October 2017 saw the fifth year of China’s Wuzhen Theatre Festival and, as Festival co-founder Huang Lei noted, “if the festival were a child, he or she would now be in kindergarten.” A precocious child indeed!—each year of its life attracting increasingly stellar attention, not only throughout Asia but also globally, not only from the theatre proper but also from the worlds of multimedia, performance art, film, television, and the press, and even from cultural diplomacy circles, where the Festival does more than its share of knitting together the sometimes “ravell’d sleeve” of East-West friendship.
And so multi-talented is this 2017 Festival “child” that it’s hard to know where to cast one’s admiration first: at the half of the Festival program from the Chinese-speaking countries? At the other half, from abroad, or at the shows in the exciting Young Artists Competition? At the free public Dialogues discussions, or the newer Summit gatherings and Workshops? Outdoors, all day, the romantic flagstone walkways of the town hold a multitude of performances and music both old and new, and the ancient town itself is growing, with innovative buildings for both fine art and business. In every direction, there is something excellent, playful, or thoughtful that deserves our complete focus.
Bravo! In mid-January of 2018, co-founders Huang Lei and Stan Lai received an award for the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, the China Cultural Association's prestigious annual award to honor those contributing to the preservation of traditional Chinese culture.
Luminosity: this year’s theme. Photo by the author.
This year, what took pride of place at the center of my attention were the audiences. And what audiences! We often hear that Western audiences are made up of older people, and that Eastern ones are young—that is, that different sectors of these populations have the education and/or financial freedom to attend cultural events. And yes, this year’s Festival audiences overflowed with gorgeous young people! Smiling, dressed to the nines, whip smart, up for every kind of show and conversation about it, chatting animatedly in stylish cafes and bars, in restaurants ranging from traditional to hip. Everywhere a feeling of youthful fervent!
But even better, along with these young people there were others of every age—babies in creative carriers, small children with paper lanterns or kooky hair ornaments; older couples and the truly elderly, the latter negotiating the town’s hand railing-less steps and bridges with more aplomb than most. In the theatres, it was a strikingly inter-generational crowd filling the seats, enriching the theatre-going for all.
On this note: this year’s Artistic Director was the much-honored director, Tian Qinxin, the first woman to head the Festival. Tian’s theme was “Luminosity,” partly in the sense of “shedding light” or “giving clarity.” Tian wrote: “’Luminosity’ is both an engagement and a promise between the 5th Wuzhen Theatre Festival and its audiences.” Written before the Festival opened, later this remark seemed to me prophetic: this year, the Festival gave the audiences something special, and the audiences gave back to the Festival in kind.
With such lively festival attendees this year, a distinct fashion explosion made people-watching especially satisfying. You’ll find below tidbits of what I saw on both men and women, in the late afternoons and evenings, on the narrow promenade along the trendy, canal-side café row.
Fashion note. Hats of every description. British riding caps, berets, wide brims.
The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov
Director: Oskaras Korsunovas
OKT/Vilnius City Theatre. Lithuania
All the Lithuanian theatre I’ve seen has been admirable, and this director is known to contemporize the classics, so I knew to expect anything. The actors were superb and created a true ensemble. The production struck out into “originality” by working against the play: where the flowing quality of Chekhov’s dialogue is usually staged in circulating, overlapping ebbs and flurries, here the actors were blocked in straight lines and squares; where the usual “fourth wall” convention gives the audience a sense of looking in on people who don’t know they are being watched, here the actors were assertively frontal, even seated for some time looking directly at the audience members as if challenging them to become the performance. Whereas Nina is expected to give her abstract “new play” performance against the natural scenery of the lake, here Nina was backed
against a screen with wild shapes digitally projected. Then, too, Chekhov told Stanislavsky, the first to play the writer-seducer Trigorin, that Trigorin should wear “checked trousers,” suggesting that his character should be rather tacky, even seedy; in this production, Trigorin was attractive and well-dressed, so Nina’s infatuation with him was understandable instead of oblivious.
