?故事情节不同,音乐还是背景不同?

  • .同其它劇種都是兄弟劇種,互相及收學習慣共同進步,都是祖國的藝術奇葩。

The other genres, they are all brothers, in the same family. They advance each other and learn from each other.

4. Do the stories you tell with your performances originate in any particular mythology or composer and lyricists work? 你们表演的剧情有什么历史起源吗?台词有起源吗?

  • 台詞方面要都根據歷史歷代的人物過往的經歷,其中一段而編寫劇本(曲詞)表達的。

The scripts are usually based on the life of some famous people and historic stories, from the past.

5. I love the physical humour of the clowns. How important are they in full performances? 我 很喜欢粤剧里的丑角,他们在剧中有着多重要的位置?

  • 丑角方面,他們能曾加劇裡的情節氣氛,使劇情豐富,都是很重要的。

It is very important that they can add to the atmosphere of the drama and enrich the story, and make the show funny and attractive to the audience.

6. How long have Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera been together as a group? 你们的剧组成立有多长的历史了?

  • .我們成立在1996年4月17日,也曾參加過農曆新年的活動,慈善活動。例如:中國的華東水災,也得到Council的支持,免費提供場地給我們,當時籌到九千多元,交到紅十字會用來捐款振災。還有昆士蘭水災等等。

We were founded on 17 April, 1996. We participate in the Lunar New Year festivities and charity activities. We have had support from councils who have provided a free stage for us to perform. With our fundraising we have achieved over $9000 which we passed on to the Red Cross as a donation to support the flooded areas in East China and Queensland.

A real treat - St George area's own Harmonodies Cantonese Opera Studio

7. Is performing in Cantonese rather than Mandarin a barrier to a greater Chinese audience? 粤剧在中国国内其他省份的推广是否有障碍?

• .如果其他省是有廣東話的,應該沒有障礙的。
If they understand Cantonese, there are no barriers

8. Mei Lan Fang was a huge success bringing the Beiging Opera to the West in the early 20th Century. Have you considered extending the reach of your talents to the wider Australian Community with the use of English surtitles, like Opera Australia uses when they perform in Italian or French? 梅兰芳在20世纪初推广京剧发挥了很大的作用,你们有没有考虑在澳大利亚用英文字幕推广粤剧,像澳洲还有其他语种的戏剧的推广,如意大利语和法语等。

• 我們每年都會參加全球華人粵劇節的也曾參與法國巴黎的演出,加拿大多倫多的演出,廣西省,剛剛也參加了佛山,湛江的演出歸來。
Every year we attend the World Cantonese Opera Festival in Toronto, Canada and Paris, France. We just came back from Foshan and Zhanjiang, two cities in Guangdong.

I’d like to thank Sandy So Ping Chan, for allowing me to interview her and also her daughter Babor and Liya Lei Christianos for their help in translating backwards and forwards from English to Cantonese and then Cantonese back to English

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Tearing Down the Fourth Wall

Pushing Up Daisies vs A Comedy of Errors

“O! I’m going to the theatre, Darling. The cinema is sooo plebeian. Mink or Chinchilla to guard against the cold?”

Nauseating!

“It’s a Brechtian interpretation. Perfect for my essay on comparative approaches to theatrical storytelling on the early 20th Century Stage.”

Alienating!

“Ohh, goody, there’s a hearing loop in the auditorium!”

Tragicomedy!

“Chookas, Sweetie. I’ll be in the fifth row, towards stage left.”

Familial, fidelity.

“How could he be cast over me?????”

No Comment.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

 

Theatre audiences haven’t always fallen into such broad categories. Look around an auditorium and you will see a refined bunch of people with seemingly singular taste. But they’re a small umbrella group. Of course, I’m not referring to the big musicals that seem to break out and draw people in – crossing boundaries of wealth, sub-cultural fixations and education, and beyond the community of theatre practitioners who love and support the craft and each other.

Spending two to five times as much as the price of going to the footy to see a drama or an opera, can be an edifying, fulfilling experience but it won’t provoke the same audience response and loud catharsis that the footy can. Oops! Isn’t the theatre supposed to be cathartic? Hasn’t that old Greek word entered the English language to describe what goes on in your heart when theatre is at its best? When it lifts you, makes you see yourself and realise that you have changed or can change or that somehow life can be better?

