A Chronicle of China’s Pandemic Theatre: The Word from Nine Theatre Artists

by Lissa Tyler Renaud*


The mainstream media’s virus-centered narrative about China swept the world, but didn’t include the story I wanted to hear: about China’s theatre. I began writing to colleagues connected in some capacity to the yearly Wuzhen Theatre Festival—many of whom are among the most influential figures in new and experimental Chinese theatre—asking them to write about their work: What did the theatre shutdowns mean for them? What were they doing professionally instead? What adjustments did the theatres make, either challenging or opportune? What did they see ahead? What new ideas had the theatres arrived at that might survive The Time of the Virus?

Empty Balcony, Wuzhen Grand Theatre, China. Photo: Lissa Tyler Renaud

From their replies—briefly excerpted below—emerged a story of their country’s pandemic from the practical and philosophical perspectives of its theatre artists and associates. On the one hand, theatre staff layoffs, long quarantines, travel restrictions, strictly enforced testing and monitoring, COVID cases abating and returning, hard decisions by theatre administrators, shows closed or re-cast. On the other hand, burgeoning creativity, new collaborations, resourceful solutions, original projects, renewed inspiration, and hope. Overall, a profound, intimate, inspiring chronicle of China’s theatre workers in this period of plague.

Note: Many respondents were involved in the new Theatre for Living internet reality show, shot in Wuzhen. The premise is that eight theatre artists have to make a living on their own.

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[In alphabetical order:]

Chao Bian. Producer, director of film and theatre, screenwriter. Senior translator, Wuzhen Theatre Festival

In January 2020, I went to Beijing to audition actors and dancers for my projects. And I got COVID-19: a bad sore throat, a high fever; then I couldn’t breathe. At that time, COVID was still secret. At the hospital, they prescribed medication. Then the news from Wuhan spread more and more. It took at least a month to recover, but through self-contemplation and meditation, I was able to heal myself completely.

And theatre is, in a way, a social medicine. When society has a disease, it has to be able to see itself to be healed. Theatre is going to rip open the wounds, allow us to see the core fears in our society. In that way, we can dig deeper into our humanity, our collective consciousness, help cure the disease and heal ourselves, our society, our world. Theatre is a meditation, a musing, a self-reflection for the mass audience.

During this challenging time, theatre people are becoming more and more creative. We stay home, make theatre at home. There’s social distancing, but we’re still connected, via current technology. Essentially we are still storytelling, but on what platform, through what medium, is the kind of question we have to ask ourselves. It’s not that “church-going” experience of live theatre, but in this time of trial, we have to work smart, and make theatre more accessible.

So, it’s all resources for the artist to draw from, an important pause for reflecting on our lives so we can bring deeper meanings to art.

Chen, Xianghong. Renowned for ancient Wuzhen’s restoration. Wuzhen Theatre Festival Co-Founder and Chairman

For all of the people who reside in this town, they are all used to the annual Theatre Festival. It seems as if the year is split into “the days of the Theatre Festival,” and “the other days.” For all of those people who come from all over the country as visitors to the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, those days are reserved for individuals to enjoy art and let themselves go.

The pandemic has disrupted this normal pattern, and we find that, in addition to all of the limitations we face in normal life, the postponement of the Theatre Festival has left our little town particularly quiet. This is a vivid example of how people perceive the Wuzhen Theatre Festival and the town of Wuzhen as one unity. Wuzhen without the Festival cannot restore the brilliance and soul that the Festival brings. This has made me think about one question: how to let the Wuzhen Theatre Festival continue, year after year. It may be postponed due to a pandemic for a year or two, but it absolutely cannot for any other man-made reasons be dislodged from this place where it has settled its roots. Any long-term strategy must strengthen the roots. The Wuzhen Theatre Festival must continue to add elements, to be more inclusive, to mix in more international theatre arts, but it must also continue to keep the pure vision and unique features that we started with, and the professionalism and artistic standards that are publicly acknowledged.

This pandemic has led me to cherish life more, and to cherish the Theatre Festival more.

