Anyone who saw director Michael Gralapp’s pantomime interpretation of Snow White last Christmas can attest to the fun and absurdity he injected into the classic tale. But unbeknown to the audience and – right up until the opening performance – the cast, the 59-year-old American was undergoing aggressive chemotherapy and coming to terms with an ominous prognosis.
Given as little as two years to live and secretly being sick during almost every rehearsal, Gralapp credits the process of putting the show together with giving him the strength to withstand the treatment’s side effects. But after experiencing his own Christmas “miracle” and being given the all-clear this year, the veteran expat director is back.
“The people here and the play got me through it more than anyone else,” he explains. “It gave me the strength to survive and I’ll never forget that show. It’s more than just community theater.”
This month, he returns to Beijing’s drama scene with renewed vigor and a new production – an unashamedly overblown version of The Wizard of Oz. It promises to be as audacious as one would expect from the pantomime genre.
“I want it to be better, funnier, bigger, and louder, and I want more audience participation because that’s what people have come to expect from these shows,” he says. “They expect to be dazzled.”
Pantomime, a typically British tradition, features performances characterized by singing, unrestrained tomfoolery, audience interaction, and, more often than not, men in women’s clothes. Familiar stories from screen and stage are merged with popular songs (with re-written lyrics), dancing, and bold costumes to form a staple of British Christmases.
This festive art form is also renowned for being mildly risqué, and its appeal to both parents and children lies behind its long-lasting success, according to Gralapp. As such, his latest production will be laden with all of the double entendres and innuendo that have come to define the genre.
“There’s still a lot of adult humor, perhaps more than in previous years. That will go completely over children’s heads but there’s a lot of slapstick. Who doesn’t love to see someone get a pie to the face?” he says.
“What’s more, the parents love [all the audience participation]because they don’t need to tell their kids to be quiet!”
After selling out last year’s performance, which was reportedly as popular with local Chinese families as it was expats, tickets are already moving quickly. But as well as making up a large swath of the audience,
children also have pivotal roles in the cast, with 13 actors aged 5 to 16 chosen from over 150 who auditioned. Most (due, in part, to their height) will play munchkins.
“I absolutely love working with the kids,” Gralapp says. ”It reminds me of Christmases past and they are all so smart. A few years ago, one of the kids got sick and couldn’t go on stage so I asked ‘Which one of you knows the lines?’ and loads of them did. They listen to everything; they even know the adults’ lines.”
Standing in the Spotlight
A number of the children featured in this year’s production came straight from the drama camps held by Beijing Playhouse, the theater group behind the pantomime production. Its two-week programs allow kids aged 6 and over to paint sets, design costumes, and perform to a crowd of (sometimes hundreds of) friends and family at the end of the course.
As a result, many gain the confidence to audition for bigger productions, according to founder Chris Verrill. But while a select few will make it to the big stage, he feels the value of drama can be felt by children of all abilities.
“Only the most talented kids were able to get involved [in The Wizard of Oz]but if you’re the other 90 percent, then a show like that isn’t the best option,” he explains. “The purpose of our camps is not the quality of the show at the end; it’s about exposing children to all facets of education.”
“Some kids come to us because they are really passionate about drama and have been taking theater at school. You also have parents sending their children to us because they’re really shy and getting on stage to perform is a way to get them out of their shells. Then we have a lot of Chinese parents whose kids read, write and understand English pretty well, but they can’t speak [confidently]. And then sometimes people come to us because they want their children to just be kids and have fun!”
But while the number of opportunities for kids to get involved in drama in China may be on the rise, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, the very concept of English-language theater is still in the early stages of development, as Verrill discovered when he first arrived in the capital seven years ago.
After selling his online business and traveling the world for two years, he found himself broke in Beijing. Having watched performances throughout his journey, he decided to audition for a play but found limited options available.
“There wasn’t anywhere to audition so I thought ‘I’ll do a show’,” Verrill recalls. “This was perhaps the silliest idea I’ve had in my life, but here we are seven years later still doing it.”
From the first performance, he faced growing calls from frustrated parents wanting someone to fill the void of youth drama. The Beijing Playhouse began its children’s camps shortly after and now also helps run theater programs within schools, an experience that has highlighted the disparity in drama education in the capital.
Although many of Beijing’s international schools have dedicated drama departments and modern facilities (for instance, the British School of Beijing’s Shunyi campus has a theater big enough to host The Wizard of Oz for the first few nights of its December run), there remains a shortage of extracurricular opportunities. This is especially a problem for those in local schools because, while Beijing Playhouse has worked with a handful of Chinese schools, the theater group has found that there is often no place for drama in the local curriculum.
This facet of the Chinese education system is all too familiar for the South African-born Education Director of Dreamaker Drama Academy, Francine Booysens. Through her company’s in-school, evening, and weekend drama programs for Chinese students, she has found that the idea of creative expression through performance is an “abstract concept” for many of the parents.
“There’s so much pressure on kids to be academic rather than to express or understand themselves,” she explains. “But whether they are going to be lawyers, architects, or doctors they are going to need the sort of life skills that [drama]offers. We use performing arts to develop communication, creativity, and confidence.”
The culture may be slowly changing though, and there are certainly more opportunities for kids to act in Beijing. In the last year or two, public funding for arts programs has also begun to emerge.
“There are starting to be arts funds available,” Verrill notes. “The fact that this is even a concept means that China is perhaps turning a corner when it comes to performing arts.”
Beijing Playhouse’s The Wizard of Oz runs from December 6-9 at the British School of Beijing in Shunyi and December 12-22 at the National Olympic Sports Center Theatre. For tickets, call the box office at 6538 4716 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pantomimes: What to Look Out For
The panto is a British tradition that may be unfamiliar to families from outside of the UK. If you are not quite sure what to expect from a performance, here is a quick guide to the classic elements of these fun Christmas capers.
Cross dressing. Young male characters played by female actors and old ladies played by men (normally of the rotund, hairy variety).
Audience participation. Characters claiming “Oh no it isn’t!” should always be challenged with a chorus of “Oh yes it is!” Creeping villains should instigate warnings of “He’s behind you!” And remember, there’s no such thing as a rhetorical question in panto. Be sure to answer and answer loudly.
Double entendres. The wordplay should fly right over the children’s heads but don’t be surprised if references to “Dick Whittington” and “beanstalks” are not quite what they seem. Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Re-written lyrics. Songs you know, lyrics you do not. We have been informed that a Queen song will feature in Beijing Playhouse’s The Wizard of Oz.
Slapstick. Mild violence for the entire family.
“Celebrities.” In Britain, the regional pantomime scene has become a graveyard for washed-up, Z-list celebrities. Unfortunately, we can’t promise any in Beijing this Christmas.
Beijing Playhouse runs theater camps at various times throughout the year. The programs are two weeks long and take place at venues across the city. Late enrollment for winter camp opens on December 15, with the sessions beginning a day later. There are also regular productions for a variety of theatrical pieces. For more information, visit www.beijingplayhouse.com or call 139 1005 2384.
Dreamaker Drama Academy
Dreamaker runs drama courses using the renowned Helen O’Grady curriculum. Currently, the programs are mainly attended by children for whom English is a second language, the Academy welcomes all children and hopes to expand into providing mixed-ability/language drama.
Room 505, 5/F, Gao He Rui, Bldg 609, Wangjing Yuan, Guangshun Nandajie,Wangjing, Chaoyang District (400 678 1872, email@example.com) www.dreamaker.com.cn
photo courtesy of Beijing Playhouse
This article originally appeared on p40-43 of the beijingkids December 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com