Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Meet the R&D: Mei Ann Teo

This post is by R&D Group director, Mei Ann Teo about the piece of investigative theater that she created in China, working with students and members of the community (...civilians, in the vaudevillian sense). For more about her, click HERE!

In the summer of 2012, I accepted an amazing invitation to make a documentary theatre piece in China, hosted by the IFCHINA Documentary Participatory Center and funded by the Asian Cultural council. Steeped in the rich history of Jiangxi province, the seat of the Cultural Revolution where the Long March began, I worked with international artists and translators from Singapore and the U.S. to make theatre with university students and community members with a wide range of age and experience. Together, in a short though intense month, we created a piece entitled Wo Men Zhi Yang Kai Shi: This is How We Begin - documentary theatre made from the fabric of their own life experiences and centered around the education and re-education of Chinese society. Perhaps “This is How We Begin” is synonymous with “This is How We Are Changed”; for in this process I was transformed and renewed.

Process: A breakthrough. The day started with a trust circle with Xiao Tuan Zhang, the leader of the Tea Pickers’ Troupe and the only one of the older performers who stuck with us. “The others are different animals from me”, he said. “They are mahjong animals – but me? I’m a performer.” Still – it’s not easy for him or us, and the truth is that our lives could not be more different. We’ve only read about the hardships he’s been through – he’s lived them. There are oceans of misunderstanding. We’re not sure when he’ll decide the work isn’t relevant to him and leave as well. Until.

Heng Mei chose to perform the moment she found out that her results were one mark away from getting her into university. She sat – completely distraught – staring at the number, as if it could change with her sure will. Actors entered as her friends. She ignored them. Another actor became her scolding mother who offered no compassion. Her head remained bowed. Then Xiao Tuan Zhang entered the scene as her grandfather. He approached her with his smile so gentle, and crouched next to her. He, only educated up to 5th grade, spoke to her in a soft voice that we could barely hear. But it is clear that she heard him as she turned to listen. We find out later that she doesn’t have a grandfather – perhaps this is the first moment she has experienced one. We continue with another’s story, working for about 20 minutes, and he interrupts, bringing it back to Heng Mei’s scene. Clearly it affected him. He tells her, in front of the group, how much he believed her and he’s amazed by what she did. His engagement with the work changes after that –though their life situations are completely different, he also understands utter disappointment and despair. I realize that the world is a better place because this happened. The generation gap is what we must fill to understand our history.

This scene doesn’t end up in the final performance. Many amazing scenes generated through the process of 4 weeks don’t – there’s just too much material. However, everything is in some way there – in the bodies of the performers, in the essence of the scenes. Nothing is wasted or lost.

One of my favorite scenes: The students are sitting for an exam, completely stressed out of their minds, and the examiner transforms into a character in his 60's. He looks at the students’ exams with wonder; he’s only had 5 years of school, and when he was 16, he had to learn farming. Behind him, the students transform into farmers, and he continues to tell us that he never had a chance to go to school, never had a chance to think about what else he could be besides a farmer. Never had the opportunity. He then notices what’s going on behind him and asks the students what they are doing - do they want this for their lives? They, with the toil on their brows, shake their heads. He says, “ Go, take your exams. Do well.” They transform back into students; their farming tools once again desks.

It’s not enough to just tell one story, but to tell many in order to truly understand the breadth of what has happened in a community. Not enough to complain about the education system – not enough to praise it. Not enough to talk about the brutal past, or dream for the brighter future. Progress demands us to investigate it all.

The Galvanizing Moment: I was sitting on stage with the actors – already so proud of them for their performances. The talk-back began, and we were asked the question, “ Why weren’t there any positive portrayals of rural education?” To my great happiness, the cast immediately took him on without any prompting from me. One of them gave the answer that makes documentary theatre bullet proof: “It’s true! We’re not making this up. It’s what they said, it’s what we lived. It’s TRUE.” Others defended the moments that they had in the play – asking him to reconsider his definitions of “positive” and “negative”. Their understanding of the process and the performance was astounding. This was THEIR show, made of THEIR stories, and they knew how to defend it better than anyone.

Another audience member stood up, a university professor who happened to come to a few workshops with us and also was a character in the play. Teacher Soong’s experience and articulation of the pressure of the education system really galvanized their voices. Through his participation he also understood the process from the inside, and through being an audience could experience the performance from the outside. He stood up and told us this: that these 4 weeks in which we created this work was worth more than 10 years of education.

I think about this show often, and of the cast. New memories surface, as they are too many to come all at once. Today, I remember the scene when the boy comes home from school one day to find his entire house reduced to rubble due to an earthquake. He searches around and then collapses, crying. He hears his family’s voice in whispers, saying, “Don’t worry, we are here with you.” I can still hear their voices – the gentle intonations and the care in which they spoke. They carried him then, and they carry me now.

Many thanks to Mei Ann Teo for sharing this experience with us!


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    1. Indeed, we are never alone in the collaborative art form of theatre! Full apologies if the blog made it sound like I did it alone – that is most definitely not true. This was very much a team effort, and if the blog doesn’t reflect that, it was because I hoped to focus on the actual experiences of the participants and what I learned from them.

      So to unpack the “we” that I use in the blog, this project also could not have happened without Jian Yi, Eva Song, and Douglas Xiao, the three amazing filmmakers and artists who ran the IfChina Documentary Participatory Center. Jian Yi invited me to his center, which does incredible work empowering the local people to tell their own stories through film. He and his team organized all of us international visitors, supported us throughout with participants from the university and community, guided us through sensitive cultural issues, provided us with the space and time to work and live, and documented the performances beautifully. Thanks to Benjamin Low, a Singaporean theatre maker and jazz musician who came as a translator/co-creator, contributing greatly to the collaborative environment and bridging the gap between the students and us directors, as he was their peer. Thanks to Efan Wu, a Taiwanese American intern at IfChina who also helped tremendously as producer, translator, and stage manager.

      Most of all, thanks to our actors/creators who made this work from the fabric of their lives, entrusting the directors, each other, and the audience with their stories of deepest despair and greatest joy: Wu Hengmei, He Mingxu, Liu Ran, Lu Lei, Nie Mei, Shang Fachao, Shi Litao, Sun Jianming, Xiao Mingjin, Zhang Penghui, Xiao Tuan Zhang, and Zhou Danping. They taught me more than I could ever hope to give them.

  2. Never for a moment did that article make me think Mei Ann had done it alone OR wished to pretend that she had. The focus was clearly on the students and the experience that they created in the workshops.

    While I supposed it's a thrill to the ego to see your name attached to such a great project, for the rest of us the real interest lies in the story and process, which Mei Ann painted with great compassion and humility.

    1. Hey y'all! Thanks for the comments, and thanks to Mei for the all the extra info about the program and her collaborators. Investigative theater and theater in general is always a collaborative process, and we're always interested in hearing personal experiences about working with that process, so thanks again to Mei for this awesome post!