Taking a radical approach to both form and text, Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental has been changing the face of China’s theatrical landscape since 2008. Its fearlessly avant-garde approach encompasses a blend of eastern tradition with western post-modernism, the contemporary re-cycling of classic texts, and innovative use of digital technology. Undaunted by the censorship regulations, its experimental productions have garnered widespread critical acclaim. Claire Ramtuhul chats to founding artistic director Chong Wang.
Your company has pioneered experimental theatre in China. What would you say is the most experimental thing about your work?
We take several different approaches that are relatively new in China, including physical and documentary theatre, but our major breakthrough has been with stage movies. We’ve gradually found our own style within the form. Our crew records the performance live on stage in one long take; this way the audience can simultaneously watch the action on stage and on screen. Nothing is recorded, and so the image is lost once the performance ends.
You recently worked with the Norwegian playwright Oda Fiskum on Ibsen in One Take, how was that?
It was a very pleasant process. I met Oda when she was studying in Beijing, and some years later we came up with Ibsen in One Take, which was commissioned by Ibsen International. I came up with the concept, and she wrote the script based on Ibsen’s texts. We use our long take stage movie approach to explore the life of a man who is dying, taking inspiration from Ibsen’s plotlines and characters.
You’ve performed a number of prolific 20th century works, notably Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine and Sarah Kane’s Crave. How do you go about approaching texts that are so open to imaginative staging?
Physicality was a very important factor in staging Hamletmachine. I found four Peking opera performers, and tried to merge their physicality into a completely new form. It’s very rare that anything traditional is seen on the contemporary stage, and Peking opera is a completely separate world, so I didn’t know what we would end up with. It was very hard for the performers to change their style of movement, since they’ve been practising their craft since they were eight years old. But by using the poetry and politics of the Western text, combined with Peking opera physicality, it was clear to the audience that we were using the Western text to talk about Chinese reality.
And what is that Chinese reality?
History has been wiped out in China. For instance in Hamletmachine, we included fairly indirect images of important events – for example we referenced the Tiananmen Square massacre by having a child actor play with toy tanks. It wasn’t an explicitly political image, but everyone would understand it. Interestingly, after the opening night in Hangzhou [capital of Zhejiang Province], one of the audience members called the authorities to report us, claiming the show was about the Tiananmen Square massacre.
What happened after that?
The company who produced the tour with us is a governmental company. They didn’t want to ruin the show, and they thought it wasn’t a big problem, so we were allowed to continue with the run. It could be seen as political in a post-modern way. It’s possible others might interpret it as implicit.
Have you found it easy to stage such ground-breaking work in China? What kind of censorship regulations have you had to deal with?
Generally speaking, it’s not easy to get past censorship. The most recent development is that the authorities require you to send a full dress rehearsal video before tickets go on sale, which is almost impossible for a new show. They send officials to sit in on your show, and last year every theatre venue in Beijing had to install their own surveillance cameras, not only pointing at the stage, but also at the audience members in their seats. It’s a devastating situation. But within this situation, the approach is that very often we have to submit an [early]dress rehearsal video. Not because we want to express explicitly political ideas – we wouldn’t dare do that – but just because we need something to send them, to get a permit to put on the show. And they normally wouldn’t ask you to change something in the middle of a run. Although we cannot express political ideas explicitly, the form is political and subversive. One of the worst things is that – when you grow up within a culture of censorship – you start censoring yourself. Meaning that you don’t even dare to think of really creative, crazy or brave things in the first place. And that happens to everybody, including me.
How easy has it been to find funding to support the work of your company?
It’s very difficult to register as a not-for-profit organisation. And although the government is pouring a lot of money into art, independent theatre companies like ours rarely get any. There are a lot of new festivals all over China, so we get a performance fee when we participate in them – that’s the indirect way of getting government funding. But we’re funded primarily through commercial investment, which is very hard to come by because the kind of theatre we do is obviously not for profit. Commercial investors don’t want to give their money away, they want you to make money for them. So it’s not very easy to strike a balance between the two.
Has there been a shift in the way audiences in China think about theatre?
Although we get very broad press coverage and more performing opportunities are emerging, it’s still very difficult to raise awareness about the importance of experimental theatre, and the different issues that you can express on the stage. A very large number of audiences in China consider theatre as purely entertainment, whilst [other bodies]consider theatre as propaganda and an opportunity to make money. So doing anything serious, not only experimental, but also classical, is hard. But we need to establish this kind of discourse in China, otherwise nobody will do it.
Your productions involve a blend of theatre and film. How do you think digital technology is changing the theatrical landscape worldwide?
I know that there are strong counter forces in the industry saying digital technology is somehow ruining traditional theatre-making and the traditional way of understanding drama. I can see their point. But at the same time, you can see that most of the world’s leading directors use new digital technology widely – people like Katie Mitchell [British theatre director] and Ivo van Hove [artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam]. It’s everywhere. As a creative team, you have to come up with your own approach to the technology, so your spectacle is new and impressive for the audience.
What’s coming up next for the company?
Our next production The Warfare of Landmine 2.0 will premiere in Tokyo later this year. It’s inspired by a 1962 anti-Japanese propaganda movie made by Chinese communists, and it’s a film pretty much every Chinese person has seen whilst growing up. We’re making a stage movie about the real movie, so it’s metatheatre in some sense. Showing an anti-Japanese movie to Japanese audiences will be an interesting experience. We’re also waiting to get a permit to perform my translation of the Vagina Monologues in Shanghai. It’s already had a successful run in four cities, but these types of shows don’t always get a permit. We’re waiting for society to change.