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February 3, 2010

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Student breezes through acting, directing to start own theater group

AT just 25, American Rosita Janbakhsh is running her own theater company and is about to stage her first production of Shakespeare's "King Lear."

Taking on one of The Bard's greatest works with an international cast of actors is just one of the challenges Janbakhsh has absorbed while delving into Shanghai's theater world.

The actress and producer - who studied acting and theater in both her hometown of Los Angeles and in Paris - is also in the midst of planning to host a theater festival in Shanghai in May.

Janbakhsh launched the Shanghai Repertory Theater company in December last year with "A Christmas Carol," and the company has quickly grown to more than 25 regular cast and crew.

"It is something unique to Shanghai that I can have an opportunity to produce at this level and now also to be the founder of a theater company," she says.

Janbakhsh started discovering the world of theater in high school and says that since the age of four she knew she wanted to act.

During her undergraduate years at the University of Southern California she studied international relations and French before pursuing her first love, the theater, during a year's study in Paris.

She took intensive theater studies at the Ecole Florent, studies, learning not only the skills required when the curtain goes up but also everything that goes on behind the scenes to make a successful production.

As part of her studies, Janbakhsh also took in some of the finest productions in Paris' vibrant theater scene.


"We got to see a whole spectrum of things. A lot of the studies were practical and in one of the classes we would go to see plays all over Paris, from classical to avant-garde, modern and contemporary plays," she says.

On returning to the US, Janbakhsh completed the final year of studies before moving into public relations.

But she continued learning at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute.

A decision to undertake a master's degree in international studies was her first step toward coming to China.

The course involved a year of study in Shanghai and it was shortly after arriving in late 2007 that Janbakhsh became involved in the city's expat theater community.

A chance meeting in a coffee shop led to a role as the fairy queen in the East West Theater's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A string of acting roles soon followed.

In November 2008, Janbakhsh was part of a small, all-female cast who put on "Impulse," a play written by former Shanghai resident Megan Shank.

Janbakhsh says one of the most rewarding aspects of acting in Shanghai is the diversity of the audience.

"One of the unique things about the theater in Shanghai is that audiences are so international," she says.

"While we are performing to mainly expats because our plays are predominately in English, we can have Spanish, Australian, French and Chinese in the audience, such a range of different nationalities."

Along with doing voiceover for cartoons and English-language video games, Janbakhsh has also produced or assisted in three short films while in Shanghai.

It wasn't until in March 2009, however, that she got her first taste of producing a play when she teamed up with Canadian director Jonathan Geenen on the four-person "Life X 3," which was performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

What followed was an intense creative period for Geenen and Janbakhsh, with the pair also putting together productions of "Waiting for Godot" in April last year and "California Suite" in June.

The latter was a classic case of how Geenen and Janbakhsh could quickly put on a high-quality production in Shanghai through their network of actors and team of behind the scenes volunteers,

"We had a venue in 24 hours, a script in 36 hours and then had it cast in 48 hours. That is how it had to be because we didn't have a steady venue," she says.

In October, Janbakhsh also did her final production with East West Theater - the Henrik Ibsen classic "Master Builder." Saying she was looking for a new creative direction, Janbakhsh decided to launch her own theater company.

Overcoming a constant headache for theater companies in Shanghai, the company has secured regular performance space at the Ke Art Center on Kaixuan Road.

Preparations are in full swing for the company's production of "King Lear," which is set to premiere on March 24.

The production is to be directed by Philip Knight and stars Thomas Karon, who is performing in his fifth production of "King Lear" and his third in the title role.

The play involves more than 25 actors and crew and, as well as producing, Janbakhsh will play Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia.

Plans are also underway for the Shanghai Repertory Theater to stage two short French plays in April and a theater festival in May.

As well as productions by the Shanghai Repertory Theater company, Janbakhsh says she is cooperating with a local Chinese theater company and a contemporary dance performer.

Tickets for "King Lear" are on sale at and cost 180 yuan (US$26) or 200 yuan at the door.

Anyone wanting more information about the theater company can e-mail Rosita Janbakhsh

Nationality: USA

Age: 25

Profession: Actress and producer


Self-description:Passionate, tenacious, adventurous.

Favorite place:The roof of my apartment building.

Strangest sight:

A man cut a chicken's throat with scissors and then wiped his bloody hands on a wad of 100-yuan notes.

Worst experience:

Witnessing a monkey being dragged through the streets by a chain around his neck.

Motto for life:

"Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don't do that by sitting around wondering about yourself."

- Katharine Hepburn

How to improve Shanghai:

Cleaner air, more parks, less humidity.

Advice to newcomers:

Explore the city on foot.


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