Ming Chen


The search for the meaning of “authenticity” has proven to be a daunting task, for not only do the layers of references that the term connotes seem paradoxical, especially between its use within and outside of the realm of theatre, but also its very definition rests on the multiplicity of people’s interpretations of the word “real” or “truthful.” After all, it is, to the least, a philosophical and cognitive issue.


Authenticity: the concepts

Authenticity, a 14th century Greek word 'authentes‘ (meaning author) refers to the quality of being authentic; genuineness. The dictionaries offer a variety of definitions of authentic, including these from Webster’s.1

  • Entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy; an authentic portrayal of the past.
  • Not false or copied; genuine, real; an authentic antique.
  • Authoritative. Gk. Authentikis original, primary, as first hand, equiv. to authent(es) one who does things himself.
While “genuineness” and “author” focus on the notion of originality, “agreement” and “truthful portrayal” imply that there is a point of reference by which the trustworthiness of the artifact is judged. 
It seems paradoxical that the word “authentic” encompasses two disparate meanings: it can be used to describe something that is truly original (in the sense that it is not a copy), as well as the “authentic portrayal” of something, which is by definition not the original and might be a copy. Ponder for a moment why a copy of Monet’s painting is regarded as non-authentic, while a reproduction of period furniture used in a theatrical production is considered authentic. Are we setting a double standard with which to measure the authenticity in visual art and theatrical designs? 
One might argue that since theatre as performance is a “twice behaved behavior,”2 as Richard Schechner puts it, any object that exists within that frame is seen as purposefully designed or chosen. No matter how lifelike a theatre performance may be, anything put on stage is a portrayal of real life, not real life itself. Therefore, a copy of Monet’s painting in the life outside of theatre is non-authentic, but a reproduction of period furniture seen in a theatrical production can be, and is often considered as, authentic. However, to others, this argument belittles the role of the stage designer to someone who merely employs whatever has already been created if the design is to be authentic. In addition, since the word “portrayal” puts the action in the hands of a human being, it is therefore subject to individuals to interpret what an “authentic portrayal” is. Authentic is synonymous with “real” and “truthful,” therefore, one needs not to be reminded of our century long debate on what is real and whether or not there is anything real existing outside of the minds of individuals to feel the dilemma of this thorny issue. 

Authenticity: the concept and its evolution in theatre

A search on the internet and through book indices reveals the contexts in which “authenticity” and “authentic” were used in the world of theatre. It appears to be a habit for many to crown the artifacts that resemble the items from the past and from daily life in exhaustive details with the word authentic. There is no lack of evidence that some use authentic to describe theatrical works that employ clothing worn by the real person as the costume for the impersonation of that person,3 or works that utilized found space to perform as in site specific theatre.4 The strong belief in the past that there was an authentic embodiment of a play script led people to apply the word authentic to productions that were believed to represent the playwright’ vision of the world truthfully. Bertolt Brecht used “authentic drama” to mean Aristotelian drama.5 Often a road show was advertised as authentic in reference to its original production on Broadway. Many lengthy articles stress the idea that authentic works are those that express unique individuals. Of particular note in this search is a new tendency to use the word authentic in line with audience’s historical,6 cultural7 and visceral experiences.8
It is evident that the connotation of the word authenticity in Western theatre has evolved since the word came into being in the 14th century, and the benchmarks of this evolution in theatre that most explicitly demonstrate the shift in emphasis through different historical periods are imitation, expression, and connectivity. 
The concept of “imitation” describes the relationship between the artifact and its source of reference rooted in the external world. Authenticity, in this context, is a measure of how close a theatrical sign such a prop, a gesture, weapon, or a costume is to what would actually have been used or practiced in the life outside of theatre or in the time period being depicted. Looking back, it appears that the aesthetic principle of mimesis had existed even before the term “authenticity” surfaced. The idea of the “mirror held up to nature” in Shakespeare’s time, the concept of the “illusion of reality” in the eighteenth-century, and the “slice of life” in the nineteenth-century,” Allen Kaprow’s “lifelike art” and Richard Schechner’s “twice behaved behavior” in our contemporary world all relate to the phenomenon that theatre portrays the external world. It illustrates that the idea of imitation in theatre is as ancient and enduring as human civilization on record.
The intent to use scenographic elements to portray an external world is evident in theatres, ranging from the suggestive freestanding piece of painted tree on Shakespeare’s stage to the Naturalistic representation of an interior room on the stage of Andre Antoine. The difference is the degree of lifelikeness. The extent to which the artist could intend or imagine authentically imitating the external world was bound by the conditions of the time, which change continuously due to new innovations, discoveries, technological advances and increasing availability of resources, such as the discovery of perspective principles and the invention of gas light and electricity.
Contrary to “imitation,” the concept of “expression” illustrates the relationship between the artifact and its source of reference, which is rooted in the subjectivity of the artist, as a result of his/her personal experience of the external world. Authenticity, in this case, is a measure of how truthfully the artist’s inner feelings and perspectives of the world are expressed through a visible and audible form. The philosophical base for the leap from imitation to expression is in Descartes’ notion of authenticity as inner voice, Rousseau’s notion of authenticity as a voice of nature within us, and Herder’s notion of authenticity as “based on experiences and how we interpret those experiences.”9 With variations, these notions challenged the traditional aesthetic principle of mimesis in the belief that what is true to one may not be true to another.
In theatre designs, Adolphe Appia marked the leap from imitation to expression through his design for Tristan and Isolde and his theory quoted below:
On stage, we no longer wish to see things as we know them to be but things as we feel them… No longer will we seek to give the illusion of a forest, but rather the illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest.10
The emphasis on man’s subjective feelings of the external world also reflected in Josef Svoboda’s notion on the kinetic space:
In the old theater the scenery was erected and usually remained fixed without change throughout the entire scene. But what is fixed in the stream of life that we see represented on the stage? Is the room in which we declare our love the same as the one in which we scream curses? ...That is why we abandon a static space with its restricted means and instead create a new one.11
To Darwin Reid, a selective seeing with an “active eye” is expected of a designer in his skimming process of the raw material for historical and inspirational research.12 According to Reid, this “subjectivization” is made possible by previous study of the script and by the designer’s life experience.
The various trends in modernism embody the authentic expression of the artists’ personal feelings and perspective of the external world. Symbolists regard realistic portrayal of the external world as negation of art. They attempt to probe beneath the surface of life through presenting a mystified world removed from daily life. Expressionists present through distortion a world seen through an individual’s eye. Constructivists expose construction material of sets to express their impression of a mechanized world. Surrealists reveal individual’s sub-consciousness through joining and morphing seemingly irrelevant elements from the external world. Absurdists portray the disjointed and dislocated world that they perceived during and after the World War II.  Consciously presenting theatre for, about and by a specific group of people who share culture background, ethnicity and sexual preference is a contemporary extension of the concept “expression.” On one hand, the artists seek to affirm their identity through theatre, and on the other hand they intend to share their common experience with the audience, an issue that will be addressed as follows.
Unlike imitation and expression, the concept of connectivity alludes to the theatre artists’ conscious and concerted effort at addressing the issue of audience. Authenticity therefore is a measure of the degree to which artist’s subjective feeling of the external world expressed through his/her work captures the authentic moments of the audience’s experience. 
This tendency to stress the authentic experience of the audience is reflected vividly in Park’s article:
In labor and in leisure, the concept of p'an is an imagined frame of wholehearted participation, where "performance" is sublimated as a processual ritual of "flow." P'ansori, a storytelling tradition of folk origin, is a p'an whereby performer and audience engage in a mutually reflexive communion of performance and reception. Removed from its cultural context and designated as "national treasure," its theater assumes a ritual of tradition making… The degree of "authentic experience" varies from performance to performance, and p'ansori audience members have not been entirely estranged as "travelers.”13
The theologies that influenced the emergence of this new concept include “selective seeing” in cognitive science, Gestalt psychology and semiotics. Those theories support that the ultimate authenticity in theatre exists in the audience’s experience of the theatre, for authentic period furniture does not evoke a sense of authenticity in the mind of a 7 year old, just as blue might mean nothing to a color blind. In the theatre practices, the big, fun and splashy spectacle of Broadway theatres and of theatres in the West End is leaning towards entertaining the audience. Tactile theatres are interested in the sensuality of the audience’s physical experience. Environmental Theatre addresses the issues of audience-performer physical and spatial relationships and of those related to found space. Site Specific performances deal with the contextual information on which the audience’s perceptions are based. Happenings purposefully make the audience wonder what the difference is between real life and art. While the Theatre of Cruelty was designed to shock the audience out of its comfort zone with disturbing sights and sounds, the Theatre of Alienation intended to provide the audience with a pair of confronting perspectives that would urge the audience to take actions on the society after they leave the theatre.
Despite the fact that the three concepts discussed above emerged in different historical periods, each concept includes the one that precedes it, and the study and exploration of one concept did not stop when a new concept was introduced. The concepts are overlapping, although the focus of authenticity has shifted over time. This relationship among the three concepts is best captured in the following arrangement:
  • external world
  • artist’s feeling of external world
  • audience’s sharing with artist’s feeling of external world

Monkey King: In Search for authenticity through connectivity 

A closer look at the production process of Monkey King, designed by me, will show how the Monkey King team contextualized the play for a culturally diverse audience, concerted as it was to seek authenticity in the theatre through connectivity.
Kennesaw State University’s production of Monkey King is a theatrical adaptation of the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West (Volume I) created for the 2005 celebrations of Kennesaw State University’s Year of China as well as Shanghai Theatre Academy’s sixtieth anniversary. The origin of the Monkey King story, the nature of the two production sites and our intent to provide both American and Chinese audiences with an authentic theatre experience led the production team to research extensively on Chinese religion, philosophy, politics and culture customs, including reading books on China, attending seminars on Chinese religions and philosophy and a workshop on the Beijing Opera. To better understand our audience, we asked ourselves questions such as “who are we as Americans,” “who are our audiences in both countries,” “how does the Chinese audience perceive us as Americans,” “what are the current social issues facing both societies that we believed were worthy of addressing,” and “what do we have to offer in terms of American’s theatre traditions and artistic strengths.” By inviting feedback to the draft of Monkey King script via email, being as American team, we involved in the creative process not only Chinese Americans but also Chinese who studied in America and returned to China, native Chinese, and an American working in China. In addition, we also conducted post-performance discussions to see how the Chinese received our performances. 
To contextualize the performance, we made conceptual and design choices that were customized for our audiences: We updated the story to a contemporary setting to make it more relevant to the audience. We placed the action in a jungle gym with a swing set, sliding poles and dangling ropes. We put the monkeys in athletic dance-wear of vibrant colors to reach a young audience in both universities. The subtle reference of the set to a construction site is also relevant both to Shanghai as a booming metropolis and to Kennesaw State University as a rapidly growing community. Our final designs were a cultural hybrid, connecting our audiences with the action of the play. On the set, the phrases printed in both languages conjured up images of the place at a given moment in the play. We also looked for American analogies of the mythical characters found in the classic Chinese novel and dressed those characters in contemporary costumes that embodied the cultural duality we endeavored to achieve. So, for example, the Monkey King, a rebel, an outlaw, and a popular fictional character in China, is portrayed as a Hip Hop star (Fig. 1). 
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Fig. 1. The Monkey King. ©Photo by Ming Chen
Jade Emperor of Heaven, the symbol of political power is dressed in a long coat with repeating satin lapels, an exaggerated form of the American corporate suit. The coat is paired with a contemporary version of the hat worn by Chinese emperors. General Eye and General Ear, immortals who are endowed with the supernatural powers of seeing and hearing across a thousand leagues; mindless robots, seen as puppets of the emperor, who spy on the Monkeys. Since high-tech is so fashionable in both countries, the generals’ costumes are accessorized with computer motherboards on harness, metallic glasses and headphone sets that light up like marquees (Fig. 2).
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Fig. 2. General Eye and General Ear  ©Photo by Jamie Bullins
The Queen Mother of Heaven, Mother of Jade Emperor, wears a Qipao, a seventeenth-century style Chinese gown, made from metallic fabric, coupled with a futuristic version of Renaissance ruff, while the Demon Queen of Have-It, a manifestation of greed, dresses in a black gown of period silhouette adorned with glittery ornaments that appear to have been made in China (Fig. 3)
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Fig. 3. Demon Queen of Have-It. ©Photo by Ming Chen
The Shoppers, inhabitants of the material-driven world, are dressed in high fashion which can be seen on the streets of contemporary China and the U.S (Fig. 4).
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Fig. 4. Shoppers. ©Photo by Ming Chen
The Dragon King, a mythical deep-sea creature, dealer of drug and weaponry, is in a wrestler’s attire with a scaly, sea-blue robe to suggest his marine inhabitance (Fig. 5).
chen 5Fig. 5. The Dragon King. ©Photo by Ming Chen
Er Lang, the emperor’s nephew, is portrayed as a heavy-metal futuristic warrior (Fig. 6), and Guan Yin, a religious icon of compassion, sported the look of both Guan Yin Buddha and the Virgin Mary. 
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Fig. 6. ErLang. ©Photo by Ming Chen   
As an extension of cultural hybrid in costume design, I also incorporated graphics of English words and Chinese characters in the set and provided a floor design that suggests an ancient Chinese coin and an American’s Wheel of Fortune all at once (Fig.7).
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Fig. 7.Monkey King set. ©Photo by Ming Chen
Aside from seeking relevance through extensive research and making conceptual and design choices, we aimed to provide our audiences with an authentic experience through our selection of locale materials. We used metal pipes for set construction, which were readily available at both sites. We also employed fabrics and accessories brought from China for some of the costumes. As a result of our effort to connect with the audience, the production of Monkey King was very well received by the audience at both sites. 
Thus far, the concepts of authenticity that this study suggests appear inclusive and broad. However, imagine that we moved the Monkey King performances to a complete deferent site, Baghdad for example, where all the historical, political and cultural references of our aesthetic choices were cut loose: would our audience in Baghdad have the same feeling of connectedness as our audience in Shanghai had with our Monkey King production? That is what I mean by authenticity in contemporary theatre.

