Can a sleepy Chinese town become a cultural mecca?

A huge theater festival is China's latest bid to become a world-class artistic powerhouse

Published June 8, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

The canals of Wuzhen, in the northern Zhejiang Province of China  (Flickr/Guo Qi)
The canals of Wuzhen, in the northern Zhejiang Province of China (Flickr/Guo Qi)

About 75 miles southwest of Shanghai is a beautifully restored, 1300-year-old “water-town” called Wuzhen where Chinese tourists flock each year -- “the Venice of the East,” according to its PR. Families stroll there along charming narrow stone streets, visiting open-air shops, traditional handicraft workshops, and museums of local lore. Couples pose for snapshots on enchanting arched footbridges and explore the ancient canals in canopied gondolas, floating between 4-star hotels, ornamental gardens, karaoke bars, and romantic bistros converted from period homes.

It is an idyllic historical theme park, a bit sleepy despite its teeming crowds and furious cash-flow -- a darling bastion of lightly educational and politically innocuous amusement.

During 11 days this May, however, watery Wuzhen was jarred out of its nostalgic dream-sleep by, of all things, the forces of serious art. It suddenly became the extraordinarily unlikely site of explosive theatrical energies.

In a brand new, eye-popping, $67 million, 1135-seat Grand Theater designed by the renowned Taiwanese architect Kris Yao -- a massively elaborate, jarringly tilted and filigreed structure completed only three years after planning for it began -- a monumental, 8-hour magnum opus by China’s premiere playwright, Stan Lai, played to spellbound crowds, with scalpers getting up to 7000 RMB ($1,166) per ticket -- about a month’s salary for an average urban theatergoer. There and in three other meticulously restored traditional theaters in town, five other prestigious productions from four countries also played to sell-out crowds, and panel discussions with the artists packed the venues through the afternoons.

A quaint converted warehouse space hosted a Young Playwrights Competition in which a dozen original plays by college-age authors competed for a prize of 200,000 RMB ($33,333)!

On top of all that, the first international Wuzhen Theatre Festival also featured a carnival component, with 71 different groups and individuals performing on the streets every day. A yellow-clad Brazilian band clanged and tooted past squinting concessionaires. A raucous Chinese domestic drama played out beside a public drinking fountain. French mimes on stilts spread mysterious silent warnings at storefronts. My favorite act was a lovely lone modern dancer who whirled on steps beside the canal, teasing carp with her bare feet and mesmerizing the passing gondola-drivers.

China has experimented before with international theater festivals, notably in Beijing and Shanghai over the past decade, but it has never seen anything like this enterprise -- an astonishingly well-financed, instantly credible play for global recognition and artistic legitimacy. The Wuzhen Festival leaders clearly want no part of the modest, slow startups this country has been used to. Their eyes are on dynamic and established Western festivals like Avignon, Spoleto and Edinburgh, and for the first time in this fast-changing land, their aspirations can’t be dismissed.

China’s buzzword of the moment is “creativity.” That’s what everyone says the nation needs more of in order to seize its rightful place on the world stage. The country is flush with cash, has an enviably rising standard of living and a nimble manufacturing sector that can evidently make (or copy) anything. But what can China actually invent? And how can it ever foster the sort of innovation and outside-the-box thinking required to energize its economy -- and feed its soul -- when its leaders are terrified of free public discourse and its burgeoning middle class has embraced consumerist materialism with a vengeance?

These were some of the unofficial questions underlying the inaugural Wuzhen Theatre Festival, notwithstanding its glossy publicity emphasizing the pure beauty of art. How daring a program could it present, one had to wonder, when every script had to be pre-approved by government censors and every participant cleared by state security? More fundamentally, how would it overcome the widespread perception that wealthy controlled societies like Singapore and China often try to buy credibility they don’t really have -- notably by building lavish palaces for cultural Camelots that never come to pass?

