A Path to Wisdom
The classic Chinese folk tale 'Journey to the West' come to life on stage
Earlier this year a new show arrived in Macau bursting with colour, energy, multimedia effects and traditional Chinese dance and acrobatics. Monkey King is a US$300-million-dollar production that was eight years in the making, presented by the Hua Yan Group, a cultural company based in Beijing.
It brings to the stage arguably the most famous story in Chinese folk-lore, the legend of monk Xuan Zang, as he travels with his three companions and protectors to the Western Regions of Central Asia and India, to obtain sacred Buddhist texts (sutras) – a story that is better known as Journey to the West, considered one of China’s four most influential classical literature works.
Staged in a purpose built theatre at Sands Cotai Central, the show features 75 talented actors and performers, all of them from Mainland China, plus two performers from Ukraine. Enhancing the vibrant acrobatic and dance performances are a host of state-of-the-art multimedia effects and animatronics as well as beautiful costumes and set designs.
Since opening in February this year, the show has undergone a number of adjustments, and the creative team are continuing to work on minor changes and improvements. CLOSER went back stage to meet with just some of the talented people involved in bringing this classic tale to new life on stage in Macau, including Executive Director Sophie Jia.
Journey to the West is such a well-known story. Was it a big challenge to try to present it in a new and fresh way?
Sophie Jia: Yes, because everybody knows the story so they will pick out your mistakes. They will say, “Oh it was not like that in the book. No, no it was like this.” So we have been struggling with these details over and over. The whole process was very tough. How to keep the authenticity of the original work? But if we stick too close to the original version, because it is very old and has been interpreted in numerous TV series and movies, if we don’t move away from these, the audience will find it boring as well. So it was very difficult to decide. In the end we tried to keep the original work based on its colors, but we have added some new elements that are acceptable to a modern audience.
As a Chinese person directing a very symbolic work, did you feel a lot of pressure while working on it?
Yes, the pressure was huge. During the creative process of the show, I had insomnia for almost two years (laughs). Not only for me, but the whole directorial team. Basically we were all so nervous because we wanted to make it great, so we would go back and forth over and over again. I think it is the same for all artistic and creative processes. If you want to make something good, you will painstakingly go over all the little details again and again.
The book of Journey to the West is very long, but you have chosen only four different settings from it. How did you make these choices?
Because they are the most important parts in the Journey to the West. And they are the four locations that people are most familiar with. The first one is Huaguoshan (Flowers and Fruit Mountain), the place where the Monkey King comes from. He was born from a rock, so there is a chapter on Huaguoshan.
The second place is the Haidilonggong (Sea Dragon Palace) where he got the treasure. This is the place where he got his weapon, so it is important to show.
The third one is Huoyan Shan (Fiery Mountain), the story of the Bull Demon King and Princess Iron Fan. No matter whether the story is told on TV or in the movies, this part of the story is the most frequently presented.
And then the last location is Pansidong (Cave of the Silken Web). We have added the White-Bone Demon in it as well. We have actually integrated the chapter of Monkey Subdues White-Bone Demon with the Spider Spirit into one location and also The Buddha Land.
We decided to choose these specific locations because according to the Chinese aesthetics principles, there is metal, wood, water, fire and earth. We have used the green color in the beginning, and then blue in the second scene, red in the third, black in the fourth and at the end, the Buddha Land is yellow gold. So the whole creative process is based on the aesthetics principles entirely and we have used the five elements as our concept.
In Macau, most of the Chinese audience know the story of Journey to the West, but there are also the foreigners in the audience, who might not know so much about the story. Did you take this into consideration when you were creating the show?
Yes, definitely. We have been showing our works abroad since 1989, so we already have experience with foreign audiences and we have a certain degree of understanding about what they will accept and what they will like. Moreover, we added English in the voice over. But I think, in art, especially in theatre, it is very communicative. We do not need language necessarily. We can reveal the meanings through our body language. If we are able to reveal them in meaningful and interesting ways, and if the skills are sophisticated and the story well arranged, then even if you do not know about the cultural background of the Journey to the West, I believe the audience will still understand it.
