Show and tell

China Daily - - THEATER - By CHEN NAN chen­[email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

For 63-year-old Shan Wancheng, who has worked for a State-owned en­ter­prise for four decades and is go­ing to re­tire in less than two years, mak­ing his de­but on­stage at the sixth Wuzhen The­ater Fes­ti­val on Oc­to­ber 18 was one of his best days.

Per­form­ing in Chi­nese di­rec­tor Li Jian­jun’s lat­est play, Pop­u­lar

Me­chan­ics, which pre­miered as one of the four open­ing plays, Shan shared his story of be­ing a singer in a choir as a child and a lover of the arts as an adult, end­ing up his mono­logue by say­ing that “I have never been away from the­ater and it was the ful­fill­ment of a life­time am­bi­tion to start act­ing pro­fes­sion­ally”.

Be­sides Shan, 17 am­a­teur ac­tors played in Li’s Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics, in­clud­ing a young fe­male nurse in her early 20s, a welder, who dropped out of school and works in Bei­jing, and a 6-year-old boy, who loves watch­ing movies. Like Shan, they all love act­ing and shared their sto­ries with the au­di­ence.

The play was staged for four nights dur­ing the sixth Wuzhen The­ater Fes­ti­val, at­tract­ing an au­di­ence of over 1,200. On Dec 8 and 9,

Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics will be staged for the first time in Bei­jing’s In­sid­eOut The­ater.

“I kept ask­ing my­self ques­tions like ‘what is act­ing?’ ‘what is the­ater?’ ‘what is the con­nec­tion be­tween or­di­nary peo­ple and the­ater?’ I found it was hard for me to an­swer those ques­tions so I let those am­a­teur ac­tors talk about them­selves and their un­der­stand­ing of the­ater,” says di­rec­tor Li, who moved from his home­town Lanzhou, Gansu prov­ince, to Bei­jing to study at the Cen­tral Academy of Drama, ob­tain­ing his bach­e­lor’s de­gree and mas­ter’s de­gree in stage set de­sign in 1999 and 2005.

To select ac­tors for the play, Li spent three months in­ter­view­ing peo­ple, who joined his the­ater work- shops held in Bei­jing and Shang­hai, this sum­mer.

“The more peo­ple I talked to, the more I re­al­ized that I should leave be­hind the ap­proaches to act­ing and the rules about the­ater, which I learned at school,” says Li. “Those am­a­teur ac­tors are pow­er­ful in their per­for­mances, and they de­serve the ap­plause.”

Li in­ter­viewed about 100 peo­ple, choos­ing 17 for the play, of dif­fer­ent ages, oc­cu­pa­tions and di­ver­si­fied sto­ries of their as­so­ci­a­tions with the the­ater. To fully dis­play the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the­ater and the or­di­nary peo­ple, Li also screened some of the con­ver­sa­tions he had with the in­ter­vie­wees, who couldn’t make it on­stage, in­clud­ing a Bei­jing-based taxi driver, who, dur­ing his con­ver­sa­tion with Li, read the script of the fa­mous Chi­nese play, Tea­house, based on the orig­i­nal play by nov­el­ist and play­wright Lao She (1899-1966).

“What im­pressed me is not their abil­ity to act but their com­mit­ment on­stage. The per­for­mances were staged out­doors and it was cold. But the ac­tors per­formed well. Each of them in­vented their own scenery. They dressed up for the show, although they had to wear rain­coats dur­ing the last day’s per­for­mance,” re­calls Li. “Some of the au­di­ences were con­fused about the play while the oth­ers re­lated to it. I was stand­ing at the back ob­serv­ing the au­di­ence’s re­ac­tion.”

The di­rec­tor also notes that the ti­tle of the play, Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics, was bor­rowed from Amer­i­can writer Ray­mond Carver’s short story with the same ti­tle.

“When I read the short story, there are dif­fer­ent themes in it, like con­flict, strug­gle and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which I felt re­lated to the play I was work­ing on,” he adds.

In his 40s, Li made his di­rec­to­rial de­but in 2007 and directs about one orig­i­nal play a year. It was not the first time that the di­rec­tor has worked with am­a­teur ac­tors. In 2011, he di­rected a play, en­ti­tled A Mad­man’s

Di­ary, adapted from Lu Xun’s first ma­jor short story that had the same ti­tle. His ac­tors were 20 uni­ver­sity stu­dents from Bei­jing. The play was well re­ceived crit­i­cally and it was staged in other Chi­nese cities, in­clud­ing Hangzhou and Shang­hai. The same year, Li founded his own the­ater troupe, New Youth The­ater, which of­fers work­shops for am­a­teur ac­tors.

In 2013, he brought 19 or­di­nary young Chi­nese peo­ple, who left their home­towns to work in big­ger cities, to share their sto­ries about the cities where they grew up and the cities where they work and live now.

The di­rec­tor also notes that the ti­tle of the play, Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics, was bor­rowed from Amer­i­can writer Ray­mond Carver’s short story with the same ti­tle.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

On Dec 8 and 9, Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics will be staged for the first time in Bei­jing’s In­side-Out The­ater.

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