Published: 14:53, May 13, 2024
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Friends use festival to stage theater dreams
By Chen Nan

Partnership built up over decades helps duo create a wave of enthusiasm for seaside spectacle, Chen Nan reports.

Five Acts of Life: Lao She's Short Stories, directed by Lin Xiyue, marking the 125th birth anniversary of Chinese writer Lao She (1899-1966). (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

While he was studying acting at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing during the 1990s, Chen Minghao got to know theater director Meng Jinghui, who also graduated from the same university.

They met one day while Chen was playing soccer. "Meng came over and spoke to me. He wanted me to accept a role in his play. When I asked for the script, he told me that he didn't have one yet," Chen says, adding that Meng asked him whether he'd like to be part of the production or not.

"He said that we could work on the script together, and create a great play."

With no idea what Meng planned to do, Chen nodded. It was the start of a decadeslong collaboration that Chen describes as "crazy".

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Fast forward several decades, and Meng has become one of the country's leading and most pioneering theater directors, while Chen not only appears on stage in various theaters, and in movies and TV dramas, but has also become a director himself.

The pair appeared in Beijing last month for the announcement of the third edition of the Aranya Theater Festival, where they both serve as artistic directors.

The Castle Tower by Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi will be staged during the Aranya Theater Festival in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, this June 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The festival, which also has well-known actress Zhang Ziyi as an artistic director, will take place by the sea at the Aranya community in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, from June 20 to 30. It will bring together 29 theater productions from China and abroad for more than 100 performances.

"After so many years, we still have lots of crazy ideas for theater," Meng says. "We love the idea of a theater festival, which allows us, as well as many other directors and performers, and those who love theater or are new to theater, to immerse themselves in a unique space, enjoying moments, hours and days of being surreal and wild.

"When we recall our younger days producing theater, we feel the same excitement as we did when we were making plans for this theater festival," Meng adds.

Chen says that he made the transition from actor to director through theater festivals. "We want to create a platform for young actors to develop their voices," Chen says.

As China's first seaside theater festival, the Aranya Theater Festival launched in 2021 under the theme, "Half-Water, Half-Stage". In 2022, it was postponed due to the pandemic and in 2023, it returned under the theme of "Howls and Whispers".

This year's theme is "Exception and Rule".

"What makes the festival special is the sea and the different architecture in the community," Meng says. "We put on shows that the audience can enjoy in traditional theaters, and we also surprise them with programs in unconventional locations."

Entrelinhas by Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

About 15 distinctive buildings in the community, both indoor and outdoor spaces, including the Solitary Library, the North Coast Chapel and the Aranya Art Center, have been adapted for use as theater venues. According to Ma Yin, founder of the community, new theaters will also be opened.

"When we launched the first Aranya festival, we were excited about bringing international artists to this seaside community. The second year, our plan was hindered by the pandemic, but our passion remained. Now, we are about to have our third festival, which will continue our goal of bringing international artists to China, and making it a great celebration of theater," Ma says.

Eight directors, who head top international theater festivals, will present productions this year.

They include French director Olivier Py, former artistic director of the Festival d'Avignon, who is producing Hamlet in the Imperative!, his adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet. Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues, current artistic director of the Festival d'Avignon, will stage Entrelinhas, which explores the enigmatic relationship between writer and actor.

Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi, who is also artistic director of the World Theatre Festival Shizuoka, and who presented A Doll's House at last year's festival, will return with The Castle Tower, a love story drawing on elements of traditional Japanese theater.

Actor-director Chen Minghao. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Director of the Wiener Festwochen, Milo Rau, from Switzerland, will bring his play, The Interrogation, for which he worked with bestselling French author Edouard Louis to present a personal story about doubt and failure.

"We have traveled around the world to watch plays by different artists in different countries. We also staged performances at theater festivals around the world," Meng says. "This year, we are inviting the great artists we've met over the years back to our home here in China, which is like coming full circle, and is very fulfilling."

Meng's play, The Suicide, an adaptation of Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman's play of the same title, will be performed during the upcoming festival.

Last year, Chen experimented with an unconventional location and time slot for his play, Romeo and Juliet by the Sea. It took place at the Seaside Theater and began at 3 am. Night, dawn and sunrise all played important roles as the play unfolded.

This year, Chen is taking his theatrical experiment to another level by building a tower, the Galileo Tower, as the main site for his new play, Galileo by the Sea. The play includes different elements, from sound, paintings, physical theater and literature. The three parts of the play will be performed in three separate shows each day, with the audience attending at breakfast, lunchtime and dinnertime. It will be performed for seven days.

"Food will be a part of the production, and we will serve the audience three meals a day," Chen explains. "Audience participation is key to the success of a theatrical production. I want to build a world for them where they can dream and imagine things."

Director Meng Jinghui. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Director Ma Junfeng's play Blossoms will be staged at the newly opened Nine Theater. Remaining faithful to the novel, the play is about the journey of Ah Bao, an ambitious everyman opportunist who rises to become a legendary figure in Shanghai's most elite commercial circles in the early 1990s. The plot follows his subtle and ambiguous romance-like relationships with three women. The play is an adaptation of Mao Dun Literary Prizewinner Jin Yucheng's novel of the same title, and it has had 100 performances nationwide. A TV series based on the novel by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai became a phenomenon early this year, making the novel popular with young people.

Another highlight of the festival will be a new version of Five Acts of Life: Lao She's Short Stories, directed by Lin Xiyue, son of well-known theater director Lin Zhaohua, and starring veteran actor Wang Jinsong.

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Marking the 125th birthday of Lao She (1899-1966), an iconic modern Chinese writer, the new version also pays tribute to Lin Zhaohua, who directed the successful play based on five short stories by Lao She in 2010 to celebrate the writer's 111th anniversary. Lin Xiyue revived his father's classic play and offers his own interpretation of Lao She's literary understanding and deep insight into human nature.

Apart from performances, visitors can also book to attend script reading sessions presented by directors including Yang Ting, Liu Chang, Meng and Chen, free of charge.

A project, 300 Migratory Birds, inviting 300 theater enthusiasts and practitioners to stay in 300 tents pitched on the beach at Aranya and spend 300 hours creating works of theater together, will also be part of the festival. Additionally, the outer wall of the Solitary Library will be used for screenings, and visitors can sit on the beach to watch classic films and recordings of theater performances.

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