Laughs, tears and a lot of sweat — after a long slump, drama is blooming on China’s mainland. Theater is now an integral part of the city’s cosmopolitan lifestyle, and production budgets increase along with audience numbers. Numerous outstanding talents are emerging as they try to pursue their dream of being on stage. In this column, we interview those devoted to producing original theater in China — from directors, playwrights and actors to those pulling the strings behind the curtain.
JUST a couple of days before the Chinese Spring Festival, the original Chinese drama "The Crowd" was performed as part of the Lessing Theater Festival in Hamburg, Germany. The play was so highly anticipated that tickets were sold out two months before.
Given the fame of the playwright, the high demand for tickets was to be expected. Since 2000, Nick Yu Rong-Jun has created 63 works.
"The Crowd" is an interpretation of "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen and explores what would happen if all power is given to the people.
"In the evolution of human history, be it revolution or war, democracy or politics, everything is propelled forward and realized by the reformation of the masses," Yu said.
Yu first drew attention with his award-winning drama "www.com," which was shown at the 2001 Singapore International Arts Festival and translated into several languages. The play is about people's relationship in the online era.
Other influential original works include the physical theater "Dog's Face" about the daily life and pressure of white-collar workers in cities.
"The most attractive thing of theater to me is its 'limitation;' physical theater gives up talking on stage — this 'limitation' has its special power," Yu said about "Dog's Face."
In the past 20 years, Yu experienced the growth of Chinese contemporary drama.
Chinese drama is getting more successful abroad, he said.
"Chinese traditional operas and kungfu performances used be the only programs that can be enjoyed by foreign audiences on an international stage — now our original dramas become more powerful," he said.
Yu has hosted more than 400 projects on three stages in Shanghai. These projects included productions from some of China's major theater companies as well as more than 200 productions from abroad. He has also facilitated the world tour of more than 20 Shanghai Drama Artistic Center plays and has translated and adapted foreign-language works into Chinese that have been performed in China and abroad.
"I feel very lucky to have experienced these meaningful 20 years. To be honest, we (theater workers and audiences) are growing up together," Yu said. “Now we are all in a better environment — more and more good original products, talented actors, young audiences, more mature performance markets, art institutes of diversity and more exchanges opportunities with international troupes."
A medicine graduate, Yu started his theater life coincidently by working at SDAC. Yu emphasized that his full-time job is all about the operation of the arts institute — from marketing to management and operation, rather than writing plays.
"I write plays mostly in my leisure time — but there is no conflict; they (the operation works of the theater and play writing) help each other," he said.
"To create, you need an understanding of the market, the audience and the work process. The creating cannot be blind; and one of the advantages of working in theater provides me a very good chance to learn all of these."
Within two decades, SDAC has become one of China's most important artistic institutes, with more than 260 productions seen by a total of 6.8 million people.
Despite all his achievements, Yu remains humble. He's inspired by the stories of people around him, he said.
Born in Hanshan in Anhui Province in 1971, the playwright is now exploring the Chinese countryside as a theme.
"The countryside is where my roots are. More and more now, the countryside in China is disappearing. I want to write about it — it's what I am interested in, and it's also my responsibility," he said.
With all his responsibilities, people are often impressed that Yu still finds time to write, but he believes that, the busier he is, the more productive he gets.
"To me, writing is a lifestyle, a way to relax, rather than work," Yu said.
Some stories may have been on his mind for many years; but when he writes them down, it can take him as little as a couple of days.
To Yu, theater used to be just a hobby. Today, it's his life.
"It's hard to define a successful play; in my own definition, if the audience responds well, you have succeeded," he said.