Back to Basics in Beijing
Inga Kiderra |
November 6, 2006
Charlie Oates, chair of the theatre and dance department,
is a well-traveled movement coach. He has trained
actors in the grammar of expressive body language
around the world – in Australia and New Zealand,
in Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Senegal.
But he has never had an experience quite like his
latest, in China. (And this is not only, he says,
because he braved Beijing rush hour on a bike.)
In October, Oates served a week as the first foreign master teacher in the Theater Research Institute at Beijing University.
The Theater Research Institute was started recently as an avant-garde alternative to the Central Academy of Drama, “the Chinese Juilliard,” and is the creation of renowned director Lin Zhaohua. Lin – a pioneer of the experimental theater movement in China and sometime collaborator of the Nobel Prize-winning and now-exiled playwright Gao Xingjian – was a guest of the Theatre and Dance Department last year, during the department’s staging of Gao’s “The Bus Stop,” which Lin had originally directed.
Lin’s U.S. visit was partly a scouting trip meant to identify American teachers for his new institute that he hopes will change drama education in China. He found his first volunteer recruit in Oates.
Where typical enrollments for intensive workshops are 12 to 15, Oates’ class drew 30 students. They came from throughout China and were a motley bunch: actors (including some who had graduated from the Central Academy), state-TV broadcasters, dancers, singers and even several teachers of traditional Chinese opera from the provinces.
“They seemed hungry for outside influence,” Oates said. “The physical side of dramatic training for contemporary theater in China is basically ballet, and the students had never experienced the kind of movement and creativity exercises I was giving them. In seven days, six hours per day, there was not one thing the students had seen before. I’d say that even the five or six students who are pretty important actors in Beijing were learning something entirely new.”
Despite the frustrations and occasional funnies of working through a translator, Oates, in turn, learned – or re-learned – a few things as well.
Teaching in other cultures is always instructive, Oates said, but the class in Beijing was particularly so.
“As much as I like to do the fancy stuff,” he said, “I was reminded of just how important the fundamentals are. Now that I’m back in San Diego, my students here are getting a lot more of ‘back to the basics.’”
Though no formal agreements were signed, Oates said, it looks almost certain that the collaboration will continue and that there will be ongoing exchanges of faculty and students between Lin’s group and the department at UCSD.
It can only help, he said, that recent Ph.D. graduate Carla Kirkwood continues to have a strong relationship with her onetime mentor Lin and that another alumn, Scott Robinson (MFA ’98), works for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.