Cultural leap 

Chinese opera influences Missoula play

It's 11 a.m. on a Saturday, and the cast of Jumping Into Fire mills about the Masquer Theatre, waiting for stagehands to fix a lighting problem before rehearsal starts. Director Jillian Campana, dressed in black with her hair pulled back into a bun, looks a bit tired. "We left at 11 last night," she says.

Performers chat until, at last, the stage manager gives word that the light is fixed and they can start the run-through.The cast of about 20 University of Montana students ages 19 to 45 are barefoot and mostly wearing T-shirts and pajamas, but as the lights dim and they take their places, the same sense of wonder and transport takes over as at any proper opening night.

As a gong rings, two actors stride out from behind gold and red curtains to announce, with goofy pomposity, that the Emperor Yongle is opening the Forbidden City for the public to view. The rest of the cast dances in and swirls about. Two players wearing a Chinese dragon costume swoop in and weave among the dancers, and the newly made outfit sprays a blizzard of faux feathers and dust over the stage.

"Cut!" Campana says. The lights turn on, and the mood evaporates. "Let's clear the air and sweep," she says, and jokes that they'll have to air the costume out a bit.

While work was left to be done in the days before showtime, Jumping into Fire has gone from a rough outline of a script to a fleshed-out version of a Chinese folk tale, complete with gesture and dance techniques unique to a form of Chinese opera, in just six weeks. The production is atypical for UM both because it's an original work and it aims to incorporate a style of theater from half a world away.

Campana, an associate professor of theater, is passionate about bringing Asian performance styles to Western audiences. She based the story of Jumping Into Fire on a Chinese folk tale often known as "The Goddess Who Cast the Bell." The story is set in 1420, and recounts what happens after the emperor asks a cannon maker, Kuan, to create an enormous bell as a monument. The theme, she says, is one of how communities come together to achieve goals.

Campana came across the tale while directing in Beijing in March 2012. She says it's not known how true the folk tale is, exactly, but at least part of it can be confirmed: She's seen the actual 23-foot-tall bronze bell, which was commissioned by the third Ming emperor Yongle.

click to enlarge Leah Holmes, left, and Kelly Bouma practice an exaggerated acting style for UM’s production of Jumping into Fire. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Leah Holmes, left, and Kelly Bouma practice an exaggerated acting style for UM’s production of Jumping into Fire.

Campana, who casually mentions stints living in Egypt and Brazil, travels internationally twice a year to guest-direct plays, thanks to connections she made while teaching at the University of Mumbai for four years. In Hong Kong last fall, she trained in Chinese opera, which plays heavily into the performances for Jumping Into Fire. Chinese opera isn't about singing, but a presentational, dramatic style of performance. "There are even specific hand gestures that have very specific meanings to the other characters on stage and the audience, and we don't have that so much in the West," she says."Our season theme this year is 'theater around the world,' so we wanted to try to bring plays to Missoula that might not typically be seen," she says.

She's careful to note that Jumping into Fire isn't genuine Chinese opera, which exists in hundreds of variations. Her actors have studied the techniques specific to a kind of opera that originated during the Ming Dynasty. The actors have rehearsed for about six weeks, whereas in traditional Chinese opera, performers aren't allowed on stage until they've practiced for at least that many years.

Given the short time frame and the English script, Jumping into Fire also omits dialect work and the high-pitched voices that are common to Chinese opera.

"We have a predominantly white department, school, town," Campana says, "And so there's a lot of issues with appropriation of different cultures ... I think that it's an homage to Chinese opera, rather than seeking to be Chinese opera."

The exaggerated style was "very foreign" to Steve Hodgson, an MFA candidate for theater, who's starring as Kuan, the man assigned to the gargantuan task of building the bell. A tall, burly man with graying muttonchops and faded arm tattoos, Hodgson says he's more accustomed to Western-style realism. He brushed up on Chinese opera skills by watching YouTube videos. "It required a willingness to adapt," Hodgson says.

Though it's tough to spot when the floor lights are glowing, the Chinese character for "strength" is painted in red in the center of the Jumping stage. Campana finds the moral of the story in the idea of bonding together to create strength. "Our community is stronger when we come together ... It was true in 1420 in China, and it's true today in Missoula," she says.

Jumping Into Fire continues in the Masquer Theatre in the UM PAR/TV building nightly through Sat., March 2, and again Tue., March 5, to Sat., March 9, at 7:30 PM, with a March 9 matinee at 2 PM. $16/$14 for seniors and students/$10 children.

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