Saturday, June 30, 2018

Beijing People's Art Theatre: Where cultural public diplomacy holds

By Hwang Jae-ho

Liu Zhichen, part of the show planning team in the Beijing People's Art Theatre, gave an interview about her work. Courtesy of Hwang Jae-ho
On March 5, we happened to discover that a grand book fair was going to be held in the Beijing People's Art Theatre to celebrate Prime Minister Zhou Enlai's 120th birthday. Since my research area is China's diplomacy, I had a personal interest in Zhou Enlai, the godfather of China's diplomacy. He was the reason I took the train all the way from Beijing to Tianjin, a while after China and Korea established diplomatic relations in the 1990s, to visit the "Memorial to Zhou Enlai and Deng Yingchao." 

The title of the introduced book in the recent book fair was "Zhou Enlai and Beijing People's Art Theatre." I didn't attend the book fair, but could remember the Beijing People's Art Theatre. Then, fortunately, I came to meet Liu Zhichen in Seoul, who is in charge of external affairs at the theatre. Here is an interview with her.

Hwang: I heard you are in the theatrical industry in Beijing. Would you please introduce yourself and the specifics you work on?

Liu: I'm Liu Zhichen from Beijing. After graduating from the Beijing International Studies University in 2010, I got a job at the Beijing People's Art Theatre. Here, my main position was in the show planning team, especially dealing with international exchange performances. For the last seven years, I have projected the showcases of the Beijing People's Art Theatre's international festivals, which are the very superior products in this capital theatre. For example, there were Russia's Moscow Art Theatre, St. Petersburg Alexander Theatre, Israel's Gesher Theatre and Belarus' Janka Kupala National Theatre who came to Beijing to perform. The tasks I deal with the most are connecting and arranging the meetings with the respective countries' consuls in China. During the talks, we build up the contracts by selecting the performance teams and organizing other extra works. In addition, I support the technical aids, discuss marketing tactics and host the visiting teams once they arrive.

Hwang: People consider the Beijing People's Art Theatre as the Seoul Art Center in a Chinese version.

Liu: As a national theatre company of China, Beijing People's Art Theatre owns its unique performing style. The theatre was established on June 12, 1952, and the famous dramatist Cao Yu was its first president. Ever since its establishment, the theatre has put on nearly 300 ancient and modern plays of different styles, which are from both home and abroad. From the 1950s to the 1960s, the theatre was famous for putting on works by Guo Moruo, Lao She and Cao Yu. The representative productions include "Tiger Tally," "The Teahouse," "Peking Man," "The Death of a Popular Beijing Opera Singer" and Western plays like "The Miser," "Aesop," "People with Gun," "Even a Wise Man Stumbles," etc. 

Since the 1980s, a group of excellent artists of the young generation has emerged. During this time plays including "Weddings and Funerals," "Uncle Doggie's Nirvana," "The Top Restaurant," "Birds Men," and others went on. 

The theatre also introduced Western plays including "Amadeus," "Death of a Salesman," "The Gin Game," and "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial," etc. Among these, many have been performed over 100 times, and were given awards like the national "Wen Hua Award", "Five-one Best Works Award," as well as the "Gold Chrysanthemum Award" and the "Literature and Art Works Award," given by the Beijing municipal government. 

The theatre company now has three theatres mainly for drama performances: the Capital Theatre, the Mini Theatre and the Experimental Theatre. The theatre's stage art center has a professional production base, which can make sets, costumes and props for the theatre itself and also for other performing troupes.

The Beijing People's Art Theatre. Courtesy of Liu Zhichen

Hwang: How is the international troupe exchange environment?

Liu: The "Beijing People's Art Theatre International Festival" is the brand program managed by the performance centre of the Beijing People's Art Theatre since 2011. Each year it invites both foreign and domestic theatre companies and groups to perform their classic plays, which not only offers an opportunity for Chinese theatre practitioners to learn from each other, but also shows the Chinese audience excellent plays from all over the world. With eight years of effort, this brand program has been highly recognized by both industry and the audiences and it has become a highlight of Chinese drama industry. The festival has already invited troupes from Russia, Israel, France, Britain, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Serbia and so on. Therefore, the theatre has established a cooperative relationship with artists and organizations all over the world and gained recognition. The Capital Theatre has already become the first choice for many world first-class theatres as their performing place in China.

Hwang: What are the Beijing theatre's criteria on collaboration with foreign plays?

Liu: Recently, we went to the "Edinburgh International Festival" in the U.K., the "Avignon Festival" in France, the "Radio Romania International's Festival," and another arts festival in Israel sequentially. During this tour, we extended out partnership to France, Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Slovenia. Our prior show selection principles were mostly oriented to 'the well-known play, theater and director', but the latest choices are more with the literary values. The worldwide popular plays such as "Tempest," "Don Juan" and "The Lady of the Camellias" were all performed in the Beijing People's Art Theatre. Not only these, but other literary works with ethnicities had favorable responses from public in our theatre. For instance, playwright Mickiewicz, who is famous as a Polish poet in the 19th century, wrote the epic "Dziady," which mirrored the folk ancestral rites customs of old Poland. The play written based on this epic is "Suitcase Packers," which Israel's Camel Theater performed at our place in March 2013. The stage settings and general management were following the old-fashioned Polish culture, which does not exactly fit into the public's taste these days. This play is quite difficult for modern society to understand that only a few audiences could bear till the end. Maybe a very dark stage where you can barely see the show was one reason people left. Nevertheless, we knew it was worthy enough to deserve a show in our theatre because this play has an unimaginable influence in Polish history.

Hwang: Can you give some evaluations on Korean theater?

Liu: The most impressive point of the Korean theatrical industry is the perfect market operation. From marketing and advertising, to selling tickets, the systems are just excellent. For instance, the promotion team kept handing out flyers not only on the streets but also inside the theaters. Talking about the advertisements, the theatre-related posters and other materials were everywhere, from the streets and subways to extra public places. The performance information is easily accessible on the internet and the ticketing process is very well described that the customers could purchase with no difficulties. Secondly, the standards of stage acting and the techniques are very sophisticated. The movements were delicate, the skills were talented, and I could see how various dance and techniques were applied for one performance. Then, that the play was taking a pretty large part of Korean public culture was impressive. As many Koreans were interested, so many people paid a fortune for plays even on the weekdays though the price was not so cheap. Also it had a very mature public culture. There's one example I remember. When I went to the musical "Gwanghwamun Sonata," the age spectrum of the audience was all the way from young to old. This actually means a lot, because it means it can bring sympathy from all different generations. In short, this proved the shows are deeply sitting inside Korean audiences' hearts.

Hwang: Any other comment you want to share??

Liu: Both Korean and Chinese play-related institutions must have learned and applied Western theories and knowledge; however, they clearly are distinguishable. In the future, I see the necessity of two countries' performance exchanges among staff or universities, so they can watch and explore each other's market operations, performing systems, or expression on the stage. So far, a considerable number of play-related students are registering for exchange programs, which is a smart idea. In this sense, I personally wish Korea and China can share the vision of this art industry by interchanging and developing what each has accumulated.

In conclusion, China as a socialist state, throughout the interview, I could see it was not only influenced by the Soviet Union's politics and economics but its culture as well. 

Since 1978, after reform and opening, Chinese society went through massive interactions with Western countries that changed Chinese culture in diverse aspects. Especially during Xi Jinping's era, the government fully supported plays so that the field expanded its international connections and could adopt developed countries' fine technologies. This can be interpreted as China's enthusiasm to make qualitative improvement beyond quantitative growth. 

From the Korean play market's perspective, expending [JB - sic] its international volume through China as well as contributing to Korean play development into the Chinese market might be an unexpected opportunity for Korea's cultural and public diplomacy [JB emphasis], along with economic outcomes.

Hwang Jae-ho is a director of the Global Security Cooperation Center, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul.

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