Two Students Develop Plays in Shanghai

November 27, 2017

Playwriting students Max Mondi '18 and Gordon Penn '18 recently left for a four-month experience abroad at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in China. There, their classmates have translated Max's and Gordon's plays into Mandarin and both pieces will be staged at the New Theatre in the STA in December. This incredible opportunity was possible thanks to the exchange program between the Theatre Department and the Shangai Theatre Academy; every year, two third-year Columbia playwrights have the opportunity to travel to Shanghai for 10 weeks, and 2-3 students from STA come to study at Columbia. We talked with Max and Gordon about this unique experience. This is what they told us: 


First of all, how’s the experience of being there so far? Could you describe it?


G: The opportunity to study traditional Chinese opera from several of the finest authorities on the subject in such a gorgeous setting has been fabulous. One of the teachers, Professor Song, was a long time star of the Peking Opera, who back in 1980 made history as an actor/director of the first American tour to take place since 1928. His lessons on surviving the cultural revolution are a special bonus. The Peking opera performer is part Bruce Lee, part Baryshnikov, and part Placido Domingo. Jackie Chan was trained in Peking Opera and has based his film career on the work he did there. Shanghai is a special treat. I have been touring the tea markets and learning the local food. Jainbing, a crepe breakfast burrito is a favorite. Also, it is amazing to be in a town with several of the tallest buildings in the world. The construction industry is thriving here.


M: The experience has been incredible!  Everyone at STA has been so kind and gracious in welcoming us to China. Our classes on Chinese Opera and culture are taught by brilliant scholars, and the students have translated our plays into Mandarin which has proven to be a fascinating way to compare American and Chinese cultures. Shanghai is an incredible city that feels, from my American vantage, like it's years into the future and at times in the past. Much of the city has been built into giant malls where no one carries cash and everyone pays for everything with apps. On the other hand, people still mostly wash clothes by hand. And the artists we've met are both eager to embrace the more personalized self-expression of Western art, while at the same time holding onto the more Confucian social order that has defined China for centuries. You can feel the change here.



Are you working on a specific piece? What’s it about? And what inspired it?


G: I brought over a piece I wrote for my second-year production at Columbia. It is a military comedy with lots of violence. I am an American Soldier, currently serving in the Army Reserve, but formerly I was active duty infantry. This is a project that I wrote for my fellow American Soldiers. Life in the military is often funny, sometimes boring, sometimes insane, and at times violent. I was excited to see how it would be perceived by a group of Chinese playwrights.


M: In addition to workshopping my play, Maybe Tomorrow, with the students at STA, I am working on a new play that takes place in an Airbnb and follows its wandering inhabitants and how they change over the course of three generations. It is inspired by the concept of the sharing economy, where it feels like we as citizens own less and less and what we do own has been made abstract and kept in "The Cloud," and thus we are becoming more and more nomadic and root-less. Travelling through China has been a great inspiration for the piece, and I will also be utilizing certain tropes from Chinese Opera


What’s the thing that has surprised/shocked you most about being there?


M: One thing that is so surprising about Shanghai (and much of urbanized China), is how much they seem to be embracing Western values. This is something discussed much in our classes, and it comes with both great hope and some resentment. At a time when "Western values" are becoming increasingly suspect, I sometimes question this embrace. I have also been blown away by the discipline and craft of the performers in China. Whether we are seeing an opera or dance or puppetry, the physical prowess and skill are unlike anything I've ever seen. In America, much of our theater is defined by more naturalistic performance, whereas Chinese performance is highly stylized, the choreography and form of which has been passed down for generations. Many performers begin their training at the age of 9, and you can see that work in performance, the precision is incredible


G: The smog. Yes, I was warned, but until you feel like you are walking through a garage with every car running, you don't appreciate why everyone is wearing masks. I don't hesitate to wear one now. Also, I will miss not having to tip. Knowing that the servers are being paid a decent wage without having to worry about what I am going to leave them is a relief. Also, I have never seen so many high rise apartments in my life.