(I) Formwork: The Peking Opera Project

Some time ago I was invited, as a writer, to participate in a workshop designed to introduce western-trained actors to the training methods and performance styles of Peking Opera. The workshop, entitled Formwork by its director, Sally Sussman, was funded by the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council and the Australia-China Council.

The text was to arise from my experience of the workshop process. I was given great freedom within these bounds. In retrospect, neither the workshop nor the text are the elements of the experience I most value now. The workshop has long since concluded and my contract has long been fulfilled, but Formwork remains in my consciousness as a significant learning experience. In the language of biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1987), autopoietically, through the experience of Formwork, I have found congruence in new relationships. I have come to participate differently in a world that has changed.

Because Formwork was a research project that sought to develop familiarity with a highly refined performance style, the physical training of the bodies of the performers was an extremely important part of the process. Accordingly, explanations of the performance tradition that the actors were being initiated into were largely confined to physical explanations. The tradition was passed from body to body. The fact that the Chinese actors and musicians spoke very little English ensured, even more so, that physical training methods predominated.

The physical training was structured around repetition. Over the course of the workshop, a range of key movement-patterns was developed and refined in this way. The movements would be demonstrated, the actors would copy the movements then repeat them continually. Further movements and combinations of movements would then be introduced. They, too, would be repeated. Repetition was not used to ‘get the movement right.’ In Peking Opera, repetition of physical action is regarded as a way of absorbing information. There is a deliberate attempt, in this form of training, not to engage the actor in thought. The actor needs only to learn the action in order to repeat it. The body learns, then contains the information that comprises the style and the role, and therein contains the performance. It is the body that enters most fully into this research process. As the body learns, so the body changes as a result of that learning.

(II) Valuing the Learning

Quite by chance, several weeks after the presentation, I came to review the notes I made during the period of the workshop. As I did this, I began to reflect upon the manner in which changes had occurred between my various drafts. As might be expected, there is a substantial difference between the meandering thoughts I put down when the subject was first broached and the document that the final performances were drawn from. Without close scrutiny, the former is not recognisable in the latter. It occurred to me that these changes could be mapped. They could then be characterised as evidence of the learning process that I had undergone during the writing. Each of the twelve drafts could then be seen as representing stages in my learning. Each could be seen as signposts signifying, not only my direction, but my depth of involvement in the process. Through this study, the influences that contributed to those stages could then be analysed and reviewed. Consequently, the learning could be approached as subject matter and my own experience of learning, in the context of the workshop, talked about.

(III) The Writing

The first draft of the text for Formwork, written before the workshop began, and influenced largely by presuppositions, was constructed around a central character whom I called – and who called himself – ‘The Anthropologist.’ The allegiance of the anthropologist is divided between two communities. One community he documents; the other community he creates the documents for. Like me at the early stage of the process, the Anthropologist was detached from the community he sought to document. He observes them from afar, with a pretence of knowledge and an abundance of confidence in his authority. “I am the custodian” he said, “Quickly! Their rituals, their secrets, their heartfelt emotions. I must write them down.” “Your tragedy, your happiness is safe in my hands,” he mumbled to himself as he constructed a hideout from which to observe “tarpaulin on the roof, insulated, new steel beams. Furniture with cushions too. Binoculars… The view.” I find it curious that the character was written, often speaking in rhyme. This was not a considered strategy. The rhyme arose in the writing. Perhaps it is a comment upon the ease of rhyme. Of greater interest to me is my construction of parallels between my position in the project and the position from which the Anthropologist casts his view. It is as if the view of the Anthropologist was mine, as if, through the Anthropologist, I was speaking for myself. His was my attitude. I was then little more than a very distant observer.

(IV) The Refugee

The second draft was also developed before the workshop began. In that draft, I teased out a rough image of a character that I was developing an increasing interest in. I called this character ‘The Refugee.’ The Refugee was a further development of the Anthropologist. The Anthropologist’s confusion about commitment is shared by the Refugee. His emotional involvement in these problems was however much greater. That strong emotional involvement contributed to the Refugee becoming an image (though not a character) of long standing significance. The character of the Refugee is also central to Heiner Müller’s The Battle (1989). In The Battle, Müller suggests that the only advantage to be drawn from warfare is the possibility of rebirth. He suggests that this is a privilege that is conferred upon the refugee. It is a reward for the hardship the refugee suffers. Müller asserts that, by surviving a major conflict with his or her past in ashes, the refugee is born again into a new world and a new life.

