Arguably the most influential director of China's avant-garde stage, Meng Jinghui is an active and popular figure in the theatrical circle.
This year, besides continuing working on the box-office wonder Amber, Meng returned to experimenting in small theater after a hiatus of almost six years. Bootleg Faust, his last small theater production at the end of 2000, was an ambitious adaptation on the basis of the German classic, which was reportedly a success of transplanting the story in modern-day China.
Meng fell in love with modern Chinese literature in high school. While studying literature at Capital Normal University, he joined a student theater group as therapy to overcome his shyness. "In theater, you have to work with others, unlike being a writer or artist," he says. "Theater changed me."
His first role was as a Kuomintang foot soldier. He had no lines, and all he had to do was to walk from one end of the stage to the other. And his first speaking role was playing a chef, announcing: "Meal time, meal time!"
Exposure to theater gave him access to "the most advanced cultures of the world and all the various schools of literature."
In his final year of college, Meng took his first stab at the avant-garde when he rewrote Story of the Western Chamber, a Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) romance opera, into a contemporary comedy with three endings, one of them imitating Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Meng's Rhapsody of the Western Chamber turned out to be a campus hit.
Meng's own theatrical rhapsody was disrupted on graduation, though, when he was assigned to teach literature in a vocational high school. After two years, Meng enrolled in the master's program at the Central Academy of Drama. That was 1988, a time when all things Western flooded into the country's arts scene.
On campus, he directed plays by Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett and Genet. "Absurd theater could prove certain things that I had been thinking, smelling and hearing in my pursuit of theater," he says. "Although it was all Western."
Meng graduated in 1991 and spent a year unemployed. His style was too edgy for any academy or theater troupe that clung to older styles. He resisted invitations to get into business or work on the TV soap operas that most of his classmates turned to. In 1992, he joined the National Theater Company of China, then known as the Central Experimental Theater Troupe, a breeding ground for new theater.
In the ensuing years, Meng has created and directed more than ten plays. The most influential ones include Comrade Ah Q, Waiting for Godot, Accidental Death of An Anarchist, Rhinoceros in Love, Si Fan, The Balcony, I Love XXX, and Bootleg Faust, etc.
In most of his productions, Meng either turns traditional works upside down or hacks the classics into pieces, and deconstructs them through the use of cheeky satirical parody. Usually, the loose storyline is deliberately disrupted or suddenly sprouts offshoots. He adds an amusing interlude here, a joke or two there, or he inserts a song or a choral recitation that may or may not seem relevant. He comments at will on community life, social order and artistic conventions, but with a smile on his face and through exaggerated movements, so that all accepted traditions dissolve in the sound of sometimes hesitant, somewhat bewildered laughter.
It is Meng's modus operandi to push the boundaries of all genres, including the paintings, installations, architecture, music, multimedia and many modern art genres. But eventually, all the eclectic elements intertwine to make up his innovative work.
"The modern arts, such as installations, multimedia, visual art and action art, have developed very fast in China in the last 10 years, but we seldom see them in theatrical production, which is a trendy approach in the US and Europe," said Meng, who actually had the idea to use these modern art elements in his play long ago.
"I find myself more than ever returning to the idea of the theater as a meeting place for architecture, music, dance, literature, acrobatics, play, and so on," said the director.
(chinaculture September 15, 2006)