Local Arts

A memorable alliance leads Children’s Theatre of Charlotte to perform in China

A scene from “Lord Ye Loves Dragons,” performed in China by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
A scene from “Lord Ye Loves Dragons,” performed in China by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

Most local theaters are happy to find fans across the county line. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has them across the Pacific Ocean.

Most companies would be thrilled if asked to perform as far away as China Grove. Children’s Theatre came back last month from invited performances in China – one of them in Mandarin.

How did kids from the Queen City become theatrical royalty in Beijing? The Sino-Charlotte saga started three years ago, when CTC – already a U.S. leader in theater for young adults – became an international player.

Michelle Long, CTC’s director of education, had crossed paths with a representative from a group that builds cultural and financial bridges between America and China. China National Children’s Theatre sought an American partner. So Long and CTC cohorts made an exploratory trip in 2016 as one of two American companies presenting and absorbing ideas at the sixth China Children’s Theatre Festival.

Children’s Theatre went back the next year with a team of teaching artists, leading a musical theater residency for 60 to 90 students at a private school in Tianjin. “We taught eight days of dance, music, physical theater, Acting 101, all in English before parents who may never have spoken it,” says Long. Later, she and her colleagues led a four-day presentation in creative drama for teachers.

“The idea that you learn by doing, rather than sitting and listening to the teacher, was shocking. And in theater games, where teachers allow themselves to be silly or vulnerable – that was something Chinese teachers would never do,” she says. “But by the last day, they said they got it.”

The Chinese government, which oversees the National Children’s Theatre, sent a team to Charlotte last fall to study CTC’s methods. (They loved “Mary Poppins.”) Visiting teacher Yang Cheng led classes at Charlotte Lab School, where some students immerse themselves in Mandarin.

In 2018, that paid off in a big way. After CTC submitted videos of its work for approval, Chinese officials asked it to do three one-act plays – and covered almost all the costs to bring 10 high schoolers over to the eighth China Children’s Theatre Festival. Meanwhile, ASSITEJ – the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People – also convened there.

No other U.S. students took the stage. And the CTC kids killed, as actors say on a good day, in three Idiom Tales: “Ugly Dongshi Aping the Famous Beauty” (in Mandarin) and English translations of “Lord Ye Loves Dragons” and “Show Off Axe Skills Before Lu Ban, the Master Carpenter.” (These all came with morals to improve young minds.)

Mary Elizabeth Johnson, a 16-year-old home-schooled Charlottean, was in all three. She had to adjust not only to working in a professional theater – which she hopes to do for a living – but to expressing herself as Chinese actors do, in a more melodramatic style. She coped with setbacks, always showing special respect for director Yang (a bow, accompanied by the right fist placed in the open left palm.)

For a girl raised on Marvel Comics, where superheroes save millions of people at once, a play about a man who devoted himself to protecting a mermaid had special appeal. “The idea that you worked your entire life to save one person – and it wasn’t about getting a kingdom as a reward – appealed to me,” she says. “It made me feel that an average person could do one big, good thing.”

Now CTC ponders the next step in this alliance. Managing director Linda Reynolds met with National Children’s Theatre president Yin Xiaodong to discuss collaboration, whether that means an imported show or a co-production. Neither would be cheap, and Chinese audiences might struggle if U.S. actors spoke only in English.

“They would love for us to bring a full show over,” she says. “One of ASSITEJ’s sayings is, ‘Let’s dream about what the future could hold, then look at the realities.’ That’s what we’re doing.”

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This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.