These alterations had the potential to let us see the play anew, except for one: Stanislavsky said his hard-won “key” to the play was that the central character is Nina, and yes, looking at the text with this in mind, it’s clear that her final meandering monologue becomes the climax of the play and all the surrounding pieces fall into place. This production made the play about Treplev, Nina’s ardent, suicidal boyfriend, so that Nina’s long, pathetic “I am the seagull” speech didn’t serve any dramatic purpose and, as a result, the end of the play dragged.
Intentional? Scholars and others note the similarity between the endings of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890) and Chekhov’s The Seagull (1895). In the former, we hear a gunshot, Hedda’s husband goes to investigate and returns. Tesman: “Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Fancy that!” Judge Brack: | [Half-fainting in the arm-chair.] “Good God!—people don't do such things.” In the latter, we hear a gunshot, the doctor goes to investigate, and returns: “Nothing at all… It is as I thought, a bottle of ether has exploded.” He takes Trigorin aside: “You must take Madame Arkadina [Treplev’s mother] away from here… Constantine [Treplev] has shot himself.” In the OKT production at Wuzhen, we heard the shot, the doctor returned with the curtain line to nobody: “The ether has exploded.”
A couple of days later, Festival co-founder Stan Lai moderated a Dialogues discussion on The Seagull. Lithuanian critic Rūta Noreikaite, representing this production, explained that “the ether” refers to the actor, the artist; when one becomes ether, “it’s no tragedy,” she said. She made the crucial point that Chekhov is so much produced in Eastern Europe that companies are virtually obligated to make changes to surprise their audiences. Lai, director of a very celebrated Seagull himself—updated to Shanghai in the 1930s—said Chekhov isn’t yet well known in China, so for now he feels responsible not to “bend” the text to that extent.
Ah. The Festival off to an interesting start!
Fashion note. Oversized tops over skin-tight pants.
Three Comedies by Ding Xilin
Director: Ban Zan
Beijing People’s Art Theatre. China
Ding Xilin was a unique figure in the 1920s, apparently creating Chinese comic drama by spontaneous generation. One Beijing critic wrote of him: “When Chinese modern drama was in its formative stage, Xilin wrote fully mature plays from his first creation, displaying a natural gift for comedic writing.” The one-act plays on this program had a distinctly Oscar Wilde feel to them, and even a bit of a twist on Ibsen’s “social” dramas. Drawing room sets, period costumes: these were novel pleasures for me in Chinese theatre.
Part of the fun was seeing the fantastic actors re-appear in the different plays as wildly different characters in the blink of an eye. There was something oddly loping in the rhythm of the first play’s first scene—to be expected where actors are in unfamiliar festival theatres—but overall the actors of this very famous theatre had a sense of style and comic timing that were impeccable.
But the greatest charm of the plays came from their O. Henry-like plots. In “A Wasp,” a mother (played by a man) encourages her son to marry a young woman she’s chosen for him, by suggesting the young woman’s about to marry someone else. Unbeknownst to his mother, her son has chosen the same woman—and unbeknownst to him, the same young woman has chosen him—but the two are blasé when the “match” comes for tea. Mother, son and match compete in best covering up their true interests. Left alone, with witty repartee the young people outdo each other with their claims of being unavailable and uninterested in marrying until, little by little, the truth emerges. The matchmaking mother walks in on them locked in embrace, and in perfect synch they both claim they’re only entwined to avoid a wasp…
In “After Drinking,” a young wife asks her husband to let her kiss a drunk man who’s passed out in their back room. As long as he says no, she is insistent, then more and more indignantly standing on her rights and so on. Until her husband agrees and everything switches around: the playwright reels us in as the wife gradually loses her nerve, the climax being that she asks her husband to… come with her to give her courage for the deed. They end up in togetherness and fond, marital contentment.
In “Blind in One Eye,” a wife writes an exaggerated letter to her husband’s friend, describing her husband’s catastrophic blinding accident. To her chagrin, the friend insists on coming a long distance to visit. Her husband, who’s already recovered from his very minor injury, surprises us by agreeing to pretend he’s been blinded, so as not to embarrass his wife. This leads to a clever scene with their visitor, in which the husband has to glean from his wife’s comments the specifics of the fake story she wrote in the letter, and there’s a lot of cute business with the head bandage that won’t stay on and even changes sides. I couldn’t stop thinking that Molière, in not having used this plot, missed a great opportunity.
