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May 27, 2019

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‘Theater for One’ is just the ticket

It was a live performance for an audience of one — 88-year-old Jiang Yueqin.

The native of Fengxian District burst into tears while watching a 40-minute presentation of traditional opera and comedy excerpts by performers in her home.

Lacking mobility because of rheumatism and childhood leg injuries, Jiang is a beneficiary of a project called “Theater for One.” It brings free performances to the homes of people who can’t get out. The performers are all volunteer artists.

“The performance was amazing, and the performers were just like those appearing in TV,” said Jiang. “Their voices were enchanting.”

The show for Jiang was presented by five performers and featured Huju, Yueju and Huangmei opera selections and a local comedy genre called dujiaozi.

So far, five seniors in the Jinhai residential community in Fengxian have been treated to live performances tailored to their interests.

Jiang used to work on the family farm but rarely leaves home now. She loves operas, and when she watches performances on TV, she is glued to the screen, her family said.

In Jinhai, nearly one-third of residents are 60 years or older. Although a rich diversity of activities are available to them, many are too immobile or too infirm to participate, said Zhu Hua, deputy director of the Jinhai community cultural activity center.

“We host many free performances in the center,” Zhu said. “Many people arrive in wheelchairs and have to sit at the back where wheelchairs can park more easily. That makes it harder for those residents to enjoy performances.”

The idea of “Theater for One” originated with volunteers from the Nanshanghai Music Art Studio. A performance is staged once a month. The shows are preceded by visits from community volunteers and neighborhood committee officials to ascertain what program suits residents.

“The senior we performed for today said she likes traditional Chinese operas, so we arranged excerpts from operas that local people like watching,” said Zhou Guoliang, head of the studio and also a volunteer performer.

“In March, we visited a senior who was a former policeman,” Zhou said. “He likes magic, dance and crosstalk shows, so that’s what we performed for him. Our performances cater to personal favorites and interests.”

Zhou’s art troupe has 30 volunteer performers, averaging 40 years in age. They live in Fengxian, and their talent spans an array of genres, including Chinese opera, dance, magic and crosstalk.

“My parents are in their 80s, and they live alone at home,” said volunteer Tang Yihua. “Seeing elderly people alone at home is sort of sad. We need to help seniors feel they are a part of society and make them feel happy and welcomed.”

Since the troupe was established in 2017, it has put on more than 80 public-interest performances in senior homes and community service centers across Fengxian and the Pudong New Area.

“We often stage performances in communities and villages, close to people’s homes,” said Zhou. “But we noticed that some seniors have difficulty even getting to those. Or even if they can manage it, they may feel self-conscious or shy about coming.”

When the “Theater for One” project was launched in January, neighborhood committees quickly identified 16 to 17 households that would benefit. Demand is high, and the calendar for performances this year is already filled, said Zhou.

“We have two criteria in selecting beneficiaries: seniors with mobility handicaps and those who truly love art,” he said.

Among those beneficiaries have been a 90-year-old woman paralyzed and bedridden after a fall, and a man suffering from cerebellar atrophy, or a deterioration of nerve cells in the brain. The woman’s only artistic outlet was listening to the radio.

“Most of these people haven’t enjoyed a live performance for decades,” said Zhou. “They have to watch shows on TV.”

Zhou Jianfang, a community volunteer involved in helping the program, said all the elderly people treated to performances so far have really loved them and are often moved to tears by the experience.

Each program usually involves five to seven volunteers, and a whole performance lasts 30 to 40 minutes, according to Zhou Guoliang. The performers prepare as though they were playing to a packed house.

“It’s a challenge for us,” Zhou said. “On stage, we can cover up when we make small mistakes, but that’s not so easy in an intimate setting.

“One-to-one performances allow us to get instant emotional feedback from the audience,” he said. “We know how we are doing as we are doing it.”

Some performers return to their day jobs immediately after performances.

“Typically, performers in community-based art troupes in China are senior citizens,” Zhou said.

“As a troupe of younger people, we think we are creating inter-generational communication.”

He said he hopes the “Theater for One” concept will expand to communities across the city.


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