Preaching the West's radical theatre
Wang spoke to Priscilla Jiao
As founder of Beijing-based performance troupe Theatre du Reve Experimental, Wang Chong specialises in translating Western drama productions into Chinese. The acclaimed 30-year-old's directing credits include The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Hamletmachine by Heiner Muller and Central Park West by Woody Allen. Wang and his group try to explore the avant-garde and experimental theatre through political metaphors and cross-cultural content. Over the past three years, his group has performed on the mainland, in Hong Kong and in cities in Britain and United States, France and Canada.
How did you get into translating and directing drama productions?
After I graduated with a law degree from Peking University, I went to study drama for a postgraduate degree at the University of Hawaii. Then I studied at the University of California, Irvine. I began to act and direct dramas in my spare time between my studies. I returned to Beijing to direct dramas every summer from 2006 to 2008, and I settled back down in the capital at the end of 2008. I chose to change directions simply because I was passionate about drama. I originally planned to be a professor of drama and direct at the same time.
What type of drama interests you?
The first play I directed was called Hamletism - a post-modern drama. I have always been interested in post-modernism, and the dramas I direct are either post-modern or post-dramatic, challenging the routine of conventional drama. It also challenges the audience's sense of beauty and feeling. All of my dramas contain such elements. I chose my favourite few among dozens of plays. I mainly translate contemporary Western drama. Almost all of the dramas I direct are translated by me. I have translated six pieces and worked on two others, including The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. These dramas are built on a sense of anger or tension towards reality and conventional drama. I won't touch traditional and conventional scripts that have a very obvious explanation of time, setting and people, or those without new ideas or new ways of expression. I like to work on dramas that can challenge my own intellect, so that I can gain a sense of satisfaction and success. I'd like to push the boundaries of art and push mainland drama forward. It might sound all grand and vague, but that's actually what I am into.
Do you try to please your audience?
I'm not catering to audience or the authorities. I hope my work will have an impact and audiences will reflect upon society and themselves: what could be different, what is another option? Is it correct to follow the current road we, society and the country, are on? Lots of other types of drama in mini-theatres reflect the emotions and office lives of white-collar employees. Those are called 'decompression drama'. My drama pressurises audiences. It questions existing perspectives on many things, including marriage, politics and gender relations, as well as how drama is understood. You have to question and exploit the potential of art. I don't like to follow textbooks or established formats.
Why do your plays sometimes feature politics?
Politics is an important part of experimental drama, which is an important channel for a minority of people or intellectuals to express their political views or ideologies. Politics is indispensable. The Vagina Monologues is not about social politics, but gender politics. Females re-evaluate their identities and choose their ways of life through the vagina. It's also a political choice for women, by not accepting their roles in a male-dominated society.
What's the market for experimental drama on the mainland?
The market is gradually expanding, with young people aged 20 to 30 as the mainstay audience. People who like my drama are interested in international art, fresh artistic language and anti-traditional artistic experiments. I'm not saying this group of people is expanding, but it's easier for these people to find what they like and is easier to locate these people.
What challenges have you encountered in your efforts?
The government and media don't recognise you. It's hard for experimental drama to receive government funding. It should go to less mainstream drama, as mainstream drama can profit on its own. Other funding goes towards more commercial mini-theatres. Another problem is getting approval from the government. Self-censorship is the most serious consequence of censorship when engaging in art. Actually, everyone self-censors. But we are the boldest because we aren't affiliated with any government work units. We don't receive government funding, and we rely solely on box office returns. We're courageous people who have nothing to lose. But we can not risk being banned by authorities, so we have to come up with solutions.
How do you cope with censorship?
The censorship system is complicated, and there are clear standards about it. It varies in different cities - even within different districts in one city. Sometimes we submit fake or heavily censored scripts for approval, and we use real scripts later. That tactic has been working fine, but it's been said that this might cause problems this year as censorship seems tighter. Every year, some drama festival organisers will tell me to postpone my drama. If I simply followed their advice, The Vagina Monologues and Hamletmachine would never have come out at all.
What do you think of domestic drama productions?
The market for domestic drama is rapidly expanding, providing an unprecedented opportunity to a whole generation of artists, including those who engage in experimental drama. Audiences on the mainland are mainly young people, different from in Western countries. There are very few competitors in experimental drama, so I have lots of opportunities. The mainland has been catching up with Western experimental drama since the 1980s. We have narrowed the gap with Western artists and have started interacting with them.
What are your plans for this year?
Central Park West will tour Beijing, Shanghai, and Ningbo and Hangzhou in Zhejiang province this year. I hope that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a monologue written by Mike Daisey, an American monologist, author and actor, can be staged this year in Beijing. I'd like to localise the language. It mentions Foxconn [a Taiwanese electronic-components maker that saw a series of employee suicides at its mainland factories], so I'm not sure if it can be staged smoothly. It's less sensitive than Hamletmachine, which places a political poetic drama of East Germany in the context of China, using gestures from Peking Opera performers. Most of the dialogue is delivered through an off-screen voice. There's one scene in which an actor tries to block three tanks. Another play I am working on is Spiders in Meditation, written by Paul Wai-sum Poon.