Fashion note. Flat shoes with imaginative toe or heel shapes; unusual closures with straps, buttons—never buckles.
Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin
Idea, script and staging by Rimas Tuminas
The Vakhtangov Theatre. Russia
Russia’s beloved window onto the life of their 19th century nobility, written by the genius Pushkin, re-imagined by Moscow’s lauded Lithuanian director, Tuminas, in an award-winning production performed by the historic Vakhtangov Theatre: what’s not to love? Tuminas has selected chapters from Pushkin’s verse novel, focusing on the relationships: the too-late-requited love of the sweet Tatyana for the arrogant Onegin; Onegin’s lifelong remorse for having killed the romantic Lensky in a duel. A ballet studio and its dancers provide frame and chorus for this version, and bring lush music and elaborate dancing to the production. There are now two Onegins and two Lenskys, old and young, and another added character who speaks in the author’s voice.
However—in subtitle translation, at any rate—I missed the themes of Pushkin’s innovative verse novel (c. 1837): the evils of social conventions and the difference (chasm?) between fiction and reality. Without these deeper ideas coming through as ballast, neither the naive Tatyana nor the narcissistic Onegin seemed worthy of much attention. And even though I was always struck by the sheer size and visual extravagance of the show, not knowing the written text by heart, I often didn’t understand what was happening. But it was a treat to hear the glorious poetry aloud; and Tatyana’s dance solo, in which her emotions reached such a peak that she upended her bed and pulled it throughout her spacious bedroom as if it were a feather, was worth the trip to China.
Fashion note. Pom-poms: so charming! On earrings, on pockets, hanging from zipper pulls on purses, hanging from hems, around necklines, on ponchos, on and on.
The Injustice to Tou’O, by Kwan Hanqing (c. 1241–1320)
Artistic Producer: Meng Jinghui
Written and directed by: Ding Yiteng. China
In one sense, this was a production of a very old piece of theatre in the zaju “variety” style: a synthesis of music and singing, prose and poetry, pantomime and tumbling, with ground rules for narration, arias, music, and so on. This show embodied the core of the ancient form, not making a rigid reconstruction but illuminating it with judicious use of modern stagecraft and technology. Even further, it imbues what was essentially a plot-heavy courtroom drama with a modern, questioning turn of mind. As the program introduction reads: “Injustice to Tou'O is a combination of oriental opera techniques, occidental existentialism and contemporary theatre forms.”
Over the centuries, the original story elements have been rearranged to allow for different meanings. In this streamlined version, little Tou’O’s father left her with a neighbor, promising to return. She’s been longing for their reunion for thirteen years. Falsely accused of murder, in court she finds that her father is the judge and is sure he will save her, but no. In the original play, found guilty, Tou’O delivers three curses and is beheaded, visits her father as a ghost, and he punishes the wicked. In this version, a deus ex machina gives her the choice to reverse the curses and live.
In the dark, on a high, small screen, a man with a red suitcase delivers a tiny girl to another house and leaves. A bad feeling. A light comes up on Tou’O, now grown. She stands silently downstage, the light projecting her enormous shadow onto a ragged cloth behind her upstage: her shadow “looms large.” She begins to tell her story in a halting voice. She’s not so much a character as a force, the essence of stoicism, yearning, loneliness, and grief. The cloth parts at the center, revealing another playing area. A hand emerges from a long box, reaching. Another hand, an overly plump baby doll filled with sand, then people: one, two, three, spilling out. How did they all fit in there?—like circus clowns issuing from a teeny car. These are the people in Tou’O’s life, the ones she needs and barely endures. She is wary,
tentative, private. Now the box has a lid and is a table: we’re at home. Things go on there. Tou’O watches from upstage.
Without realizing it, we’ve been hearing a viola on the left, and a two-stringed erhu on the right. Add two voices, plus voice-over, all in different auditory spheres. What is the texture of sadness, fear, disconnection? We hear chains rattling and Tou’O, holding a white flower, is hoisted above the household scene, as if she’s being hung.