The Refugee leaves a considerable amount behind. Usually, a refugee experiences a lack of social order and/or a hostile incoming government, but, more importantly, the loss of a network of family and friends, an history of associations, a culture and a language through which that history and that culture has been understood. But there are other refugees. It is not simply political upheaval that can give rise to the refugee experience. “I am the emotional refugee,” I wrote in a margin as a note to come back to. “I have had to leave feelings behind me.” I repeated the line. It stayed in my mind. It reverberated within me. As a metaphor for a variety of experiences, the Refugee continued (and continues) to ferment. I find it next to impossible to conceive of the refugee as separate from the emotion that the experience contains. “I am the emotional refugee. I have had to leave feelings behind me.” Is not the experience of the child, who arriving at adulthood, feeling the need to leave the family home and establish a home of his or her own, analogous to that of the refugee? Yes, but I hesitated. Generally, the experience of the child lacks the intensity of the refugee. Yet the analogy has validity. “I am the emotional refugee.” Unlike the child, the refugee cannot return: “I have had to leave feelings behind me.”

As the workshop got underway and I was introduced to the local and the Chinese performers, my participation became more considerable. The image of the Refugee was consolidated as I gained a greater appreciation of the histories of each of the Chinese performers. Each were, and still are, refugees. Each have, as a result of perceived and/or actual threats within their homeland, left family members, friends, and established careers to make a new home in a new land within a new culture. In doing so, they have confronted new knowledge, new authority, new forms of respect and, by no means least, new bodies shaped by new learning. These new phenomena continue to challenge the learning that has shaped them; the learning – carefully crafted by decades of training – that they embody.

In the next draft, characters were delineated numerically. Hence, ‘Character One,’ who grew out of the image of the Anthropologist into that of the Refugee, spoke of his experience:

Everyday I see them. Reflections in windows. Just over my shoulder. Disappearing round corners, I see them and I smell them. In the stale afternoon breeze, from a kitchen beyond a high wall, from the block of flats next to the bus stop, from the home units next to the store. I smell them and I feel them. Stepping in my front door. Standing between me and the wall. Looking down at me as I lie on my bed and recall. The war. I am the refugee. Get behind me. Memories. The mattress is moulded to the sagging weight of my body. My wife. I recall.(V) A Classical Form

The third draft (written during the early workshop sessions) displays a strong response to Peking Opera training methods and performance strategies, particularly the use of percussion. The notes taken during these sessions focussed on the relationship between the form and its characters. I came to understand that Peking Opera was a classical form; that the repertoire of works that are performed are limited and longstanding; that performances are built around recognised character-types; and, that, just as a classical concert pianist or a classical ballet dancer may perform a well-known work with great sensitivity or delicacy or ebullience, so the Peking Opera actor may display virtuosity in the performance of a character-type.

As the workshop progressed, it became obvious that the technique with which the Peking Opera actor creates his character is very strictly defined. On one occasion, I was astonished to hear Zhang Zhijun distinguish between positionings of the feet of a performer with the comment (translated by the director), “This is not like Peking Opera; this is Peking Opera.” I came to understand that, while Peking Opera characters are defined by their movement, such movement has its origins in another era – a feudal era ruled by an Emperor and his court and populated by peasants, warriors, sages, maidens and magic. Therefore, an audience requires cultural knowledge as well as aesthetic sensibility to appreciate the subtleties that are being explored. In performance, these subtleties are articulated in conversation with live music. In the workshop. I heard the rhythms being established and the performances being built. I saw characters move, time pass, locations shift, and drama unfold within the bounds of the music. I realised that a text for such a performance would require that the language patterns employed in conversation be co-ordinated with the music which shapes the movement of the performance. In contrast to western drama, the contents of any speech are integrated with, rather that separate from, the mood created by music and the meaning articulated through movement. The fact that none of the Chinese employed in Formwork had a strong understanding of English made it even more important that the meaning of the words I wrote could be conveyed through their sound or their performance sufficiently to allow the percussionists to score their impact. I began to appreciate that, in Peking Opera, image, music and movement are co-equal with word.

