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Portraits of a revival

>As the Beijing People`s Art Theater turns 60, it`s struggling to overcome the challenges of modernization - and with some success. Chen Jie reports.

Playwright Wan Fang`s first memory of stage performance was unpleasant. She recalls standing behind the side curtain at the Beijing People`s Art Theater to watch her father Cao Yu`s show, Thunderstorm. The 4-year-old was frightened by the "thunderstorm" in the third scene and started crying. Cao (1910-96), the theater`s founding member and first president, "violently" tucked her under his arm and dashed out the theater. "I understood later that he didn`t want my crying to annoy the actors and audiences," the 60-year-old says. "That was the first lesson he taught me: `A play is bigger than the sky`." That slogan has been inherited by the 60-year-old theater and is printed on a huge banner that hangs on the rehearsal room wall.

Six decades aren`t that old, compared to many theaters in the world. But if you think about it, it`s only three years younger than the country. The market has swallowed most performing arts companies founded in the 1950s.

But the Beijing People`s Art Theater is still considered the flagship of Chinese drama.

The theater celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding in the Great Hall of the People on June 12. It was more like a family gathering than a grandstanding ceremony.

More than 500 attended, including those in their 80s and 90s, and the four newest recruits who joined the family this summer.

"Six decades ago, I was 25 and just like any young actor today," Lan Tianye said at the celebration, representing the older generation.

He recalled that it was former premier Zhou Enlai who initiated the theater`s founding. Zhou was personally concerned about many details - the script`s every sentence, the costumes` colors, the set designs and the theater`s construction.

"My generation was lucky because we had the government`s support," Lan says.

"We worked with such great dramatists as Cao Yu and Jiao Juying. We pioneered to explore and establish unique Realistic Beijing dramas. And we were the first company to tour abroad after the `cultural revolution` (1966-76)."

But what most impressed the veteran is that "the good traditions have carried on".

The 85-year-old returned to the stage last year with 81-year-old Zhu Xu to perform the theater`s classic repertoire, The Family.

Lead actress Gong Lijun, 47, says theater today faces tremendous challenges from movies and TV series.

Young actors can earn much more money and fame from TV or film. What draws young actors to join the theater and the established actors to return to its stage is the company`s work ethic. "A play is bigger than the sky" has been written into everybody`s DNA.

Here, everybody loves and respects drama. There are "small roles" but no "small actors".

"We were taught from the first day we joined the company that a play is a cabbage, and everybody is a leaf," Gong recalls.

Over last 60 years, the theater has produced more than 300 plays and trained a large number of directors and performers, who`ve won national acclaim.

Teahouse, arguably the theater`s best show, has run more than 600 times at home and abroad since its 1957 premiere.

The theater has also staged foreign plays, maintaining the original scripts` styles but giving them Chinese interpretations.

It has also worked with many foreign dramatists.

British director Toby Robertson came to direct Shakespeare`s Measure For Measure in 1981. American playwright Arthur Miller directed his Death of a Salesman in 1983. Oscar-winning actor Charlton Heston directed Herman Wouk`s Captain Gueeg in the Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in 1988.

Oleg Nikolayevich Yefremov, chief producer of the Moscow Art Theater, directed Seagull in 1991. American director Margaret Booker put the theater`s A Farmer`s Nirvana on Broadway in 1996 and then came to Beijing to direct August Wilson`s Fences. And Asari Keita, founder of Japan`s leading Four Seasons Theater Company, directed Hamlet in 2006.
>But the theater struggled when the scene fell on hard times nationwide at the turn of the century.

It lost talented directors and actors, didn`t produce new acclaimed productions and even its own actors described the company as a "pot of porridge", meaning it was a management fiasco.

The difficult revival got on the right track when Zhang Heping became the theater`s president in 2007.

One day in May 1961, the then 15-year-old was playing table tennis with classmates during a class break. A man asked if he would like to be an actor. Without hesitation, the schoolboy said, "Yes!"

He passed three auditions and was admitted to the Beijing Drama School to study theater performance.

Although he never became an actor because of the "cultural revolution" and later political assignments made him a culture official, he never forgot his dream of joining the Beijing People`s Art Theater, he says.

"I`m very glad to return to my dream at this age and would like to end my career here," says Zhang, who produced a number of acclaimed movies when he was Forbidden City Film Co`s general manager in the 1990s.

"It`s a hard time for theater," Zhang says.

"People have much more entertainment than 20 or 30 years ago. The same is true of the people who create dramas. They have more opportunities, more challenges and more temptations.

"We can`t change this and have to adapt and improve. The old generation made a golden brand for the theater, and classic repertoires are rich soil. The soil is still there, but we can`t just lie down on it."

Since he took the position, the theater has resumed its "arts board", developed a new evaluation system, invited old actors to return to the rehearsal rooms and stage, and commissioned famous playwrights to create stories. "The story is the play`s soul," Zhang says.

In 2009, the new production Wotou Compound, written by Liu Heng and directed by Lin Zhaohua, became an instant classic. It reminds audiences of the theater`s roots, with a Realistic drama reminiscent of former productions, such as Teahouse and Top Restaurant.

Last year`s Sorrows of Comedy was another hit.

Featuring actors Chen Daoming and He Bing, and directed by the theater`s young talent Xu Ang, the comedy highlights the plight of China`s creative industry under the yoke of nonsensical censorship and the hopelessness of its struggle for more breathing room.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary, the theater commissioned He Jiping, whose Top Restaurant was one of the theater`s best plays, to create Jiazi Garden, a play that delves into the graying of society.

The word "jiazi" means both "60 years" and "cycle" in Chinese.

As the Beijing People`s Art Theater turns 60, its revival should bring a new cycle of glory.
Date:2012-6-15 14:13:12     
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