Catharsis in the theatre is a very personal thing. It quietly slips down your cheek when no one is watching.  It wasn’t always the case. In Shakespeare’s day it was caterwauled at the performers, its heckling parleyed back and forth between the auditorium and the stage along with a barrage of soft tomatoes, and it could take to the streets in insurrection.

I don’t think you have to go so far back as Shakespeare to find audiences so engaged with performances – perhaps only back to just before the advent of television. When theatre was the only choice of dramatic storytelling for all.

In modern presentations of plays directors and their troupes try to instigate some of that interaction.

Shakespeare wrote the asides, as if they were improvised, to address his audience directly into his texts. At the Pop-Up Globe the performers run through the groundlings’ standing pit, and the stalls. They invite the audience to photograph them mid performance; they hurl fruit into the audience and lewd staging is used to raise laughs and lower everyone’s inhibitions. The twenty-first century audience smiles in appreciation of their nod to historical performance peccadillos and laugh too, but say nothing in response.

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

What would happen if the audience did respond? and as often as they were invited to and, when they weren’t invited.

Over the past week I have attended two very different productions. Both were comedies. The first was Shakespeare’s classic, A Comedy of Errors in the Pop-Up Globe and the other was Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by the Hellenic Art Theatre. In the first production, the ensemble dared the audience to interact. In the second, they had to deal with it as a matter of course.

How to cook with no ingredients - feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

How to cook with no ingredients – feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by Γιωρου Γαλιτη,  under the direction of Stavros Economidis satirises stereotypes found in modern day Athenian society. It does this by a series of monologues presented as eulogies to the newly departed. Each eulogy is honest rather than diplomatic and more revealing about the living than the dead. Among the different types we hear from is a thief, a bishop, a socialite, a politician, a surgeon and, poignantly, a chef (Nick Tsioukanis) who advises how to cook for life under the austerity measures imposed on Greece in the wake of the economic crisis.

The stage is bare, dressed with only two coffins, diagonally pointing into centre stage. Each monologue is delivered between these two coffins beginning with the personification of death himself.

The nature of monologues is to be addressed to the audience directly as much if not more than the stage environment. Conventionally, the audience sits up and listens closer. In this production the audience is alert and engaged from the get go. As Death enters and requests mobile phones be switched off, the pre-show chatter is diverted and acknowledges his request. Chatter isn’t entirely quelled and remarks fly on every entrance by a subsequent performer.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

“Ah, here she is! It’s Evelyn.”

“Hmm, Stavros has lost weight.”

It’s clear there is a familiarity between the performers and their audience that has been accumulating over years of offering and attendance.

When each eulogy begins with an address to the deceased, someone has to voice the audience concerns that the latest performer has made a mistake. Clearly the dead man was named for someone else.

“Get it right, it’s so-and-so in that coffin.”

“No. It’s supposed to be a different person, now.”

As each monologue is given, audience members comment and add short anecdotes among themselves. It’s clear and loud that they can relate. Occasionally the performers were heckled within the context of the character that they were presenting.

Without even having to try, the fourth wall is down. Why did the Pop-Up Globe troupe have to put such an effort? Could it be that the answer lies with the audience?

The widow

The Widow (Evelyn Tsavales)

I’m apt to hypothesize that a lot has to do with the fact that the Hellenic Art Theatre have a relationship with their audience that spans many decades. There is a familiarity of faces across the fourth wall and also between the pews of the auditorium. They are not the disconnected group that attend the larger commercial theatres of the city. They share the migrant experience that binds them whether its mink on the shoulders or uni books in the backpack or personal connections to the company. There is security in this familiarity.  It’s something that I’m betting this audience shares with that of the audiences at the Globe in the age of Elizabeth and James. Then, there was the homogenous experience of being citizens of London who waited for the theatre for their drama where for decades HA Theatre’s audience waited for HA Theatre to be the sole provider of theirs.

A lot has to do with the comedy as well. When they offer Euripides’ tragedy, The Trojan Women later in the year, I can’t imagine that there’ll be heckling.

