by Lissa Tyler Renaud*

Ding Yiteng

Ding Yiteng calls himself “a Chinese theatre director and actor,” but the press has called him “the shining gold . . . in the Chinese theatre bog.” Even this commendation barely hints at the creative life of this international whirling dervish. Interviewed by China Central Television in December of 2017, between January and May of 2018 alone he corresponded with me from Belgium, Poland, Denmark, Romania, France, China and Taiwan. He was giving workshops here, and acting there; now performing at an important festival, now directing at a historic theatre. Then, he was saving one famous director from an emergency in one part of the world; then, creating a role for another famous director in another part of the world. He also traveled to attend foreign productions, and to collect theatre books and recordings. And all of this was a warm-up for what came next: he graduated first in his class in Directing from China’s Central Academy of Drama; and, having been nominated for several top prizes since 2015, he was awarded the prestigious “Best Young Director of China” for 2018. The global theatre artist of the future? We should be so lucky.


Here, readers are dropping into the longer conversation with an email from Ding Yiteng:

I am sending you some photos of Bridge of Winds, a theatre group led by Odin actress Iben. I am the only Asian in this international theatre group. The members are from all over the world: Denmark, Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Belgium, Spain, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, China and so on. We meet once a year, each time with new energy.

[About the following photo] What is the difference between your physical position and the others’? I mean, the meaning or source of your position. Training? Tradition? Culture? Aesthetic? Concept of the body? Dream? 

Physical training with Bridge of Winds. Gent, Belgium, January 2018. L to R: Rafael Magalhaes, Ding Yiteng, Iza Jurkowska, Tatiana Cardoso. Photo: Francesco Galli

I think my physical positions are different from others’ because of my transcultural identity. As an Asian, I lived in the United States with my family when I was little. So, the world has been opening up for me ever since I was a child.

I started traditional Chinese theatre (Beijing Opera) physical training in Beijing, after my second trip to Odin (Denmark), in 2016. I regard that training as the basis of my theatre body. I have also been studying a lot of performance approaches at Odin Theatre and Bridge of Winds in these years. There, during our process, I was struck by the possibility of combining traditional physical techniques of Chinese—or “Asian” theatre, because I was also inspired by Japanese Butoh, Kabuki, Balinese dance and so on—with Western physical theatre techniques.

For example, most of the physical actions in [Ding’s recent production] Injustice to Tou’O were transformed from traditional Chinese opera or dance, but we expressed them in a “modern theatre” way.

Injustice to Tou’O, Boiling Bakery Production, coll. Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium. Directed by Ding Yiteng. Premiere: October 3, 2016. Venue: December 30, Qinglan Theatre in Beijing, China. L to R: Hu Jiaqin (God), Guan Xiaotian (God), Ding Yiteng (Tou’O, in red). Photo: Tian Peng

How did you move from acting to directing?

I have been gathering lots of directing experience since the time when I only worked as an actor.

Director Meng [Jinghui] guided me towards becoming a director when I was an actor. I had observed him directing, and worked as an actor in plays he directed: To Live, Waste happiness, Two Dogs and so on. He is a director full of ideas and passion.

Then, one day, he came to me: “Maybe you could find a topic and create a new performance for the 2014 Beijing Fringe Festival and the 2014 Wuzhen Theatre Festival—something you really want to express!” He encouraged me to be the “under-director” of our three-man group—the 2D1X theatre group—and I started to take on some parts of the directing work for [Genet’s] The Maids. This was the start of my directing career.

The Maids, by Jean Genet, Meng Theatre Studio Production. Directed by Meng Jinghui. Premiere: September 26, 2014 (photo). Venue: Avant-garde Theatre of National Theatre of China, 2014 Beijing Fringe Festival, Beijing, China. L to R Ding Boxuan, Ding Yiteng, Guan Xiaotian

When I participated in Odin’s production, The Chronic Life, director Eugenio Barba once wanted to show me the “real” state of a body “out of balance”: he fell off the stage many, many times—at least ten! I was shocked by this 81-year-old directing master.

Does your acting experience inform your directing? Make it easier? Harder?

After working with excellent directors, I know what good theatre directors want from their actors. More concretely, I know what I want from my actors: to be alive. The director wants the actor to be alive on the stage.

