Chinese spoken drama has witnessed a revival since 1998 and the trend looks as if it will continue well into the new millennium.
This year, confidence about the future of drama in Beijing has been evident and the view is shared by many insiders in theatrical circles.
"There is fair weather ahead for Chinese spoken drama," said Fu Weibo, a sales manager in Beijing People's Art Theater.
The interview with Fu was punctuated with the constant ring of telephone calls. He smiled apologetically and explained that the calls were inquiries about his new staging of "Farewell, My Concubine."
Fu is satisfied with the box-office this year. The Theater has given more than 200 shows this year with high audience turnout.
Most of the people in the audience are between the ages of 20 to 30.
Fu attributed the increasing popularity of stage drama to the fact that directors and scriptwriters, such as Lin Zhaohua, Meng Jinghui and Guo Shixing, have worked together to spice up the shows by introducing many new elements, such as dance, popular music, folk ballads and even operatic singing.
When conventional forms of entertainment like karaoke and movie-going become banal, young audiences turn to theaters for drama shows, Fu said.
"It even parallels the popularity of concerts and exhibitions," Fu added.
Various styles of drama and some well known directors have suddenly become draws for the young viewer.
Meng Jinghui, the most active drama director in Beijing, is famed for his innovative, dashing style. His name has become synonymous with the phrase "box-office hit."
This resurgence of stage drama has led numerous novelists to try their hands at writing scripts.
The drama "Farewell, My Concubine," currently on show at the People's Art Theater, was written by Mo Yan, author of the highly-acclaimed novel "Red Sorghum."
"The 7th Black Poplar," written by Lu Tianming, another novelist, was also recently staged, in the National Youth Theater.
Besides the development of new material, the opening of mini-theaters has also played a significant role in boosting the popularity of stage dramas.
Apart from the mini-theater in the People's Art Theater, 13 similar small venues are scattered across Beijing.
Where regular theaters seat 1,000 or more people, the mini-theaters typically hold 200 to 300 . This smaller space narrows the distance between performers and the audience and creates a friendly, intimate ambience that people find entertaining.
The organizations responsible for this resurrection of stage drama in Chinese are three Beijing-based theaters - the People's Art Theater, the China National Experimental Theater and the China National Youth Theater.
Of them, the Beijing People's Art Theater has developed its own style with a unique repertoire of modern classics that vividly portray the lives of common people in times of change and revolution.
With its base at the Capital Theater, Beijing People's Art Theater has ventured into experimental dramas to broaden its offerings and outlook.
Last year, the theater went through a major refurbishment. "Tea House," one of the modern classics that makes up theater's repertoire, was the first drama staged this year in Capital Theater after its renovation. Written by Lao She (1899-1966), the play chronicles the turbulence and wars the Chinese went through in the more than 40 years from the turn of the century until the founding of New China in 1949.
It made a successive run of 71 nights, netting 5 million yuan (US$600,000) in box office revenues.
In May 2000, the drama also toured Shanghai and Nanjing with great success.
Another of the theater's popular dramas, "Boundless Love" - depicting the life of a famous ancient Chinese playwright Li Yu (1610-80) - ran for 51 nights and took in 3.4 million yuan (US$410,000).
"The hit combines the vision of the director, excellent performances from Pu Cunxin and Xu Fan (both popular movie stars), splendid stage design, and the compelling personality of the hero Li Yu himself," said Liu.
The China National Youth Theater, an organization that has entrenched itself firmly in the world of theater in Beijing, has presented five new plays this year, three more than last year, according to Luo Dajun, playwrite and director of the theater's Literature Department.
Drama for audiences
The theaters have been largely successful in drawing big audiences because they have managed to produce works that are viewer-oriented, whether they be classical or experimental.
"Drama is above all for the audience's enjoyment," said Wang Xiangming, who directs "Farewell, My Concubine." While it is easy to wear the mask of obscurity and equivocation, it is tough to really communicate with the audience, he explained.
In his view, a good director must possess the ability to be sensitive, must know what to do to touch the audience. To this end, going through the painstaking process of trial and error is inevitable.
"Something like determining how background music can best enhance the scenes in a play, takes me hundreds of attempts," Wang said.
In Wang's new drama, audiences can enjoy the poetic dialogue written by Mo Yan while also appreciating a host of new elements, such as Kunqu Opera singing, popular music and Chinese shadow puppet performances.
The play is a modern twisting of a familiar historical story. As such, it has already managed to spark discussion among early audiences.
"A successful play will stir discussion or puzzle people," he said.
Dramas should be tinged with realistic aspects, be it a classic or experimental story, or even an absurd one, Luo explained.
One play, "Inspector General" by Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), was staged earlier this year. Producers remained completely faithful to the original depictions of the corrupt bureaucracy under Tsar Nicholas I.
"Classics transcend time and space. This play still has significance in today's society. It satirizes the flaws in modern society and reflects the country's effort to fight corruption," Luo said.
Stereotyped preaching is discarded in good dramas. The audience is left to form their own judgments and aesthetic sentiment, he added.
Even experimental dramas like "The Maids," - an examination of the strange ways in which two maids' express desire, jealousy and hatred related to their mistress - reflects the predicaments facing today's people, despite its bizarre, callous plots and seemingly obscure acting.
Problems need solution
Although stage drama is currently riding an upward-moving spiral, people involved in the theater business are cautious about being overly optimistic.
According to Fu, there are several issues that need to be addressed if the theater is to continue its development.
He said the system in which actors or directors are responsible for raising funds and shouldering all the risks should be encouraged.
Also, something needs to be done to maintain the quality and quantity of scripts.
While the number of people in the audience goes up, the number of good scripts is shrinking.
Several years ago, there were over 100 scripts available for the typical theater. Now the number has dropped to around 30 scripts, according to Luo.
Part of the reason for this is economics related. Many of the best scriptwriters have been lured away to write for movies or TV serials because the money is easier.
Drama is a condensed art form, which presents a large segment of life in one or two hours. It needs guts to take this painstaking and formidable career, Luo said.
(People’s Daily 12/16/2000)