Unmasking China through Theater

Joshua (left) playing jianzi, a Chinese game similar to hacky sack, in a Beijing park. (Joshua Halpern)

Joshua Halpern, China Prep's Director of Program Development, grew up in New York and has lived and worked in Spain, Central America, England, and now Beijing, China. In Spain he founded IdiomArts Education, S.L. Most recently, he was an advisory to the "Theater for Social Change" department of Hua Dan, a Chinese company focused on empowering migrant workers. He is also a founding member of the Beijing Improv Theater troupe.

When we first spoke, you had just returned from hiking on a remote section of the Great Wall. What were you doing there?

My colleague, Ann, and I were piloting the hike that we hoped to bring our participants on this coming summer. We found a unique hike to an unreconstructed part of the Wall and a quiet rural village; and we learned that I am unbelievably out of shape.

In China, one is usually surrounded by people: how did it feel to suddenly be alone?

My feelings ranged from peaceful to lonely. I took the hike while Ann drove 1.5 hours around the mountain to meet me in a village we hoped was there. I spent much of my peaceful moments clinging to a rock and imagining the title of tomorrow's China Daily newspaper, "Crazy foreigner falls from the Great Wall: It still works after all these years."

Your first experience using theater to teach language was in Spain, where you founded IdiomArts. You also used magic, and juggling to teach English. How can juggling help people learn a language?

Language learning is about self-motivation. One of our talented team members was the juggler, Alex Pape, who could juggle almost anything and balance most classroom objects including tables and chairs on his chin. The participants drove the shows forward by yelling out prompting vocabulary to Alex such as colors, body parts, names of furniture, directions, velocity vocabulary and more. It was a lot of fun and the participants returned to their classrooms with greater confidence and increased motivation to learn English.

How did you learn Spanish?

I took a three-month course at University of Complutense and a six-week course through N.Y.U. summer program, but I learned the language by running around trying to make ends meet for three years in Madrid. Negotiating with landlords to get your stove fixed, selling advertising for magazines, starting my own company, and defending American cultural habits to my passionate Spanish ex-girlfriend created the foundation of my Spanish language skills.

After Spain, your career took you to Central America, and then back to the States where you worked with immigrants from Latin America. How did you end up in China last year?

For years I have been interested in learning what Chinese people are like, beyond the economic hype, herbal medicine and feng shui. My fiance was offered a job in China and we couldn't turn down the opportunity to explore pre-Olympic China.

How do you see China changing after it hosts the 2008 Olympics in Beijing?

I think China will settle into its role as an established global political power. Right now there is a lot of hype that you can feel as you walk down the street, and in the conversations you have. But with all the excitement there is also a sense of self-doubt. I think when the Olympics have come and gone, China will take a look at itself and recognize that while there has been a great deal of posturing since being awarded the Olympics, that doesn't undermine their legitimate role as a powerful player in global politics. Without the spotlight shining so directly on it, China might be able to take even bolder steps toward significant change after the lights go down on the Bird's Nest.

Last year you co-founded an improv troupe in Beijing. How have Chinese audiences responded to your performances?

I have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to improv among Chinese audiences. I think the freedom of unscripted and unrehearsed dialogue is a welcome change that unleashes the world of creativity inside many of our Chinese participants.

You have also worked to empower migrant workers through theater. How?

We may have the workers provide the dialogue within a setting such as "The Construction Site" for us to act out. We begin humorously touching on conflicts they face and then build into more dramatic scenes. Because we are performing the pieces together, and because they are unrehearsed, we are able to initiate discussions on communication styles in the workplace, separation from their family, construction safety, and self-identity.

What are some of the challenges in working with migrant laborers?

We have not been able to discuss issues as openly with foremen or managers around. Some organizations we approach will dock salary when their employees attend our free workshops. We are carefully selecting partners so that we don't end up being another economic burden for these workers. Finding space and funding is particularly challenging. It is much easier to receive funding and support to plant trees here than to help certain populations of humans grow.

You have said that in China, corporations play a greater role in community service than they do in the United States. Why do you think this is the case?

This is hard to answer in a couple of sentences, but essentially, corporations represent money and a clearly identifiable goal, which is to make more money. It is easier to get government officials and partnering businesses to rally behind economic resources. In addition, it is common for people to help their family members and for the government to take on the responsibility of helping members of the community in need. Organizations that do not make money, but are not part of the government, face skepticism within the community and lack power with local government officials.

I understand that next year you are off to Mumbai, India. What is in store for you there? 

I have learned that the most successful programs are created after gaining an understanding of our clients' interests. In Mumbai I will have the opportunity to explore the interests of today's Indian youth and I hope to continue to develop programs that draw on China Prep's expertise to best fit their goals. I am also interested in developing interactive educational media products that help young adults without travel opportunities virtually travel the world learning from each other.

Author: Interview conducted by Heather Clydesdale