With such an abundance of audience banter – how do the performers deal with it?

The General

The General (Stavros Economidis)

It would take a seasoned performer with the resilience of a street performer or swift repartee of a stand-up comedian to take it all in stride and keep the momentum of the written text going. That’s how I imagine the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, to have been like. The exercise of the same members of the ensemble, play after play in front of a familiar audience would insite asides, heckling and banter that Shakespeare never recorded.

The cast of the Hellenic Art Theatre take it all in stride and offer a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα is playing at the Mantouridion Greek Theatre at the Addison Rd Community Complex in Marrickville until 30th September. English surtitles are projected throughout the performance. Bookings: www.hellenicarttheatre.com.au

The Pop-Up Globe is offering Shakespeare in Moore Park from this September and October.

What’s in a good review?

When I was younger I’d get all excited about a new movie or show opening. I’d open the papers to look for the reviews with bated breath. I wanted the show to be well reviewed but I was anxious that I wouldn’t enjoy it if it was. I was aware of a gap between what the reviewers appreciated and what I did. If they liked it too much would it be hard work, you know, slow and atmospheric, or bizarre and inexplicable? Would a good review make me feel uncultured or ignorant if I didn’t get it? Conversely, if they didn’t like it and I did, I was made to feel the same way. What’s wrong with melodrama anyway?

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

Ancient audience

 

After doing a few reviews more than usual this year, I’ve come to believe that a good reviewer needs to talk to the prospective audience of the show. Who are they? Will they like it? Is it appropriate to all members of a target group or family or non-targeted audience member?

Where and by who the production has been staged should influence how the performance is judged. An inner-city boutique theatre will have nuanced choices of material it stages and appeal to a particular market. Suburban, community theatre’s will select different stories with a wider appeal. Each offering should be judged on its own parameters.

If the performance is well-subsidized and offered by trained professionals then more can be expected from its production values. If the performers are drama students learning the ropes there is a different expectation – a greater responsibility is invested with the director.

The reviewer also needs to look towards the playwright. Has the director achieved the intensions of the story? Is the story relevant? If it’s a classic play, has the production touched its modern audience? Has it reached across time and given the audience an understanding of the past that resonates today?

The budget of the performance will dictate set, sound and costume design. How these challenges are met can influence the telling of the story. The decision to have a bare set because the actors, a pretty costume, a prop or two and a good script should stand on their own doesn’t always work. Really good actors, well practised in their craft can make this look easy, but it’s not. Sometimes borrowing lavish costumes that set a particular time or reality but restrict movement – so that they remain pristine – isn’t a good choice. A bare set highlights the oft asked question – what should I do with my hands? and where to stand without devolving into a tableau of talking heads.

The aim of the performance is to immerse the audience in the reality of the story. All of the elements of staging  – performers, the stage, set, costumes, props, sound design and lighting should support that reality.

The actor is crucial. Every performer no matter how big or small their role is, is crucial to creating and maintaining the theatrical illusion. How they all interact with each other – listen to each other before reacting or responding, reinforces the world of the play. If they get up from one side of the stage and walk to the other mid speech – what are they responding to? what is their motivation? Can we see what’s going on in their head? Do we as audience members feel their agitation? Or are we wondering what the actor forgot? A big pitfall, oft stated is putting on an accent or a disability. Nothing breaks the illusion than an accent that is dropped and picked up and dropped throughout the play. Maintaining an altered state over the course of a performance is really difficult.

As a reviewer it can be difficult knowing how far to delve into criticism. A play is a good one if its target audience enjoyed it. It’s a really good one if it realises the intent of the playwright as well. It’s a great one if it does this and ticks all of the production value boxes.

So what is a good review? Like a good play, a good review will talk to the play’s audience. One that can predict the enjoyment and/or edification of the target audience.

