When the Wuzhen Theater Festival returned this October after a year off due to COVID-19, organizers faced a much-changed industry landscape. Last year was dismal for theaters worldwide, and while performance halls are reopening their doors and life is seemingly returning to normal, the upheavals of the past two years, both personal and political, mean there’s no going back to our pre-coronavirus lives.
Inside the global theater community, the pandemic has sparked a heated discussion on the nature of the dramatic arts. With international troupes still unable to enter the country, this year’s festival took place at a remove from these debates, but not outside them. Featuring almost two dozen Chinese dramatic works, the event promised to be a showcase of the country’s theater scene. I was eager to see how the best and brightest of the Chinese theater world would respond to our new context.
Unfortunately, the shows at this year’s festival seemed less interested in tackling the challenges of the past two years than celebrating our survival. Rather than provoking or nettling theatergoers as in years past, the performances were staunchly audience-friendly — perhaps overly so.
The clearest indication of this was the near-total absence of controversy from this year’s festival. The 2018 Wuzhen Theater Festival opened defiantly with director Meng Jinghui’s subversive interpretation of the famous 1957 Lao She play “Teahouse.” Meng overturned just about every convention associated with the play to put together a refreshing spin on Lao She’s work, and the result was divisive in the best way, leading to heated debates among viewers.
This year’s opener, “The Red and the Black,” was also directed by Meng, but unlike his “Teahouse,” it was conservative in both presentation and content. Its greatest departure from Stendhal’s novel was to suppress the story’s revolutionary elements in favor of focusing on the romance between the protagonists. Perhaps Meng simply saw this romance as a more enduring and universal story than Stendhal’s interrogations of class or revolution, but his inward-looking approach ended up stripping a highly political work of any historical or social relevance.
“The Red and the Black” set the stage for a harmonious, if tame, nine days. That’s not to say there were no highlights: Li Jianjun’s adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sci-fi teleplay “World on a Wire” explored the gaps between reality and virtual reality, control and freedom; Zhu Hongxuan’s “When We Two Parted” was coolly funny, and He Qi’s “The Cat” had an ingenious narrative structure. But you know something is off when even the flops can’t get people arguing. This year’s disappointments were lacking not because they were so ambitious that audiences couldn’t keep up, but because they were too stale and shallow to ask anything of their audiences at all. Relative to past years, I didn’t see any plays that aggressively challenged viewers or sparked even mixed reactions.
It all felt so out of touch with our current, grim reality. Although China has largely avoided the worst of the pandemic, it hasn’t been fully insulated from the disasters of the past two years. Yet, judging by the shows performed at Wuzhen, these seismic shifts had no apparent impact on the country’s drama industry. Only Guo Chenzi’s “Hudec,” with its story of a displaced, wandering architect acting as a metaphor for individual uncertainty in a disorderly world, seemed to convey distinct feelings of the present moment.
Perhaps these artists, having survived the pandemic, remain in shock and have not yet fully internalized the traumas of the past two years. Perhaps they’re responding to a genuine desire on the part of audiences for comfort and assurance. Or perhaps the industry as a whole is buckling under the financial burdens of a year off work, and their courage to explore has given way to more traditional styles and prudent business strategies. It’s also worth considering the nature of Wuzhen itself: When your host is actively trying to present itself as a utopian island for theater and drama away from the stress of the real world, it can be difficult to spark urgent, serious discussions about the social issues people go to Wuzhen to escape.
This year’s disappointment could be the result of any or all those factors. It’s hard to point fingers at artists and theater festival organizers in the current creative environment. Still, I found my discomfort growing as I sat through a staging of “The Story of the Chicken Farm,” a short play about a chicken who follows its heart first put on by the cast of the Chinese variety TV show “Theater for Living” earlier this year.
A stage photo of “The Story of the Chicken Farm” taken during the 8th annual Wuzhen Theater Festival. From @塔苏 on Weibo
“Theater for Living” was filmed on location in Wuzhen, and its cast included the Festival’s founders and their friends, making it a spin-off of sorts of the Wuzhen Theater Festival. If “Chicken Farm” had been a middle school drama performance featuring students in chick and gull costumes, then its theme of listening to one’s inner self might have been heartwarming. But this was the product of a group of China’s most successful directors and actors who, with access to all the creative resources the country has to offer, chose to put on a juvenile performance while making simpering, innocent faces. Watching the show, I didn’t feel pandered to; I felt like I was being played for a fool, even if the real fools were the ones on stage.
From the organizers’ standpoint, variety shows like “Theater for Living” and the plays that come out of them can boost the festival’s profile and bring in new audiences. Theater festivals have never existed outside the commercial mainstream. They all share the same goals: attract audiences and visitors, rebrand the host city, and lure in tourists.
However, that strategy only works if people are interested in theater as a medium. If we want to increase audience engagement, then rebuilding theater’s relevance is arguably more important than trying to pander to the lowest common denominator. At a time when theater is no longer mainstream entertainment, theater halls can return to prominence only by speaking to people on their own terms, about issues that matter to them. In that spirit, hopefully next year’s festival will be a little less tame, and a little more provoking.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Artists give an outdoor performance during the 8th annual Wuzhen Theater Festival in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, Oct. 15, 2021. Cheng Jie/People Visual)