MAKING HISTORY WITH HIS ACTING
History buffs regard Sima Qian as a master for his records of China’s early history spanning 3,000 years, despite their unwillingness to face one “embarrassing” fact: The writer was castrated.
But for veteran actor Feng Yuanzheng, the unfortunate event is worthy of acknowledgment.
“Most scriptwriters feel a bit ashamed when dealing with the humiliating penalty. But I want to let the audience know why the great historian would sacrifice his dignity as a man,” says Feng, inaninterviewwith China Daily.
Unlike most works that highlight Sima’s achievements but blur his later life as a palace eunuch, Feng’s theater directorial debut, Sima Qian, starts with the penalty, followed by scenes representing the historian’s “inner struggles”.
Documents show that the historian, who lived around 2,000 years ago, chose to atone for his “crimes” by accepting castration, seen a huge insult in China’s feudal society.
While most others would have chosen death rather than suffer the torture, Sima chose the latter as he needed time to finish his work, Records of the Grand Historian, one of the country’s most influential classics.
Feng’s family comes from the same town as Sima— Hancheng city in Northwest China’s Shaanxi province— and it is this connection with the HanDynasty (206 BC-AD 220) historian that tempted the 53-year-old actor to spend 10 years on the project.
The biographical stage play, which features Feng in the lead role, received critical acclaim during the Beijing premiere in mid-September and at its Shaanxi performance in early November.
More shows will follow, and the producer, the Beijing People’s Art Theater, hopes it becomes a classic play with regular, annual performances.
Xiong Zhaozheng, the winner of the country’s highest honor for fiction, the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2005 for his historical novel, Zhang Juzheng, wrote the script.
For Feng, who started life as a professional theater actor in 1991, his performance onstage is not only connected to Chinese history, but, surprisingly, with a little-known Western tradition.
Feng says most of China’s actors follow the Stanislavsky method, a performance theory developed by Russian actor and theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938). The system, based on multiple sources and cultures, requires actors to immerse themselves into the world of their roles.
“So does that mean that if I play a doctor who abuses his family I should beatmy wife?” he asks.
Interestingly, Feng is remembered for his impressive portrayal of a violent surgeon, who almost beats his wife to death over doubts about her virginity, in the 2002 hit TV series Don’t Respond to Strangers.
Now, stills from that TV dramaare sometimes used as educational materials by the police, and Feng says that some viewers have told him that his character haunted them and gave them nightmares.
Feng’s real life, however, bears no resemblance to the character. The actor, in fact, has been married for 22 years.
As for acting, Feng says he believes in the method developed by Polish theater director and theorist JerzyMarian Grotowski (1933-99), who encourages actors to relax to “get back to their natural self”.
Grotowski’s training focuses on connecting audiences and actors to make them transcend the stereotyped visions and conventional responses.
Quoting Shakespeare’s wellknown kwellknown line “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes”, Feng reckons tthe most charming part of performing is how the role is seen differently by different audiences.
To most theater sources, the wwell-known foreign acting methods in China are those of Stanislavsky and German playwright and theater director Bertolt Brecht (1889-1956).
Grotowski’s method is not well known.
Given his early campus life in Germany, Feng says he is “lucky” to be one of the fewfollowers of the system on the Chinese mainland.
After Feng was recruited for a training program of the Beijing People’s Art Theater in 1986, he became the favorite student of visiting German professor RuthMellchen from the Berlin University of the Arts, a prestigious art college in Europe.
Mellchen, who was then around 60, is a scholar specializing in the Grotowski system. She used a lot of physical training to boost the students’ acting potential, such as rolling on the ground and jumping.
“Grotowski believes everyone is born to be an excellent performer. But acting teachers should use effective means to help the students discover their inborn talent,” says Feng.
While the Grotowski method has generated some controversyamongChinese teachers, it has proved to be very effective for Feng in his career of more than 20 years.
When China Daily interviewed him at the Beijing Film Academy, Feng — invited by the photography department chief as a guest professor — was teaching around 20 undergraduates to speak fast and loudly, using a tongue twister.
“It’s basic training for theater acting. Photography majors can do a better job of filming if they know how actors speak and move,” he says
As a star who is much in demand in acting circles, Feng has a tight schedule.
The 30-day program for the academy was delayed for almost eight months, but Feng insists on teaching, as a remote salute to his beloved German teacherMellchen.
“In some senses, she treated me like a son.”
The German professor regarded Feng as a genius student. She offered him the chance to study in her college and provided free accommodation. So while most other Chinese students had to work part-time to make ends meet, Feng had the luxury to focus exclusively on his studies.
But Feng decided to quit studying there after two years and return to China, as he couldn’t endure the feeling of alienation as a foreigner in Germany.
“I could never beHamlet on a German theater stage. The audiences would say ‘Hey, look, the Chinese doesn’t look like Hamlet’,” he says. The decision disappointed Mellchen.
But Germany mark on Feng.
For the past two decades, Feng has got used to saying “thank you” to his wife — not something Chinese husbands typically do — and he has hardly ever been late for an appointment.
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Feng Yuanzheng with his German teacher, Ruth Mellchen, when he received theatrical training in Berlin from 1989 to 1991.