Raising the curtain

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Veteran theater practitioners from France, Spain, Israel, Lithuania and China attend a forum at the World Class Theater for the Chinese Audiences festival in Beijing last week. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A Beijing theater festival functions as a platform to explore new avenues for international collaboration in global dramatic arts, Chen Nan reports.

French theater director Eric Lacascade arrived in Beijing on a chilly Wednesday morning. On his first trip to China, he plans to stay in the capital for four months to direct an adaptation of a classic Chinese drama by master playwright Cao Yu-Thunderstorm.

"It will be an adventure for me as well as for my Chinese colleagues. I've read the tragic story and was intrigued by the conflicts that are told in it. But since it's so well-known to Chinese audiences, it will be a big challenge for me," says Lacascade, in a speech in Beijing during the World Class Theater for the Chinese Audiences festival. The premiere of Lacascade's take on Thunderstorm is due to be premiered in the capital in 2020.

Published in 1934, the play revolves around two families whose complex relationships lead to inevitable tragic consequences unfolding against the backdrop of China in the 1930s.

Playwright Wan Fang is the consultant for the new adaptation. As the daughter of Cao Yu, whose real name was Wan Jiabao, Wan Fang will also see her latest work, Thunderstorm II, premiere in 2020.

As a sequel to her father's classic work, Thunderstorm II will focus on how the characters' choices made at the end of Thunderstorm formed the people they would later become.

"I watched my father's Thunderstorm many times at the Beijing People's Art Theater, where my father was one of the theater's founding members and its first president. I was so scared that I started to cry when I first heard the noise of the thunderstorm emanating from the stage," recalls Wan Fang, 67.

She says the characters in Thunderstorm are memorable and had distinctive personalities. She wondered what future lay in store for the characters after that fateful night where some of them uncover bitter truths, some die and others lose their minds.

The cast has not been determined for the two plays as yet, and Lacascade will also direct Wan Fang's work, Thunderstorm II.

After premiering in Beijing in 2020, the two Chinese plays, Thunderstorm and Thunderstorm II, will be staged at the French theater festival, Printemps des Comediens, (Actors' Spring), in 2021.

The news was announced at the World Class Theater for the Chinese Audiences, a theater festival presenting a series of forums in Beijing which was jointly organized by the Beijing-based drama company Magnificent Culture Co, Beijing Normal University and the French theater festival, Printemps des Comedians, from Wednesday to Friday.

The event gathered together theater veterans from France, Spain, Israel, Lithuania and China, to discuss such topics as the future of theater arts, theater education for audiences and the development of young theater talent.

French actor-director Jean Varela, who attended the festival, recalls his earliest memories of performing on-stage in his home country.

He was asked by his mother to join a student drama troupe during high school, at a time when he had very little understanding of what theater was about. He stood on the stage and felt reluctant to read his lines from the script.

"Because of my obesity, I had low self-esteem. My mother, who didn't know much about theater either, thought it would be a good way to solve my problems. She wanted me to become more confident and communicative," says the 65-year-old Varela.

However, he soon overcame stage fright and fell in love with theater after he was encouraged by his teacher to take up one of the lead roles.

"It was fun, and an enjoyable experience. Although it was an amateur student drama troupe, it really was the foundation of my career as a professional actor," he says.

Guests gather to announce collaborations between Printemps des Comediens of France and the Beijing drama company Magnificent Culture Co at the festival in Beijing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Now, he is the artistic director of Printemps des Comediens, the annual theater festival launched in 1987 and held in Montpellier, around 160 kilometers west of Marseille in southern France.

As a young man who benefited from theater, he hopes that young people today will be inspired by drama. In addition to the plays held at regular performance spaces during the Beijing festival, artists and audience members were able to mingle between shows, which, as Varela says, is an effective way to get people to engage with theater, especially those who know little about it.

"Now, we have seen many educational organizations using the benefits of theater in education as an innovative way to engage, challenge and inspire children and young people," says Wang Yiwen, a professor at the School of Art and Communication at Beijing Normal University and dean of the department of film and television. "It provides a safe learning environment for children and young people where they are able to think about the issues raised and examine the consequences of their actions for themselves."

Wang adds that theater education focusing on youth-oriented plays has enjoyed a long history in China, starting in 1919 with author and historian Guo Moruo's play for children, Dawn.

One of the highlights of the event was the Incubation Program for Young Talent in Chinese Theater, a project aimed at developing new theater talent.

The warm-up event launched in Beijing on Nov 23 saw over 600 scripts submitted by dramatists from around the world, including the United States, Australia, France and China within 25 days.

"I was excited by the diversity of the scripts, which were original and reflected real life. For a scriptwriter, the process of creating a story is very personal, and their role is to reveal, discuss, heal and comfort," says Wan Fang, who is also one of the judges of the competition.

At the closing ceremony of the theater forum, a new collaboration between Printemps des Comediens and the Beijing drama company, Magnificent Culture Co, was announced. The two outlined plans to jointly produce a Chinese play, An Instant, directed by French theater director Jean Bellorini, and a French-language version of Waiting for Godot by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.

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