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One of the earlier theatrical performances that we discussed in class is ritual theatre and Nuo theater more specifically. This type of performance originates from exorcism practices and sacrificial rituals meant to appease the gods and has since transformed into one which entertains the people of society in the event of a celebration. For example, in the late 20th century, the people of the Guizhou Province would send praises to Nuo Po (goddess of the South Mountain) and Nuo Gong (god of the East Mountain) in celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Accompanying the sculptures of the two gods would be many lit candles and incense sticks, piles of food, stacks of money, and much more. One main characteristic always apart of the Nuo performances is the wizard, usually wearing a special garment and flower crown.
According to Huangpu Chongqing’s Nuo Theatre in Guizhou Province, “The wizard is an envoy linking humans to heaven and hell and the officiant of the nuo altar, as well as being the stage director of the nuo performance and the principal performer skilled in singing and dancing” (113).
Another telling characteristic is the use of colorful costumes and masks in celebrations which may sometimes last days. Though nuo has continued its development over several millenniums, it has always brought people together through combining a blend of different teachings such as Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism with common folk traditions and rituals. Today, Nuo Theatre is still a prominent tradition among folk performance used in celebration of several sacred occasions like the Spring Festival.
Another mode of theatre we identified in class is traditional urban theatre in the late-Qing era. In the end, this type of performance was less celebrated than the previously mentioned Nuo theatre, but the irony is that it has almost nothing to do with the actual performance and is more pointed at the setting of said performance. This is because the earlier teahouses themselves were more focused on the social atmosphere of the event than the roles being acted on stage. In our reading by Josh Goldstein, From Teahouse to Playhouse: Theaters As Social Texts in Early-Twentieth-Century China, Goldstein discusses the ways in which theatre represented China’s broader social context (768).
A bevy of different off-stage activities took place while the show went on such negotiations, criminal activity, food and concessions, and networking amongst many different people. Among other things, often actors would be seduced and lured by patrons even during the shows! Classes were also generally separated by rich and poor, with the elite given the privilege of sipping tea and eating snacks on the balconies, while the commoners were noticeably distant from the stage with little-to-no lighting and no actual seats. Here, it was easy to observe the different behaviors of the people in the social context as the commoners often mingled together within the “pond” of other commoners, shouting together at the stage as they barely could see the show. All of this is before the Xia Brothers’ complete renovation of the teahouse layout into the New Theater, in an effort to reform Chinese culture so that the actors and the entire spectrum of dramatic theatre would become respectable.
The changes included uniform seating without any obstructed views, stage lighting was enhanced, and all other lighting was dimmed to create a sense of separation between the show and the audience, and eventually all conversation and discourse was marginalized as it was now viewed as distracting and disrespectful to the performance. These three changes are the most apparent because they pointed to what Goldstein referred to as the “new social logic of public equality and anonymity”, which meant the theater was no longer a social space as it had been since everyone now sat quietly and attentive to the show regardless of social standing. Besides the dismantling of the social space, it also altered the “permeability” of the stage because the audience could no longer interact with the actors in any way.
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