SHANGHAI — In the basement of a historic downtown theater on a recent stifling Sunday morning, children around 10 years old from five primary schools gather to smear fake dirt on their faces, adjust flowing headdresses, and twirl parasols in front of a mirror. Having carefully fine-tuned their costumes, they will take to the stage at Huangpu Theater to perform excerpts from such classics as “Oliver Twist,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “Mulan.”
According to the show’s organizer, this is the first time schools in Shanghai have worked together on a noncompetitive drama event. Yet standing stage left is a table crammed with gold trophies, certificates, and branded T-shirts. “You can’t deny the children trophies. They need them for school admission tests. But these are just for participation, not first, second, and third,” says Theater in Education (TIE) expert William Yip, the man behind the festival.
Yip moved to Shanghai two years ago from Hong Kong to become more involved in the Chinese mainland theater scene. Now, he’s just one of the many individuals working behind the scenes of Shanghai’s education system to pioneer more drama programs in schools. Yet, as the trophy-laden table backstage suggests, they are up against results-driven parents and teachers who fail to see the benefit of adding noncore subjects to children’s already-packed schedules.
William Yip instructs young performers during a rehearsal at Huangpu Theater in Shanghai, May 28, 2017. Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone
At present, schools in China are not required to offer drama classes. The only mandatory artistic courses are music and fine arts at the elementary school level, beyond which such subjects are no longer part of the core curriculum. When a school does opt to provide courses in drama, students often do little more than recite classical literature or act out scripts from their textbooks. This runs counter to mainstream education in countries like the U.S. and U.K., where the value of embedding performing arts in schools has been largely accepted, and where drama-based education is seen as a way to foster children’s interpersonal skills, such as teamwork.
But in 2015, an updated advisory from the State Council, China’s cabinet, suggested that the country’s leadership wants change. Schools were advised to offer shenmei jiaoyu — meaning “aesthetic education,” which includes music, dance, and drama — from kindergarten all the way through college. A press release from the State Council described the arts as “the most vulnerable link in the entire education chain” and called on schools to set up arts courses to help expand students’ scope of interest.
Officials are aware that the country’s highly competitive education system, which demands that children spend much of their time rote learning to prepare for tests, may no longer be the model that suits the country’s needs. Last year, President Xi Jinping described China’s lack of innovation ability as the Achilles’ heel of its economic development.
Liu Shiqing, an education policy researcher at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, believes that education bureaus are seriously considering reform to address the innovation question. “Building an innovative and creative country is an important strategy that requires not only appropriate institutions, but also innovative talent,” says Liu, adding that creativity and critical thinking skills must be nurtured from a young age. Artistic education, says Liu, “used to be something of a luxury — a decoration. Now it has become a necessity.”
Children perform at Huangpu Theater in Shanghai, May 28, 2017. Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone
Indeed, the publication of the State Council’s 2015 advisory was like being “granted a sword by the emperor” to Zang Ningbei, the founder of a company called Jiufangshu that runs TIE and teacher training classes in Shanghai. According to Zang, who launched Jiufangshu in 2014, schools soon followed by adding drama lessons to their curricula. While the 45-year-old bases his work on Western dramatic theory, he uses both English scripts and traditional Chinese literature — such as poetry from the Tang and Song dynasties — in his lessons.
Yet Zang still struggles to communicate the value of drama to some parents, who assume that because there are no concrete results, their children have learned nothing. “After a Chinese class, a student can write a few words; after a dance class, you can show them some new moves,” Zang says. “But what can you show to parents after a theater class?”
Shanghai-based high school Chinese teacher Han Lei is hoping to spur a paradigm shift in the way drama is perceived and build on the momentum sparked by the State Council’s 2015 guidelines. Following a conference on aesthetic education last December, the education bureau of Minhang District — where Han teaches — established seven school alliances aimed at promoting the arts through collaborative workshops, seminars, and performances. “Within TIE, some schools are on the front line, while others are busy with regular teaching activities,” says Han, who is the leader of the alliance focused on drama. “But when they see the promotion of aesthetic education, they will start to realize its importance and pay more attention.”
Two girls participate in a dress rehearsal at Huangpu Theater in Shanghai, May 23, 2017. Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone
Gaining support from teachers like Han is a priority for Yip. He is currently involved in projects spanning 20 Chinese cities, where education leaders have reached out to him in the hope of bringing something new to their students’ curricula — sometimes against resistance from teachers. “I remember one male teacher came along who was extremely well-respected in art and design education,” Yip recalls. “I could tell from his body language that he hated everything about what was happening. After our workshop, he told me, ‘I didn’t want to come, but now I’m going to come back next time.’”
However, reluctance to embrace the dramatic arts is not limited to teaching staff. Encouraging young children to improvise can be a challenge, and many will simply emulate their teacher at every opportunity — a tendency that has forced trained performance artist Björn Dahlman to adapt his methods. Dahlman, who hails from Sweden, works with international charity Clowns Without Borders and has spent the last two years holding drama workshops for 3- to 12-year-olds in Shanghai.
“When I first came to China, I found the classic gift-giving improvisational game didn’t work,” Dahlman says, referring to one of his go-to exercises in which one person pretends to give a gift to another, who then “opens” it and mimes their interaction with it. “At first, they just did not do it — they didn’t get the concept. I had to explain that there is no right or wrong choice of present. You can make it up.”
Children and teachers pose for a photo at Huangpu Theater in Shanghai, May 28, 2017. Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone
But back at Huangpu Theater, the children have thrown themselves into the performance, and the morning has gone off without any apparent hitches. In the dressing room, kids chatter excitedly about the mistakes they cunningly covered up, while clutching their participation trophies happily.
One parent muses on how her daughter has become infatuated with theater. “When I shopped online for the costume, she was nagging me the whole time, checking if I had gotten the right one,” says Wan Fang, the mother of 9-year-old cast member Li Kunling, who spent an entire week before the show sick at home, diligently reciting her lines alone. “When I asked her to take a rest, she refused,” Wan says.
“Actually, since taking these classes, my daughter — who used to be timid — likes to express herself more,” reflects Wan. Enthusiasm like her daughter’s may be the key to overcoming Shanghai parents’ ambivalence toward the art form. “When she comes home,” Wan says, “she asks us to join in playing the fun games she was taught.”
Editor: Owen Churchill.
(Header image: Young performers adjust their headdresses in front of a mirror at Huangpu Theater in Shanghai, May 28, 2017. Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone)