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Of Overtures and Encores

Written By Cindy Xu
Cover Art by


Cindy Xu (she/her/hers) is a New York-based actor, community creator, and experimental theatermaker from Vancouver, Canada. In this artist showcase, she discusses community care initiatives in Chinatown, creating opportunities for emerging artists, and using Glamor Shots to lift up senior citizens!

Editors’ Note

We were especially impressed by the work Cindy has done in creating a range of accessible opportunities for emerging artists, and see a lot of The New Absurdist’s values and goals in her projects as well. There is so much thought and care apparent in the ways Cindy integrates art in different communities.

Moving from one metropolis to another– born in the tech centrum of ShenZhen, to the city of Vancouver which operates in all 50 shades of gloom and gray, and finally to New York City where dreams are made to die– the community health of society always shrouded me. Especially when it rained. The huddle puddles of people standing under shop awnings, the familiarity of typhoon season, and the pride-tinged nonchalance of rain boots stomping through Vancouver felt like a humbling shower for the denizens of “the center of the world” (I’m mostly talking about New York). Much of my practice gravitates towards communitas and participation; whether through genre-bending plays or pop-up polaroid booths for the public, I see public engagement with art as a grounding opportunity for introspection and interpersonal care. 

Headshot by Anthony Fan

Community Programming (For Our Neighbors)

If I had to have a Mission Statement as an artist, it would be to bring joy and thoughtfulness to society as a whole. To do this, I believe it’s important to make sure the art projects I create can also reach those who may not frequent the theater space. In March of 2023, the Asian American Arts Alliance selected my Polaroid Photo Booth project as the recipient of their microgrant. The What Can We Do initiative was born in response to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and is ongoing still. The call to action was simple: to give community care for the Chinatown or Flushing community. 

In May, I carried out the project with the help of The Table Church, located in Chinatown, and we set up a station outside Hamilton-Madison House, a non-profit settlement that focuses on the well-being of vulnerable populations. That afternoon, we handed out 80 polaroids to passerbys of all different ages and cultural backgrounds. I also put out a Sign-In book for anyone to write a message to the community, replete with stickers, markers, and stamps. We got many messages of support in different languages, and even received a doodle of a cat!

It was inspiring to see the community come and partake in such a serendipitous activity– to snap a photo on the corner of the street, and take home a memento of the here and now. It gives good reason to smile on any day. The instantaneous nature of the project and the permanence of its value is something I treasure a lot. Whether that polaroid gets stuck behind a magnet on the fridge or lives in between stamp cards in a loved one’s wallet, it’s a simple tactile reminder of spreading joy.

A month later in June, I got the chance to share my project with the other WCWD grant recipients, and decided to continue planning pop-up polaroid booths around Manhattan. In August, we did a reprisal at Playground One, with lots of kids visiting to take photos! While it was rewarding to chat with the kids and strike poses with bright yellow boas and sequined top hats, I kept shifting focus to their parents and grandparents standing off to one side, looking fondly at the scene. When did the older adults in our lives step off the stage, and why did they feel necessary to make room for their kids?

Recent Performance

As a performer, I love working on both classical Shakespeare shows as well as developing experimental performance pieces– always looking for ways the two can converge and intersect. Most recently, I played Tamora in Shakespeare’s most bloody and gruesome tragedy, “Titus Andronicus”, directed by Harris Singer (founder of The Fool Volk theater collective). This playful rendition was pickled with puppets, masks, a 2-minute dance break, nudity, and a live tattoo operation– culminating in a fantastically creative marinade. Taking place in the East Village, the La MaMa Experimental Theater studios welcomed our Hallow’s Eve show, replete with a whipped cream pie to the face, signifying the characters’ final death (spoiler: almost everyone dies).

Poster design by Harris Singer

The form really is the content when playing with traditional theater structure, and through the devised nature of this piece, we were able to excavate the essence of Titus (revenge, desperation, cunning, and absurdity) into an experiential spectacle. Like much of the theater I’m passionate about, this project and the risks it takes– of both deviating from classical theater and on a corporeal level– opens up the performing arts to new and inclusive possibilities.

I’m always looking for the palpable feeling of urgency in theater. In the Titus experiment, the tickle attacks, pie in the face, and of course, the tattoo of the titular character’s name were all instances of performative reality etching itself into permanence. All at once, curtain slack is cut, and the audience is looking at a scene without the suspension of disbelief. A great inspiration in my work revolves around the circus arts (though I’m not physically built for it). The contemporary circus is the height of storytelling for me– not only how performers mobilize their bodies for entertainment, but to see the human body in all its limitless possibilities. The gravity-defying acts instill a sense of awe for humanity, but the danger reminds us of our fleeting morality. Good theater always makes me feel closer to humanity.

Devised Work

I firmly believe in the transformative power of participation when it comes to the performer-spectator relationship. Last spring, I devised a piece with my collaborators derived from Brecht’s “Baden-Baden Letter on Consent”. The story looked into shedding and transforming oneself so completely that an ordinary man would be “de-arranged” into a clownish body. Based on this description, my idea was to transform the script into an aerobics class, where the audience could participate in the workout exercise and repeat after the instructor’s empowerment spiel. When the audience arrived at the theater space, they were asked to give up a personal belonging for the admission price (to be later retrieved after the show). This could’ve been a hair tie, hat, or if they really trusted us, their keys and wallet. This was the introduction in shedding your old self– and all your burdens– to step into the new. How to Achieve Your Ideal Being 101.

