Anne Pender – Taking it to China: Recent Australian Productions on Tour


Anne Pender

University of Adelaide

Taking it to China: Recent Australian Productions on Tour

Writing in their Platform Paper in 2012, Alison Carroll and Carrillo Gantner, put forward a strong case for Australian engagement with audiences in a range of Asian countries, complete with information about current developments and funding realities. Their argument was predicated on the facts that our economy was ‘robust’ and we had a ‘vibrant arts sector strongly supported by government’ (3). It’s difficult to make the same case now after the decimation of our economy brought about by the global pandemic. But the reasons for engaging with our Asian neighbours face to face, performer to audience member, culture to culture, are unchanged and arguably even stronger than they were in 2012. 

In the intervening years at least a dozen Australian theatre companies have taken their work to China. Companies offering opera, ballet, spoken word drama, physical theatre, puppetry and children’s theatre have all toured or appeared at festivals, some of them offering productions over multiple years. This paper explores the recent experiences of three travelling productions and their reception by Chinese audiences, against a backdrop of expanding access to, and increasing interest in Australian performance in the People’s Republic: Saltbush, an immersive children’s theatre production from Insite Arts, Baba Yaga, a children’s play and co-production between Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre and Scotland’s Imaginate, and desert , 6.29pm, a play produced by the Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre.

The paper considers the spaces of transformation afforded by the three touring productions, contemplates what we can hold onto after the interruptions of the pandemic, and speculates about performance futures, exchanges and connections between China and Australia, as we emerge from the restrictions of the past year to re-build. The paper also considers the new developments in touring opportunities in the context of the history of Australian theatre on the stages of China, and its evolution from the first performance of Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination in 1987, to the present.

Alison Carroll and Carrillo Gantner, Finding a Place on the Asian Stage, Platform Papers No 31, Sydney: Currency Press, 2012.


Professor Anne Pender holds the Kidman Chair in Australian Studies at the University of Adelaide. Anne has taught in literary and theatre studies at King’s College, London, the ANU and the University of New England. Anne’s books include Seven Big Australians: Adventures with Comic Actors (2019), Players: Australian Actors on Stage, Television and Film (2016), From a Distant Shore: Australian Writers in Britain 1820-2012 (2013), co-authored with the late Bruce Bennett,  One Man Show: The Stages of Barry Humphries (2010), Nick Enright: An Actor’s Playwright (2008) co-edited with Susan Lever,  and Christina Stead: Satirist (2002).

Megan Evans – A sip of tea before the world turns upside down…again: Brian Brake’s 1959 photographs on the set of the Jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) film Women Generals of the Yang Family


Megan Evans

Victoria University of Wellington

A sip of tea before the world turns upside down…again: Brian Brake’s 1959 photographs on the set of the Jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) film Women Generals of the Yang Family

Leading New Zealand photographer, Brian Brake, was one of only a few western photographers granted entry to China in the first decade following Communist victory in 1949. Among 114,000 of Brake’s images held in Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand are a number taken on an outdoor film set during the 1959 making of Shanghai Jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) Theatre’s moving-image adaptation of the ‘newly-written historical’ stage play, Yangmen nüjiang (Women Generals of the Yang Family). Released in 1960, but banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), it is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful filmic adaptations of a xiqu (Chinese opera) stage play and laid important theoretical and practical ground for future experimentation. Brake’s images capture casual moments of actors in full make-up and elaborate headdress smoking, chatting, drinking tea while awaiting their next shot. Film crew measure distances to set actor marks. Brake’s chromogenic processes emphasise the striking contrast between subdued greys and blues of the crew’s cotton clothing and the rich palette of elaborately embroidered stage costumes. The edge of a painted backdrop of clouds reveals real clouds floating by while crew apply artificial greenery to the parade ground scuffed during previous takes. Captured at the margins of this successful effort to exploit theatrical languages for cinematic space, the images were unseen by the film’s eventual audience. This paper considers how the images document a convivial if precarious balance of tradition and technological advancement and mark a growing sense of artistic mastery that was both carried forward and utterly upended by the Cultural Revolution.

Megan Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Theatre Programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research includes a focus on xiqu (Chinese Opera) in contemporary China, which has been published in TDR, Asian Theatre Journal, Theatre Research International and Australasian Drama Studies.

Xiaohuan Zhao – ‘Harmony in Diversity’: A Compartmentalist Approach to the Three Teachings in Mulianxi


Xiaohuan Zhao

University of Sydney

‘Harmony in Diversity’: A Compartmentalist Approach to the Three Teachings in Mulianxi

This paper has two subjects: the ‘unity of the Three Teachings’(sanjiao heyi), which  is often described as most characteristic of the Chinese religious system; and Mulian drama or Mulianxi, which is the oldest and greatest Chinese ritual drama that has been staged for more than nine hundred years since its first recorded performance in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The first concern questions whether the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism) were syncretised into a unitary belief system in imperial China as literally suggested by this Chinese term, and the second questions whether Mulianxi is a syncretic product of the Three Teachings.

In this paper, I re-examine the conception of sanjiao heyi from a perspective of compartmentalism proposed by Timothy Brook (1993). I argue that sanjiao heyi is not a syncretic product but instead a compartmental process and that Mulianxi is not a syncretic product, either, but a perfect compartmental gestalt of the Three Teachings. My arguments are based on a critical review of imperial discourse on sanjiao heyi and also on a close analysis of Mulian Rescues His Mother: A Play Text Newly Compiled to Exhort Goodness (Xinbian Mulian jiumu quanshan xiwen), the oldest dated surviving text of Mulianxi that consists of a 104-scene play in three volumes written in the southern style of chuanqi (marvel drama) by the Ming dynasty playwright Zheng Zhizhen (1518-1595). 

Keywords: the Mulian drama, syncretism; compartmentalism; Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, the Unity of Three Teachings or sanjiao heyi

ZHAO Xiaohuan received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. He had taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland and Otago in New Zealand before joining the University of Sydney in Australia, where he is Associate Professor of Chinese Literary and Theatre Studies. He publishes extensively in the fields of Chinese literature, culture and theatre with a specialist focus on ritual, religion and theatre. His most recent book is Drama, Fiction and Folk Beliefs (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2018). He is now engaged in a Routledge book project on Chinese temple theatre.