Stealing scenes, winning hearts and minds

Cast members of Robin Hood by the Beijing Playhouse are of different backgrounds, nationalities and ages.

The classic tale of Robin Hood and his merry men is well-known around the world. But many may not have ever seen it like this: The characters in Robin Hood, instead of eating steak and eggs, chow down on baozi (Chinese steamed buns) and stinky tofu (originally a Chinese snack made of fermented tofu); and the heroic outlaw lives in the city of Tianjin, rather than inhabiting the historic forests of England. Furthermore, the humor shifts from language to physical humor.

Everything in this new version of the Robin Hood musical comedy, which will be staged from Dec 5 to 21 and is produced by Beijing Playhouse, is a zany twist on the classic story.

"It is not your grandmother′s traditional Robin Hood," says Chris Verrill, 49, founder and executive director of Beijing Playhouse, the largest locally produced Broadway-style English theater established in 2006 in Beijing.

The 100 cast and crew members in the show are of different countries and work at different jobs. Playing the title role is 23-year-old Lucas Pinoli, who joined Beijing Playhouse in late September.

Born in Hong Kong and living in Beijing since he was 4, Pinoli moved to the United States for college. A few months ago, he moved back to China after graduating and works in a film company in Beijing.

Thanks to being involved in various choirs at his school, Pinoli has gained a lot of experience on stage and in front of the camera. With a great interest in acting, he auditioned for Robin Hood.

"(Now) I usually walk around pretending like I am an English man who indulges in tightly fitted apparel and has an overzealous attitude toward social inequality," Pinoli says. "Physically, I work out whenever I have time and fix my posture to something that would scream confidence. It′s fun, and it gets me prepared mentally."

Cast members of Robin Hood by the Beijing Playhouse are of different backgrounds, nationalities and ages. Photo provided to China Daily

Verrill says it usually takes 18 months to do a Beijing Playhouse show. In summer 2013, the artistic board of Beijing Playhouse started finalizing the script, securing partners and recruiting crew members.

"First, we select and then pay for the performance license of professionally written scripts from New York and London. Then we direct them in such a way that transcends language and is enjoyable across cultures," says Verrill.

With an early successful Internet business in the US, Verrill has worked as a director and actor during the last 25 years. He moved to Beijing from San Francisco in 2005 and took a job as a creator, original producer and co-anchor at China Radio International before he decided to launch a theater company.

His original plan was to stay through the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and go back home to San Francisco. But the first show of Beijing Playhouse, Charles Dickens′ classic tale, A Christmas Carol, changed his mind.

Verrill received 70 applicants from all different backgrounds, nationalities and ages to audition for the first production′s cast of 10. Held in December 2006 at Beijing′s Canadian International School auditorium, the production ran for 20 nights and the last show drew a near full house.

Throughout the years, Beijing Playhouse has presented such Broadway favorites as the musicals Guys and Dolls, You Can′t Take It With You, Shakespeare′s Romeo and Juliet and Neil Simon′s The Odd Couple. Casting requires two things, says Verrill: the actor′s ability to act, sing and dance, and the ability to perform in English. In Robin Hood, the youngest actor is 7 and the oldest is 61.

Ellen Lickman plays Maid Marian in Robin Hood. Her first show with Beijing Playhouse was Cinderella. She joined in September 2011, a month after she arrived in the city.

"I′d originally gone along to a meeting just to see where I could help out, work on the crew or be an usher. I was convinced by Verrill and ended up with the title role," says Lickman, 23, who came from Northampton, the United Kingdom, on a six-month teaching internship, which stretched into more than three years.

"I took drama classes for many years as a child and teenager and had been in many local productions. I was amazed I could continue with what I know and love in China."

Cast members of Robin Hood by the Beijing Playhouse are of different backgrounds, nationalities and ages. Photo provided to China Daily

Since then she′s performed in other Beijing Playhouse productions, including Snow White and Our Town, as well as assistant directing The Wizard of Oz.

"The audiences keep growing. It′s nice to see a mix of Chinese and foreign families, and many non-English speakers, too," she says.

Now, Beijing Playhouse is based at British School of Beijing in the Sanlitun area. The rehearsal is five times a week in the evenings and weekends to accommodate players with day jobs.

Beijing Playhouse has been built as a brand, including Beijing Playhouse Talent Agency actors and Beijing Playhouse Academy of Performing Arts children′s educational programs. Around 1,000 actors are on the roster.

"The biggest problem is a lack of understanding about theater," says Verrill, "both from an artistic perspective and an economic perspective. But we keep pushing forward and developing an audience."

Verrill says that he′ll probably spend the next 20 years-the rest of his career-working here. He loves being able to make a difference in the lives of Chinese people.

"Like all theaters should be, our expectation for the future is completely dependent on the audience. We′ve been here for eight years. If the audiences want, we′ll be here for another 80," he says.

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