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March 2, 2012

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'Mama Mia!' star a serious director

STAGE actress and director Tian Shui has won China's highest drama award and is known for her thoughtful roles and serious undertakings. So she took what many people considered a big chance in jumping genres to star as Donna, the singing and dancing lead role in the Chinese-language recreation of "Mama Mia!".

Tian surprised a lot of people with her singing, dancing and flare for comedy, earning good reviews after a nine-month China tour that ended in January. It was the first Western musical staged exactly like the original, but translated, though not word-for-word, into Chinese and sometimes dialect. Tian and others call it a recreation, not a copy.

Playing world's 14th Donna, the gutsy unwed single mother in Greece who doesn't remember which of three men fathered her daughter, Tian won wide applause in China where the story was a bit strange but the music by ABBA is beloved.

Tian played Donna more than 130 times, singing nine of the total 22 songs - a very big role. Shows were sold out in Shanghai (it returned for a second run), Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing and Xi'an.

Musical theater wasn't really such a big leap, she told Shanghai Daily in an interview two weeks ago. "The most important part in the musical is still acting and delivering emotions to the audience - singing is just a tool to do that when speaking is not enough."

"I think I have so much in common with Donna, which was the most important reason I chose this particular musical and character. We are both around 40 years old, we are both mothers having a daughter, and most important - we have the same kind of bravery," Tian said.

"Tian Shui is a great combination of softness and strength. She would be perfect to play this strong mother, adding her unique Oriental features to it," British director Paul Garrington said.

Pop singer Lin Yilun said, "It's so surprising that Tian can also sing so well. I believed she was a very good actress, but never expected her voice was so beautiful and moving."


However, Tian never thought she would be singing, dancing and acting in one of the world's most popular musicals. She was dedicated to her 20-year career in serious drama. In 2002 she won the nation's highest theatrical award, the Meihua Award, for her performance in the stage drama "www. com" as Ai Yang, a married woman who gets bored with her life and looks for "real love" on the Internet.

A native of Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, Tian grew up around theaters and back stage because both her parents were dramatic actors. The theater was her world and she decided she wanted to become an actress. She graduated from the Shanghai Theater Academy in 1993 and played in more than 30 stage dramas and several TV series and movies. Most of the roles she played were complicated modern women.

Tian is also vice general manager of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, making her directorial stage debut in 2011 with "12 Men." The play is based on a classic 1957 Hollywood movie about the complicated deliberations of a 12-man jury trying to reach consensus in a murder trial where there was "reasonable doubt" of guilt.

All the actors were talented and mature and during rehearsal these "jurors" became so passionate in their arguments that Tian had to stand on a chair and shout "Attention!" to get them to listen to her.

The play had just closed, to positive reviews, at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center and Tian returned to her acting, attending regular vocal lessons at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She ignored all the "Mama Mia!" casting notices around campus. Only when a production crew member told her about the role of Donna did Tian become interested. She auditioned for the director and musical director from the UK, the same as hundreds of other actors. She waited a week for feedback.

Then she got the good news.

In "Mama Mia!", young Donna was kicked out her parents' home for getting pregnant out of wedlock. She moves to a small Greek island and raises her daughter Sophie there by running a small hotel by herself. Sophie is about to get married but she doesn't know who her father is, and her mother can't remember which of three men it might be. All three are invited.

"Donna didn't think too much about the difficulties of being a single mother. She just decided to have the baby and face the money and other problems as they came along. Just like me," Tian said (but she isn't a single mother). "I don't fret too much about decision-making. I normally just follow my heart. If you worry too much about potential problems, you will never be able to take the first step."

She called Donna's character "a perfect fit," adding, "Being part of a musical and singing on stage is the dream of many dramatic actors."

But it was a challenge to turn a world-class British musical into one that works for a Chinese audience while retaining the original essence. The entire original British production team was in China from the very beginning of rehearsals to ensure the version would be authentic.

To understand the characters and create a Chinese version of them proved more difficult.

