The Monkey King Hits NYC: A Conversation With Director Chen Shi-zheng

Ancient Chinese Tale Brought To Life With Gorrillaz Soundtrack

A scene from Monkey: Journey to the West.

A scene from Monkey: Journey to the West.

Conceived and created by Chinese-American director Chen Shi-zheng along with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, creators of Gorillaz, Monkey: Journey to the West opens at Lincoln Center on July 6. Running through July 28, the show is a vibrant musical-theater retelling Journey to the West, a Chinese classic novel thought to have been written during the Ming dynasty.

As the tentpole production in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, this hugely successful international production includes a cast of Chinese acrobats, singers, contortionists, and martial artists, along with animation segments.

Since its world premiere in 2007 at the Manchester International Festival, the show has been a hit throughout the West. As the director has said, “the main purpose of this show is to make young and old audiences understand the classic Chinese story in a simple way.” Jing Daily recently had a chance to talk with Chen Shi-zheng about the his work, its target audience, and how his Chinese-American experiences influence his creativity.

Your work Monkey: Journey to the West will serve as the opening show at the Lincoln Center Festival. Where else has the show been presented since its 2007 premiere?

Since its global premiere, the show has been performed at Théatre du Chatelet in Paris, the Berlin Opera House in Germany, and the Royal Opera House in the UK.

Director Chen

Director Chen Shi-zheng.

It has been a while since the debut. Did you have to recast the production with new actors? How has that affected the show?

It has been five years since the debut, but I think the show is getting better, as we recruited a new circus and cast. We had a chance to rehearse again for two months.

What should we expect from the show?

This is a unique production, including a remarkable cast of Chinese acrobats, singers, contortionists, and others. There are definitely lots to see.

The show will be performed entirely in Chinese by Chinese actors. Who do you expect to be your target audience?

People of all ages. This show is very popular for its on-stage animation and musical storytelling rather than dialogue, which is very limited. I think the story is far more interesting than stories like Star Wars and personally like it very much.

Our interpretation of this story has been extremely popular. In the UK and Paris, where the show was performed over the past five years, the audience members ranged from six years old to eighty years old–it’s a show that everyone can see.

How do you make Westerners accept and enjoy your work?

I have lived overseas for more than twenty years, and I know what people like. I think this kind of work is interesting, and rather than trying to cater to a certain audience, I just assume everyone would love to see it as well.

Is this production related to your Chinese-Western education and life experiences?

Yes, it’s a long-term process of observation. My work was not created to cater to a specific group’s  taste, but to everyone’s. I think we all like to see this kind of work. I’m just a director; I don’t label myself, and I don’t want people to label me as either “Chinese” or “Western”. I just create new things and attempt to make breakthroughs with them.

You are committed to conveying the essence of Chinese classical drama onto the European and American stages. Your previous work, such as The Peony Pavilion and The Orphan of Zhao, is popular in Europe and the United States. For Monkey: Journey to the West, how do yo combine the Chinese elements with the Western ones?

The show is a Chinese theme with a modern approach. Chinese people wear Western clothes, drive Western cars, and kids play video games, so I think it’s not necessary to distinguish the Chinese from the Western, or vice-versa. I’m looking for a particularly interesting way to tell the story. It does not necessarily have to be present in the past for people to like it. Journey to the West is a very old story, which has a history of hundreds of years. But it’s a Chinese theme, and I just use modern means to interpret it. The world we live in is one of mutual cultural interaction and exchange, which is the reason this style can flourish. It’s not based on earlier Western ways, but rather a very new and an ongoing form of art.

As we all know, Journey to the West was made into a 25-episode TV series in China, but your musical only lasts 90 minutes. How did you concentrate such a long story into a short theater piece?

I used a cartoon book to tell the story. Journey to the West has a total of one hundred parts, and I chose nine of them to put into a story. I then wrote a script and collaborated with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, the creators of some of Britain’s most famous musical and visual projects. The main purpose of this show is to make young and old audiences understand a classic Chinese story in an accessible way.

After a month-long performance at Lincoln Center, where is the show headed next? Will it be presented in China?

We are still in negotiation. The production cost is very high in terms of technological components–we use hanging wires. There are also labor costs as we have several hundred people working for the show. In addition to some famous European and American theaters, we are in negotiation with theaters from Japan, Hong Kong, Sydney, and mainland China. It depends on the local economy and the consuming capability.

On the Lincoln Center website, it says that the tour was made possible by Jiangsu Provincial Department of Culture, Government of Yancheng City, and Government of Jianhu County. Could you talk a little bit about their support?

We invited the Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company to perform this show. The show has been financially supported by Jiangsu Provincial Department of Culture and local governments for things such as our local rehearsal expenses. Our actors come from across the entire country, and we live and rehearse in Jiangsu’s Jianhu county. They give us a lot of support!

Are you working on any new projects?

I’m working on a new opera called Legend of White Snake, which is also based on a Chinese folktale. I have been in Suzhou for awhile preparing for this show. The show is likely to premiere in China this October, and will begin touring internationally next year in Paris and Edinburg. It will also be performed at Lincoln Center, as well as a number of international festivals.

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