I haven’t written about the HanFeiZi company until now because, well, I wasn’t quite sure how to. I’ve been to their live/work space in the Northeast of Beijing a half a dozen times now and still can’t quite figure out how to define what they do. Then I realized, perhaps that’s exactly what they do; never the same thing twice.
HanFeiZi was started by the Han family company from DongBei. Twelve years ago they decided to move to a more culturally active city and have been performing a myriad of styles and stories in Beijing since. I wouldn’t call them a shadow puppet company, but it’s a large part of nearly everything they put on. HanFeiZi is, arguably, the most progressive theatre company in the capitol city that incorporates traditional shadow puppetry elements into their performances.
They are considered a ‘younger’ company not simply because of their age in Beijing, but because the puppeteers aren’t direct descendants from a long line of PiYing masters. This hinders their ability to cultivate the clout of a ‘preservation’ company, but frees them to innovate and push the traditional forms forward.
Eric Young (a fantastic young student interested in theatre and marketing-helping the Beijing puppet community at large), Han Xing, Han Chi
Stepping into their live/work studio in the far Northeastern sector of Beijing is a familiar feeling. The atmosphere is akin to any workspace of a small theatre company in America. A long and skinny room acts as their main workspace because of its clear plastic ceiling that offers the most light in the daytime. Against its walls are piles of puppetry materials, colorful fabric scraps, cow hide and performance puppets. Each time I visit there is a new person to meet and a pile of work to be done.
A hired PiYing cutter, Shaanxi Style.
Han Chi, and her brother Han Xing, team up to head this company. They collaborate with local artist, their parents, and a few international artists to make about three shows each year. This collaborative philosophy runs in tandem with their belief that elements of traditional Chinese forms (shadow puppetry, Peking opera, etc) should be preserved, but some elements need updating in order to survive this century.
Designs, new puppets, and puppet materials.
Unlike most of the other relationships I’ve been building here, it’s hard for me to know where my place is in a setting like this. It’s at once familiar, and of course, completely not. I’m not taking class, but I am a student. I’m a peer, but an outsider. We have an instant connection through our work and our views on theatre in general, but we’re still operating through a thick language and cultural barrier. There is so much I want to ask, and know. I’m eager and often impatient to see it all at once. But that doesn’t make sense with a living, breathing company. It makes more sense to just be with them, through the seasons, seeing how they do it.
So that’s what I’ve decided to do. I spend one to two days a week with the company. The routine has developed into arriving shortly before lunch, helping with what I can, breaking to eat and talk, working the afternoon away, snapping a few pictures and finishing with a collective dinner.
This particular workday will be my last for a while. I’m leaving Beijing on Saturday to start my first ‘loop’ around China to meet with known and unknown contacts in Xian, HuaXian, Chengdu and GuangDong. Happily, my return trip to Beijing is already planned so it’s not goodbye for long. As the sun sets slowly, the ten of us split up the tasks of cooking, setting up the small card table and collecting a myriad of mismatched stools.
After the hustle of preparations dim and we are ready to sit, we do so with little ceremony. A slow start, then a flurry of the first few hungry mouthfuls, and then we begin to talk. After a few moments, I too, let myself take a break from everything but the taste of good food and the sound of lively chatter.
I’m learning how this unconventional classroom and relaxation of time and purpose changes the learning experience. The acquisition of new skill and regional differences in shadow puppetry is still paramount – but I can’t forget how important it is to just sit and eat and work with like-minded artist from halfway around the globe.
I’ll be back in the summer to see their new show for kids about the environment and will update you then.
Thanks for reading~
For a more recent post on the company, click the following link: A Shadow in the Right Direction
Find information on their most recent show at http://www.youliugui.org/