So, when I work as both an actor and director on the stage, I have the feeling that I am influencing my actors to be alive while we are acting simultaneously. For example, in the final moments of Injustice to Tou’O, all the figures on the stage were repeating a kind of old, exotic “mantra,” while Tou’O was pulling the long coffin (after the long text from The Stranger, by Camus), and I felt that my actors were following my voice and soul; we were breathing together in the last moments of Tou’O.

My acting experience is the resource material for my directing. I think I am a more Directing person while I am rehearsing, but I am only an Actor during performance.

Please talk about how you collaborate with your designers.

I give my designers my “first vision” of a scene or character as it’s appeared in my mind, and try my best to describe it in a shared, concrete way. For example: “I want a coffin on the Tou’O stage, and scenery pretty much like hell.” Or: “Tou’O’s character is a ghost in a red dress.” Or: “There are many doors on the Drunk Poet‘s set.” Then, my designers will develop my original idea and add other related elements to the production.

Ding’s Poet pointing at the shining door behind the spectators. Dream of a Drunk Poet, Ding Theatre Studio Production, coll. Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium. Directed by Ding Yiteng. Premiere: September 8, 2017. Venue: December 2, 2017 (photo), Ningxia Theatre in Yinchuan, China. Photo: B’E

Tell me about “appeared in my mind.” Appeared from where?

The “extra-daily” or abstract images in my mind might come from a dream, text, poem, painting, movie, daily life—any and everywhere.

Once, in Europe, I saw a religious painting in which Jesus was hanging on the cross with his arms spread wide. This image impressed and inspired me with the thought that the character of Tou’O has the same destiny as Christ. Then, in my recent production, I hung Tou’O in the air, just as in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Injustice to Tou’O, Boiling Bakery Production, coll. Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium. Directed by Ding Yiteng. Premiere: October 3, 2016. Venue: December 30, Qinglan Theatre in Beijing, China. Photo, Rulun Theatre in Renmin University of China in Beijing, China, April 15, 2017. Left to Right: Zhang LiJuyi, Ding Yiteng (in red, hanging above), Wei Lan, Qie Yi, Hu Jiaqin, Zhang Yifei. Photo: Wu Andi

How do you actively stimulate your images for a play?

Movies and books. I watch many related movies when I create a production, and also choose one or two books. Now, I am reading Faust while I am creating Frankenstein! I fell in love with Camus when I prepared to direct Tou’O!

How do you develop the visual style of your productions?

We plant different “visual seeds” in different productions. Sometimes they may grow into large trees, sometimes not. But we try to find a specific visual style for each production: for The Maids—a slaughterhouse; or for Macbeth and Fleance—an abandoned factory.

Macbeth and Fleance, Meng Theatre Studio Production. Directed by Ding Yiteng. Premiere: September 11, 2015. Pictured here: Fengchao Theatre in Beijing, China. L to R: Guan Xiaotian, Ding Boxuan. Photo: Liu Chang

How does it feel when you have found the right visual world for a play?

It feels like touching the softest skin—stimulating and satisfying. I can’t get it out of my mind.

As a director, what, if anything,is difficult in communicating with designers?

The difficulty is letting the designers know what is in the director’s tacit imagination, which is sometimes hard to describe in words. Once, we were performing Tou’O in the city of Xi’an, and I remember I had been quarreling with my designer all night long because she couldn’t understand the design for my interpretation of the Donkey Zhang character! She was very kind and gave me lots of proposals, but I disliked them all and drove her crazy! But, finally, we understood each other after this big “difficulty.”

How early do you exchange views about the coming production?

For example, I am now [February 2018] preparing for my next production, Frankenstein, so I am communicating with my design team about our changing views of the play everyday. This will last until the July premiere, and maybe even longer. I organized an international theatre group called “Open the Door” with ten actors from many countries; I directed one version of Frankenstein with them in Poland in August 2018. I am thinking of inviting them to China next year.

The male monster is having fun with the newborn female monster in their Eden. Frankenstein, Open the Door Production. Directed by Ding Yiteng. Poland, August 2018. Actors L to R: Soufian Khalil (France), Ira Brami (Greece).

Now, a different direction: Do you think the theatre has a social responsibility? 

Yes, of course. “Social responsibility” has a specific meaning for each theatre person. For instance, I would not be taking any kind of social responsibility, if my theatre or play didn’t work on me first. My productions are always transforming the relationship between me, as a person, Yiteng Ding, and the external world.

