In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Dr. Tarryn Chun, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow, who talks about her experiences working in theatre as well as her research on the technology of 20th century Chinese theatre.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard
Couillard: As usual I’d like to start with your background. Where do you call home?
Dr. Chun: Ann Arbor, actually! So I’ve come full circle. My mother is from Michigan, my dad is from New York City - he’s Chinese American. I grew up around Chinese culture and was always interested in it, but I didn’t start getting interested in Chinese theatre until I was in college. At that time, I thought wanted to work IN the theatre, on Broadway or off-Broadway, until a professor asked me if I’d ever considered going to grad school.
Couillard: When did you first get interested in theatre?
Dr. Chun: I’ve been fascinated with it since I was a little kid. It felt special because I associated it with going to New York to visit my grandparents – a new place, a new culture, excitement.
Couillard: When was the first time you went to China?
Dr. Chun: The summer after my junior year of college, when I went to Beijing to do a language program and research for my senior thesis project. That was my first foray into fieldwork—it took me all summer to work up the nerve to start interviewing theatre artists, but once I got going, my complete unawareness of what I was doing actually made me quite bold. I somehow managed to get my hands on the personal phone number of Meng Jinghui, who is a major theatre director, and cold called him at home!
I actually was supposed to go to China a few summers before that, but my first trip was cancelled due to SARS. So I stayed at Princeton and did summer stock theatre instead. I worked on the technical and managerial side—I even learned to play the snare drum for a production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. But no acting—I can’t act to save my life.
Couillard: What do you like about stage managing ?
Dr. Chun: When you stage manage you tend to sit at the very back of the theater, in the lighting booth, far away from and high above the stage. You get a bird’s eye view where you can see everything in the theatre–the stage, the wings, the audience. I liked that perspective, especially the feeling of being able to see so many different elements come together. In a way, it’s very similar to one of the things I like about research: seeing the puzzle pieces of a project coming together.
Couillard: So what do you focus on in your research?
Dr. Chun: I look at the relationship between art and technology, with Chinese theatre as my main focus. I’m particularly interested in a set of related questions that has been asked across various forms of cultural production: for example, how has technological modernization affected artistic innovation? How do aesthetics change when the elements of craft—materials, equipment—change? Questions like these are raised most obviously in relation to mediums like film and photography, because the camera is a markedly modern invention. Theatre, in contrast, is a much older art form and one often characterized by liveness and ephemerality.
Yet, if we zoom in on the technical elements of the stage, we find that they’re driven by similar processes of modernization, and we can start to ask questions about the way that specific innovations – like the shift from oil lamps to gas light to electric lights – altered how artists and playwrights conceptualized what could and should happen on stage.
Couillard: What are you focusing on right now?
Dr. Chun: I’m mainly working on my book manuscript, by writing a new chapter for it that looks at the Model Operas (yangbanxi) from the Cultural Revolution. The yangbanxi are fascinating in that they’re bespoke propaganda theatre – artists spent years working with political leaders thinking about how to make these as ideologically correct and as politically effective as possible. I’m particularly interested in a set of volumes that were published in the 1970s; they’re 400-page books that include scripts, blueprints for set pieces, pictures of makeup and costumes, diagrams for lighting equipment, and other information—essentially manuals that would enable the yangbanxi to be replicated with extreme precision.
These ideal forms were created for large modern theatres in urban environments with access to incredible resources, yet they were tasked with spreading to every corner of the country. I’m curious about what happened when those shows travelled to smaller cities and villages. When the productions didn’t have access to such technical excellence, how did that change the piece? Did everybody get to see the ideal form of the play? And if they didn’t, how did that change the efficacy of the propaganda?
Couillard: How do you like working in Michigan?
Dr. Chun: The department of Asian Languages and Culture is really unique in that so many of the faculty work on performance and visual culture! Plus there’s a great community and support for interdisciplinary work through LRCCS, and we even had a Confucius Institute specifically focused on the arts . It’s a fantastic environment for my work.
Couillard: What’s important to you about this research?
Dr. Chun: A couple of things. First – I love the process! I enjoy going back to historical material in search of things that have been overlooked and trying to figure out what’s important and why. Details like what color a particular costume piece was might be irrelevant to how wars are fought and won, but they can be extremely significant to the creation of culture. Theatre and other performing arts were a very important part of Chinese life in the 20th century, but they’re hard to research and haven’t yet gotten as much attention as they should. There are still lots of missing pieces.
Couillard: So is this about having a more robust historical understanding of that period in time?
Dr. Chun: Definitely, but it’s also about trying to account for the lived dimension of cultural history. Theatre-making and theatre-going are lived, ephemeral experiences, collective experiences. Artists are conscious of their connection with audience members, and vice versa. But there’s always also a layer of mediation involved: the script, the costumes and makeup, the scenery and lighting are in between the actors and the audience. The technologies of the theatre shape their shared experience of a performance. I think I’m trying to capture the nuances of how that works, how all those different things fit together.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews with LRCCS Postdocs!