Ding, Nai-Chu. Theatre and film producer extraordinaire. Wuzhen Festival’s Executive Director

2020 has certainly been a great challenge for humanity, but I have taken the opportunity to think about the next steps. Though the Theatre Festival has been temporarily postponed, our Theatre Above in Shanghai has charged valiantly ahead after being shut down for three months. We started by being allowed a 30% audience capacity, and this has now grown to 70%. Our philosophy is: a small loss is a victory during this period of time. Seeing the enthusiasm of our team, onstage and backstage, and the tremendous support from our mask-wearing audiences, we feel consolation and encouragement. The theatre is like a healing hub during this time. We don’t know how long this will last, but we pray that we have the method and wisdom to dance with the situation. We look forward to the Wuzhen Theatre Festival’s return this year.

Ding, Yiteng. Theatre director and actor, China and abroad. Doctoral student, Central Academy of Drama (Beijing)

“Turn right first, if you want to go left. Take a step back first, if you want to go forward.”

This is the critical aesthetic principle of traditional Chinese theatre, which not only guides the traditional Chinese method of stylized performing, it also permeates its dramaturgical structure. In the Chinese opera, Defeating JiaoZan, Yang pretends to be defeated first, then turns the table on Jiao when he is blithely pleased with his momentary victory. 

Similarly, such contrasts can be found in Western pieces. When I saw La Traviata at the Royal Opera House in London, I was extremely touched by how the director “processed” the last scene: Marguerite’s life was already on the edge due to her suffering from tuberculosis, but when she saw her lover, she glowed with happiness as if she had never been sick—then she ran around and around the huge stage, until she bloomed and burned out the last bit of life in her body.

Such philosophy of contrast (opposition?) can be the inspiration for our real lives just as it is in our art. During the pandemic, we all share the same helpless feeling in the face of the “stagnation” and “setbacks,” but I believe somehow at those silent moments we are accumulating precious energy, and getting ourselves prepared to face the upcoming new renaissance in the theatre.

Just as Eugenio Barba says in The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology: “Actor, my friend, my brother, you live only by contrariness, contradiction and constriction. You live only in the ‘contra.’”

Han, Yuxin. Senior Editorial Assistant, Wuzhen Theatre Festival

During the quarantine, we released a documentary about the 7th Wuzhen Theatre Festival [2019]… but then there wasn’t much work to do—we spent a lot of time sweeping up the office, processing digital documents, and taking care of the plants. On July 12th, the Chairman’s Committee finally decided to postpone the 8th Theatre Festival until 2021. A silence fell over the town that day.

We did talk about the possibility of holding the festival online with live streaming or video recordings. But the copyright issues and the other problems, such as equipment and online platforms, seemed to be hard to solve in such a short time.

It was quite sad to see that similar scenes were happening across the whole industry. Like many other producers, stage managers, ticketing officers, actors and actresses, we had to find other ways to feed ourselves outside the theatre.

I have watched quite a lot of videos and live streaming performances produced by theatres all over the world in the past year. The irony is that I would not be able to see so many masterpieces if the pandemic had never broken out. I know face-to-face international communication will not be restored in a short time, and the digitization of the performing arts is an inevitable trend. But I’m still badly missing the smell of the auditoriums and the busy footsteps backstage. I believe that once the virus is over, spectacular crowds will be back in the theatres without hesitation.

Huang, Lei. One of China’s most prominent theatre, television and film actors; director, producer, screenwriter, professor. Wuzhen Theatre Festival Co-Founder

[Huang Lei’s response began with a video clip only viewable on China’s “WeChat” messaging app: a dance-exercise routine by an apparently vapid young couple in candy colors—bouncing, shimmying, waggling . . .]

I saw this video, and to quote a line from [the theatre classic] Teahouse, I truly want to have a good cry. The Chinese saying goes: “Low quality coins drive out high quality ones.”

The most important thing I’ve done this year is the Internet TV program, Theatre for Living. I hope to use certain methods to express my views about this world. Many have to do with theatre, and some do not. This year, I have not gotten away from Wuzhen and have not gotten away from thinking. I have not gotten away from using more powerful methods to respond to the world.

