Pup­pet gives the lit­tle sol­dier, Zhang Ga, new life

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - ENTERTAINMENT - By CHEN NAN kui xiang

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.

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