Whose line is it, anyway?

BEIJING, China — It’s difficult to get excited in a room so muggy even the ceiling fans seem to wilt. But the stifling heat and the early hour don’t dampen the infectious energy of Zhong Na. Standing in her socks in front of a room full of young migrant women, most between the ages 16 and 20, Zhong Na grabs a large beach ball and tosses it to one of the girls, first shouting out her own name, then the girl’s name.

Zhong Na is leading a class in theater and dance techniques at Nongjianu Xue Xiao, a school for migrant women so far out in the suburbs of Beijing that the rickety bus passes by rows of cornfields before stopping in front of a small, dusty lane leading to its front gates. This session’s main activity is making tableaus, where the girls arrange themselves in positions and freeze, like a live snapshot.

The classes are the work of a non-profit organization called Hua Dan, brainchild of New Zealander Catherine Wilson. Taking its name from a traditional type of leading female role in Peking Opera, the group uses theater and performance techniques to build confidence and life skills in migrant women and children around the country.

Studying theater may seem like the last thing these girls need as they prepare to make their way in an unfamiliar city with its potentially difficult bosses, customers, strangers and landlords. But the confidence and life skills these classes build are invaluable weapons against the unscrupulous that might take advantage of their country-bred naivete, said Hua Dan representative Peta Kahn.

In the past year, Hua Dan has run more than 100 theater workshops in Beijing with 600 migrant women ranging in age from 14 to 50. Hua Dan also runs workshops in quake-hit Sichuan province, reaching more than 2,500 children who survived last year’s earthquake.

Trust exercises commonly used to foster a sense of community in theater groups — like standing and letting oneself fall into the waiting arms of classmates — help children whose sense of security was shattered when the walls of their schools crumbled around them, said Kahn.

Hua Dan is hardly alone in using improv in China. Zhong Na learns theater techniques for her classes from Beijing Improv, a foreign theater group formed in 2008 by American Jonathan Palley and New Zealander Lottie Dowling.

Beijing Improv’s performances — much like those of the hit television show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" — are often sold out. Shows are held at the Penghao Theater, one of Beijing’s only independent live theater venues, a small stage and bar tucked behind the imposing, gray-walled Drama Academy in the city’s burgeoning bohemian district. In the spirit of accessibility, tickets are a suggested donation of $5, ensuring that both wealthy investment bankers and starving students can join the fun. All proceeds go directly to Hua Dan. “We’re definitely doing it for the love,” said Dowling.

Relying heavily on audience participation for its theater games, Beijing Improv is bringing a new twist to theater in a country whose history of dramatic arts stretches almost as far back as the culture itself. But this is the first time that mainland China has seen this form of free-flow banter and acting, said Palley. Though improv was present in Japan and other Asian countries as early as two decades ago, it never made it to the mainland.

It is this freedom within structured rules that makes improv such a potentially powerful tool in China, said Palley. China’s education system relies heavily on rote memorization — the teacher lectures, the students listen. Independent thought, creativity and debate are not skills students learn.

“But with improv, there are rules,” he said. “You must always say ‘yes’ to every situation your acting partners imagine, you must always find the focus of the stage and stick to it. One person speaks at a time. These rules allow people to feel safe being creative.”

Back at Nongjianu Xue Xiao, with the girls sitting in a circle around her, Zhong Na gets to the heart of the day’s lesson. “What is your dream?” she asks the girls, many of whom giggle at the question. “Everyone must have a dream. I want you to decide what yours is.”