Suspended in the air, she is ghostlike; she bears inexplicable guilt for everything you’ve ever done or wanted. Her arms are outstretched in martyrdom. When someone below hates her, she makes a gift of her flower. She’s also “above it all”; kept aloft by a deep faith, she makes her long sleeves dance.
The life of the people, such as it is, goes on inside and outside the house. There’s violence, the viola player is masked and his bow becomes a sword, someone is cowering on top of a large drum.
Tou’O steps even higher, “rises above,” onto a tiny swing. She is up there reading the newspaper, and playing telescope with it, while a crime is being committed below her. She observes dispassionately. The wrong person is poisoned and the poisoner, frightened, shifts the blame to Tou’O. The table becomes a coffin. Dreams, memories, hallucinations.
By now I’m on to this show. It has co-opted my senses by stealth, incrementally. Everything is happening in layers, shrinking and expanding, creating a lush, inescapable collage of sound and image: the primary stage action, the projections, voice over, disembodied voices from offstage and on, instruments, lighting, all on changeable, contrasting, clashing pitches and rhythms. Murmuring and piercing male ululating in counterpoint with atonal melody. The coffin becomes Tou’O’s prison cell and here comes the Judge, with the red suitcase.
Tou’O is now hope personified when she recognizes her father. He’s interviewed onscreen about having left his daughter: he’s a cad. Their long-awaited reunion? Cornered, while her heart breaks, he sentences her to death. Fatherly love? Justice? She puts her arms behind her in a gesture of submission.
Then something snaps in her: with nothing left to lose, she’s not going to go quietly. She begins to rain her curses. The drums, all the instruments onstage and off are working, building, feverish, and Tou’O is doing a mad dance, sleeves and skirt swirling, blue confetti is whirling down from above, her arms are outstretched, it’s like a revival meeting, the audience is clapping and crying. As if she’s spoken out against all our own injustices. Hooray for condemned Tou’O’s curses!
Abruptly, a god drives on in a green dragon and gets out. In sunglasses, he’s ridiculous and somewhat unsavory. (In an earlier Beijing version, he was wearing crepe paper angel wings.) If she’ll retract the curses, he’ll let her live. Mephistopheles-like, he shows her: Life is a festival! An amusement park! He’s giving her candy, she’s watching this new world with curiosity. She’s getting the hang of this not-being-crucified thing—gesticulating, shrugging, joking, the audience is laughing. Now she’s running through the audience, tossing endless handfuls of candies in shiny wrappers—the candy of eternal childhood and blinders. Life is a cabaret!
Tou’O says no to the god’s offer. Addressing the audience, she thinks aloud: prayers, curses, mindless pleasures—none of these is a response to our powerlessness. In our insignificant lives, lived in a cruel world in a vast universe, all we can possess are self-awareness and our own loneliness.
The final moments: the dragon in pieces, trussed up; Tou’O pulling the long box by a rope slowly up an incline, as if returning to her labors, as we all must; an epilogue, a sobbing viola, the empty dragon spinning in the fading light.
The writer-director of the piece, who also played Tou’O, is Ding Yiteng. Still in his 20s, and a member of the illustrious Meng Theatre Studio, Ding has been called “the shining artist of his generation.” This is the third show I’ve seen him in, and comments about his directorial gifts or onstage charisma are somehow approximate. Let me just say that during his “total theatre,” I was so awash in its subliminal sensory traps that the only thing to do was submit. I left the theatre absolved, my pockets full of candy, with a way forward gleaned from the dream stuff theatre is made on.
Fashion note. Petticoats! Lace and tulle.
Our Class by Tadeusz Słobodzianek
Director: Yana Ross
Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. Lithuania
A searing portrait of the 1930s rise and subsequent flourishing of the Nazis. The play was written about Poland, and the Latvian-born director says her production is about Lithuania, but surely the story is a cautionary tale for today’s world. A close group of students becomes segregated into Poles and Jews when politics intrude on their cheerful classroom. The group splinters in response to the fear and violence in the air, and with the Soviet and Nazi takeovers, some students emerge as collaborators, perpetrators, and snitches; others hide, or hide a friend, or escape the country, or fall into various unimaginable ways of saving themselves.
