Festive curtain poised to rise on shows with a difference

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When he recalls childhood memories of Spring Festival, which marks the first day of the first lunar month, Qu Peng, 44, still feels excited.

In addition to the delicious food made by his family and new clothes his parents bought him, Qu enjoyed watching traditional Chinese operas performed by art troupes from Shaanxi, his home province, and the neighboring provinces of Shanxi and Henan.

Born and raised in a small village in Tongguan county, Shaanxi, Qu said, "First came the sounds of percussion instruments such as drums and cymbals, before two costumed performers wearing heavy makeup appeared on the stage.

"Once they started singing, dancing and practicing martial arts, they were transformed into characters from ancient times, such as heroes fighting on the battlefield. They performed outdoors on very high stages, and I usually woke up early in the morning, hoping to squeeze my way to the front to get close to the performers."

Qu's parents worked with an art troupe from Tongguan that specialized in performing Qinqiang Opera. Compared with Jinju Opera from Shanxi and Yuju Opera from Henan, Qinqiang Opera has always been Qu's favorite.

Performed in the Shaanxi dialect, Qinqiang Opera is known for its intense rhythm and high-pitched singing. The first such work Qu learned to sing was the classic Three Drops of Blood, which premiered in 1919 and tells the story of a wrongful conviction.

"When the audience cheered and applauded the players, I wished I had been one of the performers," he said.

Now an actor with Yisushe Theater in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi, Qu heads the performance team. For Spring Festival this year, he will stage more than 80 shows at the theater.

"Each day, from the first day of Lunar New Year until Lantern Festival (which marks the end of the Lunar New Year), we will perform in Xi'an and villages in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan. We put on about nine shows a day and our audiences usually gather in front of the stage on benches ahead of the shows," Qu said.

He added that the upcoming Spring Festival will be different from those in recent years, as people's lives have returned to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We expect to see more people coming to our shows," Qu said, adding that classic and contemporary Qinqiang Opera performances will be staged.

In 1912, Yisushe Theater was founded by two scriptwriters from Shaanxi — Li Tongxuan (1860-1932) and Sun Renyu (1872-1934) — who were inspired by the 1911 Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yatsen, which ended the rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Unlike other troupes, most of which were founded by folk artists to make a living and entertain the public, Yisushe was established in the hope of making a difference during the war by educating those who were too poor to go to school. The troupe also ran a school to train young performers in Qinqiang Opera.

Yisushe, one of the oldest art troupes in China, has preserved some 880 original scripts in 1,000 volumes that address social issues and embody values such as honesty, bravery, loyalty and justice.

"The theater is old, but our actors and actresses are very young," Qu said, adding that the theater has some 60 performers with an average age of 35. "More important, more and more young people are coming to our shows, thanks to the tourism boom in Xi'an," he said.

Emotional touch

Ji Fuji, 82, former director of Yisushe Theater, said that as Spring Festival is about family reunions and returning home, people in Shaanxi who move away to work in different parts of the country consider Qinqiang Opera as a way of staying in emotional touch with home.

In 2021, a street in the Drum Tower area, or Gulou area, of downtown Xi'an was turned into a cultural hub for Yisushe Theater to celebrate Qinqiang Opera. The area was renamed Yisu Theater Cultural District, and its theaters, restaurants and museums, which include The Museum of Yisushe, are popular with locals and tourists.

Ji, who first performed as a Qinqiang Opera actor when he was 9 and was director of Yisushe Theater from 1985 to 2005, said: "Tourists usually visit Xi'an for its historical landmarks, including the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and the ancient city walls. Now, many people come to the Yisushe Theater Cultural District, a new tourist destination, to celebrate Lunar New Year."

Although he has retired, Ji still regularly trains the theater's young performers and writes scripts for new Qinqiang Opera pieces.

"Last year, I worked with the theater's young performers during the Spring Festival holiday. We had a hectic schedule and were away from our families, but we were happy and satisfied. It reminded me of my younger days as a Qinqiang Opera actor, when I expected to be at my busiest during Spring Festival, traveling and performing each day," Ji said.

A report examining tourism consumption in China's performing arts market last year, which was released by the China Association of Performing Arts, said Xi'an, the capital for 13 dynasties in Chinese history, was among the nation's most popular tour destinations in 2023.Revenue from the city's performing arts market exceeded the level in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

Nearly 10,000 live performances were staged nationwide during Spring Festival last year, a rise of about 22.5 percent compared with the same period in 2019.Total ticket revenue from such performances during the 2023 Spring Festival holiday was about 378 million yuan ($52.54 million) — about 80 percent of the level in 2019.

