Xi Muliang* and Annie Feng**

Abstract: In the twenty-first century, a new generation of theatre artists has appeared on the stage of Chinese theatre. Compared with established theatre artists, the new generation is much bolder with its stage explorations. This article focuses on the latest stage creativity which has appeared in the twenty-first century, trying to analyze the reasons for this new phenomenon in the context of social development and theatre changes after the Opening-up and Reform in China.

Keywords: directors, new generation, traditional forms, new forms

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the world witnessed China’s economic boom. At the same time, the growth of cultural industries, rising levels of education among the younger generations and the prevalence of the Internet has led to the industrialization and diversification of culture, leading to profound changes in Chinese theatre. The theatre market has increasingly matured; private theatre companies have expanded in size and scale; the number of commercial theatre performances continues to grow. As a result, state-owned theatres no longer dominate the market and diverse opportunities and platforms for theatre artists have emerged.

Director Wang Chong

Under these circumstances, Chinese theatre has produced a new crop of directors we have dubbed “the New Generation of Chinese Directors.” The majority of the New Generation were born post-1978, after China implemented economic reforms with the Reform and Opening-Up policy. The younger generation grew up under the influence of an earlier generation, seeing their shows and starting out on platforms they established, such as Beijing Fringe Festival and the College Theatre Festival. Members of this earlier generation include Lin Zhaohua (a standard-bearer of an even earlier generation, to be more precise), Meng Jinghui, Tian Qinxin and Li Liuyi.

Speaking broadly, the most important challenges facing Lin, Meng, and other figures from the previous generation had been how to break away from the restrictions of the state-funded theatre system, how to do away with what has been characterized as “stale, naturalistic” acting and how to reflect upon social reality and critique social issues in their work. In comparison, the New Generation has gone further with formal experimentation and developed a more global mindset, creating works that have proven more diverse and individualistic in content and form.

The New Generation’s works tend to be theatrical experiments that bear the stamp of their personality, favoring personal experiences over grand political narratives and themes. Due to their relative youth, most of the New Generation have yet to fully mature as theatre artists. Undeniably, however, they have injected vitality into Chinese theatre and continue to attract more and more attention, owing to more enlightened attitudes toward creative work, and the growing maturity of the theatre market.

Wang Chong (1982- ) is one of the torchbearers of the New Generation. Wang attended Peking University Law School and wrote theatre criticism as an undergraduate before becoming a theatre director and founding his own theatre company, Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental. Wang’s “2.0” shows, including Thunderstorm 2.0, The Chairs 2.0, Ghosts 2.0, Teahouse 2.0 and others, reveal his determination to challenge tradition through contemporizing and deconstructing the classics.

Video 1

Thunderstorm 2.0 (2017)

Thunderstorm, Cao Yu’s 1933 tragedy of fate set in a traditional Chinese family, is considered one of the seminal classics of modern Chinese drama and seen as the point when Chinese spoken drama ceased to exist as an imported genre and came into its own. Wang’s Thunderstorm 2.0 selects and expands sections of Thunderstorm’s plot. More crucially, as one group of actors perform these segments of the story, another group of them, armed with filmmaking gear, are filming the performance live, editing it and broadcasting the finished video on a screen onstage. Apart from deconstructing Cao’s text, Thunderstorm 2.0 also forms a sharp contrast—and a complementary relationship—with Beijing People’s Art Theatre’s definitive production of Thunderstorm by completely breaking with realism, an indication of Wang’s and even the entire New Generation’s rebellion against the conventional style of acting in modern Chinese theatre.

While he enjoys deconstructing classics, Wang is more interested in unearthing and critiquing social issues by finding connections between classics and contemporary society. The cast of Teahouse 2.0 (2017) are mostly middle-schoolers, and the action takes place in a middle school classroom. Crucially, the characters, while saying lines from Lao She’s 1957 play Teahouse, another classic of twentieth-century Chinese drama, are simultaneously acting out scenes that could be happening in the lives of middle-schoolers today. Teahouse 2.0 juxtaposes a classic play with contemporary society so that they become two sides of the same coin, layering the audience’s theatergoing experience with a multiplicity of meanings. Its stories on bullying in a middle school classroom form an oblique satire of the power structures in contemporary Chinese society.

Video 2

The Revolutionary Model Play 2.0, by Zhao Binghao, directed by Wang Chong.
Premiere: September 2, 2015, Singapore International Festival of the Arts

If Wang’s earliest works had been imitating the formal techniques of contemporary western theatre, the latest works from this maturing artist share a common, vital core—the questions he is asking of our era. Since Teahouse 2.0, Wang’s works have broken new ground in form and grown more insightful in content. They are also inextricably connected to China’s past and present. This shift highlights the often politically sensitive nature of his work, which challenges traditional theatrical forms and tackles sensitive social issues. More importantly, it testifies to Wang’s growing maturity as a theatre artist.

A Man Who Flies Up to the Sky (2015), directed by Li Jianjun

Li Jianjun (1972- ) graduated with a Master’s degree from the Department of Scenography, at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. After working for years as a set designer, he became a director and founded his own theatre company, The New Youth Group. Li’s works bear a strong stylistic resemblance to documentary theatre, while experimenting with unique forms of staging. In an attempt to build an ensemble with an internally cohesive style, Li uses mainly non-professional actors and organizes closed acting intensives before each work is fully developed. Although these experiments may have at times generated mixed results, their value cannot be overlooked: Li is trying to challenge rigid, dated styles of acting in theatre by reestablishing a performance system rooted in a sense of reality and the real. In addition, Li’s works often employ the methods of installation art, combining actors’ performances with scenography and the surrounding environment, so that the process of the performance could be seen as an exhibition of installation art.

In A Beautiful Day (2013), nearly twenty ordinary people, from all walks of life, sit in a line across the stage and speak into microphones, telling their real-life stories. Among them are theatre makers, retired workers, homemakers and migrant workers who have come to Beijing. Audience members wear headphones, and they can either tune in to individual stations to listen to each of these people speak, or take off their headphones and listen to the “noise” of everyone speaking all at once. The production goes beyond traditional audience-spectator relationships to offer audiences the possibility of diverse choices. The non-professional performers telling their personal stories onstage come from different cities and different backgrounds, and their “private histories” delineate the day-to-day life and the state of mind of ordinary people in contemporary urban China.

A Man Who Flies Up to the Sky (2015), while completely different from A Beautiful Day, continues in the vein of documentary theatre that Li is known for. Onstage, a giant box holds what could be an ordinary living room from real life. The performers, wearing masks, play characters of different ages and professions in some Chinese city. In the darkness, they walk out from behind the box as real-life recordings from everyday life begin to play onstage. When the lights go up, we see the masked performers going about their daily business in the living room—in slow motion—before the lights turn off again. The cycle continues, and the performers enact dozens of moments from daily life. Here and elsewhere in Li’s works, the city is an important theme; he goes to great lengths to show the life and fate of ordinary people swallowed by the swamp of urbanity. Although A Man Who Flies Up to the Sky drew polarized responses about Li and even the experimentation of the entire New Generation, one thing is certain: with works that include Diary of a Madman, 25.3KM Fairy Tale and the aforementioned A Beautiful Day and A Man Who Flies Up to the Sky, Li Jianjun has managed to establish himself as a theatre artist with a unique style.

Huang Ying (1978- ) is the most stylistically versatile member of the New Generation. Realistic plays such as Date Tree and The Chinese Chophouse put life in contemporary Beijing on vivid display, calling to mind classics like Lao She’s Teahouse. Cooking A Dream is adapted from an eight-century romance, The World Inside a Pillow. In the story, a young scholar staying at an inn meets a Taoist monk, who gives him a magical porcelain pillow. The scholar, waiting for the innkeeper to steam some rice, falls asleep against the pillow. He lives a legendary life in his dream, only to wake up before the rice is even ready. The performance borrows from traditional Chinese opera while showing influences of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. With his extraordinary directorial imagination, Huang has taken the story of an ancient Chinese idiom and created a scintillating piece for the modern stage. Indeed, the clashes between tradition and modernity is at once an important theme in Huang’s work and a distinct characteristic of his experimentation with style, for Huang’s works have inherited both the stylization of traditional Chinese theatre and the realism of Beijing People’s Art Theatre. At the same time, Huang is no slave to tradition, and his individual style shines through in all aspects of his work, be it content or form.

Zhao Miao (1979- ) has been a proponent and practitioner of physical theatre for over two decades. He is the founder of his own theatre company, Theatre SanTuoQi (1996). Chinese symbols abounded in his work, which focused on traditional Chinese folklore and myths, combining the forms of ancient folk theatre and sacrificial rites with contemporary physical theatre methods. Notable productions include Aquatic, Hymne à la disparition and Luocha Land.

Scene from Luocha Land, directed by Zhao Miao

Zhao Miao’s theatre emphasizes employing physical movement rather than language to express meaning in theatre. Hymne à la disparition uses the ancient Chinese game, “Beat the Drum and Pass the Flower,” to introduce nine stories with disparate themes including revolution, deception, repentance, the generation gap and loneliness. Zhao’s most notable work in recent years is Luocha Land, produced in collaboration with the National Theatre Company of China. The play is inspired by a story from Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling’s (1640-1715) fantastical short story collection, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. The shipwrecked protagonist wanders into Luocha Land, where value systems are turned upside-down: evil is good, and ugliness is beautiful. His attempts to assimilate mark his downfall, and he loses all hope of rejoining human society. Zhao’s idea of physical theatre continues with Luocha Land, which uses the performers’ physical movement to render the text and incorporates diverse folk art methods, like masks, from Nuo opera and shadow puppetry. Physical theatre has also found other advocates in the New Generation, and emerging directors like Li Ning and Huang Junda have attracted attention for their explorations.

