It has been a long held ambition for the Royal Court to work in China with Chinese playwrights. With its own distinct traditions and a fast emerging theatrical landscape of new voices, China’s theatre is burgeoning with possibility. This July that ambition was realised with the start of a major new project in conjunction with the British Council.
In the heat of the mountains of Schezwan, just outside the city of Chengdu, we gathered for an initial workshop with sixteen writers from across China. The gloriously modern Zhi Art museum provided a peaceful home for a week of discussion, writing, reading and exploration of the work of these writers. From the Royal Court, Elyse Dodgson, playwrights Carl Miller and April de Angelis and myself made up the team. Our discussions explored a huge range of issues and ideas that the group identified as pressing or ripe for dramatic exploration. From the dynamic of modern families in China to the rapid physical and economic expansion of megacities and the impact of new technology on individual lives. There was a lot to digest. Stories that took us from familiar cities like Beijing and Shanghai to new discoveries like Wuhan and Shenzhen.
While we read and investigated new work from the Royal Court tradition, the workshop was also a fantastic opportunity to discover elements of a Chinese performance. Several of the writers treated us to exquisitely delivered performances of songs in the Peking opera style and we were introduced to a number of plays that inform China’s playwriting tradition. Cao Yu’s ground-breaking Thunderstorm and the social realist drama Teahouse (1957) were both new to us. And perhaps most surprising was the work of Shakespeare’s contemporary Tang Xianzu and his 1598 durational
masterpiece The Peony Pavilion.
Beyond an exchange between two different theatremaking cultures, our workshop marked the starting point for each of the writers to begin a new play. To be developed over the course of two subsequent workshops in 2017 and a series of drafts, the ideas behind these plays were shaped, challenged and tested in discussion throughout this week. As one of the writers, Xiaolan, told us:
‘The Royal Court told me it is impossible to write a good drama unless I conquer myself. Then I created a story based on my most traumatised experience that I could not face. You don’t know how grateful I am. This workshop is different from any theatre workshops I ever attended in China. Royal Court are not teaching. They are enlightening.’
We christened the beginning of this journey with a visit into nearby Xinjin for a classic spicy Schezwan hotpot and an exhaustive session of karaoke. Our writers were in full and enthusiastic voice across an exhaustive range of Chinese classics, with a mumbled version of Abba’s Waterloo making a rather reluctant British contribution.
From our secluded base at the foot of a glorious Taoist temple, our final few days took us into the heart of Chengdu. The extraordinary hub of Schezwan and a city of over 15 million people with an extraordinary city centre full of some of the most breathtaking and modern developments in China. An environment that feels a world away from the simple rural surroundings of our week of workshop. Perhaps the non-theatrical highlight of our journey was a meeting with the pandas at the Chengdu Research base for Panda breeding. An extraordinary moment with these curious and majestic animals who act as a symbol for the province and the country as a whole.
Huge thanks should go to Nick Marchand and his arts team at the British Council, including Haining Zhu, Jiali Luo, our committed interpreters and Ophelia Huang from Shanghai Dramatic Arts for her dramaturgical expertise and brilliance. And as always, we are grateful to the Genesis Foundation for their support for all our international projects. This was a fantastic beginning to a long awaited project and the start of an extremely special relationship with sixteen energetic and inspiring artists.
Associate Director (International)