By: Max Mehran
On one of the first sunny summer days, QDF met with Avi Bendahan, co-founder of JingJu Canada, to talk about their upcoming production, The Monkey Get His Staff, at this year’s St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. The show tells the story of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who travels to the Dragon King of the eastern sea’s palace to get a weapon he needs, and this is when chaos enthused.
I ask Avi to tell me more about the company and their unique style of theatre in Montreal. JingJu Canada was formed about 8 years ago and it started off after a course instructed at Concordia University about this art form. After Avi and some other classmates travelled to China to study it further, he and his co-founder Shijia Jiang (who was also the teaching assistant of the course) decided to form the company along with other actors at the time. The goal was to “continue training, practicing, and doing it and promote JingJu as an art form to western audience” Avi tells us.
I am then curious as to what exactly JingJu is. Avi explains that JingJu is a form of Chinese Opera, but not in the same sense that Opera is seen in the West. “It combines a lot of elements and training you would find in the east, such as martial arts, dancing, make-up, costume, and embellishment,” he continues. It also includes songs and lyrics in a heightened Chinese language while still being easy to understand and follow because the stories performed are popular stories. “Most people can still follow what’s happening, “Avi explains, “therefore, it allows the actors to embellish as much as they want which is when all the tricks and stunts comes into play.” He compares it to an English audience listening to Shakespeare.
JingJu Canada does not perform in Chinese however. They teach classes, organize workshops, perform pieces and go on tours with the motto to promote and showcase this art form. “What we found works best for us,” Avi continues, “is when we do shows, we translate the shows that are part of the cannon into English and modify it slightly.” This explains their reasoning behind choosing this particular story for this year’s St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. “The Monkey King is a very popular character in China and his journey is epic,” Avi tells us. Another thing that Avi and the team at JingJu found translated well into English is comedy. The Monkey King Gets His Staff , therefore, became the best choice for the company.
I admire their mission and the work they have to put into this to be able to show their production and entertain their audience. I ask then the biggest challenges with this model. Avi honestly answers that a limited budget has been and is a big challenge when wanting to produce JingJu shows. “The things that we do cost a lot of money,” he confesses, “in terms of make-up, costume, etc.” Avi tells me they get their costume directly from China from families dedicated to keeping this dying art alive. The costumes are handstitched and are, consequently, very costly and precious. Thankfully, the company managed to receive generous sponsorship from The Confucius Institute in Quebec to support those costs.
This is going to be JingJu Canada’s second time at the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival. “Fringe was an extremely rewarding experience,” Avi tells me as they received amazing appraisals and accolades as well as a feeling their audience connected well to the show. Avi tells me that for the last couple of years, the company didn’t perform as much as they were mainly organizing workshops and classes to teach the methods behind this art form. “The itch was growing, so we decided to do it again,” Avi says.
Avi then quickly explains that in order for them to build a solid show, they have to start preparing in September. It starts with casting. When casting, experience in JingJu isn’t a requirement as they are looking for people that can bring something new and unique to their characters. Once cast, they also have to train the actors to the art form, which is very physical and specific. Most of their actors have luckily done JingJu before, but one new actor this year didn’t. Training consists of teaching the actors how to use weapons, and combat training in the traditional style of JingJu for example. “Our mandate,” Avi explains, “is to promote JingJu to western audiences without bastardizing it; we want to stay absolutely true to what JingJu traditionally is.” He also tells me that they need at least two and half hour before every show to get ready and paint their faces.
The work that has to be put on this production seems tremendous, and with only a couple of days before opening night, I ask Avi what he is most looking forward to. As he is wearing different hats, his answers vary. He is, on the one hand, looking forward to getting through tech smoothly. He is also looking forward to a great initiative JingJu Canada is offering the community. “We decided to give around ten to fifteen minutes at the beginning of our show to different artists and companies in Montreal to perform their own thing in front of the audience,” Avi explains. I understand it works much like opening acts to their show but also as a way to showcase works from the city. They already booked many different artists from dancers to puppeteers.
“I can’t say enough about my actors because they are really great,” Avi tells me as we are wrapping up our discussion. Their team has been working extremely hard since September and they are confident with the shape of the show. “It’s bubbling excitement at this point,” Avi expresses. The pride he feels for his actors and team can be reflected in his eyes. “This is going to be another experiment; this entire company was an experiment,” Avi finishes, and he is looking forward, as we all are, to what will come next.
Thank you to Avi for opening up to us and giving us insights on a company that works tirelessly to bring to their audience a unique and very aesthetically oriented style of theatre. Find out more about their run at the festival here.