We started out in the classroom on the right, but scenes of violence took over the other side of the stage, and the rows of schoolroom chairs filled up with older actors acting as witnesses, clown figures, and brass band. In scenes of beatings, killings and rapes, dummies were used, but still… In the second half, the war was officially over but continued in the lives of the survivors, as it does to our day: some sought some form of revenge, and some found refuge in television’s Nature Channel, where the beauty and civilized conduct of the animal world served as a balm for the irretrievably traumatized.
Fashion note. Patent leather everything.
Fantômas: Revenge of the Image
Director: Travis Preston; Co-Creator: Tom Gunning
CalArts Center for New Performance. U.S.
This show was a hybrid of film, theatre, cartoon, performance art, digital environment, and more. Our 50-person audience was greeted with a spooky-sounding injunction: we were about to enter a collective nightmare. We were guided into a smallish black box, with an opening roughly the size of a movie screen cut out on one side. The cavernous space beyond the opening, and the actors, were covered with detailed, ever-changing digital projections. The actors struck scary tableaus, which became minimal, mini-scenarios. Together, the images seemed to constitute a meditation on fear. Each time unseen figures turned the box a few degrees on its wheels, we encountered new images as if in long- or medium-shot; an actor right at the opening gave the impression of being in an extreme close-up. I had read that the titular “Fantômas” was a fictional French criminal, beloved of
the pre-WWI public for his ingenious schemes. There was cryptic voiceover, beginning with: “I am the mother, I am the whore. I am shameless, I am ashamed.”
At their illuminating Dialogues discussion later on, the co-creators spoke fondly of their student actors on the project, and explained many of their references: the Minotaur, Bedouins, early film history, the century-old debate over the primacy of language or image. To those seeking linear narrative, they said their goal was not to create meaning, but “a network of associations,” like a dream. Or nightmare?
Fashion note. Fake fur on shoes, purses, sleeves, necklines.
Riding on a Cloud
Written and directed by Rabih Mroué. Lebanon
A man in everyday clothing sat at a simple table with a tall stack of DVDs. As he carefully placed each DVD into his player in turn, seemingly random short video clips appeared on a screen behind him, then disappeared. His actions took on a rhythm. He taped himself reading bits of poetry, then played them back, then layered the tape under the video’s voiceover. He stood and peeled a banana with one hand. The screen images began to tell his story: extreme injury during the Lebanese civil war. He is paralyzed on one side, with speech affected. This context changed the way we were watching. We saw fragmented footage from his shooting—or was it his? Or countless others’? And from his hospital bed. “To be and not to be,” he read. Finally, the screen told the story of how he and the director, his brother, had decided to create this performance. Personal memoir, political
history, story-making. How do we make meaning where there is none to be had? Can technology replace memory? This piece demanded a lot of patience early on, but finally packed a wallop.
Fashion note. Lots of details, such as tiny ruffles on
Awards ceremony for the 2017 Young Theatre Artists Competition.
L to R: Festival founders Meng Jinghui and Huang Lei (also onstage,
not visible: Stan Lai); 2017’s Artistic Director Tian Qinxin; members
of the winning production. Photo by the author.
For many, The Young Theatre Artists Competition is the highlight of the Festival. Chinese-language playwrights under 35 compete against hundreds of applicants for the chance to show their work. Each 30-minute one-act play is mounted by a “creative team” made up of playwright, director, actors, designers and perhaps others (producer, stage manager, musicians, and so on). An eminent Jury gives several generous money prizes, but it’s the substantial jumpstart for a career that is most coveted.
Each year, Competition watchers look forward to hearing what three objects will be required to appear in each play; this year they were moon, umbrella, and knife. There were 18 shows. I saw three of the six finalists, with little introduction and no translation.
It’s not enough to say the feeling in the audience—happily squished together on any-sized patch of space in the room—is electric.
