Walking on Tightrope: Projection Design for “Zhuang Yuan Yu Qi Gai”

I just finished the lighting and projection design for Re Xin Opera​ Association’s first full-length Shaoxing Yue opera show, Zhuang Yuan Yu Qi Gai (roughly translates as “The Scholar and the Beggar”), on 12th June. When I was first approached to design for the show, I questioned myself how to design a “meaningful” LED backdrop system (this questioning process had actually started since The Butterfly Lovers earlier this year).

The portrait of “Qilin Bestows a Son” is used as the main visual for scene one, which sets a happy opening atmosphere and two brothers celebrated the first month anniversary of their sons. The couplets by the side, which roughly translates as a heavenly-given son becoming a top scholar, is a slight hint at how one of these two toddlers is to become a top scholar in future.

As a play with a high moral message, designing it the traditional way (creating realistic backdrops as if the LED wall is an extension of the real world), it would be too decorative in nature and passive. After much consideration, I adopted a more graphic design approach, using elements of traditional Chinese book and ink painting art as the set’s key visual. The resultant design consists of visuals in different styles of traditional Chinese fan paintings and traditional book art, which serves to provide a deeper connotation that compliment the storyline, and at the same time giving the performance space a sense of antiquity.

A painting of a modest hut with a peach blossom tree in the foreground (visual interpretation of the Chinese idiom tao Yuan man tian xia, which means having nurtured students everywhere), which ties in with the school setting in scene two. The painting overlaid over a poem penned by famous historical figure Lv Mengzheng (an extract of the poem was mentioned by the male lead of the show, and is an important phrase that dictated his path to success years down the road)

The only problem I faced was that I wasn’t sure if this approach would be something that can go down well with the audience, for it is something unseen before locally, especially so in Chinese opera. Hence it was virtually like walking on a tightrope. Thankfully, the final result was satisfying for me, and the response I received were generally positive.

An abstract backdrop consist of 2 different imageries: a woman on a weaving machine in the background (reinforcing visually on the female lead character supporting her son and herself through manual labour), and the juxtaposition of autumn maple and Chinese orchid (the autumn maple gives a melancholic overtone to the scene, whereas the Chinese orchid is a manifestation of the female lead character’s hardy and strong-willed nature)

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