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October 23, 2021

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Theater festival returns in all its splendor

When the Wuzhen Theater Festival was founded in 2013 by Chen Xianghong, Huang Lei, Stan Lai and Meng Jinghui, some thought it might just be a “utopian plan” initiated by their passion and good will. Yet the chemical reaction between drama and this ancient water town turns out to be more dynamic than expected.

Today, the ancient water town in the northern suburbs in Zhejiang Province is a “dreamland” for drama, literature and art.

The backdrop of Wuzhen’s serenity features well-preserved 16th century buildings and crisscrossing stone bridges, yet the combination of drama, art and literature fused with the town conjures up a magical and surprising ambience.

As an annual theater event, the 8th Wuzhen Theater Festival was postponed until October this year after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

“But now we are back, and it’s time to meet the old buddies and our drama fans,” said Huang Lie, co-founder and producing director of the festival.

Running from October 15 to 24, this year’s theme is “Burgeoning” as Stan Lai, one of the festival’s founders, explained: “The word actually has something to do with rebirth, which perfectly echoes the situation after the outbreak of COVID-19.”

A celebration of artistic performance and a hub for cultural exchange, the festival consists of various interrelated parts: Specially Invited Plays, Emerging Theater Artists’ Competition, Outdoor Carnival and Wuzhen Dialogue.

During the festival, the entire town of Wuzhen, which has a history of more than 1,300 years, is transformed into a stage where theater lovers are invited to enjoy a feast of the theatrical arts.

Visitors to Wuzhen find themselves bumping into drama — in the theater, the square and sometimes on street corners.

In fact, Wuzhen has surpassed the concept of a theater festival.

With the town closed off, everything around becomes the first part of the drama. It’s very much like life — “What would you have before a show? Where do you meet your friends after a show?” — all becomes a part of the festival, in a way.

People can choose from a selection of the world’s leading theater groups and creative masters who bring their works to Wuzhen, as well as the top Chinese language offerings.

They can also take in new works from the Emerging Theatre Artists’ Competition, created just for the festival. Wuzhen Dialogues, along with Theater Forums, bring the artists together with the audience to explore the theatrical event in all its facets, varying from topics like “Challenges for Emerging Theater Directors,” “Challenges for Established Theater Directors,“ “A View of the Theater from Contemporary Fine Arts” and “Theater in the Post-Pandemic Era.”

“Here, it is the artist who has the final say, who plays however they like and observes everything through the lens of art. Art is halo, art is lightning. Here, there is nothing trivial to be seen, only the poetic meaning of life,” said Meng Jinghui, co-founder and artistic director of the festival.

Meng is one of the most influential stage directors in contemporary Chinese theater. His productions have transformed the theater scene in China with their sharp wit and social critiques, whose diversity and creativity have become a cultural phenomenon — with more than 40 works staged since the 1990s.

Meng brings “Le Rouge et Le Noir,” adapted from Stendhal, for the opening of the theater festival on the evening of October 15.

Julien Sorel is a provincial young man, always struggling between his sensitivity and fierce ambitions. After calculating that neither the military (Red) nor the seminary (Black) is his likely path to the advancement he craves, he seduces the mayor’s wife, Mme de Renal. Following a seminary stay, Sorel lands in Paris, where he gets the aristocratic Mathilde pregnant. Set to marry her, thereby getting his noble title at last, Mme de Renal exposes him. Furious, Sorel tries to kill her and ends up executed for it.

“Le Rouge et Le Noir” follows Meng’s experimental on-stage pursuits in regard to stage design, lines, settings and interactions with the audience.

The three-hour drama with no intermission is a great challenge for both the actors and audience.

Another spotlight of the festival is Stan Lai’s “Ago.”

Lai was called the “best Chinese language playwright and director in the world” by the BBC. Since 1984, Lai’s plays have greatly influenced theater in the Chinese language world, including his most famous work “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.”

The six-hour “Ago” takes Lai’s creative journey into a new realm. It’s seen as a sister drama to his epoch “A Dream like A Dream” (2000), which did well with critics and the box office.

The main characters pass through almost three decades, first moving from the deep mountains of Yunnan to the gritty streets of Manhattan, then to the high mountains of India, and perhaps beyond, to pursue a Pure Realm that even legends aren’t sure if it exists.

One of the unique features of the theater festival is its charm and variety in theater space.

There are nine indoor venues with different characteristics plus outdoor plazas for performances — all within walking distance of one another.

These striking venues create a theater cluster that is unlike any other theater festival in the world.

For example, the Water Theatre is a stunning amphitheater that seats more than 2,300 people, where the audience views performances across the water with a background of ancient buildings, ruins of a poetic broken bridge and a pagoda off in the distance.

In addition to plays, Wuzhen hosts a series of exhibitions and events during the festival, such as the Wuzhen Theater Market and “Hello Wuzhen Pop Art” to “My Brilliant Friend — When Literature Appears on Screen.”


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