Theatre makers of an even younger generation, such as director Sun Xiaoxing (1986- ), and director/actor Ding Yiteng (1991- ), have been affected more deeply by ideas from contemporary western theatre. Sun Xiaoxing’s recent works have focused on cyber theatre and anime culture. They push the envelope of theatrical content and form, purposely challenging mainstream ideas in theatre and society. In his productions, an onslaught of messages in a WeChat chat group can be theatre (as seen in — — — — Here Is the Dividing Line — — — —), and a computer in an internet café playing a recorded video can become an actor (as seen in Speed Show: Drifting Internet Café). The majority of his works revolve around the life and experiences of the post-90s and post-00s generations in contemporary China, exploring the ideas and concepts of theatre in bold, protean ways that test the boundaries between theatre and reality. He has also shown interest in the idea of using scenarios from life as sites of performance.

From Injustice to Tou’O, directed by Ding Yiteng

Ding Yiteng started out in Meng Jinghui’s MENG Theatre Studio as a member of its “Two Dings and One Xiao Male Troupe.” He was later invited to perform with Odin Teatret in Denmark and began creating his own work, which include Injustice to Tou’O and Dream of a Drunk Poet. Injustice to Tou’O is a contemporary adaptation of the eponymous play by renowned Yuan Dynasty playwright Guan Hanqing. Although traditional Chinese opera provides the characters of Injustice to Tou’O, Ding has thematically integrated his own philosophy of life into the adaptation. Audiences were shocked when Tou’O, faced with injustice from heaven, chooses to slay the gods instead of accepting her death sentence, a choice that reflects what Ding has openly acknowledged as his debt to Nietzsche and Camus.

From Injustice to Tou’O, directed by Ding Yiteng

Many other emerging directors with distinct artistic ideas are also part of the New Generation. They include Yang Ting, who specializes in absurdist and parodic narratives; Gu Lei, who focuses on real-life issues in the lower class; and Wang Zichuan, who satirizes with his own idiosyncratic brand of comedy.

As of 2018, the New Generation of Chinese Directors have become a force to be reckoned with in Chinese theatre. Their works often become main attractions at theatre festivals in China, and receive invitations to perform abroad. They themselves are being asked to direct at major theatres and even helm films. Even more significantly, they have created a more welcoming environment for the development of more diverse, more avant-garde theatre in China, and helped bolster the rapid growth of the market for theatre festivals and experimental theatre in China.

Admittedly, the future is as yet uncertain for the New Generation. They are still on their way to finding an original style and form, and they could devote more attention to the history and current state of China. The burgeoning market for theatre has created temptations and challenges, and the thriving exchanges between Chinese theatre and global theatre is a source of tangible and unspoken pressures. The restrictions imposed by censorship and institutional power cannot be overlooked: few government funding opportunities are available for these directors. The pressure of ticket sales is another hard nut they have to crack.

Dream of a Drunk Poet, directed by Ding Yiteng

The New Generation of Chinese Directors have yet to occupy the center of the Chinese theatre scene. The majority of government funding goes towards state-owned troupes, and the New Generation, with their highly individual approach to subject matter, themes, and format, cannot be easily assimilated into the program of state-owned theatres. The previous generation of theatre artists, represented by Meng Jinghui, Tian Qinxin, and others, are still in their artistic prime, not to mention more commercially bankable. Nonetheless, the New Generation have shown formidable creative energy in their work. Their influence is growing, and their future importance in shaping the development of Chinese theatre cannot be overestimated.

*Xi Muliang (b. 1991) is a theatre critic and co-founder, with Annie Feng, of “Drama Jury,” an influential new media platform for contemporary Chinese theatre criticism. He is also a PhD student in Cultural Heritage at the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University. As a theatre journalist, he has worked for Literary Life Weekly, Sina.com’s Performance Channel, and Lifeweek Magazine’s new media platform, Songguo Life. He now works as a freelance writer and reporter for the WeChat public account “WowTheatre.”

**Annie Feng is a theatre producer, critic and the editor-in-chief of the theatre media/new media platform “WowTheatre.” Producing credits include: Le petit Paris, Ici•Là-bas, Le Cri (Voleur du Feu Theatre, Taiwan), Hedda Gabler (Theatre Company Shelf, Japan), A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2015, A Midsummer Night’s Scream (Nanjing University Department of Theater & Film), Café Experimental Theatre, The Traitor (Nanjing University MFA Theatre Company). Works she has produced have been invited to many festivals in China and abroad, including TPAM – Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama, Taipei Arts Festival, the Cross-Strait Avant-Garde Theater Festival, Festival Off d’Avignon, Beijing Fringe Festival and Beijing NLGX Performing Arts Festival. Her theatre reviews have been published in New Drama, Shanghai Theatre, Stage and Screen Reviews, Guangdong Art Magazine, People’s Daily, National Center for the Performing Arts Magazine and others.

Copyright © 2018 Xi Muliang, Annie Feng
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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Chinese Directors: The New Generation