If Christoph Yew hasn’t arrived in China, his adventures with improv drama probably will not occur.
Yew, coming from Germany, is fluent in Chinese because of his family. His mother’s native tongue is Hokkien (or Minnan dialect), and when he was 16, she suggested him to learn Mandarin in order to communicate better with their relatives in Malaysia, prompting him to start learning Chinese.
When Yew graduated from university, he received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service. The scholarship was comprised of a year of language studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and a half-year internship. He then arrived in China to begin this program.
“In 2012 I was working for a tech startup in Beijing. The company went bankrupt and while I was looking for a new job, I had some free time to participate in new activities.” This is how Yew’s connection with improv drama began by chance.
Yew went to some weekly Beijing improv workshops in a couple of bars in the Fangjia Hutong area. “It was a very lively scene and shortly after joining, there were two groups who asked me to perform with them,” he said.
Later, Yew moved to Changsha, capital of Hunan Province. There, he kept leading improv activities. “As there weren’t so many English speakers in Changsha, I decided to do it all in Chinese. I didn’t have guidance from more experienced talents, so I bought some books and developed my own approach in doing and teaching improv,” he said.
“In 2015, I was on a business trip to Shenzhen and saw there was a four-day playback theater workshop offered by Louise Li. She advertised it as a form of improvised drama where you take audience stories and turn them into psychodrama. I never heard about it and was immediately interested.” This gave Yew a whole new perspective on improvisation and he started to integrate those techniques into his system.
When Yew moved to Shenzhen in 2017, he joined her team and participated at the Nanshan Theater Festival. “It was super exciting,” he said. He took part in other workshops and had opportunities to join other groups like ZIP and Domesticated Humans.
Soon after, Yew began to set up his own teams and moved to a tutor-like position. YouYiSi, one of the groups he founded with Tina Wu, is a Chinese improv platform. “We did a series of activities with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. Sometimes other teams, companies or institutions would contact us to run activities for their members,” he also mentioned that he once ran a workshop for the BBC in Hainan Province.
Yew (R) takes part in a show by Couch Potatoes, Shenzhen’s first English Playback Theater group. Courtesy of interviewee
A chain reaction started. Other teams emerged from workshops Yew held. One of the most successful ones is Couch Potatoes, Shenzhen’s first English Playback Theater group. It can be said that he had a lasting impact on the city’s improv drama scene. “I’m happy to see that people who participated in the workshops are taking over to conduct workshops themselves,” Yew said.
Commenting on Shenzhen’s art atmosphere, he elaborates: “With COVID restrictions relaxing, I think that things will ramp up again. Moreover, people are very interested in the fun of participating in events.”
“Shenzhen is a young and dynamic city. Many people here are working on very cool projects and products. If you’re willing to dig into the city, it has lots of potentials,” he added.
He is optimistic about China’s future. “With the country entering a new stage in dealing with COVID, there will be new opportunities coming up and I’m looking forward to what the future holds,” Yew said.