By K. Woodzick
One year ago, I was working on a show called The 39 Steps. I played one of two clowns, who portray dozens of roles. As part of our rehearsal process, we took a clowning workshop led by Eddie DeHais.
The workshop started with us all playing a game of four square. As the afternoon progressed, we participated in more games and exercises, and Eddie told us what type of clowns we were. By the end of the afternoon, I was once again researching MFA Theatre programs and started my application to Naropa’s MFA in Theater: Contemporary Performance program.
Fast forward to the start of our second semester. Both the first and second year cohorts are participating in a Beijing Opera intensive that will culminate in four performances of A Horseman’s Magic, February 14-17 at Naropa’s Performing Arts Center. Xu Jiali, a Chinese Opera Lecturer from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, leads this intensive. Jiali has collaborated with MFA Theater: Contemporary Performance department chair, Jeffrey Sichel.
At the beginning of each of our sessions, we participate in an intense physical warm up, consisting of stretching, kicks, turns, as well as eye and facial exercises. We also have learned movement sequences for traditional male and female role types in the style of Chinese Opera.
When it came to casting the show, we were all given the choice of three scenes with which we could audition. After our auditions, we asked Jiali to let us know what role type we would be assigned in Chinese Opera training.
In traditional Chinese Opera training, roles are assigned to children as early as age seven or eight. There are four main role types: male roles, female role, clown roles and painted face roles. Each type has different subsets. When a role is assigned to a student, they spend the rest of their lives training for and performing in that role type.
As Jiali went down the line of students and told us which roles we would be typed in, I received the welcome assignment of the painted face role type. Painted face characters have intricate makeup and usually portray rough characters who are warriors or officials. The assignment of role types is not only based on the talents of the performer, but also their personality.
For A Horseman’s Magic, we have been divided into two casts. I play the king in Cast A. Using the movement vocabulary and varied exercises we have learned in our warm-ups, I have found my way into the physicality, emotional life and voice of this royal character. I can’t wait to share this production with an audience! Studying with a master teacher has been an incredibly rewarding experience in intercultural performance-making.