In early 1900s Shanghai, a group of independent unmarried women pin their hair up in the style of married women, instead of wearing it down in the style of single girls seeking to wed.
The act of wearing their hair up like matrons shows their determination to be independent from family, men and feudal society. As a result, they forever give up the chance to marry and thus remain spinsters, curiosities, even outcasts in a traditional society where marriage was obligatory and women were totally dependent on men.
These women are characters in a new play, “Intimates Women” (“Zi Shu Nu” 自梳女) written by a young female playwright Chen Ju and directed by a woman, 24-year-old Wang Tianchu, The title literally means “Self-Combing Women,” referring to their hairstyle.
The play, featuring only two men, is now being staged at the Shanghai Drama Arts Center through March 23, marking International Women’s Day tomorrow.
“What kind of people are we going to be and what kind of women we are going to be are questions deserving consideration,” Wang tells Shanghai Daily.
“I respect those women in the play and pity them at the same time. In the modern world, we have equal positions to men, but do we still have the courage and perseverance to face our own lives and fight for better lives?” she says.
Wang, a Shanghai native and graduate of the Shanghai Theater Academy, is said to be the youngest woman ever to direct a commercial stage production on China’s mainland, according to the drama arts center. It is her first cooperation with the center, one of the most important mainland theater institutes.
She focuses on the contrast between the demands of traditional Chinese culture and what she calls “feminism,” meaning women’s issues such as independence, career and self-realization.
The local drama center has 18 directors, including seven women, says well-known director Yu Rongjun, who is also vice general manager of the center.
Many insiders say female directors are generally more talkative than their male counterparts, skilled at communicating with actors and more willing to express their ideas to the public.
“People say that women are made of water, they are soft and more emotional. I personally am easily moved by subtle issues of culture, tradition and the relationships between men and women, women and women,” says Wang.
Yu, the drama arts center official, says many women begin their directing career with plays about women’s issues, “but gradually they will find which works suit them most, not necessarily emotional plays.”
Liu Shuchen, a female director in her early 30s, directs Sartre’s existentialist classic “No Exit” (1944) and the play is running through Sunday at the center. It’s about a man and two women, damned and locked in a plain room in hell for eternity.
“I naturally focus on sexual relations and women’s psychology in my works. Even in this existential, philosophic work, I focus more on the emotional part,” Liu tells Shanghai Daily.
“I will direct plays if the emotional line resonates with me, whether family, friendship or love,” says the Hunan native who also graduated from the Shanghai Theater Academy.
The first play she directed was “Women’s Life” in 2009, adapted from Su Tong’s novel featuring three generations of women during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). She was drawn by the women’s emotions during that tumultuous period.
It is not correct to generalize about the kinds of works men and women enjoy and direct, Liu says, adding that many female directors prefer political plays, while men are skilled in romantic dramas.
An individual’s education, environment and childhood, hobbies and life experience determine directors’ preferences, according to her.
The Shanghai Drama Arts Center follows the principle of “director central,” in which the professional team respects the director and regards him or her as the first leader in a production.
Yu says professional drama institutes are not biased against female directors in terms of opportunity, capability and pay.
“Now we see that all is equal when it comes to female talent,” he says.
Still, young female directors sometimes experience discrimination and feel that they are not taken seriously or considered as capable as male directors.
Wang says she has been invited to direct events at which she has been treated “just like a young girl.” At just 24, thin and appearing younger than her age, Wang dispels “misunderstandings” when she begins to speak — she is clear and logical, straight forward and even a little tough in expressing herself.
She could have been an actress, but says being a director and creating a play is more attractive.
“Intimates Women” is a big challenge because of the large cast of 14, complex relationships and three lines of emotion, she says.
“If you are a director, being sentimental will ruin a play. A good director requires rational and logical thinking,” Wang says.
She believes female directors have advantages. “I use the feminine way to communicate — with both rational thinking and affective thinking that is soft, private and makes persuasion more acceptable and efficient.”
Directing is complicated and the director must be knowledgeable about relevant politics, economics and social issues in a play, says Liu. Extensive research, advance preparation and efficient communication with actors are essential, she says.
In communicating with actors about a problem, Liu says she “talks about life, not just the play” and sees herself as a helpful “big sister.”
Sometimes people doubt a female director is as capable as a man, not merely in terms of physical strength and energy but in terms of staying cool in a complicated situation, according to Liu.
Staying calm is crucial, especially because many people generalize that most women are carried away by emotion.
Liu acknowledges what she calls “weaknesses of the feminine character,” saying women can be over-emotional, talk too much and have difficulty speaking clearly and to the point.
Avoiding these weaknesses helps in directing and remaining in control of the situation, she says.
“Being over-emotional is the worst thing for a director,” says Liu, who admits she can make herself nervous and be “too focused and picky.”
Liu is also an actress, dividing her time between directing at the Shanghai Drama Arts Center and performing in dramas, TV series, film and advertisements.
She grew up in a traditional family that had expected her to study Chinese or English.
“Thanks to my mother who encouraged me to study hard, work hard, live hard and be independent, I grew up to be independent and strive for the best in everything,” she says.
Liu thinks the reason why there are so few female directors is that women tend to contribute more to their families.
“Being a wife and mother means some career sacrifice,” she says. “But if I become pregnant this year,” she says. “I will work in the theater up to the last possible minute.”
Yu Manwen, 32, directs both stage plays about women as well as Kunqu Opera.
She founded an amateur, mostly female Kunqu Opera troupe, Ze-Ren, which performs at the Shanghai Kunqu Opera House. Actors, producers, scriptwriters and others are mostly women.
The Shanghai native directs stage plays that most focus on women’s psychology, love, marriage and topics such as “left-over women,” a derogatory term referring to unmarried women older than 27. She is best known for directing the drama “Mahjong Women’s Hearts” (2011).
“At least to me, there is no bias against female directors,” Yu says. “Audiences, especially female theatergoers, will pay even more attention to works about women directed by a female. We know women’s hearts more deeply than men and know how to touch women through our dramatic dialogue and music.”
Men are also drawn to her plays, according to Yu, because the subject matter of relationships resonates with many people.
A good theater director must not only be passionate about theater and hardworking, but also “logical in thinking and sensible.”
Yu was in the same class at the Shanghai Theater Academy as famous male director He Nian. The two of them are the only members of the class who are still directing and Yu is the only female director from that class.
“In this industry, there’s no difference when it comes to gender,” she says.