The show has so many technical parts to deal with. Which part was the most difficult to develop?
The Buddha’s Hand and the two demon hands, including the Golden Hoops, because nobody has done this before. The best gigantic hand was made in the musical show of King Kong in the United States, but it was not especially tall. Our Buddha’s hand is 10 metres high and 5.5 metres wide. The two hands on the sides of the stage are 17.5 metres high. And the Golden Cudgel is also very high. So in terms of physics, we spent almost one whole year to solve the technical aspects of it. In the beginning when we approached the commissioned company to work with us on it, they thought that it was simply impossible, because there is no way to physically hold this kind of heavy weight. But we wanted to try so the company also cooperated with us to take the risk and experimented with us. Right now we are not one hundred percent satisfied with the result. We are still experimenting to find a better way to make it move more smoothly. If based on the original ideas of the hand, right now we are at 40 percent, so still 60 percent to go. We still have room for improvement.
The show includes many different kinds of performances such as magic, acrobatics, dance and multi-media as well as other elements. Can you tell us about how you brought all these elements together?
This process of putting different things together is very interesting, since there are all kinds of different shows all around the world - most of them in Las Vegas - but we actually set as our goal to break through the conventional performance elements. There have been many trials and experiments and we have made some changes based on the original story, so that it is more suitable for the stage, more suitable for the audience. This process is really like the Journey to the West; it has been a path to wisdom. We have also gone through the “81” challenges. In fact, we are still on the path. We have learnt and grown a lot during this process.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Early in my career I was part of the cultural sector of the army, The Guangzhou Military Region Art Troupe. I was an acrobatic actor for 31 years and won a number of prizes. I really loved my work and I wanted to continue working in this industry. So when I decided to take off my soldier’s uniform I joined the Hua Yan Group, so that I could work in this field for a longer period of time. I started working on this project in April 2014 and became the director of the show in July of that year. When I finished the job, the owner of Hua Yan Group invited me stay with the group and work here as the executive director.
Is this show staying permanently in Macau?
Yes, we plan to have it as a permanent show in Macau. In the second half of next year, we will start touring in Mainland China, and then to Japan in 2019, and then to Australia. And also the United States, in Las Vegas, and we would like to change certain elements in it and bring it to Broadway as well. We are still in the negotiation process. So the touring in China and abroad will start together. But in Macau it will stay as a permanent show.
I am originally from Jilin, but I spent 11 years in Shaolin learning Kungfu. I joined the company three years ago and I’ve been with the show since the beginning. I enjoy my role as the Monkey King very much, because I liked this character since I was a child. When I watched TV as a child, I would fantasize about becoming the Monkey King, but I never thought that I would play this role in the theatre. The most challenging part is the acting. The action part is easy for me, but the acting, the emotions, the coordination between two actors, the synchronicity between them on stage, this is very difficult to achieve. When we were preparing the show, some theatre teachers were invited to train us, but most of our acting was developed during our rehearsals and the actual show. Macau is a bit of a foreign place for us, as we are still new here. But living here with the team it is like having a home here. I feel like even though the environment is strange to me, I am very stable and secure. Being here, with our team leaders, it is like being at home, so no need to worry too much.
White Bone Demon
Gao ya ao ting
I am from Xian, and I trained in both traditional Chinese and modern dance and before I joined this company I was working in other dance groups. I’ve also been with the company for three years and the show since the beginning. I love being the White Bone Demon, and the part of my role that I enjoy most is when I am flying down over the heads of the audience to interact with them. Sometimes the children get a bit afraid of me though. I’ve made a few cry! I also grew up watching the show on TV. I thought that maybe one day I would become like this character but I never thought I’d play her in a theatre production. I usually train from around 2pm to 6pm every day. After I wake up I go jogging, then I have meal and keep training before doing my make up for the show.