With the performing arts market in China experiencing a robust recovery last year, more people are expected to visit theaters during Spring Festival this year.

The report also said that with the performing arts market booming in 2023, theatrical production companies have introduced new works to bring fresh ideas to Chinese theaters, in particular to appeal to young audiences. Performances staged in nontraditional spaces have become a new trend, the report added.

Director Zhang Xiao said: "Picture a theater without walls and a stage without curtains. Audiences are part of shows and performers move shows forward by constantly interacting with audiences. Nontraditional theater pushes the boundaries of traditional theater and offers a unique, exciting experience for performers and audiences."

Zhang's work, Miss Julie, a Chinese stage adaptation of August Strindberg's renowned eponymous play, which was published in 1888 and first performed in 1889, has witnessed 36 sold-out shows since it premiered on Nov 17.

The first nontraditional theatrical production by Star Theaters, which is home to five small auditoriums, Miss Julie attracts theatergoers by removing traditional spatial boundaries between performers and the audience.

Zhang, 31, who graduated from the Central Academy of Drama, said that when he was approached by Star Theaters to create a show for nontraditional theater, he was intrigued by the idea and decided to adapt Miss Julie, which he read for the first time as a university student.

The production has just three roles: Julie; the Count, who is Julie's father; and Jean, an attractive and educated valet who works for the Count.

The auditorium, which usually seats 200, has been turned into a basement kitchen at Julie's home, with only 60 seats available in different parts of the set.

"Since my student days, I have enjoyed the idea of presenting theatrical productions in spaces other than traditional theaters. It's like a game that I design for audiences," said Zhang, who has created productions in a narrow hutong, or alleyway, in downtown Beijing, and also in a coffee shop and a swimming pool.

Key reason

Deng Wei, vice-president of Star Theaters, who is also the company's chief producer, said Zhang's knowledge and passion for nontraditional theater was the key reason Star Theaters invited him to stage Miss Julie.

"The pandemic seems to have changed the way in which people want to enjoy theaters. I have found that audiences are tending to look for new theater experiences after the hard times during the pandemic, when there were no live performances," Deng said.

"The government has also drawn up plans for developing nontraditional theater, and Star Theaters is included in these plans."

Deng added that a survey the company conducted for Miss Julie found that audiences for the production were mainly in the 18-30 age group, much younger than the creative team expected. Before each show, the team plans games for audiences to prepare them for the production.

"Some audience members even dress up as the characters from Miss Julie," Deng said. "Coming to a show is no longer just about watching the performers onstage. It is an opportunity to communicate, meet people, and experience something traditional theaters cannot offer."

A total of 175 performances of Miss Julie are scheduled for this year, including during the Spring Festival holiday.

To appeal to tourists in Beijing, Star Theaters is working on a new production, combining stage performances with live action role-playing games.

Zheng Yi Temple Theater, located near the Qianmen commercial area in the Chinese capital, is also a popular destination for theater lovers.

The venue, which boasts a history of about 350 years, is the nation's oldest theater built from wood. Since it reopened in April 2022, it has gained a large fan base by staging a diverse range of shows, from traditional Chinese operas to classical music recitals.

For Spring Festival this year, it will present a series of shows catering to tourists and local residents.

Zhang Peng, general manager of the theater, said the two-story building only has about 130 seats, giving audiences the sense of being fully immersed in shows.

Zheng Yi Temple Theater is one of the few that remain in commercial guild halls in Beijing, Zhang said. Since it reopened, it has attracted numerous audiences, including those who watch shows streamed online.

Since 2022, the theater has been operated by Northern Kunqu Opera Theater, the only professional company in northern China dedicated to Kunqu Opera, which is performed in the melodic Suzhou dialect.

The company has exclusively choreographed Kunqu Opera works for the theater to showcase an art form that is about 600 years old and combines singing, dancing and acting.

In 2008, Kungqu Opera was inscribed on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Zhang Peng said: "When audiences watch shows in the theater, they enjoy the beauty of traditional Chinese genres such as Kunqu Opera and Peking Opera. They also go back in time, as many Chinese artists, including Peking Opera masters Mei Lanfang and Tan Xinpei, once performed at the theater."

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