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Theater Magic: How I found my community in Shanghai

By Danielle LeClerc


When I arrived in Shanghai after a year of solo travel in southeast Asia, I was craving interaction. On the road, my ears jumped at the sound of English, pouncing on anyone speaking my native language, trying to join in. Now that I was putting down roots and eager to socialize, finding a good group of friends wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Any WeChat user knows there are hundreds of interest groups in Shanghai but joining a chat group doesn't guarantee a full social schedule, let alone a shoulder to cry on. Flat screen, 2-D friendships are great for getting to know the city; but it was 3-D, real-life friendships that I craved.

My first real-life Shanghai community was a collection of workmates from my new job. Work can be a great place to meet people since you already have something in common and see each other often. However, at some work places, the social environment isn’t exactly friendly. I found that many of my work friends were very judgmental, especially toward women. And anything you say or do while out with workmates can easily end up as office gossip or[Symbol]worse[Symbol]photos shared around the office. Fortunately, after ten years in Shanghai, I’ve found many communities outside of work, from writers’ and women’s groups to the Shanghai Expat Association. But no matter how many people I connect with, one of my favorite communities by far remains independent theater.


I accidentally became involved with Shanghai’s grassroots theater community when my husband (then boyfriend), thought it would be a laugh to audition for East West Theatres 2014 production of Almost, Maine. There were only three male roles, and Tom hadn’t been in a play since high school, so we had no expectation that he would get a part. When he did, a whole world of friends and creative projects opened up for him, and for me as well.

Theater productions take a lot of work. Actors and crew meet, share ideas, and coordinate their efforts for months to put on a show. Sharing your creative self with the group is a requirement that can be intimidating. To make it work, unspoken rules demanding positivity and respect are woven into live theater’s fabric. And when you spend that much time working creatively with the same people, depending on each other, a kind of theater magic happens. Shows draw from all ages, talents, ethnicities, and appearances, and joining a production offers a rare chance to be accepted and welcomed just for being yourself. After your show ends, these friendships tend to continue and suddenly you’re on the invite list for the many social events that follow. And no one throws an event or party like theater people do.


The Little Prince, which was co-produced by Theatre Anon and Earlybirds.

East West Theatre’s A Streetcar named Desire.

Theater productions take a lot of work. Actors and crew meet, share ideas, and coordinate their efforts for months to put on a show. Sharing your creative self with the group is a requirement that can be intimidating. To make it work, unspoken rules demanding positivity and respect are woven into live theater’s fabric. And when you spend that much time working creatively with the same people, depending on each other, a kind of theater magic happens. Shows draw from all ages, talents, ethnicities, and appearances, and joining a production offers a rare chance to be accepted and welcomed just for being yourself. After your show ends, these friendships tend to continue and suddenly you’re on the invite list for the many social events that follow. And no one throws an event or party like theater people do.


Dream Weaver Productions’ Ship of Dreams - The Titanic Experience.

The cast and crew of Almost, Maine became so close that Tom was able to ask them for an unusual favor. I attended their final performance and one of the ushers ran up to me at the door and led me to a front and center seat. It was odd, I thought, because I hadn’t even paid for a ticket. At the show’s end, with the audience still in their seats, Tom came back out on stage. He began to talk about the love and support needed to create a show. “What is he doing?!” I puzzled. Tom would have told me if he was planning a speech. Then, he asked me to join him onstage and took a knee. I heard the audience draw a collective breath. Right then and there, Tom proposed. I was over the moon. The love in that room was palpable, from Tom and the audience, to the cast and crew (all of whom had been in on the plan). Even the owner of the venue got caught up in the moment enough to pop some bottles of champagne. Theater magic. I was amazed that, in a few weeks, this group of people had gone from strangers, to friends, and now almost to family.


East West Theatre and Theatre Anon’s all-female co-production of Romeo and Juliet.

