Wuzhen the stage for theater's best

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Ding Yiteng always enjoys his time in Wuzhen.

Back in 2013, when the first Wuzhen Theater Festival was launched, the ancient water town of east China's Zhejiang province, Ding, a young actor, took part in the opening celebration. Since then, he not only performed during the annual festival but also brings his directional theatrical productions to it every October. He also celebrates his birthday there, which falls on Oct 27.

Wuzhen, with a history stretching back 1,300 years, transforms itself into a dreamland for theater lovers during the festival every year. Plays are staged at both indoor venues and outdoor public spaces. Forums, workshops and street performances also give the town a carnival atmosphere during the festival.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the eighth Wuzhen Theater Festival has been postponed.

However, Ding returned to the town to join a new reality show, titled Theater For Living, which is produced by iQiyi, a major online streaming media platform.

Premiered on Jan 16, the reality show, initiated by Chinese director-actor Huang Lei, who is also a co-founder of Wuzhen Theater Festival, has won plaudits from both critics and audiences.

Opening with a monologue by Huang, who asks the question: "Can you making a living from working in theater?", the reality show gathers seven Chinese actors and directors, who spend two months living together in Wuzhen and creating new works.

"Wuzhen is like a home to me, as I had so much fun with the theater festival. When Huang asked me to join in the reality show, I said yes though I had no experience with reality show," says the 29-year-old Ding.

Though it was pretty challenging to be a part of a reality show with cameras on 24 hours a day, Ding soon warms up.

The seven men have a rich and varied history. They include 42-year-old actor Liu Xiaoye, who has been collaborating with pioneering Chinese theater director Meng Jinghui for two decades and has performed in more than 6,000 plays. Actor-director Liu Xiaoyi, 35, is the puppetry director of the Chinese version of the stage production of War Horse and 29-year-old Liu Tianqi, whose directorial debut work, Rabbits and Chickens, won the Best Drama Award at the Emerging Theater Artists Competition of the 7th Wuzhen Theater Festival in 2019, soon show the audiences why theater charms.

The result is exciting and rewarding.

Their first mission was to make a play, titled The Story of Chicken Farm, within two days. Liu Tianqi and Ding worked on scripts and as directors. The other members also made contributions. For example, Liu Xiaoyi handmade all the stage props. Ding, who brings his guitar with him and often improvises, also composed and sang in the play. The play, which is about a little hen who doesn't want to lay eggs like other hens but yearns for the big ocean that she has never seen before, was well received.

"Theaters may be empty due to the coronavirus pandemic but the shows go on," commented a fan under the reality show's Sina Weibo platform. "I see the hard work behind the bright lights and I am really touched by their passion for theater," said another fan.

With over 40 million followers, Huang wrote about his intention of initiating the reality show on his Sina Weibo platform the day after Theater For Living premiered that he simply wants to let more people know these great theater actors and directors because theater still caters to a small group of audiences compared to pop music or movie in the country.

"I got used to spend time in Wuzhen every year because of the festival. I was disappointed when we had to announce the cancellation of the festival in 2020," he says. In 2020,Huang also had to cancel shows of the tour of the classic play, Secret Love In Peach Blossom Land, by the playwright and director Stan Lai.

"As a live art form, how do people working in theaters survive the coronavirus crisis? Why do they keep on pursuing their dreams in theater though they go through financial struggles? The idea of displaying the lives of those people in theater popped into my head, which becomes a reality show," says Huang.

For Ding, the 10-episode reality show allows him to test his ideas in theater with lots of. He put on shows in different venues in Wuzhen, such as a bar and outdoor space.

Born in Beijing he fell in love with theater during high school and joined the Beijing Normal University's Beiguo Theater after he enrolled for an education major.

In 2012, he stood out among his peers and won the opportunity to play a role in director Meng Jinghui's play, To Live, which featuring actor Huang Bo and actress Yuan Quan as leading roles. His acting talent was recognized by Meng, who later invited Ding to join his team as an actor.

"I have a lot of dreams for the theater. The first love is to become an actor because I enjoy the moment of standing on the stage when the audiences look at and the lights fall down on me, warm and bright," says Ding.

Besides being an actor, Ding made his directorial debut in 2015 with his play, Macbeth and Fleance, which was inspired by William Shakespeare's classic tragedy.

The same year, Ding was invited to the world-acclaimed Odin Teatret in Denmark to work with Eugenio Barba, one of Europe's leading directors.

In 2017, Barba, who is a fan of Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai, recommended Ding to make a show about the poet. The idea turned out to be a play, titled Dream of a Drunk Poet, in which Ding worked with an ensemble of traditional Chinese opera performers, Chinese classical dancers and young musicians.

The cross-cultural atmosphere of the theater enabled Ding to absorb different performing styles and learning to borrow different cultural elements into his own works.

With each works he brings out, Ding tries to experiment his ideas and to create a space for people to think.

While pursuing his master's degree in performance making at Goldsmiths, University of London, Ding read Injustice to Tou'O, or Snow in Midsummer, a tale by Guan Hanqing, a prominent playwright and poet of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and adapted into a play with the same title in 2016.

In the play, Ding not only directs but also plays the leading role, Dou E, a woman, who is wrongly convicted of murder by a corrupt court official. When the play was staged during the Wuzhen Theater Festival in 2017, tickets sold out within eight minutes.

Ding is a doctoral student of directing at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing.

In March, he will launch his 2021 national tour with his three directorial works: Injustice to Tou'O, The New Romance of West Chamber and Frankenstein: Paradise Lost In Darkness.

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