Young Thespian Olivia Xing Addresses Societal Issues on the Stage

While most Chinese international students pursue studies in economics or finance in the United States, 24-year-old artist Olivia Xing heeded the call of the theater

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10:01 PM HKT, Fri June 17, 2022 3 mins read

Olivia Xing only decided to pursue a performing arts degree after a death in her family. Her father had suddenly died of a heart attack in the summer of her freshman year.

As a Chinese student studying at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, United States, Xing had initially signed up for a double major in comparative literature and French. After her father’s death, however, the Chinese youth realized it was the time to pursue her dream.

“Life is ephemeral, and so is theater,” muses Xing, “The passing of my father made me realize that he was never able to do what he dreamed of doing — become a traveling singer, and I don’t want to have the same regret.”

Olivia Xing

Olivia Xing (back row, far right) performing as Little Stone in Eurydice at Bryn Mawr in 2016

Xing’s first theater production experience felt a lot like fate. Although she had walked into the wrong room, the aspiring actress nailed the audition and got to play the part of Little Stone in Eurydice. By the time Xing graduated, she had participated in every theater production presented by her school.

During a semester abroad in Paris, she even took her passion for performing to the stand-up comedy stage. Watching and performing in comedy shows served as a coping mechanism for dealing with her father’s death and adapting to her new environment.

One day, it occurred to her that many American stand-up comedians were also professional actors. As she discovered ways to convey her sense of humor in English and gained acceptance by audiences, Xing began to believe that she stood a chance at making something of herself in theater and art.

She told herself, “I want to become an actor and get trained. I want to stand on my own feet.”

Olivia Xing

Olivia Xing performing stand-up comedy while a student in Paris in 2019

Nevertheless, she hesitated to take the leap. Her mother’s hopes of her becoming a translator, pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and having a stable life hovered in the back of her mind. She wanted to live up to her mother’s expectations.

A language enthusiast, Xing appreciates the power of languages in connecting people but also realizes their limitations.

“In contrast, a theater production is an event, and an event is much more translatable than words. The immersive feeling is universal. You can feel it just by being there,” she gushes.

Olivia Xing

Young thespian Olivia Xing

After graduating in 2020, right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Xing took a gap year to figure out her next steps. Azade Seyhan, her comparative literature professor, was kind enough to rent out a basement room to her for just 200 USD a month.

“I was basically living in the basement library, and the entire room smelled like books,” says Xing.

In this transitory period, she picked up a few unique skills, including Turkish fortune-telling from Seyhan, which involves inferring meaning from coffee grounds. Xing, who sees fortune telling as a form of storytelling, finds it fascinating to share narratives in different formats.

Eventually, she decided to take her chances and moved to New York.

In the Big Apple, Xing tapped into her college connections and was accepted for the role of an operation assistant at the theater company Ping Chong and Company. The job allowed her to cover her rent while also applying for art schools. In February 2021, she was accepted into her dream school, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

“If you ask other students from China, who are studying economics or finance in the States, why they are studying such subjects, their answers are usually, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘That’s what my parents want me to study,’” says Xing. “In an art school, it is so very much different. Every artist you meet knows exactly why they are in school. I’m very happy that I made the choice to study the performing arts.”

Xing was ready to do something big as soon as she accepted the offer.

She and five other Chinese students at CalArts cofounded How Bang! Club. The theater lab is a means for aspiring actors to explore the nature of collaboration and human connections by producing non-traditional, interdisciplinary, and heartfelt live performances.

Olivia Xing

Rooftop Somnambulism

As its name implies, Rooftop Somnambulism, the club’s first performance, took place on a rooftop in Brooklyn in June 2021. The interactive play explored the sense of loneliness caused by the global pandemic.

Xing’s debut performance didn’t go unnoticed. Tencent Video shadowed her production process for Rooftop Somnambulism and released a documentary titled Bon Voyage in March 2022.

Recently, Xing has begun to derive inspiration from societal issues.

In China’s eastern province of Jiangsu, a tragic incident involving a woman chained up in a shack reminded her of the Chinese folklore ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.’ It is also the tale behind Chinese Valentine’s Day, or Qixi Festival.

Olivia Xing

Xing performing as the Weaver Girl

In one version of the ancient legend, a cowherd hides the Weaver Girl’s clothes without her knowledge to come to ‘her rescue.’ Many find the tale problematic and have called for increased awareness of deceit and sexual abuse.

To connect the two dots and to show her support for the chained woman from afar, Xing wrote an original script from the Weaver Girl’s perspective. Xing then stepped into the shoes of the Weaver Girl, or Zhinv in Chinese, in her re-telling of the folklore.

Olivia Xing

Xing performing as the Weaver Girl, or Zhinv in Chinese

Xing regards herself as an Asian immigrant artist.

“In my day-to-day life, I am reminded that I don’t belong in this country. I have to acknowledge this and still apply the same kind of attitude, drive, courage, and tenacity to art.”

Perhaps this is why Xing constantly puts herself out there and strives to build a community in the performing arts. She acknowledges that it isn’t an easy route, but she’s determined to walk the path.

All images courtesy of Olivia Xing

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