The answers I got to these questions in Wuzhen -- from numerous festival organizers -- all focused on the claim that the genesis of this project was unique, and therefore its promise was greater. Unlike most other Chinese festivals, this one isn’t sponsored by the central government’s Ministry of Culture, whose participation the organizers say they fear. Wuzhen’s festival is a business gambit by the company that runs the theme park, Culture Wuzhen Co., Ltd., a public-private partnership, answerable to shareholders, in which the government is a minority owner.

Culture Wuzhen’s CEO is Chen Xianghong, a former Communist Party official from the area who saw the tourist value of his home town’s historical district in the 1990s and started buying up the waterside property, most of it ramshackle due to neglect or deliberate destruction during the Cultural Revolution. The district has now been restored so carefully that it is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status. Shortly after the theme park opened in 2001, a hit TV show ("Lost Time") was shot in the town, giving it national notoriety, and the director and star of that series, Huang Lei -- a pop-culture heartthrob and serious actor who frequently works onstage -- broached the festival idea to Chen, arguing that Huang’s star-power could give the project media traction.

This is, to be sure, a rather un-Chinese backstory for a theatrical venture, as the leveraging of mass-media celebrity is as new to China as commodity fetishism. The approach recalls Robert Redford’s founding of America’s Sundance Institute, which was launched as a prestigious and enduring performing arts institution largely through his tireless and enthusiastic promotion. Huang’s backing gives the Wuzhen Festival instant clout in the Chinese media.

As for the matter of international cred, the participation of Stan Lai, whom Huang tapped to be artistic director, is no doubt a bigger factor. Lai and his wife Nai-Chu Ding (the festival’s executive director) run a widely celebrated and critically respected theater in Taipei called Performance Workshop, and Lai’s 30-odd plays, mostly devised with his company under his direction, have been hugely influential throughout Asia. He never conceives his projects commercially, he says, yet this Taiwanese artist has been box office gold on the mainland since the late 1990s. He is the first artist to have forged a lucrative theatrical career under Chinese “market socialism” wholly without government or corporate support.

“We’re lucky the government doesn’t ban his work,” said Raymond Zhou to me privately. Zhou is a columnist for the English-language China Daily and one of the only critics in China who doesn’t accept money from production companies to flatter their projects. He was referring to Lai’s popularity -- provocative in itself to jittery officials -- and also to the example he has provided that prosperity with integrity is now possible in a field where many still think small to protect themselves.

I had read several articles about Lai before traveling to Wuzhen -- plaudits for the range of subject matter and tonal control of his plays — but like most Americans I had never seen his work. Though he is Chinese-American, his plays have not yet been published or produced professionally in the United States. (I did learn that several major American projects are now in the offing, including productions on Broadway and at Lincoln Center and a volume of translated plays.)

Born in Washington, D.C., where his father worked as a Taiwanese diplomat, Lai was raised there until age 12, holds a Ph.D. in dramatic art from U.C. Berkeley, and speaks English without an accent. He says he chose to pursue his theatrical muse in Taiwan because the environment for theater there was more vibrant and welcoming in the 1980s than in the U.S. There was no talk of “the death of theater” due to competition from mass media because theater was resurgent in the wake of martial law and considered cool, exciting and attractive to young people.

Lai’s 8-hour "A Dream Like a Dream" was the marquee event in Wuzhen. In development for 13 years, it arrived with huge anticipation after a triumphal premiere in April in Beijing, and it didn’t disappoint. Like the famous marathon productions of Peter Brook ("The Mahabharata"), the Royal Shakespeare Company ("Nicholas Nickleby"), and Théâtre du Soleil ("Les Atrides") that also shattered norms of theatrical length but left audiences eager for more, this magisterial work turned out to be a marvel of sustained inventiveness, oddly exhilarating despite its enormous demands.

"A Dream Like a Dream" is structured like a series of nested Chinese boxes: stories and dreams within other stories and dreams, continuing in sequence while looping back on one another so that they both stretch out like an endless string and form a meaningful unity. They also (true to Lai’s reputation) range wildly in tone from the inanely comic to the sweetly sentimental to the gravely serious, so that the balance of emotions in the end seems as impressive as anything else.