Premiere at St. Agnes, Berlin

Entering into the open space, the audience saw 8 instructors dressed in workout wear and took their seats on the floor in traditional spectatorship arrangement. What they would soon realize was that there were also performers spread out in the audience seating area as well, who were to be examples of “good audience members” by participating in the chants and routines. Much like Simon Says, I wanted to explore the participation dynamic of challenge, obedience, and play. When would they stop? Would they question what they were being asked to do? How might they see labor and work dynamics through the lens of recreational workout classes?

In a skull-grating and teeth-clenching jubilee, upbeat hyperpop 80s music started blasting as the instructors skipped onstage. The instructors took on the severity of drill sergeants, asking the unsuspecting audience members, “What are you paying with today? What are you worth, you good-for-nothing?!!!!” This was followed by “LETS GO HIGH KNEES EVERYONE”. The removal of personal burdens and the shedding of weight from extreme workout classes take on the same urgency in this participation parody. The frantic instructor script goes on for 10 more minutes, all the while the planted performers in the audience start dropping to the floor in exhaustion. Despite probably knowing they were planted, I relied on the audience’s suspension of disbelief beyond the 4th wall. How would the audience members react to their neighbors getting “overworked”? By the end of the workout, the instructors on stage also lay prostrate on the ground, with a morse code translator beeping out like a heartbeat monitor: “You’re in my control now”. This morse code section lasted almost 1 minute, which felt like eternity with stillness filling out the room. 

The script acts as an informal skeleton for the physical experimentation of the piece, where collaborators added on to the existing text I wrote. Without much reliance on the dialogue, the performers are able to respond freely to the audience and the interactions in the show.

Contributors: Adora Dayani and Hope Santomero

I wanted to draw attention to the cult of self-idealization– that there’s an ideal self to work towards, which promises sunshine and lollipops and an exclusive invite to join hands and sing Kumbaya with the rest of those who’ve achieved their perfect potential. Self-idealizing isn’t making New Year goals. It convinces us that we can only live a good life by being someone better than who we are, thus robbing us of the present. Chasing after this personal mythology takes away from the here and now, which I believe theater is able to bridge and hold still.

When we’re young, we’re often told that in our hearts are gifts worth gold, and no matter where life takes us, at whatever age or stage in life,  I firmly believe that twinkle is still there: precious as the day that hope was instilled in us as a child. Through notes of whimsy, hope, and the absurdity in life, I want to reignite that magic in both theater-turn spaces and in the streets we live in, as a light trickle or a torrential storm.

Community Programming (For Fellow Artists)

When I’m not demonstrating burpee jumps and shouting insults at the audience, I’m the co-founder and co-producer of an international, women-founded artistic collective called Lighthouse Ladies. As a theater maker, I love creating accessible opportunities for emerging theatermakers to stage their work. Our most recent performance showcase took place in August of 2023 called “A Night of Unstageable Works”. Like the name suggested, we called on artists to create a text or piece of art that wasn’t intended to be staged, and to experiment to do just that. From slapstick scenes based on real court transcripts, to an interactive makeup tutorial derived from a dream journal entry, it was so nourishing to see the breadth of creativity from these new artists. We welcomed over 70 audience members with free of charge tickets, and provided stipends for artists to actualize their creative vision.

Starting out as a young artist can feel like a Sisyphean obstacle course, and our art collective hopes to take away some of the difficulty when it comes to finding performance spaces, connecting with like-minded collaborators, and of course, opportunities to get paid for your art. If that twinkles your toes even just a little, we’re looking to put up our second rendition of the showcase in March/April of 2024. The theme in mind is Found Objects/Family Heirlooms, and we’re welcoming any performance ideas drawn from that. Feel free to join our database to stay updated on all future casting calls and collaboration opportunities!

Our wonderful collaborators “backstage” before the show

Incubatory Projects 

Growing up with my immigrant mom and bearing witness to stories of parental sacrifice, it seemed apparent they gave up much of their youth so that I would have the liberty to write my own. However, it didn’t make sense that their “prime” was done and over– the bows and standing ovations collected and framed to hang. It didn’t make sense to see my mom shy away from candid photographs in public when she belts out private living room concerts of nostalgic classics from Teresa Teng and Faye Wong. There will always be an effervescent twinkle in her eye as she sings and performs for me, and yet, society seems to turn the spotlight off of women past the age of 35, and catch the next doe-eyed teenager about to enter her “prime”. I hated this idea that was so embedded in our cultural fabric. If I wanted to bring community care, that would also mean uplifting the seniors in our society and empowering them to take their encore with pride.

During the past two polaroid booths, I noticed a certain shyness and hesitation when it came to older folks coming up to us for photos. In my third installment of the project, I want to add in a storytelling element to the polaroid portraits, and invite the participants to collaborate in an 80’s/90’s glamor-style shoot. Much like the community Sign-In book in the previous two runs, the narrative element here would be an invitation to say anything to the younger generations, but also what they would like to share with peers the same age. It can be words of advice or a moment to reminisce. Hopefully, whatever it may be, the stories will draw us closer to one another and provide healing for all involved.

My mom’s first glamor shoot at 28

I chose Glamor Shots because these opulent and hazy photos were the ones my mom liked to boast the most. I would too if it were my photos– naturally wavy hair fluffed up and reflecting the studio lights, and a confidently held gaze filled with the carte blanche of time. She always said how being young was a beautiful time, and I saw the earnesty in the far-off glimmer in her eyes. Except I didn’t feel that spark had faded. Through re-centering the lens on our community elders, I hope to rekindle the carefree joy of posing for the camera and feeling beautiful about oneself. What I’d like most is to give the opportunity for those who’ve never had their professional picture taken to feel what it’s like to be celebrated in and of itself. This is important to me because within our community, there are parents and grandparents who’ve had to give up their dreams due to socio-economic circumstances and hardships. I’d like for participants to talk about those dreams, to believe in those dreams, and perhaps even empower them to achieve it.

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