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    Q & A

    How a New Play Reimagines Rural Hunan for the Modern Stage

    In the new stage adaptation of the iconic 1934 novel “The Border Town,” Israeli director Ruth Kanner transforms actors into narrators and the audience into participants.
    May 23, 2024#Q&A#arts#Shanghai

    SHANGHAI — From the moment theatergoers step into the lobby of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center in Shanghai, the stage adaptation of “The Border Town” plunges them into the rustic ambiance of rural Hunan in central China.

    Helmed by Israeli experimental theater director Ruth Kanner, the musical drama, which opened on May 9, seats the audience around the stage, erasing the conventional divide between performers and spectators.

    The audience is even asked to contribute personal reflections on the significance of rivers before being seated, which they attach to a rope and are later woven into the performance. At one point, the rope also divides them into two distinct groups, each half experiencing a separate scene, catching snippets of one while glimpsing the other.

    “The Border Town,” published in 1934 by Shen Congwen, is a seminal work in Chinese literature that captures the rural essence of western Hunan. The novel follows Cuicui, a young woman who lives with her grandfather and helps operate a ferryboat across a river near the town of Chadong.

    As Cuicui comes of age, she experiences the complexities of first love, torn between her feelings for a young man named Nuosong and the affections of his brother, Tianbao.

    In the novel, the rope represents the ferry’s connection between two banks, serving as a lifeline for Cuicui and her grandfather and embodying the town’s atmosphere. On stage, the rope becomes the dividing river, while the ferry links the theatergoers and actors.

    The seating around the curved, enveloping auditorium transports the audience into the environment and the story, encouraging them to sing along with the actors, symbolically cross the river, and take on roles within the play.

    After the actors randomly select and read various messages from the cards hanging from the rope, they invite attendees to take a card home, a gesture that, according to Kanner, highlights storytelling’s potential to inspire transformation and touch individual lives.

    Speaking with Sixth Tone this May, Kanner, a professor at the Department of Theater Arts of Tel Aviv University in Israel, discussed her thought process, artistic pursuits, and the challenges she faced while adapting “The Border Town” to the stage. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: What drew you to adapting “The Border Town” to the stage?

    Ruth Kanner: One of the producers, deeply moved by the story, believed that my expertise and style were a perfect fit for adapting it for the stage. On reading the text, I was captivated by the beautiful narrative, particularly the poignant descriptions of nature reflecting the emotions of the characters. The presence of the river, a significant element in the story, resonated with me as water holds great importance in my life. I was born near the water. The way Shen Congwen wrote about the river and the people who live by it and make their living from it is very touching to me.

    Sixth Tone: How did you interpret and approach the adaptation?

    Kanner: In our storytelling theater production, honoring the original texts of Shen Congwen’s work was paramount. We maintain the integrity of the language. Our actors serve as narrators, engaging with the guests in the theater as participants in the narrative. I prefer to refer to the “audience” as guests, inviting them to share the experience as if they were welcomed into our home.

    The adaptation of the text for the theater allows for multiple perspectives on the narrative, as each actor brings their unique interpretation to the storytelling. It becomes a collective story of the present moment in Shanghai, intertwining with a tale written almost a century ago.

    Sixth Tone: How did you collaborate with the Chinese actors to develop their characters?

    Kanner: Despite the language barrier, I believe in understanding the essence behind the words spoken by actors. I focus on breaking their habits and rigid approaches through physical work, emphasizing a strong connection between body and speech. By encouraging actors to express themselves truthfully and vulnerably, we aim to uncover a deeper authenticity in their performances. My coaching style prioritizes genuine emotion over theatricality, ensuring that the actors convey sincerity in their portrayal. Truthfulness in their speech and actions is the ultimate goal, transcending language barriers to create a profound impact on the viewers.

    Sixth Tone: Did your experiences in western Hunan influence the visual and thematic elements of the show?

    Kanner: I observed the unique lala (roped-pulled) ferry, a traditional method of crossing rivers in western Hunan. This inspired the central visual image of the show — ropes. When used by the actors, the ropes transformed into a metaphorical ferry, showcasing the magical potential of everyday objects.

    Sixth Tone: How did you blend traditional Chinese elements with modern theatrical techniques?

    Kanner: A significant aspect of our production lies in the exceptional music that combines contemporary and traditional influences, a fusion that I find truly admirable. Our musician traveled extensively across China and collected folk music from western Hunan a few years ago, which served as the foundation for our musical compositions. While some adaptations were made, the core of our music is rooted in these beautiful traditional songs. One particular song, sung in the local dialect, captivates with its beauty despite being unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. Additionally, the incorporation of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the gong, adds a distinctive cultural flair to the performance.

    Sixth Tone: What were the primary challenges you encountered while directing “The Border Town”?

    Kanner: One of the major challenges was depicting the river in a theatrical setting. Instead of resorting to conventional methods like using water or videos, I delved deeper into the symbolic meaning of the river. Drawing inspiration from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ quote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” I emphasized the ever-changing nature of the river as a metaphor for life’s fluidity and transformation.

    We decided to make the show immersive, leading to the creation of several interactive scenes. I recall one particular instance where there was skepticism surrounding the concept. Some of my Chinese colleagues expressed doubts about the feasibility of randomly inviting four guests to participate in the middle of the play. Despite their reservations, I was determined to explore this idea. While I felt apprehensive during rehearsals, the outcome was successful.

    Dividing the audience into two groups to witness parallel scenes was another unconventional choice that sparked intrigue and curiosity. While it may have been confusing at times, I believe the dual perspectives offered a profound message about the complexity of truth and perception: Some things will always remain unknown to you, and you may never discover the complete truth.

    Sixth Tone: What revelations did directing “The Border Town” bring to light for you?

    Kanner: It taught me that the aspects that cause concern or uncertainty often lead to the most engaging and thought-provoking experiences for the guests. Embracing innovative storytelling methods, particularly in a theater landscape that is still evolving in China, can be met with skepticism. However, these unconventional approaches often stimulate curiosity and spark conversations among viewers.

    Sixth Tone: What key messages or emotions do you hope to impart to the audience?

    Kanner: “The Border Town” delves into the clash between rich and poor, highlighting the manipulative dynamics within society that resonate with personal struggles and societal pressures. The narrative serves as a mirror reflecting conflicts faced in everyday life, which I believe urges viewers to contemplate their own battles with conformity and societal expectations. Through the theatrical forms employed in the production, the transformative power of performance is showcased as the actors can embody anything by performing different roles in the show. I hope this can encourage guests to break free from constraints and embrace the liberating essence of self-expression and reinvention.

    (Header image: A stage photo from “The Border Town.” From @上海话剧艺术中心 on Weibo)