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Mass appeal

Chen Nan
Updated: Mar 23,2015 9:24 AM     China Daily

Totally Happy is a theater production about the relationships between the masses and the individual, through actors’ body language and monologues.[Photos/Provided to China Daily]

A new play explores how Germans and Chinese are looking at individuals in the collective.

After the first open rehearsal of German-Chinese production Totally Happy, or Fei Chang Gao Xing, at Inside-Out Theater in Beijing last weekend, the play’s director Tian Gebing received contradictory reviews.

Fans in the audience called the play stunning, while others complained they couldn’t understand it.

“That’s what I am aiming for,” says Tian in a phone interview with China Daily.

Tian, who is in his mid-50s and a graduate of the Central Academy of Drama, has been involved in Beijing’s independent theater scene since the late 1980s. He has always been interested in launching a “revolution” in traditional theater.

In 1997, Tian founded Paper Tiger Theater Studio, one of the earliest pioneering independent theater companies in China. He has blended elements of visual art with theatrical and non-theatrical scenes as well as combining scripts with improvisation and non-professional performance.

In Totally Happy, featuring five Chinese actors from Paper Tiger Theater Studio and five German actors from Munich Kammerspiele, Tian explores the relationships between the masses and the individual.

With no conversations among characters and no clear storyline, the show is told through actors’ body language and monologues.

Tian, who works more like a choreographer in this project, started it nearly three years ago. The idea of the show came from his longtime observation of contemporary Chinese society.

Born and raised in Shaanxi province in the 1960s, when traditional Chinese philosophy embraced the spirit of the collectivism, Tian has experienced the country’s transformation from collectivism to individualism, like many others in his generation.

With more young Chinese people being eager to be different and displaying their personalities, Tian couldn’t help but wonder about how the perceptions of individualism and collectivism changed over generations.

He says that it was just a vague idea in the beginning. Later, with the help of the Goethe Institute in China, he expanded the concept of the play from one culture to another by working with artists from Munich.

The project started with interviews of people from both Germany and China, between 20 and 50 years old: How did you react when you first became a part of a collective? Can you recall the most impressive collective event you have experienced? What do crowds mean in fan cultures and at the public festivities like a music festival?

In different cultural contexts, Tian was surprised to find that the young generation of the two countries frequently mentioned the phrase “totally happy” when they were asked about being part of the masses.

“There isn’t much cultural difference. The concept of the masses and the individual triggers powerful connections between the two countries,” says Christoph Lepschy, one of the research consultants for Totally Happy.

Related lectures, workshops and open rehearsals have been conducted in the two countries. Last October, the play made its debut with the Munich Kammerspiele in Germany.

The production team was also excited to see the cooperation between actors of the two countries, who have no mutual languages and no shared cultural system.

“The German actors came from an established and mature theater while the Chinese actors are from an independent theater in Beijing. Their understandings about the theme are different. They communicated through a little English, body gestures and a translator,” Tian says.

“The cooperation itself was about how each individual deals with the masses and how the masses treat each individual.”