Issue 9.6: December/January 2007

World Class

story by Helene West
photos courtesy Kennedy Theater

 

When Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak was a girl of eight, living in Wichita, Kansas, her father came home one day and announced he had accepted a diplomatic posting in Rangoon. Rangoon, Burma. The family moved halfway across the planet and into a magical world. And for Elizabeth, a child who “had been in love with performance, dance and theater since I can remember,” it was the beginning of a thrilling time. “It opened up my eyes to a whole world of performing arts,” she recalls. Elizabeth had studied ballet in Kansas since the age of three—though that, she confesses laughingly, had been imposed on her because she’d been born pigeon-toed. In Burma she righted her feet and dance became a passion—she performed with the Rangoon City Ballet and also became a protégé of the country’s leading traditional dance artists, the Po Sein family.

But the best was yet to come. After graduating from the University of Iowa with a double major in Chinese and theater, Wichmann-Walczak came to the Islands to become Professor James Brandon’s first graduate assistant in the University of Hawai‘i’s then-fledgling Asian Theatre Program. From Honolulu she traveled to China in 1979 to research a doctoral thesis on jingju, or Chinese opera. True to form, she went determined not only to study theory, but to perform.

She was a huge hit. “I was as famous in China as Michael Jackson was in America at that time,” she says of becoming the first non-Chinese to perform jingju in China. “I became the poster child for the renewal of a U.S.-China cultural exchange.” She was mobbed for autographs. Whenever she needed something from a government agency, agents would demand that she first sing for them.

“It was absolutely amazing,” she recalls. And helpful, too, she adds, because in those closed times, her studies were technically illegal under Chinese law, and she could have been arrested for espionage.

When she got back to UH, Elizabeth became a professor in the drama department and immediately began raising money to stage the world’s first-ever English-language jingju. It premiered in 1985, a groundbreaking production that went on to travel to Beijing and Shanghai—and to mark the emergence of the university’s Asian Theatre Program as one of the world’s best.


 

 

Today Elizabeth directs that theater program. It is acclaimed and unique, offering the only opportunity in the United States for students to lift the veil on art forms rarely studied in the West. Each year, students in the program get the chance to learn one of four different Asian theater forms, taking turns to produce and direct a fully staged production. Some years the productions will be “high art,” such as jingju or the equally elaborate Japanese kabuki. These productions require huge casts, gorgeous costumes, hours of makeup and, in some cases, headache-inducing headdresses. In alternate years the students learn simpler folk art forms: randai from Indonesia and kyogen from Japan. Randai takes the inspiration for its music and dance from a Sumatran form of government where everyone sits in a circle and seeks agreement on an issue; kyogen is comedic and features stock characters (the gullible peasant, the sly servant) in short playlets. The university’s next major production, a kyogen performance, will take place on campus at Kennedy Theatre from January 26 to February 4, 2007.

Elizabeth is not alone in her passion and reverence for Asian art; she is joined in the department by two other professors, both women, both equally adventurous: Kirstin Pauka and Julie Iezzi. For Kirstin, professor of South and Southeast Asian theater, the journey began when she was an undergraduate at the University of Giessen in Germany and she spotted a poster for UH. She won a grant to study in the Islands for two semesters—but that only whetted her appetite for more. After she graduated in Germany, she returned to UH and enrolled in the university’s doctoral program. She opted to study randai, which at that time was virtually unknown in the West. And just as Elizabeth has helped to popularize jingju, over the last decade Kirstin has played a pivotal role in bringing this colorful theater form to Western audiences.

Julie Iezzi discovered Japanese theater when she was a student in Tokyo, virtually penniless and working as an English-language teacher to finance her studies. It was her first time abroad and it taught her two things: that she hated teaching English and that she loved Japan and its language and music. She learned to play the shamisen, a three-stringed plucked instrument, and found herself drawn to Japanese theater music—its cinematic nature and the way it underscored mood and dialogue. Soon she began to be drawn toward performance, too, and she began studies that led to a Ph.D. in Japanese theater. She took work at a professional theater in Japan, writing guides to various dramatic forms, including kabuki. It gave her unlimited access to rehearsals and shows, an unusual opportunity for a foreigner—and one that allowed her to learn exactly how things were done. When Professor Brandon decided to retire, UH began looking for a replacement who would be able to mount kabuki productions—and the experience Julie had amassed during her five years in Japan made her an ideal candidate. She was hired in 2001.

 


 

 

Elizabeth, Kirstin and Julie are all committed to bringing their works to a wider audience. Elizabeth’s jingju productions have traveled to China several times now, and students have not only performed there, but also taken classes. Julie took her last kyogen production to libraries on Maui. Kirstin’s randai plays have been invited to tour, but government restrictions have prevented her from taking her students to Indonesia. Some students have been so enthused by randai productions however, that they have traveled to Sumatra independently and studied with masters there.

And the mountain has come to Mohammed, too: Master teachers from China, Japan and Indonesia have come to Hawai‘i to teach. It’s grueling work: daily voice and movement classes, individual coaching sessions and nightly rehearsals, all for up to eight months. But many students push themselves beyond the limits of what they thought they could do—and in the process learn unexpected lessons.

Kirstin gives an example from randai, the form inspired by the communal circle. All are equal in the circle, she says, and randai reflects this: “For randai to work, you have to get a circle of dancers to become one. It really is hours and hours of work to make them move together, breathe together, feel the music together and blend their energies together. It’s a magical moment when it clicks. It’s brilliant.” And the further benefit it offers the students, says Kirstin, is this: “They start appreciating other ways of governing, other ways of running a society.”

And then there is the pants-slapping. Randai costumes feature baggy cotton pants, and, Kirstin explains, “If you stretch the fabric wide enough at the right moment and hit it, it sounds like a drum.” As the students move they slap their pants, creating percussive patterns within the dance. “In my eyes it’s the coolest thing that Southeast Asian theater’s come up with,” she says. “And the students love it. They wear their pants everywhere. They go around singing and slapping their pants.” HH