Associate professor writes, directs new Chinese shadow figure play

Anna Taylor
Assistant Features Editor

Allie Douglass/The News

“Sanjie,” a Chinese Myth, written and directed by Lissa Graham-Schneider, associate professor of theater, and presented by the theater department, premieres tonight at the Robert E. Johnson Theatre.
The story is based on the real Chinese legend of Sanjie but whether she really existed or not depends on whom you talk to, Graham-Schneider said. She said most Chinese, however, claim she actually existed and they are her descendents.
“There is a legend in Southern China about a girl named Liu Shanhua who was a folk singer and a peasant girl,” Graham-Schneider said about the myth. “(She), depending upon the version of the story that you get because there are so many versions, basically gets into a battle of song with an evil land owner and defeats him and frees the people.”
Liu Shanhua actually means mountain flower but everyone calls her Sanjie, which means third sister.
The show is not the average theatrical performance. For one, the show is only 38 minutes long, but for good reason.
“The thing that makes this show unique is that it is all in shadow,” Graham-Schneider said.
Pi Ying Xi, or Shadow Figure Theater, is the genre of this performance. This means all of the actors are behind a large white screen and act through movement and dance. They do not reveal their faces or voice throughout any part of the show. All that is seen of them is their shadows.
“Right now (the show) is just pretty much black and white,” Graham-Schneider said. “It’s still visually interesting but I wouldn’t want it to be more than an hour.”
There are, however, figures, including an eight-foot tall dragon, seen throughout the short play on the stage. The narrator, played by Daryl Phillipy, assistant professor in the theater department, is the only visual actor.
The narrator not only tells the story, but he also creates music on stage during the show using a wind chime, drum and other small instruments.
“There are his instruments that he uses during the show,” Graham-Schneider said when demonstrating the stage set-up. “Those aren’t even all of them that he uses.”
The inspiration for writing the play hit close to home for Graham-Schneider. She said her 6-year-old daughter was the reason she wrote this show.
“(My daughter) is Zhuang, an ethnic minority, and that is what Liu Shanhua is,” she said. “That’s part of the reason I picked this story of Liu Shanhua is because it relates to my daughter’s ethnicity, which is one of the minorities in China.”
Graham-Schneider has been working on “Sanjie” for two years, she said. She is trying to travel the show and take it to schools in the area. She also wants to take it into competition at the South Eastern Theatre Conference, the largest theater conference in the country, Graham-Schneider said.
“Ultimately what I want to do is in May I would like to take this and have some international students and Chinese-American students and Asian-American students do something for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May,” she said.
The actors were cast in January. The audition process involved the actors telling a story 90 seconds or three minutes long with a partner with a beginning, middle and end that had a distinct character in it, Graham-Schneider explained.
“They had to come in with a piece of music and they had to tell me a story with a very distinct character type,” she said. “I literally took my glasses off and I couldn’t see their faces nor their expressions and I just watched their bodies.”
Because of severe weather and lack of funding, the cast did not get to perform the show last semester. This semester there are only two different cast members. One of the original actors graduated in May and the other actor who has been replaced is working on another project.
All of the rules and etiquette actors are taught for normal, 3-D plays is different in this 2-D show.
“You go from being a 3-D actor to being a 2-D image and your brain has to really wrap around that concept,” Graham-Schneider said. “(The actors) have kind of figured out how they have to change their acting style to become a 2-D figure.”
Rachel Sweeney, senior from Evansville, Ind., plays Nai Nai, the grandmother of Lui Shantua or Sanjie.
“The first couple of weeks of rehearsal was so funny because we kept trying to do normal theater things like we didn’t want to show our profiles,” Sweeney said. “But, it doesn’t matter because all they can see is your shadow so it’s like unlearning all of these things that you’ve been taught all of these years.”
This is Sweeney’s first time performing in this type of show and she said it is difficult doing shadow theater and adapting to the new acting style. She said the actors can see their own shadows and the shadows of the other actors when they are performing behind the white screen.
“It helps because we can see other people’s shadows so if we are like ‘oh we’re a little too close to them,’ we can back up,” Sweeney said. “Sometimes you get distracted watching your own shadow or watching someone else’s shadow so you have to keep your mind in what’s happening now.”
The actors behind the screen do not have to worry about wearing costumes because they go unseen. They are dressed in tight dance attire so their shadows can be seen clearly.
“We wear black dance pants and black tank tops, even the guys,” Sweeney said. “(We do this to) minimize the appearance of bulky clothes.”
The villain does have a part where he wears a vest so that his character can be easily identified, Sweeney said.
At one point in the show, the actors create a cow with their bodies and movement. This process took three days to perfect, Graham-Schneider said.
“I think it’s really cool just how you see this shadow and then all of a sudden it just breaks into people,” Sweeney said. “I think that’s really going to throw the audience for a loop because they will be looking at this cow and then you see actual human figures.”
Although the show only lasts 38 minutes, there is a beginning, middle and an end.
“It’s how you tell the tale that makes (Pi Ying Xi) tales special,” Graham-Schneider said. “This is about how we tell this story and how we’ve told this story is we’ve done it all through shadow, which makes it unique and different.”
“Sanjie” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.  For reservations or more information call (270) 809-4421.

“Sanjie” showtimes

• 7:30  p.m. today and Saturday
• 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission costs: $8 for general admission
$6 for faculty/staff
Free for students
with valid Racercard


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1 Comment on "Associate professor writes, directs new Chinese shadow figure play"

  1. I knew about Sanjie, but don't think I'd read this. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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