A dramatic new dawn

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Actors and directors of Beijing People's Art Theater gather in Beijing on Sept 8 to announce the new version of the theater's classic play Thunderstorm. JIANG DONG/CHINA DAILY

Founded in 1952, Beijing People's Art Theater, about 20 minutes' walk from the bustling pedestrian shopping street of Wangfujing, is considered the flag bearer of Chinese drama. It's known as home to many established Chinese actors and actresses, including Lan Tianye, 94, who remains active in the theater.

It has also built a reputation for its good traditions and work ethic.

"A play is bigger than the sky" is a slogan inherited by the theater and is printed on a huge banner hanging on the wall of the rehearsal room.

On Sept 2, the institution's latest performance venue, Beijing International Theater Center, opened its doors. It is located next to the Capital Theater, the home of Beijing People's Art Theater, established in 1954.

The new venue covers an area of 23,000 square meters and houses two auditoriums, one with 700 seats and another with a 200-seat capacity. The bigger stage is named after Cao Yu, renowned playwright and the first president of Beijing People's Art Theater.

"For decades, we've been devoted to keeping the legacy of Beijing People's Art Theater. The new venue marks a new adventure," said Ren Ming, president of Beijing People's Art Theater, during the opening ceremony. "It will create, showcase and bring together more stage works and better serve audiences."

To celebrate the opening, Beijing People's Art Theater is staging new versions of Cao Yu's three classic plays: Sunrise, Thunderstorm and The Wilderness, featuring the company's young actors.

"We want to pay tribute to pioneering Chinese dramatists like Cao Yu and we are also keen on offering opportunities to young actors and directors, who will carry on the spirit of Beijing People's Art Theater," says Ren.

Cao Yu, whose real name was Wan Jiabao, was born in Tianjin and fell in love with acting during middle school. He died in Beijing in 1996.

On Sept 24, 1956, Sunrise became the first play staged by Beijing People's Art Theater. It portrays people from all walks of life and their struggles and failures in urban China during the 1930s. Chen Bailu, a courtesan, is the central figure in the story.

Celebrating this new dawn for the company, it seems appropriate that, from Sept 2 to 9, a new production of Sunrise, directed by actor-director Feng Yuanzheng, opened at the Cao Yu Theater.

Feng, incidentally, played the role of Fang Dasheng, Chen's boyfriend from school, in the company's production of Sunrise back in 2000.

On Sept 24, Thunderstorm, which is considered as one of China's most enduring 20th century dramas, will be staged.

Cao Yu wrote the script when he was a student at Tsinghua University in 1933. A year later, it was published and premiered in 1935.Revolving around two families, whose complex relationships lead to inevitable tragic consequences, and set against the backdrop of the decade's sociopolitical turmoil, the script was critically acclaimed both at home and abroad. It propelled the young Cao Yu to fame.

Since 1954, Beijing People's Art Theater has staged four versions of the classic play. Last year, to mark Cao Yu's 110th birth anniversary, it was staged again featuring young actors of the company.

According to Pu Cunxin, director of the new version of Thunderstorm, who also plays the role of Zhou Puyuan, he read Cao Yu's original script from 1934, which enabled him to have a deeper understanding of the writer.

As he describes, the process of researching Thunderstorm is like "decoding" and he says audiences will enjoy a familiar story with fresh interpretation.

The 68-year-old Pu, who has been working with Beijing People's Art Theater since 1986, performed the role of Zhou Ping, son of Zhou Puyuan.

"I never dared to dream about directing Thunderstorm, such a classic play, but now it's happening. What makes me more excited is that it will be staged at this new theater, which is a new beginning for Beijing People's Art Theater," says Pu, adding that he stopped playing the role of Zhou Ping in 2001 and thinks about Thunderstorm as "an important play" in his life.

Pu also invited Tang Ye to be co-director.

In 1937, Cao Yu released his third play, The Wilderness, which is a story about revenge in the Chinese countryside. Reflecting the influence of American playwright Eugene O'Neill on the writer, it revolves around a man, Qiu Hu, who escapes from prison to kill a local villager who ruined his family.

Actor-director Yan Rui will direct the new version of The Wilderness, telling a fresh story based on the classic script, with more detail to be revealed by the theater at a later date.

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