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May 23, 2010

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Patron of new era theater directors

POPULAR avant-garde director Meng Jinghui is tending to China's theatrical future by mentoring today's crop of directors, Michelle Zhang reports.

Wearing a Burberry black scarf around his neck, Meng Jinghui sank comfortably into the sofa. He smiled modestly while listening to questions posed by reporters around him. He looked more like a successful businessman than who he really is - which is arguably China's most influential avant-garde stage director.

Meng was in Shanghai recently to launch "Expo Season for Young Directors," organized by the city's Modern Drama Valley to introduce innovative theater works by young directors from Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. As artistic director of the event, Meng and his team picked up three plays from each city. They were staged earlier this month around the city.

"Young theater workers in China need to be gathered together like this from time to time so that they have a chance to communicate and learn from each other," said the Beijing-based director.

"Young people nowadays are too comfortable. They shouldn't behave like this. They need to be more aggressive and ambitious - just like me when I was young."

A graduate from the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, Meng was by no means a good student at the school. As early as 1991, he and a group of fellow students organized an "experiment theater season" at the academy.

They even attempted to stage Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in the playground until stopped at the last minute by school officials.

Since then he has worked on many experimental theater projects, including "Comrade Ah Q," "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," "Si Fan," "The Balcony" and "I Love XXX."

Among them were innovative adaptations of Western plays, in which Meng and his cast aptly added modern-day Chinese elements, as well as original works created to express societal anger and dissatisfaction.

"I was so popular at the time," recalled the 46-year-old. "I still remember people flooding to watch my play and they even broke the glass doors of the theater.

"I always think that people have to be unsatisfied with their current situation before they can come up with any good work," he continued. "They need to shout out loud about something. Imagine there is a storm in your innermost being - what else in the world could be more powerful than that?"

In China, one who doesn't know Meng can't call himself a theater devotee. According to Meng, more than 800,000 people around the country have watched at least one of his plays.

"I'm very much honored," he said. "I wish I could influence all kinds of people through my own ways."

Apart from "avant-garde" and "alternative," the name Meng Jinghui is also synonymous with "box-office hit."

Written by his wife Liao Yimei, the 1999 play "Rhinoceros in Love" was a milestone in Meng's career, if not in the history of contemporary Chinese theater. The tragic love story has had nearly 1,000 performances in the past decade, luring hundreds of thousands of Chinese people to the theater for the first time.

Acclaimed by young people as the "forever love bible," it celebrated its 10th anniversary last year and is still touring the country today.

Meng has thus won a reputation as being simultaneously avant-garde and popular.

"Many people say that they don't understand my plays, but they love watching them," he said. "That's what I'm most proud of."

Last year, he staged four plays in Shanghai in two months, including "Rhinoceros in Love," the satirical two-man play "The Life Attitude of Two Dogs" (it has had more than 500 performances since its premiere in 2007), the original musical "Murder in the Garden from the Sky" and the adaptation of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1969 movie "Love is Colder than Death."

Each production features a distinctive style.

Meng was surprised to learn that even the last three performances of "Love is Colder than Death" were sold out in Shanghai.

"It is one of my favorite works in recent years but it is, on the other hand, a rather boring story," he said. "I asked the actors to act as bored as they could."

While interaction with the audience has become a popular theatrical ploy, Meng reversed the technique in that play by setting up a huge glass wall to completely block the audience from the stage. As the glass screen made the stage soundproof, the audience had to use headphones to understand what was going on.

The director described it as "a whole new experience of acting and watching."

"We should always try new things," he explained. "We can't hold on to the past. Only when you make changes can you make progress. Theater is magic - it can be very diversified and sometimes crazy, too."

Lightening speed

Meng called Shanghai - where he has a large group of loyal fans - his "fortune land." He also launched a studio in the city's Jing'an District last year.

"Shanghai audiences are awesome," he once said. "They sweep up the tickets to any of my plays at lightning speed."

"The Life Attitude of Two Dogs," for instance, has had three seasons in Shanghai and tickets for all sold out quickly. It is a satirical play in which two human-like dogs comment on China's contemporary social problems.

"It seems that Shanghai audiences have a specific preference for 'Two Dogs' or, rather, they love watching dramas that are closely related to their daily lives," he said.

The director pointed out that Shanghai audiences prefer watching their own stories being performed on stage than being given "surprises."

"In Beijing, audience members become different people as soon as they walk into the theater," he said. "Some foreigners, for example, are very gentle and polite outside the theater but once they are inside, they forget themselves and become totally crazy. Shanghai audiences are too conservative compared with them."

One of Meng's signature works, "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," will open its second season in Shanghai this week from May 25 to 30.

When the play was first performed in the city about 10 years ago, it stirred up such a storm that many people literally stood in the theater aisles to watch the play. Starring famous Chinese actor Chen Jianbin, it was acclaimed as "an unprecedented theater revolution," and became a textbook-style play for many students and theater professionals at that time.

"We were so young at that time," Meng recalled. "Even the playwright, Dario Fo, had just won the Nobel Prize in 1997. We were so poor but we were filled with ambitions and hopes for the future. Fo and his wife, actress Franca Rame, care about the lives of ordinary people and they were espousing their high ideals!"

The Fo couple watched the Chinese version of the play and highly praised its production during the Turin Art Festival in 2000.

Meng has been working non-stop in Chinese avant-garde theater for almost 20 years. During the period, he has only directed one silver-screen project, the 2002 film "Fly Like a Chicken Feather" written by his wife, starring actor Chen and actress Qin Hailu. He has never left the theater stage and most likely never will.

"As theater workers, we have our own lifestyle which can't be shared by people who do movies or work in other industries," he once said. "It is a lifestyle that we created for ourselves, which is so interesting - sometimes arrogant, sometimes discreet - and I'm just so fascinated with the beautiful world we've built."


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