Music lovers close
their eyes to savor a performance, which seems to make the melody
and charm linger. But if all the actors on stage had their eyes closed
during a performance how would that affect the audience? In fact,
there is a troupe in Tianjin, China, where most of the actors perform
with their eyes closed. The majority of them are blind, but their
staged crosstalk is meticulously choreographed and provokes
as much laughter as a comedic performance by a troupe anywhere.
What will we talk about next time? an actor teased before
one show even ended, trying to get a feel for a subject matter that
might interest the audience. I wont tell you! his
fellow actor teased, causing the audience to roar with laughter. This
comedian, flute player and singer is the celebrity, Mao Di, who established
the A Place of Hearing and Smiling Crosstalk, the first of its kind
in China to be organized by actors who are blind.
When that nights performance started, the sounds of Mao Dis
melodious and joyful flute quieted the rowdy crowd. Like a forest
of singing birds, the sounds emanating from the instrument were at
times gentle and at times sonorous. As each song ended, the whole
theater burst into applause.
Before the hostess could even get on stage, Mao, wearing a long silver
Chinese gown, had already revealed the theme of the crosstalk.
An Early Start
"I was born in 1981. When I was two years old, I held a bamboo
skewer in my hand while roaming the streets. Walking carelessly, I
fell and the bamboo skewer went into my eye. Later, due to cross infection,
I lost the ability to see through my other eye. Mao habitually
explains this childhood incident as if putting on a crosstalk performance.
It already seems like a very distant event to him. Even though he
cannot physically see, the audience takes in his handsome face.
A few years after he lost his sight, Mao enrolled in Tianjins
School for the Blind. At the age where everyone was out playing games,
he was interested in playing the flute, which, you might say, became
his favorite toy.
At 10 years old, he was putting on performances that were quite popular.
The Chinese Blind Persons Association tried its best to make sure
this talented young man received a formal college education, writing
numerous recommendation letters on his behalf to Chinas Music
Conservatory. But the school had never educated a student who is blind,
and felt that it did not have the facilities to fulfill his academic
and personal needs, while guaranteeing his safety.
Mao felt so passionate about attending the conservatory that he went
to the schools administrators and shared with them his desire
to study there. Blind people do not have a set of good, bright
eyes, but they have a good heart, he reminded them. I
hope that society can identify with individuals with this type of
disability. The school was moved by his sincerity, made an exception
and let him enroll. Even then they only let him audit classes.
Mao was satisfied with the opportunity, and was their most diligent
student. When he couldnt read music scores, he recorded them
and listened to them over and over again. During his four years there,
he translated two large boxes of music materials for himself,
which gained him the admiration of every teacher at the conservatory.
The teachers could not understand Braille, so they had to use
the question-and-answer method to test me on the materials,
he recalls. According to my teachers, my answers were as good
as any other students if not better. It was not until
Maos senior year that he was accorded formal student status.
In 2004, he took part in the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games
in Athens, Greece. In 2008, through the recommendation of the China
Disabled Art Troupe, he was fortunate enough to attend the Beijing
Paralympics' closing ceremony. There he played a song called "Gain,"
which was well received by more than 100,000 spectators. The media
gave it a positive review, as well, saying that it deserved a gold
medal for best art performance outside the formal Olympic events.
He also recorded a number of songs, including The Sound of Bamboo,
Ink Style Love and Flute Language and Love. The public enjoyed the
music, and some even said that when they heard it, they felt closer
to the sun.
Village Folk Artists Crosstalk
After he graduated college, Mao became a member of Chinas Disabled
Peoples Art Troupe, which allowed him to focus on folk music.
But he also had a dream to perform at crosstalks.
A classmate of mine, Mu Chengpeng once said to me, Since
you like crosstalks so much, why dont we create a group?
Mu Chengpeng is a good clapper talk performer, says Mao. He and his
family opened a massage parlor. When they have down time, Mu likes
to clapper talk. His 4-year-old daughter, Mu Dejia, also enjoys it,
and started to perform it at the age of three. She has already written
some of her own clapper talk scripts. On stage, she is calm and composed
with the poise of a grown up.
Mu liked Maos idea for a crosstalking heart, which encouraged
Mao. At the time, they had just coincided with another wave of demand
for teahouse crosstalk performers. Yet another of them, lead by Guo
Degang, had already succeeded. Mao really wanted to use this opportunity
to make his dream career come true. But, the obstacles he could face
made him think twice about his decision. A blind crosstalker, was
that possible? Would anybody come to his performances?
Yet his dream was slowly coming true, despite all the obstacles. Mao
put his heart into creating a blind crosstalk society. He had a few
goals he wanted to achieve, and he spread the word: We are disabled
artists who want more people to see our artistic talents. We want
to change how able-bodied people view us, and also to earn a living
so we can support ourselves. Performing crosstalks is something we
It took over a year before the blind peoples crosstalk society
was launched. A Place of Hearing and Smiling Crosstalk was finally
established in 2010. Wen, means hearing, xiao means smiling.
