For some, turning 70 might be a sign to slow down. Not for Lin Zhaohua, the doyen of mainland theatre. 'People working with him all know he looks 50, works like a 40-year-old and creates like a 30-year-old,' says a close colleague. Lin's unique style - combining the exploratory and realistic, avant garde and traditional - defies definition. Yet today, the man who has done more than anyone to shape the scene over the past 30 years is puzzling over how to create a new generation of theatre-goers, determined to pull his beloved art out of its slump as it staggers under a double whammy of rigorous censorship and brutal commercial pressures. 'In theatre, as in life, it's an easy road if you take the easy way,' he says, via e-mail. Lin's typically retiring style helped him become a director. With the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Lin and his colleagues at Renyi (People's Art Theatre) were sent to Tuanhe Labour Farm on Beijing's outskirts to learn from farmers. With Lin were actors Yu Shichi, who starred in the first production of Lao She's Teahouse, and Shakespearean actor Ying Ruocheng. Renyi party secretary Zhao Qiyang also went. Once manual labour was done for the day, they talked endlessly about art. Lin caught Zhao's attention. 'It was a great opportunity for him as an actor,' says Cheung Fai, executive director of the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Studio, the mainland's first private studio, set up in 2003. Equally important was Lin's ability to keep his mouth shut. Encouraged to denounce his colleagues, Lin refused. That was noted. Back in Beijing in 1976, Zhao took Lin under his wing. What would Lin like to do? By now, the trained actor wanted to direct. Under Zhao's guidance, in 1978 Lin switched over, a rare move in those days. Today, more than 60 plays later, Lin is working with Hong Kong-born Cheung to nurture a new theatre audience by offering free shows at universities, compiling e-mail lists of potential customers and other marketing techniques. 'China is a TV nation, just like most countries in the world,' Lin says. 'Theatre is marginalised. Among the young audience, contemporary theatre is fighting a losing battle with TV, movies, the internet and computer games.' Lin hopes his nascent Young Theatre Fund will attract talent to the stage and away from the dominant markets of TV and advertising. If he can find funding, he hopes to offer scholarships and prizes to writers to enable them to write in peace. This autumn, Peking University's new theatre department - set up in conjunction with Lin's studio - will offer a degree course, in a departure from the mainland's elitist, drama academy-dominated scene. Yet while the university is happy to have Lin's name on the MA course, it has not supplied money or even premises yet, making its future uncertain. Everywhere, it's a challenge to find funding. 'There's a lot of talent in China, but most of it is working in TV, movies, advertising and other industries that reward their creativity with money and fame,' says Lin. 'They may still have their hearts in theatre, in art, but to take the artistic path means giving up a lot of financial opportunities. So we have to provide them with incentives that attract them to the theatre.' In some ways, Lin is an unlikely figure to try to correct that. Born into a poor family in the northern port city of Tianjin in 1936, he worked in the Tianjin Industrial Equipment company before being transferred to the Bayi (August First) Film Studio in Beijing in 1956 as a sound technician. The following year, Lin gained entry to the acting department of the prestigious Central Academy of Drama, near Beijing's elegant Houhai lakes area. Yet Lin always displayed an open-mindedness that shows in his current interest in the younger generation, and despite rising high in the bureaucratic Renyi - he became vice-president in 1984, a post he held until retiring as director, an artistic position - he had a reputation for artistic independence. Later this year, Lin directs The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen, a later, difficult creation by the Norwegian playwright. Unlike Ibsen's builder, Solness, who feels threatened by the rising generation, Lin suffers from no insecurity. He's determined to help theatre grow into a fully fledged industry, much as it is in New York, where on- and off-Broadway offer a broad choice to viewers. 'First of all we need young playwrights and directors who have commitment to the theatre, insights into our lives today, and the creativity to transform the insights onto the stage in a compelling artistic way,' says Lin. 'It has always been my dream to see a contemporary Chinese theatre that is as contemporary as it is Chinese. 'The rich components in traditional Chinese theatre can be transformed and used in today's creativity. So it's a form of theatre that is now, fresh, relevant, yet underneath, there are elements in its aesthetics and skills that are uniquely Chinese, going back hundreds of years. 'I believe if we can create this, it could contribute also to the development of world theatre, like adding a new nutrition. And then Chinese theatre could be an important part of world theatre and cross-cultural interaction would be much more intense and in-depth than it is now.'