When the autobiography of Chinese-Australian, Li Cunxin, was published in 2003, it quickly soared to the top of Australia’s best sellers list. It then went on to be published and sold in more than 20 countries, and inspired a 2009 film directed by the great Bruce Beresford.
Mao’s Last Dancer is Cunxin’s story of being born into poverty in China’s Shandong Province, and ultimately going on to become a world-famous professional dancer. And now, this incredible story has served as the inspiration for Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s brand new production, The Peasant Prince.
Opening tonight, The Peasant Prince brings to life a children’s book of the same title, also authored by Cunxin and based on his memoirs. The world premiere production is being staged at Sydney’s Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre and is aimed at children six years and over.
For those unfamiliar with Monkey Baa, the company was established 18 years ago and is regarded as a national leader in creating outstanding theatre for young people that is relevant, vibrant, thought-provoking and imaginative.
Director of The Peasant Prince, Tim McGarry, has worked with his co-creative directors at Monkey Baa, Eva Di Cesare and Sandra Eldridge, to create the new work. It is the fourteenth script the trio has written together.
“Working with them is always a great source of enjoyment and creative inspiration,” McGarry tells Theatre People.
“I think working with this creative team… has been exceptional. I’ve surrounded myself with these extraordinarily talented designers – lighting, sound, set and costume – and watching them invest in the piece and bring it to life has been a bit of a dream.”
McGarry recalls when he first became aware of Cunxin’s story.
“When Mao’s First Dancer was published, I remember reading it and I was fascinated by the story,” he says.
But it wasn’t for several years that the spark was lit, which led to the creation of The Peasant Prince for the stage.
“We were delivering a workshop program in Northern Queensland [in] about 2013. There was a group of… year five students from a tiny rural school… I’d been working with them for quite a few months and I said, ‘I want you to think about the story that’s affected you the most, that you’ve been working on this year’. I split the class into two. One of those groups presented a scene from The Peasant Prince.
“As I watched it, I thought, ‘I know this story’.”
McGarry asked the children to tell him more about the story they were portraying.
“I realised it was Mao’s Last Dancer,” he says.
“It was really from that moment that I took the story back to the company, and I said that I think this would make a great adaption for us as a company to do.”
Next, McGarry sought the involvement of Cunxin himself.
“We approached Li, and over a series of phone calls and emails over about six to eight months, we spoke about it, and finally he said, ‘Yes, I’d be very happy for you to tell my story’.
“We spent another 12 months adapting it, and sending drafts back and forth to Li, and then he came down to Sydney late last year, while we were doing creative development, and joined in the final process of working on the script that we were taking into rehearsals.”
McGarry is incredibly excited about the level of involvement Cunxin has had throughout the process.
“He is the most inspiring, supportive human being, and such a great energy to have in the room. He’s an extraordinary person,” McGarry says.
“It’s been a really thorough process and one that’s certainly necessary… I feel we have a great responsibility in telling this story.”
Following its Sydney premiere, The Peasant Prince will begin an extensive tour of theatres around the country.
“Its initial tour is to 38 theatres Australia-wide,” McGarry says.
So what can young audiences expect from The Peasant Prince?
“I think audiences can expect an inspiring story that, I hope, will remind them that whatever they want to do in life, they have the opportunity to do,” says McGarry.
“The story, amongst many things, is a migrant story. All of us, except for our first people, … came from another place in search of a better life, and I think that’s what Li’s journey was.
“His was an extraordinary journey, in terms of where it took him on the international stage. But we all have, within our family DNA and history, stories of migration and this is another migration story, with a bit of a twist.”
THE PEASANT PRINCE
DATES & TIMES: 9th April (3pm), 11th – 20th April (10:30am and 12:30pm)
FOR: Ages 6+
VENUE: Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre (Terrace 3, 1 – 25 Harbour Street, Sydney – across from the Children’s Playground at Darling Quarter)
TICKETS: $29pp / $104 Family of 4 / $125 Family of 5 / $25pp Groups of 10+ (no booking fees apply)
BOOKINGS: www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340