Not often does an expat come to Beijing who has influenced numerous lives in the way that Chris Verrill did with his founding of the Beijing Playhouse (2006) and the Charity Readers Theater (2013). Along with introducing English language community theater to Beijing, he sparked an interest in many actors and other participants involved in these stage shows that they may have otherwise never knew existed.
We at beijingkids have featured Verrill in our magazine and blog on numerous occasions because we have always appreciated the hard work he has put into his stage shows and the strong connections he has made with the greater community. When we heard about his upcoming departure we couldn’t let him go without asking him about his plans for the future and what he will miss most about life in Beijing.
Though it is always sad to say goodbye, the good he has done outweighs this sorrow and will hopefully create a new generation of stage show enthusiasts that will continue building this art form with the same vigor and passion as Verrill. We wish him good luck on this new adventure as he brings his Charity Readers Theater to the US. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Throughout your time here in Beijing you’ve completed numerous performances. How did you begin working here and what has been the trick to keeping active and helping to develop Beijing’s theater community?
China’s English Broadway theatre did 20 shows in 12 years. A total of about 200 performances, I think. For those 12 years, we were the largest locally produced English theatre in China. Plus we did about 40 or 50 educational children’s programs. And 100 or 200 drama workshops. I’ve long since lost count. When I got here, Beijing was probably the largest city in the world without a local English language theatre. We did the first show as a lark. There was never supposed to be a second show. But the audience loved it and told us, in no uncertain terms, that we were going to do more. And they said they wanted us to start a drama education program to train children, too. At first, I resisted. But the love of theatre prevailed. 12 years is about 11 years longer than I thought we’d last.
Were there any challenges at the beginning?
When we started in 2006, a year before China’s National Center for Performing Arts opened, the Chinese audience didn’t even know what Broadway theatre was. The closest thing we could compare it to was Beijing opera. But that wasn’t always helpful. The audience of our first show was 90 percent expat. 12 years later, the audience of our last show was 90 percent local Chinese. The market had grown wonderfully.
We know there must be many memorable moments throughout your time here, but what have been some highlights that you would like to share with us?
We had seven paying patrons on the opening night of our first show (plus a dozen or so curious media and other onlookers). But word of mouth spread. By the time that show closed, the 200-seat theater was full.
What are your plans for your upcoming move?
I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I wish I could stay.
Living in Beijing you see a lot of friends come and go. How does it feel to be finally leaving and what are some things that you think you will miss after you make the move?
I’ll miss the multinational expat community that has an insta-family feel to it. I’ll miss the resilience and perseverance of the Chinese people. I’ll miss cheap, delicious Chinese food. I’ll miss the family at the corner fruit stand that sells me jasmine green tea every day.
What’s going to happen to Beijing Playhouse after your departure?
The current crew and teachers and students will continue the education programs. Except the shuttered main stage shows, other aspects of Beijing Playhouse will continue.
What advice do you have for people wanting to get involved in theater in Beijing but don’t know where to start?
The best option is Charity Readers Theatre (CRT). It’s not as big or professional as Beijing Playhouse shows were. But it’s still artistically rewarding. And the audiences have loved the last six shows CRT has done. Of course, the monthly drama club workshops will continue, too. Those are a fun, easy way to learn about theatre, have a few beers, and make some new friends all at the same time.
Do you have any parting words for your fans or your extended Beijing family before you take off?
Audition for a Charity Readers Theatre show. If you’ve sometimes had that nagging thought in the back of your brain that you’d like to walk the boards, CRT is a great way to give it a shot. Instead of the three-month rehearsal and performance schedule of a Beijing Playhouse main stage show, Charity Readers Theatre is a show in a week. For an actor, it’s a much easier commitment. A great way to test the waters and get involved.
Photos: Courtesy of Chris Verrill