We hope that our audiences will smile when hearing our crosstalk,
Mao says. This is what Wen Xiaoxuan is meant to be.
Music and Crosstalk Remix
After a great deal of preparation, Maos first crosstalk performance
at a teahouse in Beijing made a deep impression on his audience. The
actors worked extremely hard and the results were very good!
said the Teahouse manager who, after seeing that the group consisted
of individuals with a disability, generously offered them the space
to perform. That venue was only available to them for two months,
and then the troupe faced the obstacle of not having a place to perform.
Go back home to Tianjin? This question popped into Maos head.
Almost everyone in the group was from there. Every time they had a
performance, members of the group had to make the trek to Beijing,
even though travel was especially difficult for a person whos
blind. The cost was also a burden. Mao finally made a decision: Go
back to Tianjin!
After he found the Tianjin Peace District Cultural Palace, things
went exceptionally smoothly. The Cultural Palace provided a free space
for Maos group to perform long term. Says Mao: At first,
we engaged in some profit-making by doing group purchases for our
performances, but then we decided to stop. Since we are trying to
promote disabled individuals art talents, why do we need money?
All the actors in Crosstalk Society agreed to perform for free.
Whenever people who were blind came to Mao wanting to participate,
he told them, We dont have much money here! But
they were still eager to join the troupe. A lot of them worked at
massage parlors or for lawyers during the day, and performed during
the evening after theyd left their day-jobs for the evening.
Mao was touched. He knew that his troupe must be really dedicated,
since they were willing to work just for the love of it.
A Place of Hearing and Smiling Crosstalk Societys decision to
move forth, despite the hardships facing them inspired people to lend
a hand to the group. Gao Xiaopan, a well-known master from Hip
Hop burden stand became the art director of A Place of Hearing
and Smiling Crosstalk Society.
The young actor and the Tianjin Crosstalk Radio host, Qiu Yingjun,
have become artistic advisers to the group. Mao has paid visits to
people like Guo Degang, hoping the latter would also help teach his
young actors. The Crosstalk Society has continually become stronger.
Students from Tianjin College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and
Tianjin University have participated in their group, too, as have
students from Yaohua Middle School and Nankai Xiangyu Middle School.
Mao says: Having able-bodied people included in our performances
provides diversity, a stronger network of support, and deeper relationships.
Thus far, there have been 15 to 16 professional actors who have performed
in the Place of Hearing and Smiling Blind Crosstalk Society.
Before each performance, the actors would gather early at the theater
to take turns rehearsing. Mao would be busy ordering meals, hanging
posters, and greeting friends who came to listen to their crosstalk
performance. The actors who were not performing at that time would
be mixed into the audience, helping to applaud and cheer their fellow
actors on the stage. Mao was the best at rousing the crowd, joining
in with the audience and laughing the loudest. Whenever there was
just a small crowd in the audience, he would direct his actors to
fill in. The most important thing in a crosstalk performance
is the interaction; cheers from the crowd stimulate the actors.
Mao knows that his troupe has room for improvement. For instance,
their costumes have been called too casual. Sometimes the actors get
distracted and forget the words, and noisy sounds effects dont
help. Mao says he has even earned low marks from a former classmate
who suggests Maos disorganized: He thinks I dont
know how to manage, which Ill admit. But were all working
for free, and as long as everyone is happy doing this, then Im
satisfied. This kind of carefree thinking is characteristic
of Tianjin and of Mao.
He and his group want to develop Wen Xiaoxuans Musical Crosstalks,
where hell integrate the tune of flutes, piano repertoires and
written music. This way, audiences will have the combined pleasure
of laughter and music in one performance. This would also
offset some disadvantages of being a crosstalk group thats blind.
A Place of Hearing and Smiling Crosstalk Society performances also
open with the tune of Maos flute, then some singing, and then
some clapper talk performances. In the course of the evening, a lot
of musical effects are used to boost the performance.
We are still testing new ways of performing because the art
of language is crucial in crosstalk performances. If there are too
many sounds, it will negatively affect the performance. He is
still trying to find good ways to balance the components, making them
A lot of people say that blind people cant perform crosstalks.
They say we dont have the facial expressions, the tone of voice
and other knowledge to perform well. We cant see how movement
is made, so learning the movements is difficult if youre a performer
whos blind. Some say the crosstalks performed by those who are
blind would be the equivalent of walking with one leg, meaning unbalanced
and awkward. But, I dont believe this. When faced with
this kind of pessimistic thinking, Mao affirms his choice to start
a troupe. I cant say that we are professionals, but we
do entertain people, he says, with patience and persistence,
A Place of Hearing and Smiling will only get better.
by Bai Fan
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