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To be or not to be...
By Nie Xin

For years, young playwrights have had few opportunities to get their creations onto stage and before audiences. Most theater groups have a team of in-house writers, making it difficult for outsiders to break into the industry.

But things are changing and improving. Shanghai Drama Arts Center has spearheaded the change by launching Waves Behind, an experimental theater campaign to give young playwrights more opportunities to show what they can do.

Yu Rongjun, famous local playwright and general manager of Shanghai Drama Arts Center, says the demand and talent is there.

"There is a great 'hunger' for culture in China at the moment," he says. "But it seems the whole theater industry in China lacks good original plays. However, there are a lot of potentially talented young playwrights or playwrights-to-be. They are good writers and passionate. But some of them don't have any chance to prove themselves."

He says 60 percent of the productions the center presents every year are original works such as "The Capital," "Xu Zhimo," the darkly humorous "Dog's Face" and "Finding."

Yu says "Finding" is a good example of how Waves Behind is helping young playwrights.

Written by Li Ming from northeast China's Liaoning Province, "Finding" will begin rehearsals in September and is expected to hit the stage late in the year.

Yu recalls meeting Li during a workshop for young playwrights and being impressed with his talent and passion. Li has written novels and TV series, but had never created a play. Yu says he encouraged him to write a play for Shanghai Drama Arts Center. This led to "Finding."

"In this case, I played the role of planner and tutor," Yu says. "Young playwrights don't just need money, they need opportunities."

Last month, the Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation started the Young Playwrights Supporting Project. The idea is to encourage the creation of more original plays, TV series, films, musicals and traditional Chinese operas.

The project allows all writers below the age of 45 and any Shanghai resident to apply for funding. Writer of scripts featuring a Shanghai theme can also apply for funding.

This is definitely good news for art institutes and independent playwrights.

"Extra funding gives young playwrights more opportunities," says Jun Xiaoxiong, a writer at Shanghai Peking Opera House.

The Shanghai Drama Arts Center can apply for funding for its various original plays from the foundation. Chen Li, manager of the center's publicity department, says up to 50,000 yuan (US$8,026) in funding is available for Waves Behind and it's up to them to choose which plays to apply for money.

Meanwhile, Luo Huaizhen, a famous playwright and vice director of the China Theater Association, says young playwrights also need guidance.

"Society and senior experts in this industry should pass a magic stick to young talented playwrights that guide them to the stage," Luo says.

He says opportunities are growing for playwrights, citing the Chinese Young Playwrights Workshop that was held in Shanghai in late 2011. He says 30 writers participated in the workshop and they created 94 plays in the following year.

"Their works were awarded 37 prizes in different competitions in China," Luo says. "To young playwrights, there is a black hole between them and the stage. Bringing their creations to the stage is the key."

Before the Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation started the Young Playwrights Supporting Project, it had already provided some funds to support writers and arts projects. Funding from other sources is also available.

The Seed Theater project, which started in January, gives artists an opportunity to tell their stories, according to founder Yu Manwen. The project is sponsored by Yu's Ze-Ren Female Artists Community Special Fund and her independent drama studio Ze-Ren.

"More and more voices are encouraging audiences to appreciate real experimental theater arts, to enjoying the most original and passionate drama creations," says Yu, who is also the co-writer and director of "Lonely Stage."

Yu defines Seed Theater as a "creative carnival for young artists."

She says there are some misconceptions about the industry as people often think playwrights face great pressure because they don't have managers, their rights are not protected and they face unfair competition.

"I don't think these are real pressures for playwrights," she says. "The Chinese theater market is making big progress and it is maturing. Playwrights do not face more pressure compared with their counterparts overseas. What they really need is more space to create."

She says many local plays are about metropolitan life, emotions and love but the stories "lack the power and originality to become classics."

While talented playwrights and good original works are needed, the way the industry operates has hampered creativity and made it more difficult for playwrights to get their plays on stage.

For example, Shanghai Yueju Opera House produced only one play each year. In-house writers have to wait three to five years for a chance to get something staged, says Li Li, director of Shanghai Yueju Opera House.

However, Yu Manwen adds that playwrights need to hone their craft and create plays that are fresh and powerful, something people will want to see.

"It's not easy to get your work staged in the theater," she says. "For young playwrights, the most important thing is to prove yourself with your play. Be confident, persistent and patient."

'Dog's Face' skewers contemporary life in big cities

"DOG'S Face" is Shanghai's first original physical theater production by the Shanghai Drama Arts Center. It premiered in 2004 but returns to the stage as one of the shows for "Waves Behind" project.

The story is based on the lives of white-collar workers and features dark humor without any dialogue. "Dog's Face" has been described as fun and imaginative by critics as it breaks down the often cruel world of offices in the concrete jungle of today's metropolises.

The adventure begins with a hunter, and his two dogs, who catches rabbits for a living. When the music begins, the hunter and dogs are running and breathing quickly.

The allegory is used to expose the truth about urban life.

Wikipedia states that physical theater is used to describe any performance that pursues storytelling through primarily physical means.

It can be used to help actors gain a better understanding of the plays. The means of expression seem to be primarily physical rather than textual, often augmented by musical elements.

"This mode of theater can cross domains and break the block of language. Shanghai Drama Arts Center has collaborated with some international institutes to create some physical theater productions before and this was the first original work produced by us independently," Yu Rongjun, the center's general manager, says.

Cast members play a variety of roles, switching gender and creating the sets physically with their bodies and objects.

Named "Best Loved Experimental Drama" in Shanghai in 2004, the show also won the Committee Outstanding Social Achievement Award at the 17th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater in Egypt in 2005. It has appeared at art festivals around the world including Japan, Germany, Turkey, Romania and Austria.

Date: May 15-June 2, 7.30pm

Venue: Shanghai Drama Arts Center

Address: 288 Anfu Rd

Tickets: 150 yuan

Tel: 6473-0123, 6473-4567

Going behind the scenes of traditional Kunqu Opera

"LONELY Stage" is drama director Yu Manwen's first production for the "Seed Theater" project at the Mini Theater in 1933 Old Millfun.

It tells behind the scenes stories of Kunqu Opera.

In this monodrama, one actress plays a Kunqu xiaosheng role, usually a young scholar or lover in Chinese opera, and talks about the excitement and nervousness of being on stage, self doubts and takes questions on Kunqu Opera.

Kunqu Opera singing will be used to present moods on stage, according to director Yu, who has a strong Kunqu background.

"I believe there are many behind the scene stories in all art fields," she says. "We make use of the stage to present the charm and stories of those arts, and encourage young artists to present their creations."

"Lonely Stage" is on the short list to appear at the upcoming Wuzhen Theater Festival that begins on May 9.

Yu says the Seed Theater project will provide more opportunities for artists in different fields to tell their stories on stage.

Date: June 20-22, 7.30pm

Venue: Mini Theater of 1933 Old Milfun

Address: 611 Liyang Rd

Tickets: 100-150 yuan

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