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Elyse Ribbons: China is my home too

Elyse Ribbons Photos: courtesy of Elyse Ribbons

She plays the role of a foreign journalist for The Washington Post named Margaret in the recently released Chinese movie Who is Undercover (一号目标). The movie is about former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩来) who was in charge of the Communist spy network in China around 1946. Margaret befriends him and writes the first real story about him.

As an actress, director and screenwriter from the US, Elyse Ribbons (柳素英) has been living and working in Beijing for about 11 years. Now she is running a drama troupe called Cheeky Monkey (顽皮猴子).

Ribbons was born in the year of the monkey and she describes her personality as a cheeky monkey. “I was always running round and making trouble. My grandfather called me a monkey. When I look back on my teenage years, l must have looked like Sun Wukong (孙悟空) in Journey to the West (西游记),” she laughed.

Ribbons in the movie Who is Undercover 

Passion for theater

Ribbons has loved performing since childhood. “I did a lot of dancing, singing and musical theater when I was a little girl, but I always thought of theater as a passion,” she said.

Ribbons came to Beijing on a program in 2001 when she was an undergraduate college student. The program gave the participating students an opportunity to learn about the street life of Beijing. “I arrived in Beijing at the Chinese Lantern Festival (元宵节). I saw a lot of beautiful lights on the street. I felt good and fell in love with the city immediately,” she said. During the program, she had language classes every morning and visited different places every afternoon.

After graduation from college in 2003, Ribbons moved to Beijing and eventually started working for the US Embassy in China, but her interest in theater never faded. She went to see dramas with her friends on a regular basis. In 2006, she started her own troupe Cheeky Monkey Productions. In the same year, she released her first drama I Heart Beijing (我爱北京). She quit the embassy job at the end of 2007 and started to focus all her attention on her theater career.

Ribbons’ troupe hires actors every time they start to rehearse a drama. She doesn’t like the situation in China that only stars matter. “Extras are treated like crap here. I don’t like it if someone’s yelling at people. When you are making a movie, you are supposed to be family and you need to bring everyone together,” she said. She often goes back to the US on for work and plays small parts in American TV shows or movies. “I am not famous but am treated well in the US. The situation has to change in China.”

Ribbons is studying for a master’s degree in Beijing Opera at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (中国戏曲学院) and will be graduating soon. She has performed Beijing Opera on various occasions. “Beijing Opera is a treasure of China, and I want to help make it more international,” she said in an earnest voice.

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