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There's Nothing Old in Theatre

Ran reflects on how little the stories we tell have changed throughout history.

Illustration of Les Enfant de Paris
(© Ran Xia)
Some shows are pure entertainment, inviting the audience to have a good laugh, like the slapstick extravaganzas of One Man, Two Guvnors; Lend Me a Tenor; She Stoops to Conquer; Don't Dress for Dinner; Present Laughter. In these productions, we aren't expected to think about serious external problems like global warming or internal struggles like "to be or not to be."

Other productions, however, give us a visual feast of flash flamboyance, to dazzle the audience and allow our sense to be overwhelmed by the large, glittery sets of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or the aerial feats of Spiderman. These theatrical events allow us to marvel at spectacle and get carried away in the production values of a show.

Yet, some theater inspires us to contemplate on what it means to be human, like the philosophical fablesInto the Woods or Waiting for Godot while other shows offer analytical reality check-ins like Cabaret or An Iliad. All of these stories are transcendent through ages, revealing that fact that we face similar social political issues as our ancestors. Theater allows the stories of our lives to unfold.

Theater is window and mirror at the same time. We look through it and forget that we are mere observers of a fictional universe and believe those polished dialogues and motions to be true. We also look at it and reflect on our own problems. We watch characters and remember familiar faces in our life. We are told stories, even the most fantastical tales, and then upon further reflection, discover elements of reality.

The New York Neofuturists report current events and social-political issues in a witty and satirical way. Neofuturists' company manager Rob Neill told to me during our conversation last year: "One of our missions is to make our theater a kind of living newspaper to reflect some social political issues in a multi-dimensional way." Indeed, with its stimulation of multiple senses, theater becomes the one of the most effective mediums to convey important messages.

I met David Levinson and Stacey Weingarten during NYMF 2011 where they put on Les Enfant de Paris. Through our communication, I discovered that they are keen on creating musicals to make political commentaries. David initiated the idea of updating Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris and re-framing it in the 1950s' France, when the conflicts between the Catholics and the Gypsies became the endless struggle during the French/Algiers war. "Updating historical story is nothing new, but if you decide to do it, you better have a good reason for it. It has to be relevant, and it has to make sense." Stacey pointed out, "We wanted to make it a political musical like Cabaret, in which the fictions reflect social events, and we want a narrative character that is loosely related to the story but someone still keep a distance to it, like Che in Evita, sort of unattached to the story and serves as a commentator." Thus the character of Pierre Flolo was introduced in Les Enfant as a bystander, a mediator and witness to all of the tragedy that has happened and that is still happening in corners of the world that musical audiences usually don't have the access too.

I firmly believe that good stories withstand the test of time. Almost all the problems we encounter have precedents and it's the artists' mission to figure that out. Updating a canon story is one of the best ways to enlighten and raise awareness of current issues. Les Enfant's style stands between West Side Story (the window) and An Iliad (the mirror): one is a recreation of a society as the audience see the story unfold, and the latter consists of minimal staging and contains poetic commentary of an ancient book. The clashes between forces are still happening. The modern day Achilles and Hector might not carry blades and shields, but the blood in the most recent battlefield hasn't dried; the photographs of the closest trenches still haunt us all.

We haven't changed much, but luckily, neither have the stories, and we might well be able to find solutions.


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