San Francisco International Arts Festival Features the U. S. premiere of Hong Kong physical theater company Théâtre de la Feuille in ‘The Orphan Of Zhao’

by Charles Kruger

The author of this feature article is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“The Orphan of Zhao” is one of China’s oldest plays. A story of familial revenge, it is sometimes described as “the Chinese Hamlet.” There have been many versions over the centuries, both in Chinese and in translation. Théâtre de la Feuille is known for its expertise in physical theatre, and their production incorporates dance, elaborate choral movement, and martial arts under the direction of their founder, Ata Wong Chun Tat. Tat trained in Paris at the famous  École internationale de théâtre founded by the great master of physical theatre, movement, and mime, Jacques Lecoq. Now grounded in his native Hong Kong, he has reached out to mainland Chinese artists trained in traditional Chinese physical theatre to create a production that seeks to combine traditions both East and West.

I spoke recently with Ata by telephone between San Francisco and Hong Kong. He was exceptionally enthusiastic and articulate.

TheatreStorm: How would you describe your work?

Ata: As an artist, I have chosen to focus on physical theatre because I find that the truth is in the body; it is not in the language. The truth is in the body.

After spending time studying at the Lecoq academy in Paris, I wanted to understand more about the relationships between Hong Kong and mainland China. That is why I went to work in Bejing. There I found interesting actors who were not trained in the academy. I said, “I’d like to create a piece with you.” So we found ourselves with a very unpredictable team with very different backgrounds. These actors were not professionals but they had great heart, so I tried to share with them what I learned in Paris. They are all professional actors now. And we continue to work together and tour. We have toured in China, Japan and Korea.

Actually, from the beginning I have always begun by asking: “What is important at this moment in our lives?” The current work was created around the time I returned from Europe to Hong Kong. I found myself asking. “What is the truth? Do we need truth in this world? What is the truth about human rights? I recalled the story of “The Orphan of Zhao.”  The real history of this very ancient story is not known We have tried to find the true story, but there are many, many versions! So our play tries to ask, “what is the truth?” And how can we know?  There are so many versions! After we looked at all the different versions, we finally had to make our own.

TheatreStorm: What are some of your influences?

Ata: What is interesting for me mostly is physical acting. The poetry of the body! And how can we create a space for the audience to imagine not only receiving information but using their imagination. This is not really popular in Chinese culture today, but in the past it was very big in Chinese Opera and Peking Opera. When I studied in Paris I discovered many connections. There is so much we can draw upon, and so many new things. Now we have a lot of contemporary theatre companies in China, as well as classical work.

Above all, I want to return to the body. The story is in the body. And ensemble work is always inspiring for me. It is wonderful when a group of performers all have the same spirit so that they are not just telling a story, but they have a deep motivation to tell it together.

And this business of working in ensemble to find the truth is important to society. This work has real purpose.  This is why we tour. To share that spirit of sameness and togetherness as we search for the truth.

TheatreStorm: How would you describe your daily artistic practice?

Ata: Before going to Paris, I just wanted to be an actor. At the end, I learned it is not just about being an actor, it is about how to be an artist. It is more important for me how I react to the world as an artist. We need to share. We need to be about making a society with more heart. That is the point.

I spend a lot of time going to see things—the work of other artists. And I try to do many different projects all at once, so they speak to each other.

Every day: something old and something new. I like to keep it packed. There are so many things to share and say.

And the team is terribly important. We must work together every day. And always create something new. This is how we survive. Sometimes we need a break, but not often. We have our own rehearsa spacel, but even when we don’t rehearse, we spend time together. We have dinner. We are a team; we need that atmosphere. We are not here just for work. This is our life, together.

TheatreStorm: How does the upcoming performance planned for SFIAF relate to the theme of “The Path to Democracy?” What are you specifically seeking to address in the upcoming performance for SFIAF?

Ata: It is more than a path to democracy. It is a path to humanity. How do we trigger our humanity? We have so many boundaries; we separate ourselves so much from one another. And we want something more than that: this is bigger than politics. We must realize that we are the same. This is what has to be voiced and shared. I don’t want to tell anybody what to do or believe or to make propaganda: I want to make connections. We need that. We do more than hold hands; we connect with our hearts.

TheatreStorm: What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do?

Ata: Don’t just think about the theatre. Get out of the theatre! Go to the streets, go to the galleries, let go of the old forms. Look for something new! Let your work be without limits. Inspiration is the most important thing. Try to find something you have never seen. Share that. Be close to people. Don’t try to do it alone. Learn stories from everybody. People are everything: their stories, their situations. As creators, we need to be bonded with others. And together, we should always face the truth. This is the most important thing.

Work with others, find the truth, share from the heart.


Théâtre de la Feuille will perform “The Orphan of Zao” on Friday, May 24th and Sunday, May 26. For further inforation, CLICK HERE

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts this performances as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 23, 2019 to June 2, 2019. The Festival features performances by more than 50  different artists, ensembles, and companies including dance, theatre, music, and comedy, plus various educational activities and public receptions.  Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows  by buying a Festival pass. More details CLICK HERE.

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