A young doctor watches four of her five patients die her first day on the job and becomes obsessed with learning the life story of the fifth, victim of a mysterious fever. He tells her an elaborate tale of abandoned and avoided love, spanning two continents and involving two women, and a seemingly innocuous episode within that tale spins off another elaborate thread involving a French consul to Shanghai in the early 20th century. The consul once abandoned his French wife for a Chinese courtesan, brought her back to France and then abandoned her, and the fever patient, trying to come to terms with his own lost loves and undiagnosable disease, sets out to find the elderly courtesan.

This is just a small fragment of Lai’s extravagant narrative, whose charm and fascination lie in its countless subtle details and improbable propulsive thrust -- as in "A Thousand and One Nights." What makes the day-long work so gripping, however, is as much its performance technique as its labyrinthine plot. The 30-actor company performs around rather than in front of the audience, mostly seated on swivel chairs in a large pit center stage. When they aren’t performing scenes on sketchy settings to the sides of this “lotus pond,” the actors walk circuits along its edge, in small or large groups, in different moods and speeds, as if drawn back repeatedly into the depersonalizing river of time.

In addition, all the play’s leading roles are played by multiple actors, not serially but at the same time, so that the young doctor, for instance, sits with a cousin nervously anticipating a hospital encounter while that encounter is playing out 20 feet away. Sometimes the characters’ different selves meet one another on entrances and exits and exchange pregnant nods of recognition. At other times the actors suddenly step out of their individual roles and speak as a chorus, narrating passages in the story in tandem as if claiming collective ownership of it.

We are all, in other words -- actors, characters and audience -- constantly confronted with the fluidity and multiplicity of identity. The swiveling chairs help us not only to follow the simultaneous action but also to grasp the experience of time and identity collapsed in the story across generations, as in David Mitchell’s bestselling novel "Cloud Atlas." "Dream," as it happens, is the work of a practicing Buddhist with an impressive command of his religion’s body of legend -- a deep source of enlightenment for him, not merely a literary spice. Lai weaves Buddhist lore and poetry into "Dream" so lightly and perceptively that you barely register their potency until you find yourself inexplicably in tears.

"Dream" may have some blemishes -- moments of sentimentality that get too sticky, satire that doesn’t quite come off -- but you don’t care about them in the end because you’re too awed by the quiet, slow-building grandeur of the thing. The audience was left in a reverential hush as the curtain call began. Only 20 minutes later, when I walked past the stage door, did I hear proper showbiz clamor, as some 300 screeching youngsters were waiting there beside a black limo for Li Yuchun, a Chinese pop star who Lai says asked to be included in the cast.

Lai, it seems clear, could be a major bridge figure comparable to Ang Lee in film -- someone able to reach across the barrier of incomprehension that has long existed between the Chinese and American theaters. If the Wuzhen Festival does nothing more than make that apparent, it will have done important work.

Another work on the six-play program -- which was half Chinese and half foreign (two American shows and one from Denmark) -- that created an interesting splash was "The Murder of Hanging Garden," a dazzling, high-octane experimental production by the director Meng Jinghui and his company North Park Theatre Culture. This piece was cheerily billed as an example of a supposedly burgeoning “Beijing avant-garde” -- a claim that obviously raised the question of what counted as “avant-garde” in the Chinese capital. What could the concept mean, one had to wonder, in an environment where social critique had to be handled with kid gloves?

I asked Meng this question directly during one of the panel discussions, as it happens, and he responded with practiced mystification: “avant-garde is to be simpler than simple and more complicated than complicated.” His production contained a somewhat clearer answer.

