Chasing the Sun
Opening the Door for Drama Therapy in China
By Stephen Breithaupt MS, RDT
At first glance “Chasing the Sun” might seem like a simple metaphor for the flight from San Francisco to Beijing, where one can leave in the afternoon on one day, experience a 12-hour flight and arrive in late afternoon of the next day while never losing sight of the sun.
However, the metaphor deepens as the encounter with the people of China goes from startling statistics to personal journeys.
Not that the statistics themselves don’t contain the white-hot impressiveness of an expanding star. And no matter how one feels politically about exploding mega-cities, the adaptation of western consumerism and a reach into the future that China’s youth is posed to possess, it cannot be denied that the Chinese people who within one life time have gone from Civil War and Cultural Revolution to a present “Leap Forward, (known now as the Chinese Dream), that Mao Zedong may never have fully comprehended, are chasing images from the past, are troubled by present day adjustments and are struggling to interpret their future which might be too quickly changing their traditions.
In addition, the Chinese people continue to draw the images of western ideas, (including western psychology and their accompanying modalities), into their light.
It was with this in mind that my wife, (a Chinese National who recently become a US Citizen), and I accepted the recommendation that we travel to Beijing for the EXPSY Family Communication Conference on behalf of my mentor Dr. Pam Dunne, where I would introduce participants to drama therapy.
What followed in those four days contained so much heartbreaking, ground breaking and startling human fabric that we will need a full year to begin to understand much of what we experienced.
Nothing prepared me for the response that my brief introduction to drama therapy elicited from these Chinese participants. Even my wife and fellow presenters, all Chinese, were amazed by the work shared in this brief period.
Assessing Past, Present and Future in 90 minutes
I confess when I devised a way to assess the level of theatrical ability among the conference participants, I may have inadvertently thrown a group version of David Read Johnson’s dramatic role-playing assessment into the air like a Scrabble game left untended in a nursery school.
I thought a nice theatrical Tubula Rasa might be to first divide the large group of 190 people into various, somewhat smaller, break out groups based on the 12 Chinese signs of the zodiac. This was done by calling out the 12 animal signs and then giving the “smaller” groups, (now merely 12 -16 people!), an activity to quickly act out; like being in a swimming pool or watching fireworks. Thus warmed up, they returned to their own section in a ballroom to find 10 props, (Hat, two cups, blank mask, a piece of cloth, a few pieces of fake food, some play money and a tray). The groups then selected a “leader” who reported back to get the instructions.
They were given themes such a grandma, cell phones, New Year etc. and told to devise a two-minute scene in ten minutes. They could use the props however they wished, and they could use people as pictures, furniture, even the wall of a house as long as they used everyone in the group. That was it!
When this simple warm up, (never mind a central activity), to an already short 90-minute timeframe was over, it was nearly two hours later and the tone for the rest of my encounter with the educators, therapists, doctors and parents of the greater Beijing area was set.
For what followed was not the simple two-minute basic scenes that I might have expected from a large group, (which I later discovered had only one person with prior acting experience). Instead, as my translator and I looked on, what evolved was specific, detailed, moving and profoundly culturally based social scenes that lasted for anywhere from 5 minutes to 12 minutes each! It was as if, I had given detailed instructions to Chinese sociologists to give every effort they could to present the complex issues of modern Chinese society as they clash head on with the future, while leaving the past to run at an exhaustive pace behind.
This was just the beginning. For what followed was two more days and 12 more hours of workshops, as I introduced varying techniques of drama therapy and expressive arts. However, at this initial workshop, it was clear that I could have left the room for an hour and these large groups would have continued to present some complicated, scenes, in a variety of stylistic presentations.
Though not within the scope of this paper to detail all twelve scenes, I will give some context and highlights here.
The first scene was fairly fun and tame, though still culturally interesting, as a New Year’s child eating monster shows up and is scared away by fireworks. In fact, this scene was the kind of fanciful, playful and energetic enactment I had imagined for such short preparation times.
However later, we began to see the cultural complexity, pressures and diversity as the scenes revealed difficult and even some disturbing images taken from Chinese modern life.
Among such early scenes was an enactment that started off tame enough, then became filtered through a darker color as my translator began to describe the events. As the large group began to fill the stage some members portrayed children about to complete their homework. As they studied, other group members who were apparently outside the window began vocalizing what seemed to be frog noises. The “children” ran to the window to inspect the frogs and enjoy the night music. At this point an angry parent entered to tell them to get back to studying, however, the children remained distracted. I then seemed to lose the thread of the narrative as the group member playing the mother seemed to seize something from another part of the house, exit to outside and shake her hand around until the frogs fell silent.
As the scene wrapped up my translator informed me this was the true story of a mother who had poisoned a pond of frogs in order that her children might study for their exams in peace.
Then the scenes deepened from this news story to immensely personal. In-laws met at dinner to discuss the future of their soon to marry children, an internet café was raided by parents so that their sons might not become addicted to computer games and in a stunning comment on east west diversity a promising son-in-law who had been invited to attend a grandfather’s tribute is told that the surviving grandmother believes him to be an old lover from her past and that the potential future family member should play along with this in order for him to make a good impression.
As the evening ended, I gave up trying to take notes and would later rely on video that my wife and I are still reviewing of this remarkable content.
During the two-day weekend workshop that followed, I witnessed more personal stories regarding family and education as I witnessed a child hiding from her parents and therapist to avoid being sent to a European school in one scene, and group participants beautifully enacted an old fable that detailed removing an individual’s life obstacle in another. Throughout the weekend I was met with precise focused interpretations and an impressive understanding of theatrical form and ability.
Finally, as the group settled down Sunday afternoon they created beautiful masks celebrating their individuality and dreams for the future.
Back on the plane I flew away from the sun, with a need to breathe deeply and reflect.
However, before my flight a young Chinese counseling student had asked to talk to me and cried because she did not like what she saw represented in the drama therapy scenes over the weekend. She thought that her people might be blaming their families too much and not taking enough responsibility of their own. I thought, later, how western that remark might sound.
I reflected on all of these scenes and encounters and so many others as my wife and I flew back over the Pacific. This ancient culture all moving quickly to meet the future and unsure of what it is leaving behind. For even when we stop chasing the sun and journey in the opposite direction we meet it even so; head on gleaming bright on the other side.