By Don Frantz
Anyone working in the theater has, at one time, done it for free and possibly remembers it as their BEST time in the theater. For me, it was at Harrisburg Community Theater. For others, its Beijing Playhouse, the outpost for classic plays and musicals in the English language – just 14 hours away on a nonstop United flight from Newark. Doing anything in China is not easy, but getting to opening night of a musical of volunteers takes the cake, especially back in 2006, when the foreign crowd was small and most Beijingers were asking, “What is musical?”
There are others who have built a theatrical outpost in a foreign land dedicated to tap dance, pratfalls and jazz hands like Tokyo International Players and Bangkok Community Theater. It was in Nairobi, Kenya in 2003 where Chris Verrill saw a production that inspired the idea and the nerve to start Beijing Playhouse. Chris remembers that night 12 years ago fondly, “The show was “Run for your Wife” performed in an old hotel. When the show was over, we came out on the street and realized we were in the middle of the red-light district.”
Since his first production of “A Christmas Carol” in 2006, Chris has inspired, coaxed and coerced foreign corporate executives, teachers, and students to volunteer their passion and talent to steadily grow the Playhouse. Now joining the expats are many Chinese locals working to produce two shows a year. Among the memorable productions have been Guys and Dolls, Odd Couple, I Do, I Do, and You Can’t Take it With You.
Chris usually finds a home at one of the foreign schools, such as the British School of Beijing, which provides the theater space. Corporations like Lehman Brown, an international accounting firm, The Beijinger, an English magazine, and Element Fresh, a restaurant chain, have added their support. These companies see the value of an English-speaking theater to help their employees and families adjust to life in Beijing.
Today the theater also finds actors, volunteers, and ticket buyers from the Chinese population. Over the years the public appetite for movies and theater has grown. It still does not compete with karaoke and mahjong in attendance, but some locals have discovered the passion for theater. Others find it the most entertaining way to practice their English. Whatever the reason, the theater now runs 50/50 between foreign and Chinese participation. To encourage more Chinese attendance, all performances feature subtitles, which about 15% of the audience requires to fully enjoy the play.
An educational outreach program turned into Kids Theater Camp, which has actually become profitable enough to help pay for the staff, directors, music directors, sets and costumes. From Chris’s point of view every person on the stage brings in more ticket buyers. This is especially true in the kids’ programs for ages 6 – 14, where parents and grandparents will visit the box office to see the family’s sole child sing and dance.
Like any producer, Chris has memorable productions and memorable actors – like Karen McKinnie, a lawyer. She received an offer to head to China and called ahead to the Beijing Playhouse. Chris told the tale, “She asked for the dates of all the auditions and the performances. She flew into Beijing the day before auditions for Guys and Dolls. She landed the part of Nicely Nicely Johnson, rewritten for an alto. She was great and a couple of days after the show closed, she ended her job and moved on to another country, and probably another role.”
Actors do come and go, but a lot stay in Beijing, the cultural capital of China. Since the Playhouse had the longest list of English-speaking actors in Beijing, they put it to use and created a talent agency. Suddenly, the neighborhood playhouse was on the call list of Chinese and Hollywood studios. Actors landed parts in Will Smith’s “Karate Kid.” This year’s production is the soon-to-be-released “Skiptrace” by Jackie Chan. That doesn’t happen in Harrisburg!
So if you want an interesting vacation plying your craft, or if you are going to work in Beijing and wonder what’s more fun than a foot massage, check out the Beijing Playhouse. Chris is finishing up his 8th season with THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED) which will actually tour Beijing, Tianjin and Shenzhen. Crew positions are still open!
Check out www.beijingplayhouse.com
如果你渴望一个充实的假期来施展你的才华，或者如果你想要在北京工作，敬请关注北京剧院！ 克里斯刚刚完成了第八季《莎士比亚全集》（删减版），这让公司拥有了可以在北京、天津和深圳巡演的机会。职位仍旧开放！ www.beijingplayhouse.com