"Murder of Hanging Garden" is a dance-theater work set to a deafening rock score, in which three sets of hilariously hapless characters plot to collect the reward a rich woman offers for information about the murder of her real-estate tycoon husband. The reward is a villa in the tycoon’s most luxe development and several characters are willing to confess to the crime to nab this valuable property for a friend or loved one. The show is thus a noir-ish satire about greed and acquisitiveness, adorned with stylishly clownish costumes and bafflingly contradictory dialogue delivered on the fly as the 10 actors concentrate on their slick, tightly controlled movement.

Meng’s production would be perfectly at home in the BAM Next Wave Festival. It combines the physical discipline of, say, Anne Bogart’s SITI company with the sass and studied perplexities of the Wooster Group and the urban dystopian fixations of innumerable companies from The Builder’s Association to Gob Squad. All of which is only to say that it communicates in the language of the “international avant-garde,” an idiom that is universally comprehensible (and usually politically unthreatening) because it draws its excitement primarily from technique and technology and keeps its social critique vague.

The fascination of watching such a piece in Wuzhen was in observing the response. A typical BAM audience, comparatively wealthy and grumpily aging, watches such work in world-weary silence. In Wuzhen, Meng’s audience (average age 25, I would guess) chattered unashamedly from start to finish, giggling to companions, pointing to the stage, and ceaselessly texting and snapping pictures of the show and one another with their smart-phones. They weren’t bored, it seemed to me, but they treated the performance like a club party or stadium concert rather than a dignified experience meriting undivided attention. The “avant-garde” for this crowd, in other words, was about socializing, social media and mild rebellion in the form of unruliness.

A stark contrast with the West was practically forced in our faces at the festival, as one of Europe’s preeminent avant-gardists, Eugenio Barba, who never tolerates such unruliness, was a headline attraction. The work of Barba’s Odin Teatret in Denmark is avowedly spiritual in the tradition of his legendary teacher Jerzy Grotowski. Members of his ensemble live together communally and develop their theatrical language in sober meditative explorations over many years. Their performances are like secrets or sacred rituals on which small groups of spectators are allowed to eavesdrop under carefully controlled circumstances. In Wuzhen, we learned in one awkward instant how differently that secrecy and strict control comes off where its benevolence isn’t assumed.

Odin Teatret’s company-devised "Inside the Skeleton of the Whale" is an hour-long piece loosely based on a Kafka parable about a man prevented from passing through the “Door of the Law.” The night I saw it, 100-odd ticketholders were kept outside the theater in the rain for half an hour past the announced curtain time. Barba often keeps people waiting in this way because he believes that impatience makes spectators more eager and invested when they finally enter. On this night, the festival’s Honorary Chairman, 86-year-old Robert Brustein -- the American theater’s de facto intellectual leader, one of the festival’s playwrights, and a powerful presence on the panels -- lost his cool in the downpour and asked his Chinese interpreter peremptorily to get him into the lobby. In response, two grim-faced policemen suddenly appeared out of nowhere, elbowed everyone aside, and stood in the doorway like Secret Service baddies. It was a ludicrous overreaction, soon undone, but the brutality of it, witnessed by all, cast a pall over the solemn performance.

No such disturbances marred the two American shows: Brustein’s bio-play about Shakespeare, "The Last Will," from Abingdon Theatre in New York, and David Henry Hwang’s tale about Chinese-immigrant laborers on the transcontinental railroad in 1867, "The Dance and the Railroad," from Signature Theatre in New York. If the censors had looked a bit closer, though, as Raymond Zhou pointed out, they might have seen some hot-button social issues glaringly visible in Hwang’s work, including demands for fair wages and humane working hours, as well as frank talk about the pain of enforced economic migration.

The Wuzhen Festival organizers are a brave lot. Their chief anxiety after this first triumphal season is forced government intervention. Jealous ministries have been known to swoop in and highjack such successful independent ventures and transform them into meaningless self-congratulatory circuses. In the meantime, though, Lai and company have little choice but to trust in their unlikely patron, Chen Xianghong, who has yoked their artistic ambition and independence to the bottom line of his tourism company and its massive bet that a laid-back provincial theme park can be rebranded as a high-art mecca.

By Jonathan Kalb

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