Off Script: Beijing Theater Group With a Twist

By Mike Fox, March 31, 2023

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With the on-off switch of COVID-19 restrictions being continuously flipped over the past two years, expat theater group Middle Kingdom Creatives has endured the uncertainty to produce and perform numerous projects. Now with the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel getting brighter, it's full speed ahead for this group of amateur thespians. 

Whether you get your kicks from television, radio, theater, iPhone, iPad or iMac, this troupe can provide something for you. Its founding members have put together a simple message: Anyone is welcome to direct, write, act and put forward ideas for shows. They started life on the stage and now have ambitions to expand to screens and soundwaves.

Image via Middle Kingdom Creatives

“A lot of us weren't working after the first outbreak,” explains member and performer Laurel Burns, who resides in Beijing. “Everyone was locked down and none of us had gone back to work yet, but the city was starting to open up more, so we were able to still see our friends again.”

Burns explains that she and her friends are creatives who, after the initial COVID-19 breakout had passed, were itching to get their creative juices flowing again. 

“Since I’ve been in Beijing, I have rarely come across amateur English-speaking theater groups. Back home in the US, I was used to community theaters and so many other opportunities for workshops. We started proposing workshops, shows and auditions. There was a positive response from people who wanted to be a part of something creative whether they had much experience or not.”

Middle Kingdom Creatives came together at the right time, with an absence of English-speaking productions that would predominantly serve the expat community. Before the pandemic, touring plays from overseas often made their way to China’s capital and, while they are due to return, there has been a theatrical void for many over the past three years. 

Image via Middle Kingdom Creatives

“We're trying to create a well-rounded selection, a theatrical ‘smorgasbord’ for performers or potential performers to come and play,”  remarks Stephanie Stone, who was a keen member of community theater in her home US state of Arizona. 

“We've hosted murder mysteries where it's not a performance at all, but a group of friends together playing characters for an evening solving a murder. Because of this, I think we've had a lot of interest. Permitting people to play is a huge thing. We want to give that to our community, whether they turn out to be an audience member, a volunteer or someone who’s part of our shows.” 

Stone’s explanation sums the group up in a nutshell. The performances are not limited to the stage; participation is not all about ability and community is not defined by location. The spectrum of productions has ranged from an audiobook to a modern take on a Shakespearean classic. The inclusive environment helps recruits feel at ease and gives everyone the space to develop their talent. 

Danny Whitehead, who has also been involved since the beginning, sums up the ethos surrounding the process. 

Middle-Kingdom-Creatives-6.jpgImage via Middle Kingdom Creatives

“My motivation for getting involved was because theater is an opportunity to become part of something bigger than yourself and something that relies on everyone. It requires everyone pulling together, from the director to the lead actors, to the backstage hands and front of house. Theater creates something magical and ephemeral which exists only the night you come then never again, and being part of that is equally magical. 

“I think what I've loved seeing in the performances that we've put on is that we have had people come to us who’ve never been on stage before and they have been some of the most incredible actors that we’ve had.”

The crowning achievement so far was a successful run of Halloween shows. Taking the form of an anthology-style play, it was a mix of the scary, sweet, surreal and down-right silly. The multi-genre spectacle featured a playful Stone as the host, with input from Whitaker and Burns on the writing and performing sides. The most memorable player was Ryan Usher, who featured in a comedy sketch he wrote himself about an insecure hypnotist with Daddy issues. A fantastic original idea, it showcased the genuine talent the group has amongst their ranks. Yes, community theater is about welcoming everyone no matter their experience, but the bottom line is that it must entertain. 

Middle-Kingdom-Creatives-5.jpgImage via Middle Kingdom Creatives

“If you do have an Oscar-winning script, the first thing we need you to do is sign over the rights to us,” jokes Usher. “We pride ourselves on being the type of people who you can tell us what you’re into and then we can try and make something happen for you. For instance, the Halloween show had five first-time directors, who came to Middle Kingdom Creatives just to let us know that they were interested in directing. Once we found out that we had so many people interested in directing, we thought, ‘why don't we hand off a play to each one of those people?’

“We are big on our WeChat. At any performance, we always make sure the word gets out about any upcoming productions. As actors and artists, we love talking about ourselves. Everybody we meet knows what we’re up to.”

Considering the restraints imposed by the pandemic over the past two years, MKC has accomplished its initial mission, which was to entertain and bring people together through a love of theater. The level of interest from an audience and participation point of view remains healthy and they even have a permanent performance space, which is situated in Beijing’s Chaoyang district. As talented acting-wise as the four people in our conversation are, it’s sometimes behind the scenes where they truly shine, as key organizer Burns explains. 

“We were lucky to find someone to partner with us. Our performance venue has been very generous with the pricing and the time allowance that they let us use the space for. I’m also the coordinator for Beijing Improv, which is Beijing’s oldest English language improv group.  Through that, I have made a few connections.

“I receive plenty of auditions and I do have to send rejection letters, which sucks. Our community consists of 300-plus people. And then more people aren’t in the group chat.”

202303/Middle-Kingdom-Creatives-3.jpgImage via Middle Kingdom Creatives

Stone also believes the group has been lucky with the people they have encountered and says those who make decisions are always open to new ideas. 

“Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs when it comes to our vision. I don’t think we’ve had to shut anything completely down. It’s just usually a matter of space, time restrictions or budget. Most of the time we find a way to perform. Theater people are very ingenious and, with us, necessity is the mother of invention. We have to do a lot of inventing in our group.”

That invention has surfaced in the form of a newly released audiobook entitled The Dystopian Detective Agency, a comedy set in the year 2063 where the word ‘zonk’ has replaced all four-letter swear words. Drunk Shakespeare saw the ensemble perform something ‘loosely’ based on As You Like It while the bard’s Julius Caesar was tackled in a much more stripped-down, minimalistic fashion from the original script. All performances are recorded and posted online.

These projects are three examples of what Middle Kingdom Creatives have been able to put together. Burns, Stone, Whitehead and Usher have a huge role to play in its continuing success, but they are ultimately just a small part in the unfolding drama played out by their fellow actors, directors, venue staff and audience members. So, what next? Well, Burns has a rather ambitious plan.

“My dreams came true with Drunk Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, I love drinking and I’m an improv actor as well. I loved having that element of surprise.  We could do Richard III and have Jeff Goldblum in it. Just imagine! My God! I feel he’d be into it. I feel it’s a weird enough idea that he’d be into it.”

As unpractical as that seems it’s a sign of the aspiring nature of Middle Kingdom Creatives. The main goal of this community is about helping art succeed. More challenges will present themselves as the revolving door of expat life continues to turn but as the great man once said in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

[Cover image via Middle Kingdom Creatives]

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