I used to perform for refugees in Denmark, native Indians in Brazil, poor kids in a tiny Chinese village. We exchanged attitudes towards life and shared the same smile on our faces. Somehow, a moment like that is how “social responsibility” works!

Ding’s drunk poet, in Dream of a Drunk Poet. Ding Theatre Studio Production, coll. Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium. Directed by Ding Yiteng. Premiere: September 8, 2017. Pictured here: Shandong Fangyu Village Art Festival, October 2017. Photo: Huang Jie

Are there topics the theatre is obligated to explore? 

I have been seeing many theaters put their focus on big topics: Reflections on War, Historical Issues, Political Struggle and so on. But, look! I was born in 1991 and grew upin a peaceful new era; theatre becomes more and more a matter of the individual for my generation. Theatre would be meaningless if we pretended or were forced to do something that did not belong to our identities.

Can the theatre help to solve social problems? 

The theatre is my lover. We are so close, so intimate; softly and slowly, she helps me with my internal problems. For example, the loneliness of being an only child, insecurity in a society with rapid economic development—and these are the common phenomena of my whole generation as well.

Are there topics the theatre cannot or should not deal with? 

Whatever people want. Any topic can be discussed in this context of “organized representation,” but there can be no standard response to any topic. . . .

A related question is about the purpose of the theatre. . . .

I regard The Theatre and Its Double as my Bible of Theatre.

Antonin Artaud said, “From the human point of view, the action of theatre, like that of the Plague, is beneficial, for, impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world.”

This journal can help open communication between theatre people and the critics. Have you ever received a particularly helpful comment from a critic? 

In October 2016, I received an encouraging comment from a famous, anonymous Chinese critic, who has been writing “direct” and “acrid” comments for the Chinese theatre since 2010! “Yiteng Ding’s work, Injustice to Tou’O, goes beyond the sadness and questioning of our time’s lack of belief and truth. . . .”

Due to the anonymity of this critic, who goes by the pen name “Bei Xiao Jing,” theatre people believe in him—I trust him even when he (or she) has given my production a bad review. We have seen so many reviews written for mianzi and guanxi (in Mandarin, meaning “face” and “relationship”). For example, to “save face” (or not to ruin a specific relationship), a critic might give a deceptive or misleading review of a certain show.

And a negative review that changed your perspective, thinking, development?

There was an interesting and inspiring review, “A Wacko in the Theatre,” from that same critic, “Bei Xiao Jing,” after seeing a performance of Macbeth and Fleance in Beijing, in September 2015:

“Theatre is not the bombing of a ‘concept,’ or to ‘bomb’ the spectators with one’s life attitude. It is easy to blaze a trail, but to surpass others on the road of theatre (at least to go beyond yourself), depends on the collision of human emotion between the actors and spectators, not only by visual stimulation. Maverick forms and concepts are interesting, they can attract many fans and make you famous, but Theatre is not a TV show, and the stage does not need a wacko!”

I’ve translated the Chinese title of the review,《剧场里的奇葩说》(Theatre Qipa), as “A Wacko in the Theatre.” “Qipa”is a popular word from the Internet, which means wacko, weirdo, freak—something like that, haha.

Later, Ding Yiteng sent me a letter he’d received from a distinguished Italian scholar, who wrote after seeing a performance Ding had recently given with Odin Teatret: “The actors of all cultures today act according to two conventions: formalized behavior (stylized) and probable behavior. . . . [D]ance, opera and the Asian theatrical traditions belong to the first convention. . . . Dear Ding it was your belonging to a tradition like that of the Beijing Opera that allowed Barba to choose you…”

Yes, I replied: Yiteng, that is the answer to the first question I asked.

Thank you, Lissa, I hope our conversation will never end…

Ding performing in the lake during Holstebro Festuge in Denmark, on June 18, 2017. Photo: Holstebro Festuge

*Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training, based in Oakland, California. She has taught, lectured and published widely on acting, directing, voice, body alignment, dramatic theory and the early European avant-garde throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Council grants, she is also an award-winning actress, a director and popular recitalist. Book publications include: The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009/2011) and an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky (2013). Renaud was founding editor (English) of Critical Stages (2007-14), and remains a contributing editor and board member. She is senior editor for the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China, and a longtime senior writer for Scene4 international cultural magazine.

Copyright © 2018 Lissa Tyler Renaud
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Transforming Techniques, Transforming Relationships: Interview with Actor-Director Ding Yiteng