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Portrait of an Artist: Yan Chen, Dramaturg and Rhodes Scholar

Yan Chen A.R.T. image
Yan Chen, a graduate of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, has been named a Rhodes Scholars for China for 2019.

Chinese dramaturg Yan Chen knew little about what dramaturgy entailed before applying to study the discipline at Harvard’s award-winning American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), but she has come a long way since. She was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship after studying and training across continents at Nanjing University, A.R.T, Moscow Art Theatre School in Russia, and other theaters globally. The Harvard Crimson spoke with her about her aspirations to promote the greater diversification and inclusivity of theater for cross-cultural understanding.

The Harvard Crimson: What are your aspirations for American theater?

Yan Chen: Theater cultivates empathy, and collaboration is essential. Even with one person shows, you have to have people — like lighting and sound people. You “can't do it alone,” as said in “Chicago.” Right now, there are extremely exciting emerging playwrights, and the conversations American theater is having about diversity and inclusion are fantastic. At the same time, international artists or works rarely seem to come into the picture. Institutions like Brooklyn Academy of Music or Arts Emerson in Boston make it part of their mission to bring international artists over, but why can't all our other theaters look into having more transcultural exchanges? The A.R.T. has historically been an artistic home for visionary, international theater, and it produced works by directors like Andrei Serban and Krystian Lupa. During my time there, I saw touring productions from Ireland and from Nigeria. Things like that deserve to happen across American theater on a much larger scale. There are a lot of practical difficulties that being an international student or artist in America can entail. How do you get work here? What do you have to do to prove you have extraordinary talent to get the O-1 visa? American theater talks very much about American theater, but I wish it could expand to include international theater and artists in the conversation.

THC: Can you provide an example of how your international experience — your work in China and training there, and then in the USA, the UK, Russia and Poland — informs the kind of theater work you do?

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YC: It was actually through my work at the A.R.T. that I worked on my first professional production in China. Alumnus Dmitry Troyanovsky is Russian-American, and he had been teaching and directing projects in Shanghai since 2011. He invited me to collaborate with him on the mainland Chinese premiere of a German play called “The Ugly One.” I researched why the play had been successful in multiple countries to figure out how we could better make it resonate with audiences in China. The play was about plastic surgery and explored the instability of identity and self-perception which was very pertinent in China, both because plastic surgery had become increasingly popular and because China was undergoing enormous changes in landscape and economy, in people's perceptions of self-worth and identity. Our conversations about the play were not just about how to preserve an authentic German-ness, nor about bringing an American perspective to it, nor how to localize the play to make it authentically Chinese. When you have people from different cultures working on something, the result is a fascinating hybrid quite unlike anything you've seen before.

THC: What do you plan to do with your Rhodes scholarship?

YC: In recent years [the Rhodes has] made a huge effort to geographically expand so that more people across the world can benefit from the Rhodes Scholarship. The Rhodes only entered China in 2015, and I'm part of the fourth class of Chinese Rhodes Scholars. I'm planning to do a one-year Master's in comparative literature or English. Then, I'm hoping to apply for a PhD in English, specializing in drama and theater.

THC: What impact do you hope to make with the Rhodes scholarship?

YC: To use the opportunity to advocate for theater and for the importance of humanities and the arts. In China, there's this prejudice that only people who can't excel academically go into the arts. The other perception is that you can only make it in the arts if your family is rich. I don't come from a rich family; I have had to depend on scholarships throughout the years to sustain my studies.

The Rhodes attracted me because it places such an emphasis on service. Its slogan is “fighting the world's fight.” A lot of people choose to fight the world’s fight through politics or through public service. I was there to make the argument that theater is also an essential way to better the lives of other people. I ended up being the first Chinese Rhodes Scholar to have majored in the arts. I was thinking before my interview that if I won, it would be a really great opportunity to show parents, fellow students, and everyone that it's possible for people majoring in the arts to have excelled in academics. Those things are not mutually exclusive. You can do a lot for society through the arts, as I saw at the A.R.T.

THC: What is your vision for accessibility and diversity in theater?

YC: Making theater accessible means thinking about who you've been leaving out. One example I like from my A.R.T. days was “James and the Giant Peach,” in which the theater had a sensory-friendly performance for those on the autism spectrum and with other sensory sensitivities. Preparing to make that theatrical experience friendly for those audiences was one of the most special experiences of my life. There were parents who told us afterward that this is the one chance they get every year to come to the theater as a family, and to have an outing all together. When you hear from those audiences, it's not about patting yourself on the back and being like, “I’m so moved.” It's more about, “There were people who could only go to theater once a year, because we don't have enough accessible performances. What can we do to further change that?” It's not about what you've done so far, it's about, “What else am I not doing?” That's also true for myself, because the Rhodes is an affirmation of what you've done so far. But even more than that, it's an investment in your future and in the promises that you've made.

—Staff writer Shruthi Venkata can be reached at shruthi.venkata@thecrimson.com.

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