Entry Point 介入点

I learned a Chinese phrase recently: 介入点.  The first verb, “jieru,” means to intervene, get involved, or enter.  “Dian” means point or spot.  I would translate the phrase as “entry-point.”  When any artist goes about creating their work, they need an “entry-point.”  In one sense, this “entry-point” is practical, it may literally be the first step in the process of creating the work, such as writing the first sentence of a play or arriving at the suitable composition of a painting.  More significantly, the entry point is the artist’s personal and intellectual connection with his subject that moves him or her to work.

The kernel of this blog post is my struggle to uncover the ideal entry-point for me and my students to create a play together this semester.  It’s about everything from what makes a good play to what gets us off of our asses in the morning.

First, Some Background

Spring has arrived, believe or not, and that means a new semester at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.  My class this spring will be quite different from my applied theater workshop last fall.  Last December, some of the teachers in the department approached me about helping the major develop a model for their graduation presentation piece.  Most majors at STA have a final performance for the students to present to their classmates and families.  For majors such as playwriting, acting, and directing, the focus of these presentations is rather straightforward, but it is less evident what a final presentation of theater education study should like.  I proposed that we spend the semester working on a documentary theater project in which the students would choose a socially relevant issue, carry out fieldwork and research, and collaboratively create a play based on their observations.  The form of documentary theater, which emphasizes the combination of objective, semi-anthropological research with subjective artistic representation seemed fitting for the major.  It would allow our students to continue to engage actively with the various communities around them and apply their varied experience in multiple areas of dramatic creation.  Amazingly, the other professors in the department bought into the idea.

And so the project has begun.

Case Studies

We began the course with a two-week case study of various American documentary theater productions in an attempt to define the form and stimulate the students to consider the various practical, aesthetic, and ethical issues present in this type of work.  Most of our discussions led to the question of objectivity and truth that presents a paradox at the center of this theatrical form.  Documentary theater’s adherence to the representation of true events and use of verbatim interview material claims a degree of objectivity beyond what we expect from most plays.  Yet many “documentary” plays bear the mark of their creators and the artists’ attitude towards the play’s subject.

The question of a suitable “entry-point” from the audience’s perspective came up in our discussion of The Laramie Project by The Tectonic Theater Company.  In 1998, University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepherd was murdered by two men for being gay.  The Tectonic Theater Company from New York traveled to Laramie and created a theater piece based on over 200 interviews with members of the community.  When I discussed the HBO version of the play that we had watched, the students brought a question that, frankly, confused me.  They asked if the play was primarily concerned with issues of homophobia or with issues of mortality and murder.  In my mind, the two issues are inseparable.  Matthew Shepherd was killed because he was gay.  Yet my students said that because they themselves are not gay and don’t know anyone who is openly gay, they couldn’t identify with the issues of homosexuality in the film.  The details of the murder were what compelled my students because it was the aspect of the conflict that they could identify with – it was their entry-point.  I found my students’ comments rather unsettling.  I know for a fact that the students know gay people (albeit not openly gay), so in this way I saw their response as a refusal or an inability to identify.  Was this a failure on the part of the play to make them care about the issues of homosexuality?  Or was it their own unwillingness to consider that issues of homosexuality had anything to do with them?

Of all the pieces I showed them, The Vagina Monologues was perhaps the most accessible to them.  Although my students emphasized that Chinese girls would never talk about vaginas the way Eve Ensler (the creator of the piece) does (and boy does she talk vaginas!), they could connect to the feminist, universalizing message of the piece.  In this way, Ensler’s play is actually quite ingenious.  Her entry-point (pardon the pun) – vaginas – is possessed by, well just about half of the world’s population.  Rather than approaching her project as an investigation of feminism or sexual violence, she begins with the most widely-shared and fundamental attribute of womanhood.

Finding Our Entry-Point

After our case studies, we turned to determining our own entry entry-point for our documentary theater project this semester.  I required that the students each write a journal entry in which they propose a topic for our piece. The subjects were wide ranging and quite fascinating, some include:

-Comparison of traditional and contemporary teaching styles of Peking Opera

-“Red light, green light,” an investigation in the lives of the traffic cops in Shanghai, their work, and why pedestrians risk their lives when J-walking

-Increasing interpersonal distance in Shanghai after the transition from old alley-style communities to apartment complexes

-Group-induced hysteria, such as what led to the panic surrounding the SARS epidemic or recent incidents of people stealing salt out of fear of radiation stemming from the earthquake in Japan

The challenge now is to find which topic is most likely to provide a strong entry-point for the entire group.  I’ve explained that the entry-point should ideally provide a passage for a journey between us, the creators, and our subject.  This journey implies a necessary distance between artist and topic that makes the piece a process of discovery, connection, and outreach (and therefore more meaningful).  On these grounds, I have discouraged the students from pursuing subjects such as “university life” or “job search of young college graduates.”  After initial interviews and numerous in-class discussions, we have voted and finally settled on a topic that, hopefully, will allow us to dive in.  But just what that topic is will have to wait for another scintillating post…

Thanks for tuning in!


One Response to “Entry Point 介入点”
  1. Shira M says:

    This is awesome. When are you scheduled to perform? I would love to come, if possible…
    all best from seoul —

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