N o t e s
  1. Yerkes, David (introd.), Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, (Portland House, New York, 1989), 99.back
  2. Schechner, Richard, Performance Studies: An Introduction (Routledge, London and New York, 2002), 23.back
  3. Burian, Jarka, The Scenography of Josef Svoboda (Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, 1983), 27.back
  4. Banai, Nuit, “Shifting Sites: The Brewster Project and the Plight of Place,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art – PAJ 72 (24:3 (sept.2002), 56 - 67back
  5. Lukacs, Georg, “On Bertolt Brecht,” New Left Review, July-August 1978, I/110. Schechner, 23.back
  6. Magelssen, Scott, “Living History Museums and the Construction of the Real through Performance,” Theatre Survey, 1 May 2004, 61-74.back
  7. Jones, Joni L., “Performance Ethnography: The Role of Embodiment in Cultural Authenticity,” Theatre Topics 12:1 (March 2002), 1–15.back
  8. Isherwood, Charles, “Keeping the Old Off Off Broadway Spirit Alive,” New York Times, April 27, 2007back
  9. Grimmett and Neufield, Teacher Development and the Struggle for Authenticity (Teachers College Press, New York.  1994), 207.back
  10. Bablet, Denis, Exhibition Catalogue, Adolphe Appia: Actor – Space – Light (John Calder Ltd. London, Riverrun Press, New York, 1982), 46.back
  11. Burian, Jarka, The Scenography of Josef Svoboda (Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, 1983), 27.back
  12. Payne, Darwin Reid, Scenographic Imagination (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1993), 147.back
  13. Park, Chan, "Authentic Audience in P'ansori, a Korean Storytelling Tradition,” The Journal of American Folklore 113: 449 (Summer 2000), 270.back


Born in Shanghai, China, Ming Chen is currently a full professor/scenographer at Kennesaw State University in USA. She is the author of Visual Literacy for Theatre and the principal contributor to ArtsTrends USA. She authored and co-authored more than two dozen articles published in peer-reviewed journals such as Theatre Topics, TD&T, Theatre Arts, and EPerformance. Among the design awards she received are one from PQ (co-design for Titus Andronicus) and one from ACTF (for Good Person of Szechwan). She has served as a Principle Investigator for many intercultural projects, and received numerous grants including those from National Endowment for the Arts, the Cultural Services of French Embassy, the Georgia Humanities Council, the French Consulate in Atlanta, the Confucius Institute, and the Coca Cola Foundation.