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    Is There a Right Way to Stage a Classic Play?

    Chinese stagings of classic plays tend to be overly faithful to the source material or commercialized cash grabs.
    Apr 23, 2024#entertainment

    The enthusiasm of Chinese theatergoers for classic plays — and especially for those based on established works of literature — shows no sign of fading. Productions of Lao She’s “Teahouse” and Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm” by the Beijing People’s Art Theater (PAT), which still sells tickets the old-fashioned way, at the box office, draw long lines as fans camp out to guarantee a spot.

    However, there are also signs that classic plays aren’t connecting with audiences like in the past. As early as 2014, a performance of “Thunderstorm” the PAT gave for a student audience was met with laughter from an audience uninterested in the supposedly pretentious use of Cao’s language and stage direction.

    The exact reasons for the laughter could be mixed, but the reaction points to a broader truth: The drastic changes China has undergone over the past four decades have reshaped people’s ideas about family, gender, and individual-society relations, but the theater has not kept up. Rather than mining these works for new meaning, they continue to stage them exactly as they were conceived more than 70 years ago.

    This challenge is hardly limited to China. While there’s still plenty of room for classic staging, playwriters across the world have also been looking for new ways to introduce classic theater to a Gen-Z audience, or make Sherlock Holmes cool again.

    In China, much of this work has been done by commercial theater troupes, which have targeted the country’s growing middle class via a number of classic plays updated with more modern language, while keeping the structures, storylines, and characters intact. The results have been mixed, at best, however. Given the high stakes and the troupes’ need to make a profit, these shows tend to play it safe and often land in a sort of creative no-man’s land: neither faithful enough to the original nor innovative enough to justify the changes they made.

    Nevertheless, their aggressively middlebrow approach seems to have struck a chord. The theater industry has grown rapidly in recent years, thanks in large part to hit shows like Mou Sen’s 2022 staging of “Red Sorghum” or Stan Lai’s 2018 play “Peking Man.”

    There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but the success of commercial theater in China has sadly overshadowed a far more interesting and critically engaged approach — one with a long history in the country.

    Although typically associated with the “avant-garde,” experimental theater has a history of more than 40 years in China, dating to the premiere of Lin Zhaohua’s experimental play “Absolute Signal” in Beijing in 1982. Although not a classic adaption itself, Lin’s methods, including the breaking of the “fourth wall,” helped kickstart China’s “small theater movement” and influenced a number of successful productions featuring new interpretations of classic works, including Li Jianjun’s “Diary of a Madman,” Wang Chong’s “Teahouse 2.0,” Ding Yiteng’s “Dou E Yuan,” and Sun Xiaoxing’s “Cherry Orchard.” These shows all adapted classic texts in bold new ways, breaking formal ground and finding new meaning in old stories.

    An example of this approach is 2013’s “Green Snake,” directed by Tian Qinxin. Tian boldly adapted a famous Chinese folk story for the contemporary stage, using it to explore the desires and emotions of people in the present day.

    More recently, Meng Jinghui’s 2018 adaptation of Lao She’s “Teahouse” was divisive in the best way, engaging with nearly a hundred years of Chinese culture and history, even as critics complained Meng strayed from the original’s focus on Beijing.

    Although typically grouped in the avant-garde category in China, these plays are perhaps better understood as examples of what German scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann termed “postdramatic theater,” which opposes the traditional creation method of “text-based representations,” and emphasizes elements such as stage design, music, actors’ bodies, and audience response. If audiences are used to a watertight narrative — which is what most adaptations of classics promise — then these experimental adaptations aim to break that expectation and resist future ossification.

    Unfortunately, four decades on since the small theater movement began in China, and 10 years after the “Thunderstorm” incident, serious contemporary renditions of classic works remain rare.

    A tenet often used to justify this difference in market status is “promoting the right play to the right audience.” In other words, the popularity of safe adaptations is merely a function of the contemporary middle class’s cultural tastes. The problem with this belief is that it takes the audience’s taste as a given, while in reality, it is constantly being shaped by the dynamics between theater managers, investors, directors, and critics.

    The Russian contemporary theater director Yury Butusov once said, “Theaters are not canned food stores.” If we view audiences as passive recipients of culture, we get something like the current industry: brightly colored theaters selling tasteless canned products.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. Experimental theater and audience tastes are not necessarily incompatible. Chinese theaters will be a much more colorful place if playing safe is not the only option for creators, and the audience have a chance to challenge their existing understanding of what makes a classic.

    Translator: David Ball.

    (Header image: Photos of PAT’s (left) and Meng Jinghui’s adaptions of Lao She’s “Teahouse.” Visuals from Douban and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)