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February 28, 2010

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Box-office honey has magic theater touch

WITH an eye for what's popular, the boyish He Nian has tapped into what theatregoers want to see, blending wit and black humor with innovative production gimmicks, like flying a helicopter into the theater. Michelle Zhang reports.

He Nian has a round baby face that belies the fact he is in his late 20s. When he sits in rehearsals with actors, talking randomly about scripts, music and dance movements, it is hard to believe that the young man dressed in simple jeans and hoodies like a college boy is actually one of the most successful theater directors in Shanghai, if not China.

A few days later, the play they were discussing that day - "21 Carats" - turned out to be another box-office hit. The play, written by He's long-time partner, famous playwright Ning Caishen, is about a city girl's choice between love and money. It premiered in Shanghai early this month.

Since graduating from Shanghai Theater Academy in 2003, He has directed 15 plays, most of which have been sell-out productions, such as "Du Lala," "Deer and the Cauldron" and "Love with My Former Wife."

Among them is also "My Own Swordsman." Adapted from the namesake TV series, the play has toured more than 30 cities around the country, generating box-office receipts of 20 million yuan (US$2.93 million), a very rare return for the theater.

As a result, He has earned the nicknamed "box office honey" among local theatergoers and critics.

"Some people say my plays are too commercial," he said. "So are Broadway plays. It's actually not that easy to create plays that are successful both artistically and commercially.

"Most of my audience are young office workers who already suffer a lot from their daily work," he continued. "I believe they come to the theater to relax and have fun, instead of being lectured about deep, dark ideologies."

Some of He's works have been adapted from popular novels and TV series about young people, while others were created by the young director and his co-workers, drawing inspiration from movies, books, the Internet and everyday life.

Most of the plays deal with real-life topics such as relationship issues, mother-in-law problems and ever-riveting office politics.

"Young people love seeing themselves on stage," he pointed out. "We have to attract them to the theater first before we show them how artistic productions can be."

Over the years, He has been making an effort to create "better plays" by adding innovative elements. Apart from displaying wit and black humor in the dialogue, some of his recent works also feature lively choreography, original songs, puppy performances, montage effects and traditional Chinese opera elements.

"We always want to present something new to the audience," said the 29-year-old. "I encourage actors to use their imagination, the wilder the better.

"The process of creating a new play is nothing but torture for me and my collaborator °?- usually we come up with a new idea, test it, vote it down and start all over again," he said.

"I have thought of giving up many times, however once a new play is loved and welcomed by the audience, I feel extremely proud, worthy and eager to 'torture' myself again," he laughed.

For example, in "21 Carats," the actors turned into branded handbags in one scene and luxury furniture in another when they danced together. There was a rolling stage that turned into a dining table, dancing area and "a big surprise" at the end. A miniature helicopter flew into the theater in the middle of the play and surprised everyone.

More surprisingly, He's next play will be "Capital," the legendary masterpiece published in 1867 by Karl Marx and which seems to be irrelevant to today's life.

"I noticed that many people started to read 'Capital' after the economic crisis," he explained. "It will be an absurd play. We will reinterpret it through modern, innovative ways to make it more easily understood and accepted by today's young audience."

He is also planning to start an experimental theater for improvisation. It will feature three to four actors who will be trained for two months before they go on stage. Every night, the audience will decide the time, place and theme of the play, and actors will perform accordingly, which means each performance will be one-of-a-kind.

"It's only an idea but I really hope to make it work," he said. "I enjoy challenging myself and my co-workers from time to time."


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