 

 

 

Theatre Review: Richard III

Bard On The Beach Theatre Company

Gunamatta Park, Cronulla

March 1st, 2018 – touring around Sydney until April 20

image

Whether you think about Shakespeare’s Richard  III as a Revenger Tragey or History play is irrelevant when casting the chief protagonist. He (or recently, she) has to be superbly, immaculately, unabashedly conniving and manipulative and self serving and most importantly, must revel in his /her vices – exalting in them like a cool breeze through the mire of a humid day. It’s not a role for anyone with any qualms about going there – laying aside their own morality and conscience for the duration of rehearsals and performances. Nor for anyone too concerned with how they personally may be perceived after the final applause. These days audiences are savvy enough to distinguish between the performer and the role, however, it’s still daunting. Bard on the Beach‘s Christian Heath nailed it.

It was a joy to see him plot and scheme and work the fates of all through the fingers of his one good hand. We laid aside our own morality to take pleasure in his success even though we might have cringed at the blood trail. Heath’s portrayal was BIG. His presence and delivery filled the space and brought the audience closer to him. Not a mean feat when you consider the stage is an open air amphitheatre, by a community centre, in a park, by the bay. His only aid was the night. Had the performance been staged earlier in the day, the magic would have been compromised I’m sure.

His big acting style was complemented by big staging. The performers used the amphitheatre including pathways through the seating to make measured entrances throughout, encapsulating the performance and its audience as a localised event in the park. They created a spectacle in the best sense of the word – the kind of thing an Elizabethan audience hankered after, from a cleverly staged beheading to Richard’s ghostly victims popping up from all directions in their bloody tunics wreaking their revenge on a dreaming Richard. Gory and sudden in their appearance they were fearsome and shocking. All this without an Elizabethan discovery ‘closet’ or trapdoor in sight. Soldiers marched down the hillside setting and onto the battle stage, thrusting and parrying a well choreographed fight scene that saw in, the play’s climactic ending. The spectacle was ably handled and presented and necessary.

Amphitheatre’s call for that, spectacle and big acting. By big acting, I don’t mean hamming it up. I mean big demonstrations of emotion that are delivered with the whole body – gestures of the hands, torso, head/neck as well as the gait of the performer. Emotions have to be conveyed across a greater distance to the audience and the audience has to be able to empathize with the performer. Communication has to be big in an open-air amphitheatre.

The stage was bare, the costumes were lavish and the Shakespearean language a no-brainer for this troupe. Yet something wasn’t gelling 100%. I found that I couldn’t connect with the female characters. I couldn’t feel for Buckingham’s fall. And the scene straight after the ghosts accost Richard where he is finally moved by his conscience-despite the wonderful work done by Heath, I couldn’t connect with the scene. I became a passive observer not Richard’s temporal accomplice. Why?

Richard III contains some of the flattest written females in the Shakespeare canon. To make them rounded so much has to be read into the role that an English teacher would cringe. But it has to be done, the words alone do not suffice. The women are the personal conscience and the public conscience of a would be nation’s ruler, the play and the audience.

While the staging was big, occasionally the realization of the text diminished to a tableau of talking heads in gorgeous costumes. On a bare stage with wordy text this is a constant hazard. The actors would have benefitted from a little more from the set – a dais, platform, freestanding buttress – something to break up the space. Something to allow movement to, up and around, something to aid relationships be established visually and help to convey the subtext.

Martin Estridge’s Buckingham was ably handled but the development arc of his character wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t feel for the loyal right-hand man being overlooked, deserting the despot and then losing his life. It’s really important that as an audience we do. If we don’t feel for Buckingham we don’t begin to disentangle our allegiances from Richard. The ghostly assassination of Richard becomes a good bit of spectacle but fails to move us. The moral of the play, if one is to be observed – unrestrained conscience/power in the hands of one man is no good, is not felt by the audience. Would the assassination of Richard by the ghosts have the cathartic effect the dramatist aimed for if we could see Richard’s face? Or if we felt more for his victims?

All in all, it was a good night out. I look forward to seeing more from this company. Bard on the Beach is touring Two Gentleman of Verona in Tandem with Richard III until April 20. Disappointed I couldn’t catch the Gentlemen this time around, I’ll be looking out for more from Bard in The Beach.

I’d love to see Christian Heath take on Iago.

 

Staging the Classics

“Death, robbing my eyes of light,

Give back to the world it’s untarnished purity!”

