Bridging Cultures Under the Bright Lights – UNC Global

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July 26, 2009 UNC Global News 

As a playwright, producer and actress, Elyse Ribbons, class of 2003, is what those in the entertainment industry like to call a ‘triple threat.’courtyard_captioned

However, with a popular radio show, a thriving modeling career and the beginnings of what appears to be a successful career in film and television, triple threat doesn’t even begin to cover the many hats that Ribbons is eagerly wearing – and quite stylishly for that matter.

However, while many young actresses flock to Hollywood or London to launch their careers, Ribbons has chosen to begin making a name for herself in the vibrant city of Beijing, China. And though the fact that she is fluent in Mandarin has certainly made this path possible, it is Beijing’s constant source of inspiration that has convinced Ribbons that this increasingly international city is a perfect home base for the time being.

“I feel that for me creatively, Beijing is where I need to be,” said Ribbons, who has been living in Beijing since 2003. “There is just so much inspiration here, so much going on…I’ll probably always have at least one foot in Beijing.”

An Unexpected Journey to the Stage

A Detroit-native, Ribbons moved to North Carolina in high school to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. Though she had always planned on going to the University of Michigan, Ribbons began developing a love for the UNC campus throughout high school, an affinity that eventually swayed her to join Tar Heel nation instead.  

i_heart_beijing_4Though she acted throughout high school and college, Ribbons had never planned to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. In fact, as an Asian Studies major, Ribbons was interested in Asian medicine and international politics. It was these two passions, however, which eventually motivated her to study abroad in Beijing on two separate occasions.

“If you had asked me about my interest in China during my sophomore year of college, I probably would have said ‘What? Where’s Beijing?’ because at the time, I was studying Arabic and wanted to pursue international politics,” said Ribbons. “It was very much a situation of why UNC is so great. There are so many opportunities that kind of just fall in your lap and you’re constantly presented with all of these choices. So you follow something just because you’re interested and it turns out to be this whole life-changing experience. That is what it was like for me and Beijing.”

Moving to Beijing swiftly upon graduation, Ribbons took on a slew of interesting jobs to support herself, including a number of positions in the entertainment industry. In addition to working for CCTV, China’s main television station and China Radio International, she also did translation work for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and taught English “as everyone does,” she joked.

However, it was a chance offer from a friend to act in “The Vagina Monologues” as part of the Dashanzi International Art Festival that eventually gave Ribbons the acting bug once and for all. Following the Festival, Ribbons, who was working at the U.S. Embassy at the time, began to seek out other roles, and she eventually landed a part in a Chinese play at the Beijing People’s Art Theater.

Despite her initial excitement, the novice actress found herself becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the overall direction of the play, an experience, which eventually inspired her to try her own hand at playwriting. During a three week vacation in Paris in the summer of 2006, Ribbons wrote her first play entitled “I Heart Beijing.” Upon returning home, she produced the play with friends, a comedy about two young women, one Chinese and one American, sharing an apartment in Beijing. To her surprise, “I Heart Beijing” was very well received.

“I thought, if these people, who don’t seem to know what they’re doing can do it, then I, who also doesn’t know what I’m doing, can do it too. So I tried it,” said Ribbons. “I thought: you know what? This feels really good. I wasn’t really cut out for government work and so I left my job at the Embassy and I’ve been doing theater, film, TV and radio work ever since.”

After successfully writing and producing her first play, Ribbons decided to launch her own production company, aptly titled Cheeky Monkey. The actress, who was born during the year of the Monkey, was drawn to the name due to its similar meaning in both English and Mandarin.

green_eyes“Cheeky Monkey, in both languages, translates to be a sly, clever, entertaining creature. A monkey is seen as a very playful and fun thing. It actually translates freakishly well,” remarked Ribbons.  

And with the theater company producing plays in both English and Mandarin, the dual meaning effectively encapsulates what Cheeky Monkey is all about. Since 2006, Ribbons has written, produced and acted in four original productions, all of which explore various aspects of Chinese culture and life in Beijing. Much of the inspiration for her plays comes from her real life experiences, from teaching English and meeting international friends to learning Mandarin and “all the wacky things you have to do as a student of Mandarin to get the language,” joked Ribbons in reference to her play, “Green Eyes on Chinese.” Ribbons just finished putting on her latest play, “Kung Pao Shakespeare,” a take on the classic play, “Taming of the Shrew,” fully equipped with cross-cultural mishaps, transcontinental romance and a heavy dose of humor.

“All of my inspiration comes from real life. I rarely ever make anything up, so that’s the beauty of living in a place like Beijing,” said Ribbons. “Things are always changing and are so volatile, that there’s always something going on. And every time something happens, where others might become really angry or negative about it, I just think ‘Hey, this will be really great in one of my shows someday!’”

