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October 9, 2011

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Putting pizzazz into storytelling

ANCIENT stories are the stuff of 'pingtan' musical storytelling, but there's a modern show on October 8 about the Revolution of 1911 and fresh stories about land grabs and teen cyber crime to hook young spectators. Xu Wei reports.

In the old days, pingtan (storytelling to music) might take an hour just to describe a beautiful woman walking down a staircase - her lips, her eyes, her hair, her gown, her fan, her graceful steps and gestures.

Pingtan performers (always in Suzhou dialect) used to travel by boat along the waterways of the Yangtze River Delta, tying up at villages and entertaining the farmers for an evening or two on an improvised stage. Their arrival was an event for grassroots communities.

But slow-motion pingtan beloved by many older and elderly people is behind the times. No one can sit still for a day, days or a week to hear a whole legend retold - though Shanghai's increasingly gray population will need entertainment.

To appeal to younger people today, young performers have pushed the fast-forward button on the leisurely, alternating narrative, song and music by two people.

Shorter, two-hour pingtan shows are being written about contemporary issues, such as land grabs and forced relocations, teen cyber crime and short detective stories of the city.

Some shows are staged in residential communities, universities and at businesses to make pingtan accessible to more people.

Instead of two people in traditional gowns calmly sitting on stage, there's more acting and body language. From time to time, they make sharp and amusing observations about their story, citing modern parallels or contrasts. Sets are more interesting, lighting is contemporary, sometimes there are projections about the story.

'Chinese treasure'

Some performers have introduced opening dialogues and chitchat with the audience, to warm them up. Some talk about stories in the news and microblog gossip about unaffordable housing and the road rage assault by the son of a famous musician.

A pingtan fan, Professor Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University calls this art form of graceful storytelling "a Chinese treasure and one of the most beautiful voices of Chinese theater."

"With the sound softly lingering, the art can inspire romantic sentiments that are about to vanish in a modern society," Gu says.

He suggests the government build more pingtan theaters in downtown areas and provide more TV and radio broadcasts.

"Why not take the art into clubs and bars?" he asks. "I think it would be well-received by young people if there are changes to its stories. In addition to ancient tales, pingtan can retell popular stories, such as thrilling vampire stories and the Harry Potter series."

During pingtan's golden period in the 1950s, there were several hundred performers in Shanghai. Today only around 60 professionals are active on stage. At the peak of its popularity, there were around 500 pingtan theaters, known as shuchang in the city.

Pingtan was also popular in tea houses. Today there are fewer than 100 storytelling venues, mostly in the suburbs and poorly equipped.

Storytelling without music is thousands of years old but the particularly famous Suzhou pingtan is only around 400 years old and fast losing fans to popular, fast-paced entertainment.

It requires musical and vocal ability, acting and expressive body language, timing and rhythm, the facility for teasing and banter and, of course, knowledge of legends and folktales and how to tell them with drama and humor, keeping the audience hooked and sometimes at the edge of their seats.

Some young performers are dedicated. Every year Lu Jiawei and Zhu Lin from the 50-member Shanghai Pingtan Troupe present at least 150 performances at storytelling theaters, teahouses and communities around the city.

Tickets cost around 5 yuan (75 US cents). Most of the audience are retired, enjoying pingtan while sipping tea.

"Compared with stylized traditional theater such as Kunqu Opera, pingtan is more grassroots and lively," says 30-year-old Lu, who has practiced it for about 10 years on stage. "We're storytellers and try to get close to the audience. A good interactive opening is half way to success."

Lu and Zhu, also 30 years old, have been stage partners since 2002 when they joined the pingtan troupe together. Both attended the traditional opera school affiliated with the Shanghai Theater Academy. They are fashionable and stylish, though they don old-fashioned costumes and tell old stories.

On the stage the storytelling goes back and forth in a lighthearted way, Lu wearing a traditional long gown and Zhu wearing a qipao. He plays the sanxian, a three-string plucked instrument, and Zhu plays the pipa, a lute-like instrument. Most of their stories are famous folktales and legends.

"Sometimes it takes a few weeks to tell the whole story of a saga or novel. We also add our comments to some episodes," says Lu.

These days they really work on their body language and try to make the high points exciting.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911, the troupe will debut a modern pingtan epic titled "The Revolution in Shanghai" tonight at the Lyceum Theater.

The original script tells stories about celebrities who were involved in the political upheaval, a turning point in modern Chinese history.

It will be a challenge for Lu and Zhu, who are accustomed to recounting ancient tales. Here they have to polish their words and be more vivid and engaging.

"In my opinion, pingtan is an imaginative art form. It doesn't have stereotyped methods to portray the people and scenes. Compared with other traditional opera performers, pingtan artists have a lot more freedom and flexibility on stage," says Lu.

Since pingtan is performed in Suzhou dialect and Lu and Zhu are Shanghai natives, they have visited Suzhou many times to perfect their dialect and learn about culture.

Art of nostalgia

"For a pingtan artist, it takes time, patience, hard work and complete dedication to succeed," Lu says. An artist in his or her 60s and 70s is considered to be in the prime time of their career and able to create more original scripts, he says.

In 2002, 13 pingtan graduates including Lu and Zhu from the Shanghai Theater Academy were admitted to the Shanghai Pingtan Troupe. Now only seven remain, the others went on to more stable and profitable work.

Zhu and Lu were unsure what course to take, but decided they loved pingtan and would stay on. They especially enjoy performing different characters in a single story.

"Pingtan has such marvelous magic to evoke nostalgia," Zhu says.

"Listening to pingtan is the best way to relax and rejuvenate," says Xu Ziyan, a retired teacher. "The artists' amusing interpretations are fun."

Performer Lu says that pingtan has changed his life. "I used to be a rebel and rejected a lot of tradition, but now I have become attracted to traditional Chinese culture." Now he collects old furniture and antiques.

Pingtan is considered part of China's national intangible cultural heritage.

Some experts are optimistic about pingtan's prospects because the audience is getting older; more than 22 percent of the city's population is older than 60 and many enjoy pingtan. Still, as hip people say, they may not want to sit around and sip tea, listening to ancient stories.

The Shanghai Pingtan Troupe presents around 3,000 performances a year in the Yangtze River Delta region. "It's urgent for us to foster a younger audience," says Wang Yiyun, an official with the troupe. "Pingtan is a relatively slow-paced art and involves expressing the characters' inner thoughts.

"Former artists used to spend one hour depicting a simple scene. To attract a young audience, we stepped up the rhythm and created a few more short stories," Wang adds.

? "The Revolution in Shanghai"

Date: Today, 7:15pm

Venue: Lyceum Theater, 57 Maoming Rd S.

Tickets: 30-280 yuan

? Special evening performances

Date: Every Thursday, 7:15pm

Address: Bldg 1, 860 Nanjing Rd W.


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