Lai, Shengchuan (Stan Lai). “The best Chinese language playwright and director in the world.” Wuzhen Theatre Festival co-founder

I went back to Taipei for Chinese New Year’s last year [January/February], and wound up staying till September. The revival of one of my plays after 30 years, Look Who’s Crosstalking Tonight, had a setback: the National Theatre demanded that audience members sit one seat apart. We decided to postpone, and eventually performed in September, to an enthusiastic full house—it seemed as much a spiritual renewal as a theatrical revival. In Taiwan, life is much closer to normal than most places in the world, and the theatre has been running at full capacity since late summer 2020.

One thing I could not overcome in the revival of the crosstalk play [a form of extended comic dialogue]: I wanted to restore the feeling of a typical 1989 Taipei nightclub. I arranged for tables to be set on stage, for 30 audience members to be served a steak dinner. It turned out the logistics were too much for the pandemic situation, so we kept the audience on stage, but had to lay off the steaks.

During the pandemic, we also unveiled our experiment in high-resolution recording of one of my plays, Writing in Water. It was filmed at Theatre Above in Shanghai by a British team well-versed in NT live shooting; the premiere screening was in Beijing in December 2020—the first experiment of its kind to be screened commercially. I must say I was surprised—the camerawork led the audience, perhaps more easily than in live theatre, into the particular journey of this play. After the screening, I asked the audience whether they felt they were watching a live play or a filmed version of the play? They thought about it before replying: both.

Meng, Jinghui. “The most acclaimed Chinese theatre director in the international theatre firmament.” Wuzhen Theatre Festival Co-Founder

During the pandemic, I have created a one-person play and two children’s plays. During this time, I have read a bunch of good plays and a bunch of lousy plays. Recently, I have been reading the collected plays of Brecht and Bulgakov. A question keeps popping into my mind: what is more important, life or freedom? What is life? What is freedom? There doesn’t seem to be an answer. It seems that the answer keeps changing. It seems that the answers are not answers.

Zhou, Liming [Raymond Zhou]. China’s most influential film and theatre critic. Juror, forums organizer, Wuzhen Theatre Festival

For a theatre enthusiast, 2020 was an unusual year to say the least. Even though performing arts venues in China took tentative steps to reopen in the second half of the year, I made a half-conscious game plan to sit out the whole year, a kind of personal experiment to see what my life would be like without this art form. I’d call it “my year of theatre abstinence,” which started out of necessity—a necessity so many theatregoers around the world have been subjected to.

When I first realized, around March, that lockdown and social distancing would be the new normal, I asked myself what parts of a theatre experience might be reproduced virtually. By that time, I had been binge watching recordings of straight plays and musicals and found the form a rather passive representation that hardly fits the COVID-era requirements. There must be a middle ground between live theatre and moving images that manages to retain the essence of both forms, I thought.

I dipped my toes in, so to speak, by launching a four-minute parody of Hamilton’s theme song, for which I rewrote the lyrics to reflect the initial impact of the pandemic while hewing closely to the original rhyming scheme. A dozen of China’s best musical performers volunteered, each singing a couple of lines from their places of quarantine. After a week of hectic coordination, I uploaded the video in mid-April, getting 10 million views in just a few days and a barrage of media coverage.

. . . Sure, a recording of a theatre piece cannot capture the charm of live theatre, yet an approximation is better than nothing at all.

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Special thanks to Stan Lai for translating for four of the respondents.

A different version of this piece appeared in Scene4 international arts and culture magazine. 

*Lissa Tyler Renaud (MFA Directing; PhD Theatre History/Criticism, summa cum laude, U.C. Berkeley, 1987). Lifelong actress. Founder-Director, InterArts Training, based in Oakland, California. Has taught, lectured, published widely on theatre training, dramatic theory, the early European avant-garde; at major theatre institutions of Asia; around the U.S; in England, Mexico, Sweden and Russia. Founding editor, Wuzhen Theatre Festival, China, and English-French Critical Stages; contributor, board member. Co-editor, The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); invited chapter, Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. Editor, Selected Plays of Stan Lai (University of Michigan Press, pending). Senior theatre writer, Scene4 and founder, its “Kandinsky Anew” series.

Copyright © 2021 Lissa Tyler Renaud
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