This COVID year has been one like no other – difficult in so many ways but also inspirational. History has taught us that the very trying times make the most innovative, and we can certainly celebrate those innovations within our theatre community as companies and groups forge through their shared challenges with ideas both unique and stimulating.
One such group is emerging Cross Encounters, who present their inaugural work, A Stone’s Throw, for the Melbourne Fringe Live Streaming Broadcast later this month. The work is the first ever physical theatre piece combining Chinese and Australian performers under a Chinese director, with distinctive improvised and composed music featuring Chinese and Western elements.
A Stone’s Throw is inspired by a timeless Australian story often called ‘The Birth of the Butterflies’, and is directed by Noah Zhao Wang – a director long active in physical theatre in China as well as performance spaces in Avignon, the Edinburgh Festival, the prestigious Chinese theatre group SanTuoQi and Beijing International Youth Theatre Festival.
The piece creates a parable styled after the poetry of Tao Yuanming, set in a land of idyllic beauty where people live a serene pastoral life. A sudden misfortune in this community forces its members into a contemplation of their mortality.
Zhao Wang was drawn to the story because of his desire to discover small stories with local customs. “We happened to encounter the story ’‘The Birth of the Butterflies’ , and we think that it would be a good inspiration for a physical theatre piece,” he says.
Cross Encounters are keen to acknowledge that the collaboration between artists from different cultural backgrounds is the cornerstone of the project. A vital motivation is that the story, structure, performance style, music and creative line up of the whole play all reveal continuous progress in promoting cross-cultural communication between China and Australia. The blend consists of a theatre director from China, who has been active in major theatre festivals in China and Europe; a musician from Australia who creates original music while also acknowledging connections between Chinese and Western music; an actor from Australia accomplished in Chinese martial arts; and a performer originally from China who has studied acting and theatre in Australia.
For Zhao Wang the origin and stability of this partnership is clear. “We grew up in China, and we now live in Australia. At the same time, we have excellent local artists join. Is there a team that is more suitable for communication between China and Australia than us?:)”
Zhao Wang feels that from a cultural and dramatic perspective, Australia has a very enlightened, diverse, rich and creative theatre atmosphere. “Meantime it has its own characteristics,” he says. “China has also absorbed many different cultures on the basis of traditional operas. As a result, the types of theatre that are active on the contemporary stage are also very diverse. Therefore, I believe that the exchange and collision between the two different cultural backgrounds of Australia and China will surely create very vibrant and fresh works of art.”
A Stone’s Throw is about endeavouring to create an interesting and meaningful art work that strengthens diversity and bonds between different cultures. Rather than frame it in a specific culture format, the company is trying to integrate the ideas and concepts of artists with different cultural backgrounds. From the play’s core idea and roles, the performers use movements and rhythmic relationships to shape characters and establish a sense of time and space, exploring the meaning of life’s journey through different resonations. From a basis of keeping the essence of a timeless Australian story, the company has created a show with delicate Chinese inspirations added in.
A blend that should not be seen as a dichotomy says Zhao Wang. “When I was in China, I was always very willing to watch traditional Chinese stories that are adapted by foreign artists at theatre festivals, so I think the local audience will also like to see how a team like us will interpret a timeless story.”
A Stone’s Throw is an imaginative journey of the mystery of life, death and existence. Different characters – a fisherwoman, farmer and a beggar, who have gone through recurring cycles of life – are now faced with trying to explore its true meaning. There is also a wise man who is detached, but somehow inadvertently guides them through their challenging yet beautiful journey.
Zhao Wang agrees that “Life” is a big theme of the show with the dire to explore the meaning of life under this essential. “After the inspiration given to us by the story and our thinking at this stage, we believe that the process of finding the meaning of life itself is the greatest meaning of life,” he says. “Life has its important meaning in different stages. We don’t think that the meaning of a certain stage is good or bad, right or wrong, instead, we keep exploring it in all the stages, the thing is worth doing in itself.”
The work is augmented in both an exciting and dramatic way by a striking music approach, using solo guitar, which evokes the classic tones of Chinese instruments such as Sanxian, Erhu and Yueqin. The composer &sound designer, John O’Beirne, is a local musician who has played around the Melbourne music scene for several years as a soloist and ensemble member in various rock, folk, pop and jazz outfits. John has also been involved in theatre composing since 2019.
After moving to Australia in 2019, this is Zhao Wang ‘s first project here, and his rehearsal room seems as flexible and diverse as his resume. “First we warm up, then we rehearse creatively, then we overthrow and create again. My style is not limited to a certain style. I am good at applying different styles to the plays properly,” he says.
The audition process, a true by-product of COVID, was conducted online.
On describing his meeting with Cross Encounters’ Olivia Wang, Zhao Wang says, ” In an afternoon, the sun was shining, Olivia and I reached an artistic consensus and appreciated each other. Then I naturally became the resident director of the company and directed this play. Please expect that we will bring you more good art works.”
For Wang and her company, the fusion of this type of theatre is a truly vital one within our current global climate (and beyond). For both creatives, the integration of Chinese and Western cultures promises to bring a variance of exciting dynamic for the theatre goer that both satisfies and stimulates. Zhao Wang posits that theatre itself is a representation of a variety of arts, including music, dance, literature and so on, all of which can reflect different cultures. “We’re also trying our best to integrate different cultural elements musically, physically and theatrically. And I think that’s one of the criteria for a good show,” he says.
From the ambience of the whole play to specific design of the collective movements, Cross Encounters, Olivia Wang and Zhao Wang are striving to create an innovative contemporary physical theatre piece that embraces Australian and Chinese culture. They say, It’ll be interesting for the audience to see how they, as a mixed cultural background team, understand and portray a western story from a unique and refreshing angle. They hope you enjoy this distinctive cross-cultural journey!
Presented by Cross Encounters, A Stone’s Throw debuts as part of Melbourne Fringe’s live stream broadcast. Debuting worldwide on November 25, 2020 at 6.30pm. Additional sessions available at 6:30pm on Nov 26, 27, 28. Website: https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/a-stones-throw/
Image: Feiyang Liu
About Cross Encounters:
Cross Encounters is a new NFP performing arts company and a charity that is dedicated to creating innovative cross-cultural theatrical productions. The activities are implemented by a small group with the majority having Melbourne University and theatre background. We focus on producing intercultural performing arts works that investigate the possibilities of innovation, deep collaboration and two-way exchange between artists with Asian and Australian cultural backgrounds, as well as supporting emerging artists from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to get involved in the industry. It also undertakes workshops and provides a platform that helps building connections between arts organisations, institutions, individual artists and arts practitioners to engage in cross-cultural artistic collaborative projects, discussions and events. So far we’ve been delivering a series of free online workshops and developing a couple of main productions. Currently we have a particular focus on art that addresses Asian-Australian contemporary physical theatre and A Stone’s Throw is our first production.