Puppet gives the little soldier, Zhang Ga, new life
Almost every Chinese grows up knowing the story of a young boy named Zhang Ga, and his determination to become a soldier.
Xiao Bing Zhang Ga (Little Soldier Zhang Ga) is the title of a novel by Xu Guangyao, which was adapted into a popular movie in 1963. It has since been turned into another movie, a TV series and an animated feature film.
But few will have seen it as theatrical production featuring puppets and real actors.
The new version of Little Soldier Zhang Ga, directed by Liu Xiaoyi, the puppetry director of the Chinese version of the stage production of War Horse, and produced by Guo Yan, is touring the country, including shows on Sept 9 and 10 at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing.
“When the producer first asked me to make a show based on Zhang Ga in 2015, I was touring with War Horse, and frankly, I wasn’t very interested because the story of little soldier Zhang has been told many times already,” says Liu, who had been working with the Chinese-language version of War Horse, a China-UK theatrical collaboration, since 2013. “However, with the producer constantly asking me to do it, I thought maybe it would be a good LittleSoldierZhangGa idea to re-imagine the classic story with puppets.”
With a small-budget, Liu invited three actors from War Horse to join the project and he created the character of Zhang Ga using Papier-Mache.
“Papier-Mache is a fragile material. I didn’t want Zhang Ga to be like he is in the novel, a fearless hero. Instead, I want to display a real human being, who can be weak sometimes,” Liu says.
Liu felt his idea was justified after talking with the author of the book. Now 92, Xu Guangyao told Liu that he wanted Zhang Ga to be a brave soldier because he was not when he was in the army during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).
“The writer wanted the character to do things that he couldn’t do. But in our stage version, I wanted to convey the truth of his story,” Liu says.
Set in a beautiful and peaceful village in northern China, which is destroyed by war, the show has simple objects symbolizing the main characters other than Zhang Ga. For example, the character of Zhang Ga’s grandmother is presented through a balloon. When she is killed by Japanese soldiers, the director has one of the actors pop the balloon with a pair of scissors.
He also combines a variety of audio elements, from traditional Chinese opera to electronic sounds to suggest the characters’ movements and emotions, such as footsteps and anger.
“The production can be staged in any venue, from big theaters to an open space such as a square,” says the show’s producer, Guo, who also co-wrote the script. “The director, though in his early 30s, is a nineyear-old boy inside. I was overjoyed to see the familiar story told in this unique way and I believe it appeals to audiences from different countries.”
Guo, who graduated from the Central Academy of Drama and majored in directing, worked with pioneering Chinese theater director Tian Qinxin for years. In early 2017, Guo co-founded a company SACA to produce and promote children dramas. Although she has directed musicals and theatrical dramas, she admits Little Soldier Zhang Ga is her most ambitious project to date.
“I visited the Edinburgh International Festival on three consecutive occasions, but I didn’t see many stage productions from China in those years and I want to change that,” says Guo.
Her show has now been staged more 70 times since it premiered in 2016. In August that year, the production was staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the world’s largest arts festivals.
This September, it will be performed during the Russian Festival of Arts for Children and in October, it will be staged at the Southbank Center in London and the Children and Teenager Theater Festival in Sibiu, Romania.
I didn’t want Zhang Ga to be ... a fearless hero. Instead, I want to display a real human being.” Liu Xiaoyi, puppetry director
The new version of is touring the country, including shows on Sept 9 and 10 at Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing.