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Foundations of globalisation: Durham University archaeologists enter groundbreaking partnership with China in Beijing’s Forbidden City

In this latest Guest Blog, Jack Smith from Research Councils UK China Office, talks about a phenomenal partnership that resulted in ‘outsiders’ being allowed to work within the walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

In May of 2017 a small delegation of archaeologists from the renowned Department of Archaeology at Durham University travelled to Beijing in order to begin a new collaboration with the staff of the prestigious Archaeology Institute of the Palace Museum. Their excitement was palpable, as they formed the first foreign team of archaeologists granted permission to undertake excavation within the walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

The Durham and Palace Museum team discussing the stratigraphy of the excavations. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith, RCUK China)

The Durham and Palace Museum team discussing the stratigraphy of the excavations. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith, RCUK China)

The exploratory project brings together the different skills and disciplines to form a complex collaboration designed to forge a robust academic partnership, to develop both institutions’ methodologies, and, ultimately, facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the ancient networks that connected East and West and laid the foundations for modern-day globalisation.

One major focus of the project is to compare excavation technology and methodology. When archaeologists are working in the grounds of China’s most prestigious historical monument and one of the world’s most-visited World Heritage Sites, the stakes are particularly high. Modern archaeological excavation is a complex, highly scientific operation that demands a broad range of skills and expertise from its practitioners. A good understanding of sediments, stratigraphy, construction techniques and post-depositional processes are essential, and exhaustive on-site documentation is needed in order to establish a coherent record for each site. Equally important is the ability for teams to work closely together, sharing information and expertise to hone their skills even as they dig.

View of a reconstructed medieval 'dragon kiln' in the Longquan area visited by the team. (Photo courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

View of a reconstructed medieval ‘dragon kiln’ in the Longquan area visited by the team. (Photo courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

By working together in the Courtyard of Benevolent Tranquility, a part of the palace reserved for empresses, empress dowagers and highly-ranked concubines, both sides were able to compare excavation techniques and to learn from one another while also making sure that the evidence produced by each team is compatible and comparable.

The Durham and Palace Museum team beside one of the excavations outside the Courtyard of Benevolent Tranquillity. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

The Durham and Palace Museum team beside one of the excavations outside the Courtyard of Benevolent Tranquillity. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Smith RCUK China)

A second focus of the collaboration is to further contemporary understanding of the development of the Forbidden City from its roots as a Yuan period (1279-1368) palace through its development into the centre of Chinese imperial power during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods, until its abandonment following the abdication of China’s last emperor. It is already clear from the work completed that the Forbidden City was never a static monument – it was constantly being reformed, re-built and re-conceived.

For example, just within the area explored by the Durham-Palace Museum collaboration, it has emerged that a monumental Buddhist temple later appears to have been turned over to kitchen-garden food production and storage. This sort of information on the daily realities of this palace, which was, in its 15th/16th century heyday, one of the centres of world power, is information that only archaeology can provide because historical records almost never record such details – details which give key insights into the way an institution such as the Forbidden City actually worked.

A third element is the study of trade and economic links between China and the Middle East/Mediterranean and Europe during the later Middle Ages. The 13th/14th centuries were a time when the volume of maritime exchange and commerce appears to have increased markedly across Eurasia – bringing the whole of the Old World more closely together. Numerous commodities were exchanged in the Indian Ocean at this time, including spices, incense, silk and other textiles, gold, ivory, timber and slaves.

A key commodity was Chinese ceramics – the famous stonewares and porcelain that led the world in terms of quality, artistry and durability for millennia and were prized by the wealthy across the world because of their cost and high status. Ceramics are equally prized by modern archaeologists because, unlike many other widely traded commodities, they are easily broken and regularly thrown away – thus entering the archaeological record in large numbers. Their durability ensures the fragments endure in the archaeological record for hundreds of years, unlike organic commodities such as silk and spices. Researchers can then use them as a trail of breadcrumbs to minutely trace the routes and networks travelled by medieval merchants.

The Durham/Beijing team therefore has matched experts in medieval trade in the Gulf and Arabian Sea with specialists from the Palace Museum who are world authorities on the production and classification of Chinese ceramics, able to trace even tiny fragments to the Chinese kilns they were originally fired in.

The underlying research aim of this part of the project is to use unique evidence to investigate what might be termed ‘proto-globalisation’. Through archaeological surveys it is possible to measure the economic effect that maritime trade had on the coastal emporia and their hinterlands and also to understand how the kiln sites in China that were responsible for producing the ceramics stimulated development in their own regions. A key intention is to understand to what degree global trade stimulated economic development at both ends of the trade route.

Is it possible to trace the emergence of parallel and inter-dependent economic development across such a wide area at such an early period? Through partnerships between leading experts on both ends of the Silk Road, we can further our understanding of the complex networks that allowed people, goods and ideas to move between East and West since ancient times.

Development through the Creative Economy in China, the latest Newton Funding call for Joint UK-China research projects is now open. Closing date 26th April 2018.

For more information please visit the website , telephone 01793 416000 or email


Beijing, Forbidden City

Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915). Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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Born and Raised in Hawai‘i

Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915). Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In our latest Blog Post, Tom Smith, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Placement Scheme Fellow from the University of Cambridge, talks all things Emerson.  The post was completed during Tom’s time at the Huntington Library, whilst undertaking an AHRC Funded Placement.  Details of the 2018 Scheme can be found on the website, and the closing date is 25th January 2018. Tom is one of a number of fellows that have written Blogs, and many can be found within the pages of the Research beyond the Borders Blog by clicking on “International Placement Scheme” within “On this Blog”.


Click on “International Placement Scheme” within ‘On this Blog’

One of the greatest joys for historians doing archival research is the opportunity to become lost in someone else’s world. I had this experience during my recent fellowship at The Huntington as I delved into the papers of Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915), a physician, ethnologist, and author of several books on Hawaiian mythology.

I’d suspected Emerson would be a figure of interest in my research into the religious dimensions of American empire building in the Pacific Ocean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What I didn’t anticipate was how the richness of his personal papers would draw me in. As I got to know Emerson, I saw a complex figure emerge whose published works did not appear to fully represent the thoughts of the man himself. This complexity suggested something broader about the uncertainties of American engagement with the Pacific in this period.

Emerson was born in Waialua on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to Ursula Emerson and the Reverend John S. Emerson, who arrived from the United States as missionaries in 1832. Educated first at Punahou, the school for mission children in Honolulu, Nathaniel then studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and trained as a medic at Harvard and in New York. He returned to Hawai‘i in 1878, ultimately taking up the presidency of the Hawaiian Board of Health.

Title page of Emerson’s book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula, published by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1909. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Despite his medical expertise, Emerson’s greatest passion was for the Hawaiian past, and he pursued this interest with vigour from the end of his tenure at the Board of Health in 1890 until his death. In particular, he was a keen collector of Hawaiian folklore, asserting the need to gather and commit to paper fragments of oral tradition before the onslaught of “civilization” transformed Hawai‘i beyond recognition. Emerson published three major works on the subject of Hawaiian tradition, beginning with a translation of Hawaiian historian David Malo’s work in 1898, released under the title Hawaiian Antiquities. Next came Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula in 1909, followed by Pele and Hiiaka: A Myth from Hawaii shortly before his death in 1915.

Through his ethnological studies of the Hawaiian people, Emerson was able to enhance his reputation as a man of science. In particular, Unwritten Literature of Hawaii was picked up and published by the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, leading one reviewer in the New York Daily Tribune to proclaim that Emerson’s conclusions were “asserted on the authority of Uncle Sam himself.” Emerson’s books suggested that he was dispassionately to add to the sum of the world’s knowledge about indigenous peoples. But what struck me as I pored over his unpublished essays, literary work, and correspondence was that in private he appeared to understand Hawaiian tradition in rather more poetic terms.

Detail of an article about Emerson’s book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii in the New York Daily Tribune, Sunday, Jan. 23, 1910. 

Image courtesy of  The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens  The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I got the sense that Emerson felt somewhat alienated from modern American life and was looking for an outlet through which he might express his sense of connection to the natural beauty of the land of his birth. He disdained urban life, prudish and inflexible moral codes, and the ignorance of Americans regarding Hawai‘i, even claiming that “I have been ready at times to exclaim with Wordsworth: ‘Great God! I’d rather be a pagan.’” He meanwhile celebrated Hawaiian tales as being “saturated with the salt air of the Great Ocean,” “redolent of perfumed mountains and rustling palms,” and “reminiscent of the glory and awe of volcanic mysteries.” Emerson’s private ambition to be a short-story writer failed to bear fruit, but he identified in Hawaiian tradition a source for the words which he could not find. He styled himself as mediator between Hawaiians’ responses to the landscape around them and the written word.

Given Emerson’s obvious romanticism, it is interesting that his conclusions should end up being accepted as scientifically authoritative. His insistence on the primarily poetic, literary nature of Hawaiian tradition obscured insights into the ways in which Hawaiians understood their island world. For them, traditional accounts were profoundly connected to the narration of Hawaiian history and had ongoing resonance in contemporary politics and society.

By denying the relevance of Hawaiian lore as a historical source, Emerson partook in the efforts of his fellow mission children and grandchildren to undermine the indigenous population and to lay their own claims to dominance. This position would become most visibly expressed by the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the annexation of the islands to the United States in 1898.

Emerson and other mission descendants also shared an uncertain identity, caught between Hawaiian birth and American “civilization.” The fact that these architects of American empire in Hawai‘i experienced such uncertainties suggests to me that the foundations of American empire in the Pacific were often shaky. In the end, it made me wonder if we should understand American imperialism as something other than all-powerful or inevitable.

A page of Emerson’s unpublished and undated essay “General Remarks on Translation.”           Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.  

Tom Smith is an AHRC Funded PhD Student, based at the University of Cambridge.  Tom wrote this Blog, whilst based at the Huntington Library, as part of the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme.  This text and allied images appear courtesy of and with gracious thanks to Kevin Durkin, Editor of Verso.

The post originally appeared in Verso, the blog of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Collections, and the original post can be viewed here:

The International Placement Scheme opens the door to research, and new experiences. 2018 Applications open until January 25th 2018.

For queries regarding applications for this year’s scheme, please contact Ian Howard at AHRC or telephone +441793 416095

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The Sound Of Musicals in China

The cast of Broadway Asia’s 2016 production of Jay Chou’s “The Secret.” (Photo by Wang Xiaojing)

In this latest Guest Blog, Laura MacDonald, an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded International Placement Scheme Fellow asks “Japan and Korea have embraced and nurtured Western-style musicals. Can China be far behind?”

The blog post originally appeared in American Theatre and our sincere thanks is given to them for their kind permission to republish.

After a brief out-of-town tryout near Shanghai, the cast, crew, and creative team of the new Chinese jukebox musical The Secret journeyed north to Beijing for opening night last Dec. 23. It was a bad time to travel, as “airpocalypse”—the worst air pollution of 2016—circled the capital city, grounding hundreds of flights. With restrictions on vehicles based on license plate numbers (to reduce road traffic), trucks carrying the physical production of The Secret had to be directed to the outskirts of Beijing, then unloaded and reloaded into vehicles with the right-numbered license plates for the day, before finally arriving at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center.

Strolling through the Temple of Heaven park opposite the thea­tre the day before opening night, Marc Acito, the show’s librettist, recalled some of the challenges of bringing a new musical from a January table read to a December opening night in a country still in the early stages of adopting such Western musical theatre staples as workshops and previews.

Working initially with Google Translate for the lyrics, Acito wove Taiwanese singer/songwriter Jay Chou’s songs into the loosely adapted narrative of the 2007 film of the same name, which Chou co-wrote, directed, and starred in. Interpolating Chou’s hit song “Nunchucks,” Acito struggled to understand the lyric dong ya bing fu, a derogatory Japanese label for Chinese people that roughly translates as “sick man of East Asia.”

“We’ve already decided we’re going to use this martial-arts song as sort of a war cry during a rugby game,” Acito explained. Working with a translator to unpack the reference, he learned that it appears in the famous scene from the classic movie Fist of Fury in which Bruce Lee smashes a board with the insulting phrase on it; Acito realized that Chou was setting out to name and break this stereotype of national weakness. “So invoking this phrase invokes both the history of being perceived to be weak and the reclamation of strength,” Acito said, marvelling, “and it is one lyric.”

The Secret is a high school romance about gifted music students with a bit of time travel thrown in—Fame meets Back to the Future. At the table read in January at a studio in Shanghai, Acito and director John Rando agreed on Chou’s song “Dream Started” for the musical’s final graduation scene. It’s a song about seizing opportunities, smiling through setbacks, and persevering to achieve one’s dreams—in other words, themes and emotions familiar from Western musical theatre.

“This is very different from what the film was,” said Rando, who directs frequently on Broadway and at U.S. resident theatres. “One of our goals was to create a very uplifting and moving finale to the story that I thought would be much more appropriate for the musical theatre version of the romance.

“Spring Awakening” at Shanghai Culture Square in 2016. (Photo by Shadow Zheng and reproduced with kind permission)

Rando could be describing musical theatre in China in 2017. It’s a forward-looking industry, with a young—albeit not huge—audience that has fallen head over heels for the form. This enthusiasm went a long way when The Secret was work-shopped in April 2016 in Shanghai, in studios above the Daning Theatre, where an English-language tour of My Fair Lady was running. While Rando and choreographer Zach Woodlee, fresh from “Grease: Live!,” worked out the staging of a dramatic ensemble number, Acito quietly typed Chou’s lyrics in Pinyin (the romanization of Chinese characters) into his libretto, so he could understand, down to the last syllable, how Chou’s Chinese lyrics and his own dialogue (translated from English), were landing in rehearsal. With a Chinese counterpart for each Broadway veteran, conversations were flying back and forth in Mandarin and English. Wencong Chen, Rando’s assistant director, felt this doubling up helped “the musical to connect to the locals and also make it feel like it’s not a translated work.”

In promoting the musical to Chinese audiences, the show’s American producer, Marc Routh, said that they are trying “to explain to audiences that this is a unique opportunity to experience a homegrown musical with the craft and experience of a truly A-list Broadway creative team.” Conceiving, developing, and producing an original Chinese jukebox musical may have been the logical next step for Routh, co-executive producer (with Simone Genatt) of Broadway Asia. Routh has watched the progress of musical theatre in China for more than 20 years, while licensing American musicals in Asia and presenting English-language tours of titles such as The Sound of Music. In a long courtship process, he pitched treatments of Chou’s catalogue to the pop star’s manager before lining up a commitment to adapt The Secret. It was then that he recruited Acito.

Many Chinese people keen to enter the musical theatre business acknowledge that the form is still relatively new here. Despite a supply of talented and well-trained performers, there is not yet a wealth of Chinese artists versed in writing, directing, or designing for Western-styled musical theatre. Assistant director Chen, who also worked on Sleep No More  in Shanghai, thinks that collaboration with foreigners is what Chinese musical theatre needs to become more commercially and artistically successful.

“Especially for the creative talents, it takes time to grow and mature,” said Chen. “There still needs to be some more international collaboration to find talents across the globe and then to train the Chinese counterpart, and hone their skills.”

To further that cross-cultural education, Richard Fei, programming director of Shanghai Culture Square —a 2,000-seat theatre on the site of a former greyhound racetrack popular with Westerners in the 1920s and 1930s—has been programming a musical theatre development symposium every spring since 2014. Inviting experts from Europe, North America, and more established musical theatre industries in nearby Japan and South Korea, Fei programs seminars on topics such as producing, casting, marketing, and ticketing musical theatre. He also programs showcases of new musical theatre, seeking to stimulate the industry’s progress as much as possible.

Fei started out in the business at Shanghai Grand Theatre , translating and operating the subtitles for tours of CatsPhantomThe Lion KingMamma Mia!HairsprayHigh School Musical, and The Sound of Music before taking on his current position. Those touring productions gradually enjoyed longer runs in Shanghai and had a major impact on developing the audience now attending foreign tours at Shanghai Culture Square, where upcoming productions include GhostWickedSister ActLegally BlondeWest Side Story, and The Producers. Fei also produces one local production per season.

“This theatre is for the young generation,” he explained. That may explain why, in 2016, Shanghai Culture Square produced Spring Awakening, already popular with amateur student musical theatre groups. In 2017, Shanghai Culture Square will produce the Mandarin-language premiere of a Korean musical, My Bucket List, adapted from the 2007 Rob Reiner film The Bucket List. The musical version, which recasts characters created by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as young men, was part of a road show of Korean musicals promoted last year during the Shanghai Performing Arts Fair.

Fei also brings in British, American, and French musical theatre stars in revue shows, and collaborates with foreign producers such as Austria’s Vereinigte Bühnen Wien to bring original productions of globally successful musicals including Elisabeth and Mozart! to China, where they are performed in German with Mandarin subtitles.

Decades after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms reoriented communist China as a market economy, musicals—with their typically aspirational narratives—may seem a natural fit for a society that has increasingly embraced capitalism. Though foreign brand names punctuate Chinese cityscapes, the screening of foreign films is highly limited by government quotas, perhaps giving live foreign musicals an edge for Chinese consumers seeking a foreign cultural experience. With ample examples of successfully imported foreign musicals being regularly (and profitably) performed in neighboring Japan and South Korea, it is no surprise that savvy Chinese producers would seek to establish a musical theatre market in China, home of the world’s largest middle class.

Since George C. White, founder of Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, directed a Chinese cast in The Music Man in Beijing in 1987, the Western musical has been popularized in China through productions of classics such as Man of La Mancha (first in English, later translated into Mandarin), but also through productions of more contemporary shows, like a replica staging of Mamma Mia! in 2011 and a localized production of Avenue Q in 2013. While Chinese producers, actors, and fans regularly travel to sample the wares in nearby Japan and South Korea, original Korean musicals are also being presented in China. The long-running Korean musical Laundry, about working-class neighbors pursuing their dreams in Seoul, was presented in Beijing with Chinese subtitles in 2016, and will be produced in Mandarin this year. From its Shanghai office, the Korean producer CJ E&M is also testing out Korean production models in China. These range from producing Stephen Dolginoff’s edgy, small-scale 2005 Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me to bringing a large-scale, star-vehicle Jekyll & Hyde from Korea, translated into Mandarin and directed by David Swan, an American.

If many of these musicals are still directed by foreigners, producers are increasingly coming from local ranks. Ivy Yang, who learned about musical theatre at Peking University, was working as a venture capital analyst in Tokyo, and noticed that musical thea­tre tickets were on sale in convenience stores. Recognizing an opportunity to develop the market at home in China, she returned in 2011 and reconnected with a director she met at Peking University, Joseph Graves, eventually forming the production company Seven Ages with her own savings.

Their first show was to be Man of La Mancha, which had been a hit in Japan and Korea. But when Music Theatre International asked for a license fee Yang could not afford, she flew to New York to personally persuade the musical’s composer, Mitch Leigh, to give them the license at a much reduced rate. Yang went on to produce Man of La Mancha in 2012 in English with Mandarin subtitles, then in translation. Avenue Q followed, with many tweaks in the script helping young Chinese spectators relate to Princeton (renamed Tsinghua, after the Beijing university) as he struggles to find a job after graduation. Graves also directed Seven Ages’ productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Sound of Music.

Chinese musical theatre is dominated by women like Yang, educated at elite Chinese universities, often studying abroad for a period (in her case, at Harvard), and initially working in banking or finance. While Yang’s employees in Seven Ages’ Shanghai and Beijing offices are clearly inspired by their boss, she hesitates to call herself a role model.

“Women hold up half the sky,” she points out, citing a famous pronouncement of Chairman Mao, and suggesting that it’s simply in the nature of Chinese women to work hard. With little initial funding, Yang has relied heavily on social media platforms to market her musicals and sell tickets. Julia Yuan, the company’s marketing director, started her career as an attorney but eventually quit law to work for Seven Ages, running its new media platforms, including Douban, Weibo, and WeChat, as the company prepared the Chinese premiere of Avenue Q. Like many working in musical theatre in China, Yuan doesn’t come from a theatre background, but she’s long been a passionate fan. Her primary task: to educate potential  ticket buyers on what musicals are exactly, and how they’re different from traditional Chinese opera and spoken drama.

To achieve this marketing goal, Yuan posts synopses and production histories on social media platforms, generating enthusiasm among musical theatre fans, whose positive comments are crucial to buzz around Seven Ages musicals. Seeking to connect musicals with other pop culture entering the Chinese market, Yuan has written articles and produced lighthearted videos about stars of Marvel films who also appear in plays and musicals, and has begun to attend Comic Con gatherings in Shanghai and Beijing, hawking pins and T-shirts emblazoned with the Avenue Q song title “If You Were Gay.” Seven Ages also collaborated with a Chinese LGBTQ group, promoting Avenue Q on its WeChat and Weibo accounts. Given the musical’s central theme of post-college aimlessness, Seven Ages also reached out to Chinese college musical theatre clubs, offering lectures and previewing some of the work that went into Avenue Q. As a result, that show is now among the most popular with Chinese student musical clubs.

Social media isn’t just good for marketing—it’s also how actors find out about auditions, often via a group chat on WeChat. The small, close-knit Chinese musical thea­tre industry is divided between the capital Beijing and the cosmopolitan finance center, Shanghai, requiring actors to shuttle between the cities for auditions and rehearsals.

Jenny Ding graduated from the musical theatre program at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and was quickly cast in the Chinese company of Mamma Mia!. She went on to appear in Cats in Korea and Miss Saigon in London. Rather than waste time off between jobs, last year she opened a suburban dance studio in Shanghai, where she teaches ballet. Even on the Dragon Boat Festival public holiday, Ding was at work, in case anyone found her dance studio via reviews on the social networking site Douban and wanted to tour the facilities.

Ding starred as Wendla in Spring Awakening last fall at Shanghai Culture Square and was due to play Lucy in the upcoming Jekyll and Hyde, but left that production before rehearsals began to play Nala in The Lion King, now entering its second year at the Walt Disney Grand Theatre at Shanghai Disneyland. “Every time I audition for a European or American director, they choose me as the first leading female, but if I audition for an original Chinese musical, I never get the job,” Ding said of her casting fortunes. A charming actor who radiates joy in performance, it’s easy to see how Ding appeals to directors and audiences. But in a young industry still experimenting with longer, even open-ended runs, her experience performing eight shows a week in Korea and London sets her apart from performers with less stamina and experience.

For now, even many Chinese musical theatre fans remain skeptical of homegrown efforts. Said Yuan, “Some Chinese artists, they think they can do musicals, and they try…” she trailed off. Wencong Chen concurred, explaining, “I think a lot of musicals right now in China—they write the script and write the music all separately, then create the choreography, then bring the actors together at the end, when all is created.” This can lead to storytelling redundancy, as each element may end up repeating points that have already been made, rather than integrating elements into a forward-moving whole. But while Broadway-style integrated musical theatre storytelling takes time, in China, Routh pointed out, relatively quick fundraising means projects also move quickly. The Secret has been completed in about a year.

Michael Rubinoff, producer of the Canadian Music Theatre Project that incubated Broadway’s Come From Away, is also contributing to the development of a new musical in China called Bethune. He’s recruited Canadian writers Neil Bartram, who will write music and English lyrics, and Brian Hill, who will pen the English book and direct, as well as Chinese playwright Nick Rongjun Yu, who will write the Mandarin lyrics and book. The musical is inspired by the life of Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who helped bring Western medicine to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. “The team is collaborating to create a more Mandarin version to be presented in Shanghai, and a more English version to be presented in Canada,” Rubinoff explains. The first workshop will take place at the Canadian Music Theatre Project in September, followed by a workshop at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts ­Centre in May 2018, and a Chinese premiere in Shanghai in 2019.

Back in Shanghai in December, university students wrapped up amateur mountings of Mamma Mia! and Legally Blonde. The Leopold-and-Loeb-inspired Thrill Me was in its second run, having enjoyed a successful premiere in the summer of 2016. Across town, The Sound of Music was struggling to fill the 1,000-seat People’s Theatre, and there were technical glitches: The venue’s limited technical facilities and slow cuing meant drops representing the Alps or Nonnberg Abbey had to be raised and lowered mid-song to ensure they were in place in time for subsequent scenes. Bracing for another touring season, the production also had a banner prominently displayed in the lobby to recruit additional von Trapp children. Stage moms are few and far between in family-focused, academically minded China, making for an added challenge in casting and maintaining a full complement of von Trapp types. For their part, Chinese children and their parents have shown more interest in another Austrian import, as they’ve flocked to the musical Mozart!, performed in German with Mandarin subtitles at Shanghai Culture Square.

Despite these challenges—from air pollution to imperfect venues, from linguistic and casting hurdles to inconsistent audiences—Chinese musical theatre producers, performers, and spectators remain bullish on this popular Western form’s future in China. The potential is there: Institutions such as the Beijing Dance Academy and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music are training triple-threat performers, and new venues are under construction, such as the five-theatre Dream Center in Shanghai. The private equity fund China Media Capital is backing this building project, as well as producers like Seven Ages, and they’re also investing in Broadway imports like Something Rotten! through Kevin McCollum’s Broadway Global Ventures. And this spring AC Orange International, a Chinese entertainment company that has also invested in such Broadway musicals as Waitress and Sunset Boulevard, will present 85 performances throughout China of a touring production of Wicked.

These Western tours, of course, only raise audience expectations for the quality of Chinese-authored musicals. But Wencong Chen seems confident that with enough time, Chinese producers and artists can unlock this form in a new way. “There’s a lot of hot money coming to the market,” he said. “I think we just need to have some more patience to create small-scale, medium-scale, and large-scale musicals.”

Laura MacDonald is a senior lecturer in musical theatre at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.  Information on the AHRC International Placement Scheme for 2018 is available on the website , which also contains details of regional events.  This years scheme closes for applications on 25th January 2018.

A version of this story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of American Theatre.

The Seven Ages staging of “Avenue Q,” which opened in 2013 and continues to tour. (Photo by Sun Yuqian)

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Funding call: Heritage in Changing Environments

The new JPI CH funding call ‘Heritage in Changing Environments’ is now open and full guidance is available on the JPICH website.

town-2430571_1280The call is designed to support the development of new, research-based ideas and knowledge in response to the rapidly and widely changing context with which heritage and heritage practice is faced. It invites research projects that help cultural heritage to meet societal challenges and contribute to the development of society.

Three broad categories of the changing environments of heritage are addressed in this call: changing (physical) environments; changing social and economic environments; and changing political and cultural environments. Projects funded through this call will use cultural heritage to address global challenges such as the impacts of climate change, environmental deterioration, migration, demographic and social change, and diasporic change, urbanisation and de-ruralisation, economic inequity, changing perceptions and sustainability.

The main eligibility criteria are:

  • Duration of projects: up to 36 months
  • Each project proposal must comprise of at least three research teams, each based in an eligible institution in a different country participating in the Changing Environments Call. The maximum number of research teams in a project proposal is five
  • Applications must be in accordance with the eligibility requirements relevant for the national research teams in the transnational research consortia and not exceed the maximum budgets to be requested therein.

All proposals are to be submitted through the JPICH website. The deadline for submitting proposals is 30 November 2017, 14:00 CEST.

Contacts: Dr Claire Pascolini-Campbell

Mrs Karen Buchanan


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Cultural Heritage and Rapid Urbanisation in India


The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) are pleased to announce a joint call for research proposals addressing the theme of ‘Cultural Heritage and Rapid Urbanisation in India’.  This call closes on 7th December.

Funding of up to £200,000 per project for UK applicants is available on a full economic cost (fEC) basis with AHRC meeting 80% of the fEC. Matched resources are available from ICHR for Indian applicants. Proposals should have a maximum duration of 24 months and will be expected to start on 14th February 2018.

The aim of this call is to allow researchers in the UK and India to collaborate on joint research projects which will address critical issues concerning cultural heritage, history and urbanisation in India, including those key challenges that emerged from the workshop. It is expected that projects funded under this call will explore how historical experiences of urbanisation can inform contemporary issues and policy and also examine the role that heritage can play in sustainable economic growth and social cohesion.

Further information, including details of how to apply, can be found on the website.

Queries may be directed to or telephone 01793 416060.

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Newton RCUK-Colciencias Research Partnerships Call 2017

Newton RCUK-Colciencias Research Partnerships Call 2017

Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation of Colombia (Colciencias) are pleased to invite applications to the Newton RCUK-Colciencias Research Partnerships Call 2017.  This Call closes for applications on 30th November 2017.

This initiative will provide funding for internationally competitive, transformative and high-quality collaborative research projects which address a broad range of areas related to post-conflict transitions in Colombia under three main themes:  participation and inclusion, working towards reconciliation, and education for peacebuilding.

This call aims to bring together researchers from Colombia and the UK, as well as civil society practitioners and public sector stakeholders in order to allow the pursuit of shared research interests. Research proposals should be focused on research that will benefit the Colombian nation in general and at least one of the 170 municipalities targeted under the Development Programs with a Regional Focus (PDET) in particular. More information can be found here (only in Spanish).

Details of how to apply and contact details for queries may be found on the website

Enquiries may also be directed to or by telephoning 01793 416000.

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Horizon 2020 Research Infrastructures Information Days – London and Newcastle

Horizon 2020 Research Infrastructures Information Days – London and Newcastle

Events have been organised in London and Newcastle to publicise upcoming opportunities in the Research Infrastructures (RIs) Work Programme 2018–20. Both meetings will provide an overview of Research Infrastructures Work Programme RTD and e-infrastructure calls, outline a recent success story that demonstrates how to put together a winning proposal, give an overview of services offered by the UK Research Office and include a presentation from Katie Ward (UK National Contact Point) covering the call timetable.

For more information see the H2020 website:

Tuesday 14 November, The Natural History Museum, London

Wednesday 22 November, The University of Newcastle

For more information, please contact Thomas Gray, Portfolio Manager on 01793 416039.