After Almost, Maine, Tom acted again with East West in A Streetcar Named Desire and with Dream Weaver Productions in Fight Club, The Princess Bride, and recently, Glengarry Glenross. We grew closer to Shanghai’s community of artists, and eventually they convinced me to get in on the act. In October 2018, Tom and I acted together as husband and wife passengers in Dream Weaver’s production of Titanic: Ship of Dreams, an interactive theater experience staged on an actual boat that sailed the Huangpu River during performances. It was an incredible creative outlet for both Tom and I, and I was hooked. Last December, Theatre Anon and East West Theatre collaborated to stage Romeo & Juliet with an all-female cast. When they needed a producer to find them rehearsal and venue spaces, sponsors, and manage ticket sales and press releases, I volunteered. Although it was exhausting, I’ve rarely felt more alive, and I learned a lot about marketing and project management. After checking off to-do lists, solving dozens of minor catastrophes, and picking each other up when it felt like we could not keep going, the director Natasha and I watched the lights come up on a show that we had guided to life. Once again, it was theater magic.


LWuD Theatre’s Unpacking by playwright Noxolo Bhengu.

While actors are highly visible, being a part of the production actually demands a range of talents. If you can’t imagine acting but can build a set, sew, design a poster, work a lighting or sound board, or even if you just want to usher in guests for performances, there’s a place for you in Shanghai’s grassroots theater community. It’s the perfect setting to meet new people, have fun, and let the theater work its magic on your life.


“Unspoken rules demanding positivity and respect are woven into live theater’s fabric. And when you spend that much time working creatively with the same people, depending on each other, a kind of theater magic happens.”

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About the author: Canadian Danielle LeClerc is a long-time resident of Shanghai, where she teaches, writes, and entertains. Her stories, poems, and articles can be found around town. ShanghaiMouth@gmail.com


Original Courier publish date: May, 2019


Dream Weaver Productions: A Reputation for Larger-than-Life Shows


Dream Weaver, formerly Urban Aphrodite, was built through the willpower of Founder Ann James, who has done much to bring the Shanghai theater community together. Staging Hamlet at Old Millfun, also known as the Art-Deco Abbatoir, created some notoriety for the company as a risk taker. Experiencing Shakespeare in a goth-concrete former slaughterhouse was an eerie experience worth checking out! The show’s success earned an invitation to perform at The Shanghai Grand Theatre. More recently, Dream Weaver made waves with Titanic, Ship of Dreams, where the audience and actors mingled aboard a Huangpu River cruiser.

Message Brian to get involved: brian@dreamweavershows.com

And visit their site for more information: www.dreamweavershows.com/




East West Theatre: Specializes in More Intimate Shows


East West Theatre is Shanghai’s longest-running English-language theater company. Living up to its mission to deliver an “intimate, engaging, and thought-provoking theatrical experience with every single production,” East West Theatre has staged its share of tear-jerkers and heart-warmers. Fun Home, adapted from Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel, was a standout hit that had me tapping my toes to an upbeat musical satire one minute and clutching my tissue the next. Recently, East West joined Theatre Anon to produce Romeo & Juliet featuring an all-female cast, flipping the script on Shakespeare’s old trick of casting all boys.

To learn more, visit their website and subscribe to their newsletter for information about upcoming shows and auditions: www.eastwesttheatre.com




LWuD Theatre: The Newcomer


LWuD, or Love What U Do, is the creation of founder Noxolo Bhengu, and is in rehearsal (at time of writing) for its Shanghai debut. Their show, Unpacking, has something few other shows in Shanghai have: it’s an original work. In fact, Bhengu vows that “LWuD will stage 90% original plays so as to give… developing playwrights a platform.” As a writer, I approve. The company also commits to being representative and inclusive, embracing people of all colors and cultures. Is Bhengu nervous about the Shanghai debut? Not likely. Unpacking was first performed in Nanjing and was a great success. Bhengu is a born thespian with a background in dance as well as in acting and directing. One of her original works, Pink Tax, was shown last year as part of the production, Witness, which featured five Shanghai-grown writers.

Contact: lwud_theatre@yahoo.com





Theatre Anon: Appreciates the Avant Garde


Theatre Anon made its name in 2015 with its fun-for-all-ages adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. The show even toured to the Edinburg Theatre Festival that year, marking Anon’s second show to make the Festival. The first was, Black is the Color of my Voice,” a spotlight on the life and music of Nina Simone. Co-founder Natasha Portwood also directed the theater company’s latest show, Romeo & Juliet, which she insisted on staging with an all-female cast. The show’s commitment to transforming sixteen Shanghai-based women into engaging and pretty convincing teenage boys and girls hints that they are serious about creating something you’ve never seen before. In their own words, “Theatre Anon is an expression of love and theater.”

Follow them at: www.facebook.com/the.theatre.anon


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