Due to the bilingual nature of her plays, Ribbons employs a mix of actors from China, the U.S. and often times, from all over the world. She stressed the importance of casting her plays with internationally-minded individuals so as to encourage discussion and the exploration of cultural identity both on and off the stage. In fact, it is this very discussion of cultural differences that Ribbons is often commended for in her productions. She has been hailed for her ability to bring Eastern and Western influences together on stage, a unique feat that has been well received by both Chinese and ex-pat audiences.  

“Elyse knows and understands all these little tidbits about Beijing, including the slang. She brings that to her pieces in addition to what Westerners think about Beijing,” said Tabitha Messick, a class of 2008 UNC alumnus who has been working with Cheeky Monkey part-time since moving to Beijing upon graduation. “She brings those two worlds together and so I think her success has a lot to do with her experiences and the fact that she is always open-minded and inspired by Beijing. She has been away from the U.S. long enough to not have this very American-centric kind of view, but she also loves the U.S., so it’s very interesting.”

ribbons_awards_showRibbons is known for her ability to bridge cultures outside of the theater as well. Due to her impressive grasp of Mandarin, the young actress surrounds herself with an eclectic group of friends from both China and the ex-pat community. She also has an affinity for what she has playfully termed ‘Chinglish,’ a blending of Chinese and English that has become a humorous staple in many of her plays. In fact, this self-proclaimed “linguistics dork” has actually included the term in her promotional materials for Cheeky Monkey, declaring it ‘The World’s First Chinglish Theater Company.’  

The energetic alum credits UNC for helping her to develop a curiosity to explore the world and immerse herself in new experiences, a mentality that has been extremely beneficial when writing plays for such internationally-minded audiences as those in Beijing.

“I think it’s really good to surround yourself with people who are open-minded, and that is actually something that I ‘blame’ UNC for. By having to take so many different classes [as part of the general education curriculum], I found that some of the classes outside of my major were the ones I loved the most. They challenge you and make you think of things outside of your own shoes. I think that is the key – to think about it, not in the perspective of what I, as a director, actor or writer think, but how an audience member thinks about things,” said Ribbons.

Stepping Outside the Theater

Though Cheeky Monkey dominates a large majority of her time, Ribbons is also working tirelessly to make a name for herself as an actress in her own right. She recently finished filming a soap opera-esque television series called ‘Encounters,’ which is a program to be used in classrooms to aid students in learning Chinese. Ribbons is also the host of one of the most popular shows on China International Radio, in which she discusses current news topics in Mandarin with her two fellow hosts, a Chinese man and a Serbian woman. And with a number of projects in the works with producers in both the United States and England, the young actress has a busy few months ahead of her.

However, with her star rising fast, Ribbons has had to negotiate the interesting new reality that she is no longer merely a playwright and actress, but an emerging brand as well. And in hand with her new status, Ribbons has had to learn quickly how to deal with both media scrutiny and the sometimes inaccurate public perception of her. Perhaps the largest obstacle the actress has had to face is negotiating the fine line between what is funny and what is considered offensive by the relatively sensitive audiences in China.  

promo_poster7“You can’t mock people as easily here because they will take it very seriously, so you have to do it in a much more sensitive way. I could choose to not mock at all, but I feel like that is a little bit dull, so I choose to just be smart about it,” said Ribbons. “The whole point, for me at least, is if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’re doing something wrong with your life. But that has been a really big challenge…My attitude is ‘let’s just all try to have fun, try to learn and try to challenge ideas.’ And that has been mostly well received, but sometimes people just don’t like it.”

However, despite the public attention and relative fame, those close to the actress say that she is managing to keep a good head on her shoulders. And not surprisingly, Ribbons’ dynamic willingness to become invested in all aspects of her adopted culture has made it relatively easy for her to begin making a name for herself among Chinese audiences.

“She is a beautiful blond American who speaks Chinese and has acting experience and she’s willing to get into the culture,” said Messick. “Her personality is so dynamic and she really understands and appreciates Chinese culture, which has definitely worked to her advantage.”

As for her future goals, Ribbons hopes that Cheeky Monkey will continue to grow and thrive, eventually producing pieces from other playwrights. She would also like the theater company to take on TV and film material so as to both reach wider, more diverse audiences as well as to help promote discussion and challenge cultural barriers on a much larger scale. And as for her own career, Ribbons remains increasingly ambitious, striving to take on projects that help to enlighten people and give audiences more opportunities to examine themselves from a perspective different from their own.

“One of the things that I want to do is challenge people to think differently, but in a nonthreatening way. I really hope that all of my pieces and all of my work will allow people to think and become more than what they perceive themselves to be,” said Ribbons. “You don’t have to just be this label that someone gives you. You can be multiple labels or no label at all. I’ve been trying to do this in my own career and I’ve seen some really positive results. And I guess that is about all I could hope for.” 

 - Story by Robyn Mitchell ‘09

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