YU Rongjun, also known as Nick Yu, likes to call himself an amateur playwright. His 50th work, “The Crowd,” a drama that explores the relationship between the individual and the mob, is playing at the Shanghai Drama Arts Center until April 26.
“I enjoy and value the time that I spend writing plays, particularly because I can only spend about 5 percent of my time doing so,” he tells Shanghai Daily, adding that “the rest of the time, I need to focus on my real job.”
Yu’s real job, as written on his name card, is vice president of the Shanghai Drama Arts Center and Shanghai Performing Art Group, a position that puts him mainly in charge of the center’s business strategy and operations.
While some might see tensions between these business and artistic roles, Yu considers them different sides to the same coin.
“For me, the experience from each side actually benefits the other,” he explains. “My creative work helps me better understand artists and their needs, so I can communicate with them more efficiently. My operational experience, which comes originally from experience in public relations, has given me a deep insight into audiences and the market.”
Yu’s path into the dramatic arts has also defied convention. While most of his colleagues were trained at the country’s best drama academies, the 44-year-old graduated from Shanghai University of Sports with a degree in sports and health in the 1990s.
His first job was as a masseur at a local hospital, where he met many of this current colleagues as they came in for treatment. After being invited to watch their performances, Yu often wrote lengthy reviews of these productions.
On the basis of Yu’s insightful feedback, he was eventually hired to work at the center’s public relations department.
“Promoting performances is a very important job, because you have to learn about every stage of each project in order to truly understand and promote it,” he recalls of his early career.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Yu set out to create stage works of his own.
“When I first started writing, the market was awful. Nobody cared about stage performances. The primary goal during those first years was simply to get audiences into the theater,” he says.
Once again Yu went in a new direction, this time by focusing on works that young people could relate to. These included “WWW.COM,” first staged in 2000, which is considered the first Chinese play to center around those working in the then-emerging Internet industry.
Many of Yu’s works garnered both critical and commercial success, and Yu himself became known as the dramatist who best captured the struggles and concerns of China’s burgeoning young white-collar class.
At that point, most Chinese theater-goers were older and most drama centers leaned toward established Chinese and Western classics.
“At the time, we had little to offer, so the overall quality of the performances was not necessarily the best, but we did succeed in developing the market,” Yu says.
“Only after the market was large enough, and audiences started demanding more, could we experiment with more genres and more varieties,” he explains.
“This time, I’m experimenting a lot,” he says with a smile while discussing the process of developing “The Crowd.”
“I wrote the story with the intention of distancing the audience, forcing them to become cold observers rather than getting emotionally involved,” he explains. “I don’t leave them any space for imagination. I want them to follow me only. I want my message to be clearly and wholly delivered.”
To help achieve these results, Yu wrote what he called a “very literary text,” with beautiful descriptions of the play’s settings as well as the emotions and actions of the characters. During the play, the actors read these descriptions on stage, as well as directions like “silence” and “pause.”
The play first began to take shape three years ago when Yu was commissioned to adapt Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” for the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Perhaps not surprisingly, Yu sought a unique approach.
“I got interested in those opposite to ‘the enemy’ — the people, the mass, the crowd,” he says. “What is the relation between the individual and the mass? What disappears when an individual is put into a crowd? What is the psychology of the crowd? What makes an individual, when put into a crowd ... go crazy and follow blindly, to the point of irrationality? What happens when power is given to the crowd with no restrictions? ... The crowd not only influences and changes the individuals, but also the society.”
From the beginning, Yu wanted to reference real events from China’s recent history which have had cultural and social significance.
Despite his record of success when it comes to connecting with theater-goers, Yu concedes that “for this play, I don’t care whether the audience likes it. It’s not for everyone. I don’t intend to educate anyone, but I hope those who do get my message will leave with a lot to think and ponder upon.”