"Wild Swans" Makes Community Connections

by Madeline Smith

In conjunction with the opening of Jung Chang's play Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, the American Repertory Theater has launched a collaborative Community Memoir—an open forum for the reflection and discussion of Chinese culture. I talked to A.R.T. Outreach and Education Associate Brendan Shea, who is curating the project.

What was the original vision for the Community Memoir? Has it deviated since?

The original idea was to cast the community as memoirists like Jung Chang (the author of Wild Swans); originally we had though to put a giant corkboard in the lobby for people to pin up memories of China. The opportunity to work with the metaLAB (at) Harvard actually provided a much better vehicle to tell these stories— Zeega is cutting edge, it's innovative, and it broadens the access to the community to beyond the A.R.T. lobby. So much for the corkboard.

What is the relationship between reading/watching the Community Memoir and seeing a performance of Wild Swans? How would familiarity with the Community Memoir or, more generally, an understanding of Chinese culture inform an audience member? Is this necessary?

The Community Memoir can stand on its own as a total experience, but it interacts with the production in a couple meaningful ways. First, there are some people that have contributed to the project (shared their personal stories) BEFORE seeing the production—we give them tickets to the show as a thank-you, and they experience Jung Chang's memoir on stage. They, like Jung Chang, have just adapted their life story to another form of narrative, so they can relate to the process of life-becoming-art represented by Wild Swans. They can interact with their own story in the lobby of the theater, before and after the performance. Suddenly, they recognize their place in the continuum of Wild Swans, they have participated in the holistic experience of the production by contributing to the Community Memoir.

The flipside would be those who, coming out of the performance, are inspired by Jung Chang's courage in telling her story, and eager to share their own (if they have a similar experience, and many patrons actually have). The Community Memoir is there, in the lobby. It's on our website, too, so they can check it out when they get home. There are instructions included that provide all the steps to making a YouTube video or Soundcloud track of your own story; you can send it to us and we can include it in the project. Now, these community members whose storytelling instincts were activated by the live theater experience—they have an immediate outlet for their creative impulse, and a way to add to the larger narrative of Wild Swans from the comfort of their own homes.

How is technology like Zeega changing the way we can tell stories?

Zeega is revolutionary, in that it's an extremely lightweight platform that sources all its content from public media sites like YouTube, Flickr and Soundcloud. It automatically cites whatever images, video or audio tracks you embed in the project, so it positions the Internet as this boundless source of storytelling material.

The non-linear and interactive nature of Zeega also jibes with a generation that, today, actively engages with its storytelling. Games like Skyrim, non-linear stories like Collapsus, the social performance that is Twitter and Facebook, I mean, we have fundamentally changed the way we choose to receive narrative. Zeega gives us the opportunities to tell stories in a way that feels instantly comfortable to a plugged-in culture, and it's so versatile that it can really be used for any genre. We're extremely fortunate to be the first outside the metaLAB to make a project on Zeega, and we hope to continue working with it as it develops.

What is the message of the Community Memoir?

We have an incredible wealth of stories in our backyard, some of which are equal in power and complexity to what Jung Chang put to paper in Wild Swans. Providing a safe space to tell these stories, and in a new and innovative way, encourages people to have a more participatory relationship to the production and become instant memoirists.

[Caption: A scene from the A.R.T. production "Wild Swans" at the Loeb Drama Center (photo by Michael J. Lutch).]