- Taking The Heidi Chronicles to China: A Dramaturgical Reflection
Louisiana State University (LSU), like many North American universities and colleges aware of the growing importance of China on the international scene, instituted The Modern Chinese Commerce and Culture Initiative in 2005 in order “to provide LSU students with working knowledge of the current Chinese business and cultural environment.”1 At first, the initiative involved language and business courses, with some opportunities for student travel and study in China. But in the spring of 2006, Michael Tick, chair of the Department of Theatre at LSU and artistic director of Baton Rouge’s professional theatre, Swine Palace, decided to meet the initiative by instituting a theatrical exchange with China. He aimed to take a cast and crew of B.A. and M.F.A. students in a production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles on a tour of major Chinese cities during the summer of 2007. Additional hope lay in an emergent and ongoing relationship with a Chinese university or theatre.
Knowing of our history and relationship with China, Tick called us in May 2006 to ask for our assistance.2 We readily agreed to help, and by the end of the summer we were able to obtain tentative agreements for Swine Palace to perform the following June at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, a publicly run venue of Western-style theatre, and at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, which offers training in acting, directing, and musical theatre for Western-style theatre, as well as programs in design and theatre studies. As a dramatic text that probes women’s issues in the twentieth century—The Heidi Chronicles concerns Heidi Holland, a successful art historian with a growing feminist consciousness who nonetheless experiences setbacks in her personal life—the play resonated with its Chinese audience and enjoyed successful runs over a two-week period during that June of 2007.
At first glance, such an undertaking might seem quite feasible, or at least not any more difficult than taking a production on tour to parts of Europe or South America. Universities and performing arts organizations in the United States and abroad regularly schedule touring groups from other countries in order to foster cross-cultural understanding and to expose patrons to various and different art forms. Departments of theatre in the United States pride themselves on taking student productions to the Edinburgh Festival and other arts festivals in Europe. Indeed, during the two-month period when Heidi played in Shanghai and Beijing, two other foreign-produced, English-language productions played in the same cities, even in one of the same venues.3 The personnel behind such exchanges meet cross-cultural obstacles and overcome them with various degrees of success, yet certainly without such dire consequences as reversing the trend of fostering exchange. But as we wish to point out here, intercultural relations between the United States and China, particularly in the arena of Western theatre practice, are fraught with specific pitfalls and challenges. By getting involved with the Heidi tour, we desired to position ourselves in such a way that we would be able to assist the Americans in avoiding unnecessary mishaps and misunderstandings so that they could accomplish their desired goals of cultural and artistic exchange.
In this article, we discuss a few problems that Swine Palace’s Heidi tour faced, as well as some of the successes it experienced. But we frame our discussion by several of the issues that Claire [End Page 147] Conceison, a scholar of contemporary Chinese theatre, outlines in her book, Significant Other: Staging the American in China, and in her article, “Translating Collaboration: The Joy Luck Club and Intercultural Theatre.” For while the goals of the Heidi tour, like many intercultural ventures, were to foster ideals of commonality and cross-cultural understanding, Conceison warns that such ideals may in some cases serve to mask colonial or hegemonic beliefs that practitioners unknowingly bring to a project:
As the young postmodern discourse of interculturalism is nurtured, we who participate in the scripting of its vocabulary and the shaping of its manifestations must ask ourselves not only what we are doing...