In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Anne Rebull, one of four of LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellows for 2017 – 2019. In the interview, Dr. Rebull talks about improv, cross dressing, and gender norms in traditional Chinese theatre from the modern period.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.
Couillard: How did you originally get interested in studying China?
Dr. Rebull: It was a bit of happenstance. I was playing around with things I hadn’t been exposed to before; and Chinese was one of those things. But after I had taken one year of Chinese, my school changed the requirements for studying abroad in China so that you only needed one year – originally two years were required. So I went to China and it was fabulous – that was in 2002.
Couillard: What was your first impression?
Dr. Rebull: It might seem strange, but what sticks out was the smell. The trees, the wildlife, tea, pollution, construction. It just all felt so different.
Couillard: And so how did you get interested in modern theatre specifically?
Dr. Rebull: That combined a couple things. I majored in music, and musical theatre was a component of that.
Couillard: Do you play music?
Dr. Rebull: Yes, I play violin and piano. But just for fun. Anyways, when I was applying to grad school, I was trying to find ways to combine music and Asian studies. When I was at the University of Chicago, they had a very strong program in Chinese theatre studies, especially the early modern period. So after taking some courses on that topic, I felt like that was a great place for me. There’s a rich tension between the needs of tradition and modernization. And that’s a tension that interests me.
Couillard: What interests you about that?
Dr. Rebull: I like how they try to deal with it. How do they present themselves? How do they sell it to the outside world? Some people wanted to describe it as more traditional to be perceived as exotic, but others wanted it to seem modern so it would be perceived as more relevant.
Couillard: What’s the name of what you’re studying in Chinese? Is it 戏曲 xiqu or 戏剧 xiju?
Dr. Rebull: Both! Xiju is the blanket term for theatre, where Xiqu is the term that gets translated as Chinese opera. The distinction is recent – in the last sixty years or so. Before they were interchangeable.
Couillard: Random question – I’ve seen a lot of instances of male actors portraying female characters in traditional Chinese theatre, such as Leslie Cheung’s character in Farewell My Concubine. At what point did women start portraying themselves?
Dr. Rebull: This is a complicated question. It seems like a modern thing, but if you go back far enough it’s not. You could go back to the Ming dynasty and look at literati like Ling Mengchu who may have owned a small troupe of all female performance artists. So there’s a long history of actresses and all female troupes. In the Qing dynasty when performances became more public is when you start to see all male troupes. Mixed troupes occurred briefly in the early 1910s but were almost immediately censored.
Couillard: Why was it censored?
Dr. Rebull: There was a feeling of moral indecency to having genders mixed on stage. There was a similar outcry for all female troupes. But if you look at the ticket sales, those shows sold the most seats. Performers like Mei Lanfang may have garnered the highest prices, but the average Beijinger was much more likely to see female troupes.
Couillard: Would the females portray male characters?
Dr. Rebull: Yes. But in the early PRC they decreed that men should plan men and women should play women and there should not be any cross-dressing of any kind. A prominent exception was made for a Shanghai regional opera type, but even there it was only okay for women to play men, not the other way around.
Couillard: What’s exciting to you about all this?
Dr. Rebull: The history of everything gets embodied in the theatre. It’s so easy to think of it as escapism, out-of-touch, but I think it’s really connected to society, to the nation, to the world. They all appear on stage in different ways. I think it can be more surprising than other art forms like writing or painting. It’s something that happens live, so in China they could get a lot past the censors. Improvisatory acting was a big part of the tradition, which opens the door for being subversive.
Couillard: Was improv something that developed in the modern period, or does it have a longer history?
Dr. Rebull: It was definitely a premodern practice. Which is why in the early modern period, the writers of scripts were not as famous as the actors. In fact, often times writers would approach a star with their idea for a play and whether or not they were willing to work with the story was a major determining factor for whether or not the play was ever produced.
There was one star in the early 20th century who notoriously would delay his entrances. The percussion would be going with the “here-comes-the-big-star” pattern, and the man on stage would deliver the line, and then there’d be a good ten minute wait. So the actor on stage would have to improvise, be like, “And he’s having trouble with his horse, so that’s why he’s not arriving yet,” or trying to come up with anything that made sense with the plot to explain the wait.
Couillard: What’s important to you about the research you do?
Dr. Rebull: I think this is an underappreciated part of history. I think there’s so much energy put into writing a history of Chinese theatre in a way that appeals to the western imagination of what China is. In addition to that, there’s also a mark of politics on the way history has been recorded – people more well-connected with the communists tend to be highlighted while people connected with the nationalists were washed out. There are whole portions of histories which have disappeared, but they were very influential in popular culture of the time.
Couillard: So is it about decolonizing the way people think about perceive Chinese theatre?
Dr. Rebull: Right. It’s not just rewriting, but trying to sort out what the priorities were when the history was first written, and deciding whether or not we should be using those same priorities now.