Curtain never falls: Wuzhen festival witnesses Chinese theatre burgeoning with vitality
Wuzhen, a revived water town near Hangzhou, is one of China's greatest heritage preservation achievements. Sitting on a rickety wooden boat, one can creak slowly through picturesque canals connected by carved stone bridges and edged by lush, leafy willows swaying from the banks. Dark rooftops of some reconstructed "old" buildings sweep beneath the blue sky, and some middle-aged women sit by the water, doing laundry. Here in Wuzhen, time slows down, and this ancient little town just feels perfect for theatre. The popular Wuzhen Theatre Festival takes over the town each autumn, welcoming Chinese and overseas performing groups.
Curtain just fell on the 8th Wuzhen Theatre Festival last month in this ancient water town. This year, the theme of the festival is "Burgeoning."
"Bamboo shoots emerge from the earth with vigor, like the horns of calves braving birth, bursting with the upward force of new life; beneath the ground, a single horizontal root (the rhizome) connects the shoots like arteries connect veins, the shoots living and growing symbiotically, their roots many and flourishing. In the future, the bamboo will grow into a luxuriant, beautiful forest of thousands of green bamboo poles," said Huang Hai, Graphic Design Director of the festival.
A PURE CHINESE FESTIVAL UNDER COVID-19
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to the Wuzhen Theater Festival. As the globe is still beclouded by the disease, overseas opera troupes still couldn't make it to Wuzhen this year, making the festival a pure Chinese one. Like previous years, the latest version of the festival included units of Specially Invited Plays, Youth Theatre Artists Competition, Outdoor Carnival, and Wuzhen Dialogues.
Opening the brochure for the 2021 festival, the list of shows will make your eyes wide open as you realize how impossible it would be to see every single one of the large number of performances on offer. The 2021 Wuzhen Theatre Festival is showcasing a total of 64 performances of 23 dramas.
Always being the highlight of the festival each year, the competition for emerging artists this year saw a record-breaking 1,300 applicants, with 571 entries. The festival's co-founder, Meng Jinghui, used the word "crazy" to describe this year's event. "Theatre is a kind of integrated art that requires collaboration. So what's happening now is that the seeds we've sown over the years are finally sprouting!"
Over the past eight years, more than 8,000 youths have participated in the competition, and many previous contestants had returned with their own works as the main actors and directors in this year's festival. Under pandemic this year, more attention was brought to the development of Chinese drama. Stan Lai, dramatist and co-founder of the festival, said that this year, foreign productions could not come to Wuzhen, making it a good opportunity to see how far Chinese theatre has gone over the past year or so.
In Lai's opinion, original scripts are the impetus for the industry to go forward, as he said that more efforts are needed for the development of original scripts in China. He added that although most of the works in this year's competition are original, China has been lagging behind in this realm over the years, probably because many talented people have flocked to film and television, for the massive profits that theatre can never provide.
"In the United States and Europe, the status of a scriptwriter is much higher than that of a director, but in China, the reality is quite the opposite. I think it will be a while before we can expect new local promising playwrights before this mentality changes. Where are the new works? Where are the new creations? This is always my concern," he said.
The renowned American-born dramatist revealed that 12 English plays by him will be published by the University of Michigan at the end of the year, including "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land", "Ago" and "Writing in Water," just to name a few. "I translated all these plays myself, and the goal is to bring them onto stage overseas, so maybe our Chinese plays will slowly start to appear in world theatres," Lai said.
'IT'S LIKE A UTOPIA,' TOURISTS SAY
All Wuzhen's a stage during the festival. With the fragrance of osmanthus, in every corner of the old water town, carnival performers, walking on stilts and wearing makeup and costumes, were interacting with visitors from across the country. A nonstop carnival was ongoing in the narrow streets and small plazas of the old town. Performances one could see included street theatre, music, contemporary performance art, traditional Chinese opera and juggling, and many others.
The more than 1,300-year-old streets of the old town were packed with young performers and street acts, all competing loudly for the attention of passers-by. Members of student theater troupes walked the cobblestones trying to drum up interest in their shows. As one of the classic sections of the festival, the carnival does not require tickets for entry, nor does it set a high threshold for the audience, which is the closest form of drama performance to ordinary people.
Li Siyao, a youth drama actor, performed puppet shows on the streets of Wuzhen every day during the festival. Her performance, named "Grandma's Poem," is based on her childhood memories and tells the story of a grandmother who makes puppets for her grandson. This is the fourth time Li Siyao has been to Wuzhen. She applied for the youth competition but was not selected, yet she did not give up. "Even if I can only perform in the streets, this is an opportunity I wouldn't miss," she said.
"It is a lot of fun," said Sandy Liao and her boyfriend, who were just stopping by the piazza next to a theatre to take pictures, but happened to be at the carnival. "I didn't expect to feel so good watching dama actors live." Touched by the lively atmosphere, Liao then published a story on her social media account, saying "Wuzhen during the festival is like a utopia, where people forget about the trivialities and worries of life."
According to Stan Lai, the success of the Wuzhen Theatre Festival has far exceeded his original intention, which is to popularize theatre and bring drama closer to the masses. "In such a closed setting in Wuzhen, everything just becomes part of the show. Here, people get to understand how beautiful theatre is."
Indeed, the whole drama industry has been hard hit under the pandemic with all sorts of social distancing curbs, yet the festival just showcases how resilient and indomitable the industry has also been. Just as Lai said, although the festival this year has come to an end, the curtain shall never fall on the burgeoning and promising Chinese theatre scene.