(VI) The Four Characters

The image I used to carry the next stage of the writing forward was ‘The Crocodile.’ This character became a further development of the Refugee. By naming the Refugee the Crocodile, I began working with a persona. The image of the crocodile was, at first, a self-conscious reflection upon Peking Opera. After observing the workshop, it occurred to me that, like Peking Opera, the crocodile has arrived at an evolutionary standstill. It has reached a degree of specialisation that renders it impervious to demands that it evolve further. It now requires that others adapt to it. It is reminiscent of a brutal past and it teases us with an uncertain future. I saw it then as an endangered form, threatened by an encroaching civilisation armed with technologies that far outstrip its natural capacity to survive. Like Peking Opera, if the crocodile is to survive, it must be protected.

The first character that rose from the swampy confusion occurred to me as ‘an Innocent’ – a character who could, inadvertently, upset the balance contained within the all-encompassing Crocodile and let chaos loose. Just as I envisaged the first character as a simple character, I envisaged the story as a simple story. I took my inspiration from the images of feudal China which were becoming manifest in the workshop each day: the nobleman, the maiden, the warrior, the peasant, the horseman, and more.

Narratives often begin when a balance of tensions is broken. Inevitably, the character who breaks the harmony suffers as a result of this action. However, if the character is an Innocent in a simple story like this, then the character must emerge from the suffering, wiser. A new form of balance must arise. This is the journey of learning, the process of change, the transformation of an individual, and, through that individual, a community. Necessarily, conflict experienced by one has an impact upon others. Inevitably, levels of social crisis are experienced before a new balance can be formed.

If there were to be an Innocent, there would have to be a countervailing force – a leader, a person of authority, a person who consciously sought to maintain the relationships that sustained the harmony. Applying the principles of Yin and Yang, what the Innocent lacked in confidence, the ‘Leader’ would have in abundance. The small measure of conscious consideration that the Innocent applied to his experience would lie in stark contrast to the conscious calculation of the Leader. The Leader, who I also viewed as representing the authority of the state, was therefore juxtaposed against the individual within the state, the large against the small, the important against the insignificant. Strength in one would have to be balanced against weakness in the other. As in any systemic relationship, change in any one member produces change in the others.

It seemed necessary that the two other characters that sustained the balance would also have to have a complementary relationship. As much of the workshop revolved around mind-body relationships, it seemed appropriate that the third character could be circumscribed as representing mind and the fourth as representing body. Hence, by the sixth draft, four distinct characters were now drawn from the whole. They were called the ‘Crocodile’ and the ‘Leader,’ the ‘Philosopher’ and the ‘Chef.’

(VII) Introducing the Characters

In the next few drafts, I worked on developing the relationship between the four characters. While I imagined the characters as initially four parts of a whole, each physically and emotionally connected to the other, I imagined them also as shifting, moving, interacting, and being transformed. Accordingly, I scripted a sequence in which each individual would become subsumed by the group, then emerge, then merge back, then emerge again. I imagined it as an unfolding motion – a weaving and interweaving of community. I saw this as a starting point, a point from which individual characters could be introduced:

ABehind me
CBehind me,
ABehind me,
CBehind me.
BHunched forward
CIn search of…


AI am the crocodile.
A,B,C,DI am isolated. I am specialised. I am highly skilled.
BI, the leader.
CI, the chef.
DI, the philosopher. You…
B,C,DThe fool.


AI am the crocodile.

(VIII) The Storyline

As the characters and their relationships became more focussed, both the style and the content of the text became more clear. If the Crocodile were to become a refugee, there must be a reason why he leaves home. There must be a reason why the energy that holds the four together is broken. If it were to be misunderstanding, even as a consequence of innocence or simplicity, there had to be some substance to that misunderstanding, some suggestion of duplicity.

The next few drafts were focussed on the structuring of a storyline appropriate to the style. That script is summarised in the extracts that follow. The extracts are taken from the final drafts. In these extracts, character A is the Crocodile, B is the Leader, C is the Chef, and D is the Philosopher.

DI eat, thus I am.
BHazelnuts, honey dew, strawberries, lime. Venison, veal, apricots, thyme.
CReady? Leader?


AMe? Am I to be eaten?
BWheat and potatoes, barley and yam.
CSheep and potatoes, tomatoes and ham.
DStew with potatoes, rockmelon and lamb.


AFillet of crocodile? Who gives a… damn.
BHazelnuts, honey dew, strawberries, lime. I wonder with what does crocodile rhyme?


AThere is an old song. My mother. I sat at her knee. I sat quietly. Humming. Singing. “I think that I must, to reach an old age…”
BHide all my alcohol.
CKeep away from sharp knives.
DNever read Nietzsche.
AFind somewhere… To hide.

