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Renowned Theater Upholds Tradition


Four large Chinese calligraphy characters -- xi bi tian da -- are written on the wall of the rehearsal room in the Beijing People's Art Theater.

The figures mean that playing in a drama is the most important thing for an actor/actress, the words are a motto for every member of the theater and urge them to follow and to dedicate themselves to the stage.

In the rehearsal room, there is also a special bell. As soon as the director rings the bell, all of the performers and producers take their place. It is another symbol of the theater's strict rule and the performers' devoted attitude.

The words have remained on the wall for 50 years since the founding of the Beijing People's Art Theater in 1952. Although the rehearsal hall has imprints of several generations of directors and actors, the spirit and the tradition of the theater remain the same. This month, all of the members of the theater and the theater-goers themselves have witnessed its growth and are celebrating the theater's 50th birthday with great pride and high aspirations.

Whilst a little nostalgic about the theater's tradition and distinction, the younger directors are trying to figure out how to continue the theater's glory while facing and trying to attract young audiences who have been brought up with many more entertainment options and are far more used to the screen than the stage.

Despite the efforts, today's directors and actors do not surpass their predecessors in most critics' eyes.

"The theater's reputation still rests on the caliber of its acting, heavily influenced by Master Jiao Juyin (1905-75), and the diversified talent of its first generation of performers, who worked together for three decades," said Tang Sifu, Beijing-based veteran drama critic.

The current president Liu Jinyun also shows mixed feelings of pride, aspiration and anxiety.

He recalled: "I was appointed president in September 1992. When I visited Master Cao Yu (1910-96) in his house the day after I took over the position, he told me it was a challenging job and made a joke, 'Don't cry when you face problems.'"

After a pause, Liu added, "Ten years have passed, though I never cried, I could not laugh contentedly."

In the 1990s, the theater staged 37 plays, only one-seventh of the total 251 plays in five decades. Among them, only a few such as "Antique," "Ruan Lingyu," "Bird Man" and "Boundless Love" hit the box office and impressed fastidious theater-goers.

The theater suffered from a lack of good scripts and of talented young performers.

"It is difficult to find talented playwrights, as well as a good story," Liu said.

The screen has been more popular than the theater. "Why would a writer choose a lower paid drama, when a story can be adapted into a 20-part or 40-part TV drama that will pay large sums of money?" Liu sighed.

"Without good new plays, we would rather restage classics than produce a half-hearted new one," he said.

Ren Ming, the theater's vice-president and stage director, agreed. " A good drama always relates to a good script," he said. "For instance, Lin Zhaohua directed three works by Liu Jinyun and another three by Guo Shixing. Both Liu and Guo are talented playwrights and the scripts are outstanding.

"But now I don't work with any specific playwrights, nor does Li Liuyi, a younger stage director. And I don't have good scripts at hand to work on."

"And Chinese people do not show great interest in spoken drama or in the innovation of the drama as they did in the 1980s. They have much more choice now."

Television, videos and other forms of visual and performing arts have lured away many prospective young viewers. The number of theater-goers is shrinking.

Meanwhile, a large number of performers and directors have turned to making TV drama series and films, which gives them instant fame and reaches more audiences.

Yet, the theater has not stopped its members from taking up roles in films and TV series.

"Their perfect acting refined and tested on the stage makes them outstanding in front of the camera, and in turn, their rapid rising reputation may attract more audiences into the theater," Liu said.

The theater is also facing increasing competition from the newly-established National Drama Theater of China.

Despite the difficulties, Ren said that he and his colleagues will continue to explore new styles.

"All the members of the theater have amazing cohesiveness and the cohesiveness gives me great confidence," said Liu.

"Besides, we have a large number of loyal theater-goers and their support encourages us to produce good dramas," he said.

Talking about the future, Liu stressed two points, one is to continue to stage classic repertoires, both Chinese and foreign ones.

The theater is preparing to stage a Shakespeare play under the direction of Lin Zhaohua.

The other is to focus on realistic works. Liu said, he has read a novel about the changes that have taken place in Beijing during the past 50 years. Enchanted by it, Liu has contacted the writer and has invited him to adapt it into a drama for the theater.

As far as fierce competition is concerned, the members of the Beijing People's Art Theater are confident.

Pu Cunxi, one of the theater's chief actors, said at the news conference for the celebration: "We will continue to try to be worthy successors to the theater, to live up to our predecessors' expectations, live up to the audiences' expectations and live up to ourselves."

Their counterparts also show respect to the prestigious theater.

"The achievements of Beijing People's Art Theater in the creating and performing of realistic dramas are hard to surpass for all the other drama companies in China," said Wang Xiaoying, Deputy President of the National Theater of China, which was established last December by merging two former Beijing-based leading drama companies, the Central Experimental Drama Theater and China Youth Art Theater.

(China Daily June 17, 2002)

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