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea

Racine’s words through Phaedra’s lips could be the coda for Ancient Greek tragedy. Through the death of the tragic hero, the world of the play is cleansed and the audience having, “ridden the waves of a ship at sea in a hurricane” is returned safely to shore. When done right, the audience shares the emotional journey of the main characters. They, too, are purged and catharsis is served across the divide.

For the Ancient Greek theatre-goer attending the Festival was a religious experience. They went there to be entertained, to be instructed and to be cleansed. The plots, lifted from their religious histories were parables to be learnt from. The Gods, ever close, were powerful onlookers in the drama. They held fate in their palms. They could be outraged or appeased through curses cast, supplications entreated and taboos broken

Magic and superstition are used in the plots like weapons of war.The heroes may refuse to worship a particular god. They may break a taboo. They may entreat the intervention of the Gods in an act of revenge. Their aim is to influence their own or another character’s destiny. In so doing they empower themselves to walk amongst the immortals. The gods hear their echoing hubris and they act swiftly to silence the cacophony.

Ancient Greece was a deterministic, patriarchal society that was suspicious, at best, of foreigners. Its stage reflects this.

Again and again the great tragedians preach against pride but not in a modern sense. The hero must never place him/herself above his/her humanly station. They must wear their  dignity without coddling themselves in ego. Not an easy labour when you consider that the hero was a public figure. His/her decisions were speculated upon in a voyeuristic society. . Personal honour and reputation modulated the hero’s behaviour. The chorus’ judgments were tweeted away as the hero came to terms with his/her crisis. Tweeted is perhaps an understatement, (but I hope my analogy works.) Ancient Greece was a more discerning society than our own. It wouldn’t settle for the modern adage, ” All publicity is good publicity.”

There is a lot of assumed knowledge in a classic text, whether it is Racine or Euripides. Having endured the test of time these plays come to us in print together with pages of end notes, modern translations and dense introductions that reveal their contexts. A theatre-goer should never leave the theatre feeling puzzled as to the intent of the production. So how do we make a play written beyond the barricade of history speak to us today?

A director looking to stage a classic will be drawn to a text that strikes a cord. From the Ancient Greek repertoire, Euripides’ call is clearest heard.

Then to informing today’s audience about the erks of Ancient Greek society, religion and mythology without handing them a history book before the lights go dim. This is wrapped up with the interpretation of the script. Does the director present a historically accurate adaptation complete with masks and chorus or modernize it with a more naturalistic approach? What about deconstructing the text? To deconstruct the text assumes a deep and thorough understanding of the text, its problems and the intention of the playwright. When done well, the original ideas become clearer.

I like deconstruction, it’s used across the board of theatrical arts. When an actor prepares s/he deconstructs the meaning of her/his lines. Her/his emotional memory is called forth to experience the necessary empathy. When the production designer visualizes the performance space s/he has taken the themes of the drama and created a physical metaphor.The risk of choosing deconstruction is the ease in which personal responses to the plot can suffocate the original intention of the playwright. How far should a text be deconstructed – all the way to abstraction?

The next hurdle is deciding how to deal with the chorus. Get rid of it altogether? Allot personalities to lines and cast them as definite characters? Employ a choreographer or orchestrate movement techniques to keep it relevant within the flow of the narrative? Dealing with a chorus can be complex and time consuming. Each actor must have a relevant role to fulfill to add value to the effectiveness of the group and there can be long periods of silent stage time for an individual chorus member. If one chorus member becomes disengaged, it can upstage the reality of the whole.

Finally, the pivotal decision the director is called to make is how real to make his production. By real I mean relevant. Sometimes abstracting provides the most real experience. But not always. Sometimes the most traditional rendering is the most powerful. So long as the playwright’s concern is still relevant today.

I had the pleasure of attending Aim Dramatic Arts school’s performance of Hell Hath No Fury, on the weekend. It was a retelling of the myths of Medea, Elektra and Phaedra. Each myth was handled differently with varying success. The performances were experiences in: a more or less traditional interpretation; a very clever deconstruction; and abstraction. The performances are the inspiration behind his post and the next as well. I wish the students of the school opportunity, serendipity and many more performances.

 

Photo credit: ADiamondFellFromTheSky / FoterCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)