Challenging Theater in 10 Minute Bites – ShiFen Hits Penghao

Challenging Theater in 10 Minute Bites – ShiFen Hits Penghao

Feb 3, 2010 by

For all this city’s culture and ability to inspire, a good, original theatrical performance is hard to find for Beijing’s expats.

Even rarer is that good, original, free show, the kind spawned out of talent, passion and sacrifice in the name of art.

How lucky, then, that the ShiFen (10-Minute) Festival is upon us. This Saturday, February 6, actors, artists and performers – most of them “professional” in the sense that they have on-stage experience – will unite for two-and-a-half hours at Penghao Theater for a menagerie of plays, dance, music, films and improv, and maybe even a magic show.

The festival’s brainchild is Elyse Ribbons, founder of Cheeky Monkey Theater (the world’s first “Zhonglish” theater company, with original works in Mandarin and English) and writer/actor/director of the 2006 play I Heart Beijing, Ribbons is heavily invested in ShiFen’s growth – she contributed 2,000 RMB out of her own pocket in 2008 and expects to throw in at least 1,500 this year, as well as directing at least three performances and acting in two. The American actress and playwright sees her efforts as part of an ongoing drive to “be a bridge between China and the West.” This year’s theme is Green Energy and a few environmental groups will make short presentations.

Anthony Tao caught up with Ribbons at Cheeky Monkey’s office last week as she was making final preparations for Saturday’s big night.

Why the smaller venue this year?
Because it’s a free event, we cannot pay anything for the space, and on a Saturday night most theaters and venues just don’t want to give up the space for free. But Penghao is really awesome – they love supporting the arts community and they’re really excited about this.

Now, the problem is that Penghao is really small. You can cram in 150 people, you can comfortably seat 100. I definitely recommend people come early. We’re going to have a seat reservation thing where they can come in and put their name on a piece of paper on a seat.

What can we expect from this year’s festival, and what are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about a Peking Opera/Shakespeare piece [performed by] a really talented Chinese artist named Xu Xuan who’s studied Peking Opera his whole life. I’m directing him in a piece where he reads out one of Shakespeare’s more tragic sonnets (Sonnet No. 1) about wasting nature and making famine where bounty lies.

He’s reading it in Chinese and English, but I’m actually making it threatening, I want to threaten the audience, and it’s kind of angry, it’s very dark, the message being: stop [just] talking about green stuff. You know “green washing”? A lot of corporations and groups “green wash” themselves, saying, “Oh hey, we’re doing something good for the environment, look at this, we’ve put up this poster so we’re helping the environment,” but they’re not actually helping, they’re not actually cutting any emissions or preventing anything.

We also have a Chinese version of the song “Seasons of Love” being performed by the original Chinese cast of Rent. How do you say, “Five-hundred-and-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes” in Chinese? They do it, and in song!

What remains to be done?
Rehearsals. Ahhh!!! Lighting and set design! Ah!!! Costuming! Ah!!! Finding talented actors that fit the parts that these playwrights have written for is really hard in Beijing – various language issues, various acting background issues. I wish I had another week, to be honest. February 6 sounded a lot further away. But I feel really good about the way things are progressing.

What is the motivation behind the ShiFen Festival?
The base point of all ShiFen festivals is if you don’t speak Mandarin, you’re not going to enjoy sitting through a two-hour Mandarin play no matter how well-acted it is, unless you’re really, really open-minded. It’s hard to stay in tune with a different language, a different culture for that long. But if it’s only 10 minutes or less, you’re more likely to enjoy it because it’s bite-sized, it’s interesting. You’re not going to want to sit through two hours of Peking Opera, but you will enjoy a song or two.

Essentially it’s about cross-cultural understanding. The themes kind of add other points of dialogue. They add inspiration for the artists performing, to give them something to think about when they’re performing a piece, but also they help make dialogue between people easier.

There’s a café attached to Penghao, so I’m hoping that during each intermission people can talk about the pieces they’ve just seen.

How would you like this festival to evolve, and how does the future of ShiFen relate to your goals for theater in general in Beijing?
Ideally I would have many, many more acts. Ideally I would have sponsorship of more things – a bigger venue would be nice. There’s lots I could dream of for it.

I’m hoping that with the media attention we get this year and the videos we put out, people will see this is a really cool event, will want to sponsor it, will want to be a part of it, so maybe we can get a bigger venue next year, make it a two-day, three-day festival.

One of the nice things about the ShiFen festivals is it’s attracting more and more talent. I’m hoping we can really do a lot with it for next year.

The goal is that it’ll become a sustainable project where there are other people involved. I don’t want to be directing every piece. I don’t want people to think I’m running this because I want to be involved with everything. It’s more about wanting to create a place where people can see art that is challenging but still interesting.

Those interested in participating or seeking more information can email Elyse at:

ShiFen Festival, 7.30pm, Saturday, February 6, Penghao Theater
The show is free of charge, but theatergoers are advised to arrive early to secure a spot. The inaugural ShiFen festival in 2008 attracted more than 400 people – double what organizers were expecting – and this year’s venue is considerably smaller.

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