Sparking youthful passion for the stage

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"The activities of World Theater Day aim to rekindle young people's interest in the vitality of theater," said Chen Zhongwen, deputy director-general of the International Theater Institute (ITI), at the press conference of the 2024 World Theater Day celebration, which took place from March 27 to 29 in Langfang, North China's Hebei province.

Since ITI established World Theater Day on March 27, 1962, it has been celebrated globally every year. During this year's event, theater professionals and practitioners from around the world gathered at the city's Silk Road International Arts Center to participate in speeches, seminars, and workshops.

In contrast to other theater festivals that present many shows, this event placed more emphasis on discussing the essential and current issues of the theater industry. Among all the activities and topics explored this year, the involvement of young people in theater stood out as a major highlight.

One of the event's three main panel discussions focused on the theme "Theater: A Stage for the Young". Eight speakers from China, Hungary, India, and Ghana shared their observations and insights.

According to Huang Changyong, president of Shanghai Theater Academy, the current participation of young people in China's theater is remarkably high, making them "a primary driving force behind the development of theatrical arts".

The latest statistics from the Shanghai Drama Art Center show that those aged 0-29 make up 41.72 percent of its audience, while those aged 30-39 account for 33.96 percent.

Chen addressed the importance of young audiences and how they perceive theater. After visiting various countries, watching plays, and communicating with local theater practitioners, Chen has found a particularly important phenomenon in China that she "greatly appreciates".

"In all the places I've worked around the world, nowhere else have I encountered as many young people in theaters as in China," she said. "Especially in Europe, theater audiences tend to be older. Also, in Latin America or Africa, the younger generation seems to be losing interest in theater."

Ramendu Majumdar from Bangladesh, honorary president of ITI, said that "taking theater into schools is a very good idea" in terms of increasing the appeal of theater to the younger generation.

World Theater Day invited three children's and school theater groups to present their works and to have workshops with international experts.

The Qfun Children's Experimental Theater Troupe is mainly made up of primary school students. After staging a short play, the French musician and director Matthew Rauchvarger led them into an instrumental and choral practice, encouraging them to improvise within theatrical games.

The Golden Sail Art Troupe originated from the campus drama club of the Beijing Haidian District Teacher Continuing Education School. In 2012, the school became the "Theater Education Base" of the Beijing People's Art Theater, receiving coaching and training from this top theater group in China. On March 28, the students performed a show titled Xianheng Hotel, which features characters from the works of Chinese writer Lun Xun (1881-1936), including Sister Xianglin, Kong Yiji, and Run Tu. A director, a lighting designer, and a stage manager from the Beijing People's Art Theater accompanied the students in creating and rehearsing this performance.

Jiang Xiao, in his second year of high school, played Xunge'er in the show. Before this, he had never seen a play or even a scene, knowing nothing about theater.

"It's not that I wasn't interested, but rather that I never had the opportunity to be exposed to it," he said. "But now, as a performer, not just an audience member, I have the chance to be the center of attention, to be myself and yet someone else, and to feel the character's emotional journey from a century ago. Where else could I find this kind of experience if not in the theater?"

Akosua Abdallah, president of the Ghana Center of ITI and a specialist in theater education, emphasized the positive impact of theater on the younger generation.

"When children and teenagers engage in theater, initially, it may be a bit shaky and wobbly, but as they progress through the performance, they can become anything. Theater is very beneficial for both their confidence and academic performance in school," she said. "When you build up confidence, it opens doors for you. You're not shy; you're able to communicate effectively; you're capable of doing all the things you want to do."

Members of the Beiguo Drama Society at Beijing Normal University have taken theater further into psychological healing.

Sun Ruonan, 26, a graduate of the university, created a play titled 4.16 km in 2019 based on her own experience. The play delved deeply into the psychology of a girl with depression, who struggles with her relationships with her parents and the pain of growing up.

"Five years ago, I went through the same thing. I felt stifled and angry because there was no one to share my tears. So, I wanted to write a play that could evoke raw emotions from everyone who watched it," Sun said. "Through rehearsals and performances, I've come to understand myself more as well as my grievances and pettiness."

Li Zihan, once a member of the drama society and now its mentor, has noticed that the younger generation of theater practitioners tends to focus more on their internal emotions, pursuing the meaning of life and existence through theater.

"School theater troupes hold a unique significance. They serve as a supplement to the theatrical industry, being more liberating, open, and inclusive than commercial theater groups. They often engage with cutting-edge theatrical theories, tackling socially significant or philosophical themes, and experimenting with innovative forms of expression. These characteristics are both their distinctive features and areas of expertise," she said.

Huang agreed that youth are a precious creative force in the theater landscape.

"They possess passion, a receptiveness to new ideas, and a keen awareness of the present moment. This is why society needs to support and incubate young theatrical talent," he said. "Theater shapes the youth, who, in turn, interpret and engage with the world through the lens of drama."

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