Peng Tao*

The Chinese translation of Professor Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre was published by the Peking University Press, in 2010. It was translated from the original German by Li Yinan, Professor of Theatre Studies at the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing.

In order to describe and analyze the new theatre phenomena since the 1980s, Professor Lehmann drew from diverse fields such as Literature theory, Linguistics, Philosophy, Physics and Biology.

Professor Lehmann’s scholarship was new to China. There were no corresponding words in Chinese for the terminology that Professor Lehmann had used. In 2010, Mr. Lehmann was invited to give a lecture on his thesis of Postdramatic Theatre at the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing. 

The Academy paid a lot of attention to this opportunity of exchange and, particularly, to hear Professor Lehmann in person. Many students and professors attended this lecture. Mr. Lehmann gave a clear explanation of the concept of “Postdramatic Theatre.” 

Interestingly, this lecture was not without its own drama. When Professor Lehmann explained the relationship between the work of Bertolt Brecht and his postulation of Postdramatic Theatre, a young Chinese student stood up and accused Professor Lehmann of his “error.” The student believed Brecht’s theatre to be in the mould of pure agitprop plays. The student further accused Lehmann’s concept of postdramatic aesthetics as a kind of formalism that would blur class conflicts. 

Professor Lehmann’s book in China has been a source of controversy as well as animated discussion. While the book has been criticized by some conservative Chinese scholars for its formalist viewpoints, it has also attracted great interest among other young Chinese theatre-makers. 

From left to right: Peng Tao, Deepa Punjani, Emmanuel Dandaura, Margareta Soerenson, Hans-Thies Lehmann. Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

Li Jianjun, a young theatre director, says for example, “I was greatly influenced by the book. It gives me an overview of the postdramatic scene, which differs from the traditional, representational dramatic theatre and its principles. Through its lens I began to observe and think about contemporary western theatre works. This process of thinking helped me find my own working methods, my own motives in my artistic practice. When I started to direct theatre pieces, I also referred to the book some times.” 

Li Ning, visual artist, choreographer and director of physical theatre says, “I did not know how to describe my work before I read the book. When I first read it, I was not impressed by its theoretical system because I did not read it carefully enough. Later, my greatest impression was that I could locate my work. It was like finding my position on a Google map.” 

Choreographer Wen Hui says: “I read the book in 2012. It was one of the very few books about contemporary theatre that I could find in China. I remember my excitement while reading it. I also bought one for a friend in Hong Kong.” 

Photo: Franco Bonfiglio

Wang Mengfan, a young theatre maker, who graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China, has this to comment, “I first read the book in the Winter of 2011 after attending the lectures on Contemporary Western Theatre Arts taught by Professor Li Yinan at the Central Academy of Drama. I did not really understand the book first. It was later when I became a theatre maker that I could appreciate it. The book has given a proper identity to the new theatre, no matter whether it is in Europe or in China; in other words, it showed me my own position in the context of Western theatre.”

The book has thus far attracted great interest among independent theatre makers in China such as Li jianjun, Li Ning, Wen Hui, Wang Mengfan, to name a few. The aesthetic concepts the book introduces has helped to understand Chinese independent theatre. 

The Chinese translator of the book used a specific term known as “juchang” in her translation to describe the new theatre works, which stress on performance and locality (Örtlichkeit). Juchang is also the term that the Chinese independent theatre makers use to describe their own works. Another reason that the independent theatre makers use the term “juchang” (but not “drama”) might be their resistance to the dominance of mainstream dramatic theatre. 

Zhang Xian, one of the pioneers of Chinese independent theatre claims, “I define almost all my works as juchang, including many ‘counter-interviews’. I call them ‘speech-action-theatre.’ I also define my creative actions in everyday life as juchang.”

Professor Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre gave a theoretical formulation of the aesthetics of new theatre. Scholars as well as audiences no longer wonder if the pieces they see should be called “theatre” or not, but rather pay attention to the social and artistic aspects of the work. 

Independent theatre makers in China have had to perform in unconventional places, such as temporarily constructed tents. Artists of “Caochangdi Working Station” perform in the same space they live in. “The Grass Stage” in Shanghai utilises all the places they can afford—auditoriums, hotel lobbies, galleries, schools. 

Li Ning performs at construction sites in the suburb of his hometown, Ji’nan. Zhang Xian, whose texts are not allowed on the mainstream stage, extended the meaning of juchang to to include all forms of engagement in the public sphere (interviews, internet writings, flash mobs, etc.). The independent juchang artist’s position, far away from the centre/outside mainstream theatre, is reflective of the centre-periphery discourse. 

After 2000, “Living Dance Studio/Caochangdi Work Station” became a crucial point of reference for Chinese independent theatre. Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang opened up their living spaces to young theatre artists from all over China. They share space for rehearsals, and performances; they also live together. Theatre has morphed into everyday life and the concept of “home” has acquired new meaning. This “home” becomes the theatre artist’s tool of resistance against the government-dominated public sphere as well as the “dramatic” theatre system that the government supports. 

In 2007, Li Yinan, the translator of Postdramatic Theatre, took up the position of Chief Dramaturg of the Caochangdi May Festival. She introduced Lehmann’s book through a series of lectures. The book encouraged the young Caochangdi artists to work independently in all sorts of spaces. Li Jianjun, for example, transformed a bus into a performing space (in his piece 25.3 km). In recent years, Li Yinan has directed students’ theatre pieces for the Central Academy of Drama—YouMou/Have, Have Not (2015), Jia/HOME (2016), Shuihu (2017). These pieces gave impetus to fundamental conceptual changes in Chinese theatre education. In the relatively conservative Academy system, the students began to understand theatre with an open and active mind, and started to produce their own theatre works.

Professor Lehmann has been invited to deliver several lectures in China and has directly supported the Chinese independent theatre makers. He has watched productions by Li Jianjun and Li Ning in Wuzhen and has expressed his appreciation. His support has helped marginalized young theatre artists to gain more recognition in mainstream Chinese theatre. 

In 2018, Professor Lehmann has taken up the position of the Academic Consultant for the first Factory Theatre Festival, in Laiwu. He was also invited to the internationally noted Wuzhen Theatre Festival. In the IATC Youth Forum, at the 2017 Wuzhen Theatre Festival, Professor Lehmann gave valuable advice to the young generation of theatre critics.

The year 2019 will be the 20th anniversary of the publication of Postdramatic Theatre. The book has been debated in the West as well. However, there is a huge difference between the Chinese and the Western discourse about the book. In contemporary China, independent theatre makers are severely oppressed. 

From the global point of view as well, Asia, as the former oppressed colony of the West, is also seeking new ways to fight for space and voice. In this quest for identity and relevance, Postdramatic Theatre, has offered valuable insights to Chinese independent theatre makers. 

*Peng Tao is theatre critic, professor and head of Dramatic Literature Department at the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing China. He is the president of the Chinese section of IATC. He graduated from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts with a Master`s degree in Fine Arts. His main publications include “A Reading of the Three Sisters” (2005/3), “Notes on the Seagull” ( 2007/1), “A Study of Lin Zhao Hua`s interpretation of Chehov`s works” (2008), “The Spiritual Awakening of Intellectuals—On Chehov`s Uncle Vanya”( 2017/2), all of which appeared in Drama: The Journal of The Central Academy of Drama.

Copyright © 2018 Peng Tao
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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A Brief Overview of Postdramatic Theatre and its Contribution to Independent Chinese Theatre
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