A group of young future stars of the American stage are in Beijing to perform a series of classical Chinese stories.
These young actors have gone a big step further than simply putting on traditional Chinese costumes theater paint. They have immersed themselves in the Chinese language Chinese culture.
Chinese idioms are some of the seeds of traditional Chinese culture, they have grown deep roots into the Chinese language. The idioms carry profound meaning because of their links to famous Chinese stories or historical events.
Since 2014, the China National Theater for Children has been adapting these idioms into funny, playful dramas that help young children to better understtheir national culture.
"Now they refused my help simply because I look ugly. I feel so sad. I want to change myself. I heard there's a famous beautiful lady named Xi Shi. I wanted to learn all her postures behaviors."
Now, the Chinese theater has been joined by young American performers, as they tell the stories of idioms like the one known as "Dong Shi Xiao Pin" (东施效颦).
It tells the story of an incredibly ugly girl named Dongshi. Dongshi tries to imitate the behavior of a beautiful girl named Xishi. But her attempt at imitation only serves to make Dongshi appear even uglier.
15-year old Jenna Meaney is portraying Dongshi. She has spent months studying the Chinese language to prepare for the role.
"So, I got the script. I learnt it in about three weeks. then it was fun to like adapt become this different person. It's honest; it's a lot different than performing in the US. I feel that like everything exaggerated. It was a challenge, but I like it. I would definitely love to come back here to China, because culturally it's just been a really amazing exchange."
"What a beautiful lady you are, Xishi.""Thank you, Mr. Fan."
Joining Jenna on stage is Thomas Huo, who plays the role of Mr. Fan, a prestigious painter, who draws a portrait for the beautiful Xi Shi.
"Well, it's my first time coming to China as an actor. I feel like the more I do this, the more I interact with this culture, the more I'll be more accustomed to it, the more I know about it, the more I can know how to treat the people how to act around."
Jenna Thomas are both students at the Children's Theater of Charlotte in the American state of North Carolina. They are studying under the guidance of the theater's Director of Education, Michelle Long.
Michelle Long said that although this is her third trip to China, it is the first time for her to bring young student performers here. After seeing her students engaging with people in China, she believes that this experience can be an inspirational one for them, as they step into their roles in a Chinese drama.
"I think that the themes of each of them are universal. I think what was difficult to understare some of the cultural norms, I guess, of that time period. Some of the things that are traditional here are not traditional in the US. so it's important for us to learn what is important to the Chinese people so that we can better understChinese people."
For another play, Lord Ye's "Love of Dragons", the American performers also told the stories of the Chinese idioms using English.
"Happy Birthday! It doesn't matter. I'm really touched you learn to sing a song I wrote in such a short amount of time. Express my thanks. A drink! Cheers! Cheers!"
In order to ensure that the young actors were ready to take to the stage for a traditional Chinese play, the China National Theatre for Children sent their director Yang Cheng to the United States to help train the young performers.
Yang Cheng spoke with us about how he shared the stories behind the idioms with the students, about how aspects of Western culture were put to use in this typical Chinese play.
Yang Cheng explains:
"On one hand, we told them a number of interesting stories behind the idioms during rehearsals. On the other hand, as they were working hard to practice singing Chinese songs each day, they also began creating impromptu dances, which I think so funny in this brainstorming process. So we decided to inject their Western jokes jazz music into this show."
"Chinese idioms were created, born from a historical philosophical core.
The wisdom of Chinese culture was crystallized into phrases used in common language, guiding the Chinese people in living their daily lives. We bring you showing of ax skill of Luban, the carpenter."
16-year old Maya Lucas has been acting with the Children's Theater of Charlotte for eight years. She is taking part in a performance that tells the story behind the idiom "showing off one's proficiency with the axe before Lu Ban."
"We took a lot of time after getting the script, just breaking down our character like the way what they would stand, the physicality, the way they talk, the way they react to other characters. So I think the biggest challenge will just be making sure we tell stories truthfully honor the culture, while still telling it in our American perspective. Not a lot of people are able to travel here, so that's been a really big thing. I just think I'll take away the things I've learnt in acting because the styles are different between American culture Chinese culture, so between the acting styles, between just travelling learning in general, I'll take back all those things."
Maya Lucas's mom aunt accompanied her on her tour to China, excited for the opportunity to see her stconfidently on the stage in a Chinese theater.
Michelle Long hopes their maiden cultural exchange tour will be just the start of the students' journey learning about Chinese culture.
"This is just a really wonderful opportunity for our students to start to learn about the culture, because now we had staff members that had come over each year within the last three years that understabout we want to make sure it's difficult to explain to them what you experience when you come to China the warmth how kind of the people are the wonderful culture that were experiencing. It's difficult to bring that back to the United States. We want to make sure some of our students have the opportunity to come here experience it themselves. So to come to the story where they could immerse themselves in learning the history of China was something that was very important for us also to determine what story would be best for them to learn language we continue to have that conversation about the language barrier how do we share stories from our different cultures when they have that language barrier in between."
As well as having the opportunity to spend time in a Chinese theater, Maya her peers have had the opportunity to visit some of China's most well-known tourist attractions, including the Forbidden City. Visiting some of these major cultural sites gives the young stars yet another opportunity to enhance their understanding of Chinese culture.
Performances of the Chinese idiom stories, which have filled the calendar of the China Children's Theater Festival in August, are not only an opportunity for the young actors on the stage. They are also an opportunity for people from China America to come together to celebrate each other's culture, to build stronger ties better understanding between the two peoples.