Want to see live theatre in Mandarin? Head to Kingston

You’ll find English subtitles at productions of the Yu Theatre Society, but the company is all about putting on Chinese plays — in the original language.
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Jan 24, 2020
Haozhi Li (Olivia) as Shiping Lu and Tairan Huang as Puyuan Zhou in the Yu Theatre Society's The Storm: Festival. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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KINGSTON — Behind a translucent scrim at the Baby Grand Theatre, in downtown Kingston, Meishan Wan — a fourth-year drama student at Queen’s University who goes by Cassie in Canada — plays the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument, while a crowd of mostly Chinese international students files in and waits for the evening’s performance to begin. 

At 7:30 sharp, the house lights go down. Meishan, also the lighting designer and production manager, walks out on stage in a hoodie, pipa still in hand, and addresses the crowd.

“Hi. Before we begin tonight’s show, we would like to acknowledge that this theatre is situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. We are glad to live and study here,” she says, before exiting stage right. It’s time for The Storm: Festival, the third production mounted by Queen’s Yu Theatre Society since it was formed in 2018 by Meishan and a few of her classmates. 

Since 2010, the number of international students at Queen’s University has increased from 1,424 to just over 3,800, accounting for approximately 12 per cent of total enrolment. About half those students are from China. In Kingston, not traditionally a popular destination for Chinese immigrants — approximately 1.7 per cent of the city’s population identifies as Chinese — international students are creating their own communities to celebrate and share their culture.

“We’ve joined production teams for other shows — English shows, musicals — and we just found that they’re not the best way for us to train our skills,” says Fangzheng Wang (Nick), the show’s director and one of the co-founders of the company. “Even though we are here to learn the Western system of producing theatre, after [we graduate], we are going to be producing plays in our language. So I think starting a Chinese theatre company is a way to practise for ourselves.”

Including the actors, musicians, and stage crew, 31 students are involved in bringing the show to life each night. Thirty of them are from China (Sophia Xia, technical director and third co-founder, is Canadian). Six are drama students, says Meishan, and the rest are from a variety of programs, including psychology, commerce, and engineering. The company gets guidance and advice from some of their drama faculty mentors and has official club status through the Alma Mater Society of Queen’s University, but the productions are financed through sponsorships and ticket sales.

Though the company focuses on producing modern Chinese theatre, The Storm: Festival, which ran until January 19, is an adaptation of Cao Yu’s 1934 work Thunderstorm — one of China’s best-known plays. The plot deals with themes of lust, secrecy, and betrayal, and their impact on multiple generations of a wealthy family.

“We regard this as a classic Chinese play,” says Fangzheng, who came to Kingston from Hangzhou in 2016. “This is one of the first plays that every student in China will learn in their textbooks. [Cao Yu] is regarded as China’s Ibsen.”

The actors, all Queen’s students, deliver their lines in Mandarin; displays in the back corners of the stage provide on-the-fly subtitles for English speakers.

Audience member Brandon Lee, a third-year health-studies student who grew up in Kingston, appreciated the translations. Although he was raised bilingual, he was worried that his Mandarin had gotten rusty — so he made sure he got a seat with a clear view of the subtitles. “I found that listening and looking at the subtitles at the same time helped me get the full experience,” says Lee, noting that this is the first time he’s seen theatre in his second language.

For Lee’s mother, Wei Chen, who moved to Kingston 25 years ago from China, the experience was a nostalgic one: she first read the play when she was a child. “It’s something I forgot long ago,” says Wei. “And then I see it, and it comes back.”

As the audience members file out of the auditorium for intermission, many speak to one another in Mandarin, discussing the complicated relationships between characters and wondering what will happen in the second half. Wei stands, smiling, pleased not only to be seeing theatre in her native tongue, but also to be sharing the experience with her son.

“It’s really nice to be able to support the Chinese community,” says Wei. “I think it’s amazing. They put a lot of work into it. I’m really proud of them.”

Next up for the company is the world premiere of Xuanyi Hu’s The Bystander Game — about the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan — which it’ll be staging at Queen’s University’s Rotunda Theatre in March. For Fangzheng and Meishan, the spring show could be their last: Fangzheng hopes to head west after Queen’s to attend Simon Fraser University for graduate studies; Meishan plans to stay at Queen’s for a graduate degree, but she’s not sure whether she’ll participate in future productions. Others, like first-year Haozhi Li (Olivia), who’s originally from China but spent her high-school years in Kingston, hopes that the company will be around at least until she’s finished her undergraduate studies.

“When I was in high school, I did two musicals — Grease and School of Rock — and I loved them. I loved them, even though they were not in my first language,” says Haozhi. “But some part of me was feeling missing. With this, I get to have fun with my friends … and I can do it in Chinese.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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