Diverse, Equal, and Inclusive, CTTA is now on its Way!
Chinese Tradition Theatre Art society (CTTA), based at Goldsmiths, University of London, was founded in 2017. It is based on three principles, which are diversity, inclusiveness, and equality. The organisation was built with a passionate aim, of reducing cultural barriers and improving social inclusion through the production of international and multicultural theatre arts. It has also developed into an incubator where young artists from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and countries are supported and funded to celebrate their creative freedom and practice any form of artistic experimentation.
They select well-known ancient Chinese fairy tales as frameworks and reconstruct them to re-present the stories with an international perspective. Over the past five years, CTTA has trained over 200 young artists from more than 16 countries or regions and has presented over 300 theatre shows in the UK. Their works, such as ‘painted skin return’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Pangu’, and ‘3-1’, have been selected for the Prague Quadrennial, China Focus, and annual participation in the Edinburgh Fringe or Camden Fringe.
The founder, producer, and funder, Haisheng Chen, with a theatre production and education background, founded CTTA when he arrived in the UK and studied theatre entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, the University of London in 2017. Following his heart of producing inspiring plays to bridge social and cultural barriers, Haisheng changed his career path in China into a theatre producer in London. As his first step in the UK, he founded this community, which brings together young and talented artists from different cultural backgrounds to share ideas, knowledge, skills, cultures, and empathy for the world. His extensive experience in production management has helped him manage and guide the group to produce thrilling shows that have made them experienced theatre artists.
After graduating in 2018, Haisheng changed his role to become a patron and mentor of CTTA, as well as being accredited by his University to start his own theatre organisation, “Embracive”, collaborating with historical theatres, Chickenshed, Immediate Theatre and local schools, such as LCLC school in London, and producing plays for children, and young people on the autistic spectrum. For 5 years he has been providing funding, experience, and mentoring to CTTA’s young artists for successful productions, while at the same time enabling the community to become a pool of talent, with new ideas, scripts, and up-and-coming artists collaborating with Haisheng’s productions each year. The reciprocal relationship is producing more meaningful shows for a more diverse, equal, and inclusive world.
This year, 21 members of CTTA and Haisheng’s organisation, Embracive presented a new production with cutting-edge VR interaction technology, Pangu, at the Edinburgh Fridge and in London. The show has been rewarded with Sell-Out Laurels 2022 in Edinburgh Fridge. He brings artists from America, Japan, China and UK to work together and looks forward to more participants joining this egalitarian, diverse, and inclusive association to create new shows for social and cultural integration.
Photo: Haisheng Chen leading street performance of Painted Skin Return in Edinburgh Fringe
Question 1：What was the motivation for you to found this society when you just arrived in the UK?
It has always been a goal of mine to bring about greater understanding between people from different cultures and then reduce conflicts and hatred in the world, even from the time I was an ethics and performance teacher in China. This understanding is not just about understanding a range of data about other countries, but about creating empathy and putting ourselves in the place of other cultures. It is easy to have stereotypical derogatory terms in some cultures that we don’t know, such as shy or bold, reserved or arrogant. Before we jump to a conclusion, we can get closer and know them better. In my opinion, my best solution is to produce a culturally mixed programme by a group of people from different cultural backgrounds. Hence, I built up this group to encourage people from all over to make a show together and present it to a mixed audience. During the productions, I also promoted the idea of the artist who was new to a country. As one of them, when I first arrived here, I was also eager to be understood, embraced, and meet other people. This society has provided us with a platform not only for theatre-making but also for cultural interaction. Additionally, it is a practical implementation of bringing my team management skills from China to the UK.
Question 2: CTTA produces new programs and brings in new talent every year. How does this student association manage to do this, especially after senior members have graduated?
Let’s just imagine a moment when we sit in a creative meeting or a costume workshop with team members from all over the world, offering various ideas for producing the show, and everyone’s input comes together. Isn’t this a fascinating moment? When different backgrounds collide, art can be created for a wider range of people around the world. Especially for young artists who have a huge curiosity about other cultures and art, I believe that most of them enjoy being known and getting to know others. It is also the best remedy for their isolation and unfamiliarity when they first arrive in the UK. Moreover, we always mention to senior members that there is no team leader in the group, only an invisible catalyst exists to encourage members, eliminate conflicts, and pass on knowledge. We have created a very flat platform where everyone’s ideas are appreciated, discussed, and eventually adopted so that everyone becomes the owner of the team and then shows great confidence in the group. Therefore, with a vision of the world and a sense of belonging, not only students on campus, but members after graduation fears, would come together to contribute to production. Knowledge and experience are accumulated and inherited year by year. I often attend production meetings with some of the older members, from the start of recruitment to the end of the show, offering advice, making connections, and providing funding.
Question 3: Please tell us about a show that you are most proud of.
It was my first production in the UK in 2018. The show, Painted Skin Return, based on a fairy tale from an ancient book made in 124 B.C., The Classic of Mountains and Seas, is known for its educational relevance in reflecting modern society. We used the storyline as a framework and added eight cultural elements, such as Brazilian musicians, Japanese choreography, and Korean set design. The story is about a female ghost who falls in love with a scholar, and what true love is when they face betrayal. To engage a more international audience, we did not use any dialogue, but presented the stage with body language and danced with metaphorical music. Hence, every audience member from different cultural backgrounds was able to grasp the main points. Then the magic moment happened, as Chinese and British audiences came together to cry over the show at Edinburgh Fringe. We also presented the show in Prague, China, and of course in London.
Question 4: It's been five years since you set up this team, have you and your members encountered any difficulties?
Communication is the key, but it is also the most difficult part of cross-cultural teamwork. Our goal is to provide everyone with a stage to present themselves. That means that we need to put everything on the same plate. However, we encountered a large number of cultural barriers and misunderstandings among team members. Hence, as I said, we don’t need team leaders, but catalysts. Senior members and I spent plenty of time communicating with team members to remove cultural barriers. Additionally, communication helps us to find the right person and put them in the right positions. Sometimes, young artists might not know what they are good at or what they want. Once we share our experiences honestly as advice and let them freely choose positions within the team, such as lighting, setting, performers, and even fundraising, new members could largely achieve what they wish to pursue.
Question 5: You have been running a new organisation in London since 2018, why have you continued to support this community?
Firstly, I regard society as part of my home and it is a precious memory of when I was learning and producing the first show in London with talented people from all over, just for the arts. It has been such a wonderful experience. Also, it is very important to have the first step for international young artists. This would allow them to practice their skills and help them integrate into the UK arts scene, which would otherwise be very confusing for everyone, as it was for me when I first arrived. Last but not least, I realised that my career was growing with this society, as all the members joined my productions in various ways, such as becoming freelance, sharing international festival information, and even bringing in investments for my shows. It has in turn become part of the pool of talent and ideas for my organisation. I am so grateful for this association that I have continued to fund and support it.
Photo: Haisheng Chen leading production team in Edinburgh Fringe
Haisheng started as a young artist intending to reduce social and cultural barriers, and he is now using his experience as a producer to support young artists from around the world. In this group, Haisheng treats all members as owners of the society. These members are creating wonderful productions and bringing Haisheng growth in his theatre career. This reciprocal two-way exchange has created a crop of young artists who embrace the world soundly.
Cover photo: Painted Skin Return at Paradise Green Augustines, Edinburgh (2018). Photo by Benny Liu.
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