Having made the decision to leave, the Crocodile undertakes a long and difficult journey. This is performed symbolically in a series of figure 8 sweep around the performance area. The text that supports these sweeps tracks the Crocodile through a series of different environments until he finds himself, at last, in a land in which he can rest. In exile, his experience resembles that of the refugee. Meanwhile, in the home land, the disorientation caused by the departure of the Crocodile creates problems for the Leader. The Leader, nevertheless, is reluctant to accept responsibility. Finally, fearing a loss of authority, the Leader agrees to lead the others away from their home to attempt a reunification with the Crocodile.

BThe solution it seems, to this melancholy disease…
BHe’ll be back. You’ll see. Meanwhile…
DLet’s pack bags and travel (I’m scared on my own).
BPlease. The orders come from me (I must try to take the lead). Put brandy into caskets. Put muesli into sacks. (pause) My brave and faithful subjects. (Travel makes me ill.) Let us find… the crocodile.

The Leader, the Chef, and the Philosopher set off in search of the Crocodile. Their journey is performed in one of the more emblematic of the movement sequences developed during the workshop. Meanwhile the Crocodile, a long way from home, feels a strong connection to his homeland and the significance it holds.

ACrocodile’s in exile. Should I become the modern reptile? Should I wear a tailored suit? Should I take up ocean racing? Trade in futures? Learn the flute?


CYour village.
D… Caallllls.
BHate. (pause) Responsible people.
CDon’t neglect their…
C, DCroc, croc, croc, Crocodile. Fate.

The Crocodile, too, is thinking of the past. His difficulties in adapting to the new land lead him to ponder those he left behind. His distress is now palpable.

ATo my isolation. I invite. Those who cared enough… To cast. Me. Out.

The Leader, Chef, and Philosopher finally track their compatriot down. Upon arriving in the new land, each character has an individual response to the new environment:

CThe breeze warms my nose.
DThe waves lap my skin.
BThe sun burns me. Madly. Again.
CThis foreign land. Wonderful. The food, the light the…
BCyclones too.
DThe dreams, desires intrigue me here.
BBut lightning strikes. This time of year. (pause) Drunkards retch. Barmaids swear. Cabbies curse. Clergymen glare. Mosquitoes strike. Sand flies sting. Blue bottles kill. Lying birds sing. The men are corrupted. The women all squeal. The children take bribes. The puppy dogs steal.

Following reunification with the Crocodile and realising that the Crocodile is reluctant to welcome his antagonists, the Leader makes an offer:

BI will find you a swamp. To sink down in.

Considering the offer, the Crocodile asks himself:

AIf daffodils can flower. If kangaroos can hop. If green tomatoes redden, cannot leaders change their spots?

(IX) Refining the Text: The Characters

With the characters and the narrative defined, in the next few drafts I added detail to that which already existed and fashioned the work more effectively to the skills of the actors and the requirements of the director. As the workshop entered its final phase, those requirements were defined increasingly by the presentation that was scheduled.

Realising that there would be neither the time, the skill, nor indeed the script to present a full-scale performance, it was decided that a programme would be compiled which would introduce the audience to the creative process through segments of the script. It was decided that each performer would be given an opportunity to develop a set piece and that another segment be developed to display the actors working as an ensemble. Two tasks emerged as priorities. The first was the development of a more complete definition of each of the four characters through a brief monologue. The second was the development of a section of text to enrich the character-based ‘walks’ being developed as ensemble pieces. These walks became known as ‘the male walk’ and ‘the female walk.’ They were developed from the movement patterns of male and female characters that had been workshopped.

Changes between the final drafts were minimal. The most significant influence upon the work was further insight into the Tao or Yin/Yang aspect of Peking Opera character-types. This insight arose during discussions with the director. It was pointed out that, in performance, Peking Opera characters engage in dialogue behind a ‘fourth wall.’ During this dialogue, characters may turn to the audience and explain their real motivation. In my script, the asides took the form of the inner thoughts of the characters.

Crocodile:Crocodile’s in exile. (pause) Yet still. My past. I can smell it. Just. Enough to. Remind me. Momentarily. A glance. From the corner of my eye…the angle whence timber holds up a roof. The leaves of a tree. A shoe. A sound too. That shoe. That clap. That hand. That child’s call. I am transported. Against common sense. (pause) Unwanted, there. Yet. As I sit. Here. Now. Unavoidably. I dream of. Somewhere. Else.