"Although the musical has been performed in so many countries and is already a very mature commercial product, the British team insisted we needed to create our own version instead of copying the original because every market has a different audience," Tian said. "We need to make the Chinese audience actually understand and feel the message that the musical wants to send - love, family and dream - in a way that is easy for them to get."

Chinese actors first discussed their understanding of the characters with the directors. "They listened to our opinion and brainstormed with us so we could up with the same picture."

Backstage there was intense pressure to deliver 200 performances around China; Tian performed more than 130 times, performing five to six nights every week.

The rehearsal and performance took their toll - the British production team insisted everything be perfect, elements the audience would probably never notice.

"After 100 performances, what worried me most was my physical health, especially my voice," Tian said. "Being tired or not feeling well is never an excuse for not putting 100 percent of my energy into the stage performance. The audience bought tickets and what they expect is your best performance - no matter what."

Her biggest concern throughout the tour was that she might not be physically up to the task. She took lots of medicine to keep her voice clear and strong. "People were shocked and made fun of my 'little pharmacy' backstage," Tian laughed. "But it was all worth it."


The first round national tour of "Mama Mia!" ended in January and Tian Shui is back at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center to resume her career as an administrator and director.

Her next directing project is the stage play "The Man from Earth" based on an acclaimed cerebral American science fiction film in 2007. It concerns a retiring college professor who announces at his farewell party with colleagues that is a Cro-Magnon man and has been alive for 14,000 years. He is quizzed by anthropologists, geologists, art historians and others, raising fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

It will be staged in late March at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.

"12 Men" will move to the National Theater in Beijing in August.

Tian will produce the drama "The Clinic on Tuesday" based on the true story of a great Chinese doctor to be staged in Shanghai in July. From acting to directing to producing isn't such a big change, Tian said.

"I'm a kind of 'follow-where-destiny-leads-you' person," she said, laughing. "I really don't fight for anything or have a long-term plan. I get myself prepared and when opportunity comes, I'll just need to decide whether it is something that I'm capable of and want to do.

Directing is not only satisfying, but also gives her chance to learn things she would never learn by acting alone, she said. Directing means supervising everything from acting to lighting and sound efforts and gives on an overview. As a director she talks with each actor about how to make a character perfect and believable

"Acting has limitations; you can only play the character that is suitable for you. But by being a director, you have many more opportunities to express yourself because you can choose what you want to represent more freely."

Still, her love is acting.

"What I really want to do is still acting," she said. "No matter what kind of acting, no matter what kind of character, whether in a musical or drama, as long as there is a suitable role for me, I would be really happy to have the chance to be on stage when I am 80 years old. Maybe I'll play the most insignificant role, even without any lines, but just being on stage is a blessing."

Recreated, not copied

There's considerable discussion about whether China can deliver its own popular musical theater and whether it can or should be recreating American musicals in Chinese, such as "Mama Mia!".

"The indigenous Chinese musical market still needs development. Human resources is still the biggest problem. It's difficult to create a musical with both good music and a good story. What's needed is cross-over cooperation from the drama and musical world. All famous Western musicals took a long time and lots of resources to create, so do Chinese musicals."

Chinese actors are definitely good enough to perform in Western musicals, she says, "but the only problem might be translation of scripts and lyrics. Translation here doesn't mean word for word. It's about delivering the story message in a language that the Chinese audience can understand. 'Mama Mia!' is a good example ... But it will take more musicals like this to convince the audience that the Chinese versions are not copied, but re-created."

As the vice general manager of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, Tian is also trying to innovate the drama industry in Shanghai, making it both more responsive to audience's interests, more profitable and of higher quality.

The current situation is more prosperous than it was several years ago. Going to the theater is an important form of entertainment for some residents, especially young people, just like going to movies and KTV.

Working with foreign theater groups raises the level of professionalism in Shanghai, she says, noting the annual Shanghai Contemporary Theater Festival is held every November. While the Chinese theater industry enjoys a high standard of production and technologies, "what we always need are good stories," she said.

Tian hopes more come to appreciate live theater, nothing that in foreign countries senior citizens in wheelchairs often attend performances. "It's that level of interest and involvement with the community that we want to achieve," she said.


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