Crocodile. Do not challenge. I am the leader. (Though secretly I doubt.) When I was young. A hairless boy. I played. Violent games. I’ve scars to show. Control. Was then what adults used. Now I’m grown. A giant inside. (Though fear I fail to inspire.) Leadership’s the game I play. I step forth. Grown strong. I’m not a child. Any more. Like some.


I am the chef. (pause) Remember. The last time we made curried beef. My heart pumped blood frantically. A crimson flush flooded my skin. I feared that you. (The crocodile; my friend.) You’d mock. You’d laugh. (My allergy is my disgrace.) Remember, you just looked at me. You smiled. The laugh as it occurred to you. How did I train my heart to spin. From head to toe at such a speed what flows so slowly when we. (laugh) Bleed.


I am the philosopher. (pause) Crocodile. (He has character, but lacks intelligence.) I told you, the croc, of Descartes. I told you, the croc, of Marx. I told you, the croc, of Heidegger. (pause) Twice. (pause) Your eyes are beginning to close. (He never listens.) Now. If free will is available. Belief arrives by choice. But faith is beneficial. Only assuming god is nice. Stop sleeping. Reptile. (pause) He closes his eyes so gently. I tip-toe from the room. Crocodile, sleep sweetly. You simple minded animal. (I’m a monumental. Bore.)

(X) The Walks

The character-based walks, performed as ensemble pieces, also required that two sides of the characters be displayed. Sussman described the walks as a four stage process: beginning, flow, change, and new state (or new beginning). Thus, within each walk, a transformation needed to occur that indicated the change within the character type. These transformations were structured into both the male and the female walks. Both male and female actors performed both walks.

Female walk:My heart is a cloud.

I hover in the stillness of the sky.

I am patience.

Your servant.

A smile of virtue.

My head tilts, oblique.

The danger.

Once butterfly.

Now snake.

My body curls slowly.

I crush.


Smooth sincere seductive.

You deceive me.

Bones shatter.

My pressure.



Male walk:

My sentinels guard the palace.

My tempests guard the sea.

My soldier.

His brave chest bared.

Guards the people.

With dignity.

Shield and spear.





Whispering on duty.


He moves.

Ears lift.

Eyes shift.

Mouths repeat rumours.

They will assassinate.


(XI) Further Reflection on Writing & Characterisation

On re-reading the drafts I prepared for Formwork, I feel the need to comment further upon the style of writing that unfolded during the process.

The Chinese percussion that punctuates performance was a very significant factor in the development of the text. The percussion suggests formal limitations to the expression that I could employ. The short sentences, the sharp images, the layering of images, the building towards effects, the rapid interplay between individuals, and the pauses structured into the writing, all are a consequence of the relationship between music and movement that is contained within the form.

As the writer, I saw my role in Formwork as somewhat similar to that of the musicians. I was there to create sounds and rhythms, as much as words, which the actors could use to generate movement around the stage. Not only did I want to write words to suit the instrumentation, I also wanted to write words that would enable the performers and the musicians to extend each other towards virtuoso performances. Narrative structure and the unfolding of character were of much less importance.

The manner in which I portrayed individuals also deservesa final comment. The Crocodile, Chef, Philosopher and Leader are no more than caricatures. As such, they are akin to what is called in Peking Opera ‘character-types.’ They are broadly drawn. As I sketched them, I found myself playing with them. By placing them in a conflict that caused them to be transported beyond their home territory into a physical and social environment as ignorant of them as they are of it, I found myself enjoying able to ‘stretch’ them. In the process, I found that I was bringing them – these Peking Opera character-types – closer to my experience. I found I was identifying with them rather than relating to them as representatives of an exotic form. I was, I realised, writing my experience as theirs. This is an important recognition. It emphasizes my experience. While my experience is not that of an alien culture, it includes enough to allow me to try to feel my way into the experience of these others. Yet, while representing others to others, it is remarkable for me to realise that I am finally only talking to and about myself.



Barba, Eugenio (1986) Beyond the Floating Islands (New York: P.A.J. Publications).Barba, Eugenio (1994) The Paper Canoe: A Treaty on Theatre Anthropology (London: Routledge).

Brecht, Bertholt (1948) ‘The Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting,’ in John Willett (ed.), Brecht on Theatre (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978).

Gardner, Howard (1982) Art, Mind and Brain (New York: Basic Books).

Maturana, H.R. and Varela, F.J. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge (Boston: Shambhala).

Müller, Heiner. (1989) The Battle (New York: P.A.J. Publications).