Playwright and Director: Zhang Yan
In a series of simple scenes, on a set with only a few objects on it suggesting a room in a home, two young women traded roles to play different pairs of mother and daughter. Each scene addressed a teenage girl’s hard-to-discuss questions about women’s sexuality: childbirth, masturbation, menstruation, and more. The introduction read in part: “The moon influences the tides and also changes the human body… However, there are some words difficult to speak, and some curiosities hard to express.” Creatively and with compassion, this delicate show spoke those words and expressed those curiosities.
Playwright, Director and Producer: Yang Zhefen
An excruciating look at bullying, by four young actresses who went where few performers go on an intimate theatre stage. They changed roles throughout, so in a given scene, as in life, the bullies and the bullied might be any of them.
Students sat on the bench where they waited for the bus after school. Early on, when the “bad kids” came, it was just to rough up the goody-goodies—mess up their hair, push them around, insult them. But every time the thugs came, they got nastier, egging each other on and enjoying the cowering reaction from the girls. Soon they were emptying their victims’ backpacks, and threatening them with worse. When “worse” came, it included beating them with rabid severity, making them hurt each other, and burning them with cigarettes.
We wished it would stop there. There was not one place or person they could go to for help: teacher, hospital, police. We briefly saw the teens at home, where violence replaced competent parenting: trying to hide their injuries at home, the bullied ones came in for other beatings; the bullying ones were slapped around. Eventually, the victims, isolated and flunking school, wounded and wordless, couldn’t even look at each other.
It didn’t stop. The diabolical culmination was a fully realistic, up-close enactment of a penetration—a rape—with an umbrella. There was our realization of what was about to happen. Then they were stripping her clothes off, pushing her down; she was struggling, screaming. And in a moment hard to forget, her friend, seeing she would be next if it weren’t forestalled, reached over and helped them push her friend’s knees apart.
With everyone gone, the young woman, kneeling in her underwear, addressed each section of the shaken audience in turn, crying out: Why didn’t you help me?
To Kill a Rabbit
Playwrights: Bai Huiyuan, Tuo Lu, Shan Dandan
The introduction for this show had in it one of my favorite teasers ever: “How will the pink Rabbit girl celebrate her dark birthday? At whom will the fruit knife be pointed?”
This play examined the culture of mistresses, wherein it’s accepted for married men to support lovers on the side, abandoning them at will.
The scene opened on a young woman sitting on the floor in a sassy, sleeveless black bodysuit (think Playboy Bunny), bored and sensual, rolling an apple along her body until it dropped and rolled away.
Her paramour arrived, as he had for several years. He announced he was leaving her; his wife was pregnant and he wanted to be a good husband and father now.
The body of the play movingly traced the emotional back-and-forths of his leaving and returning, their parting and reuniting. Slowly, the set-up began to rise above the soap-opera level: we hadn’t expected there to be such deep love between them. We began to see that, at the same time he really did need to leave her, he really did love her; and she both loved him and really had no future with him. In fact, there was no good conclusion to their situation. He tearfully fell into her arms near the end before bolting. And more of her apples rolled away…
This piece was beautifully acted and directed. These actors were a little older or more experienced; their performances were skillful and nuanced. Especially memorable moment: they transferred their frustration to a long, narrow piece of cloth, shaking it in waves between them, integrating this actorly, abstract movement into the realistic style of the piece. Very impressive.
And now aren’t you curious which show won Best New Play?
It was Fade Away, the one about bullying. Although the third one was perhaps the most accomplished of the three I saw, and depended on the slightest internal shifts in the characters as they negotiated complex adult terrain, I wonder if anyone who saw Fade Away will ever forget it.
Fashion note: Float-y, sheer dusters over under-layer in a solid color.
Director: Tian Qinxin.
National Theatre of China and Shanghai Theatre Academy. China
This was an ingenious telling of the life of Tian Han as embedded in the history of Chinese drama and of China itself. How to capture the sprawling biography of someone known severally as China’s founding modern playwright, poet, screenwriter, translator, librettist and essayist, who died in 1968 in prison for his revolutionary activism? The illustrious Tian Qinxin’s production features a two-story structure, each level divided into compartments. These were configured so that we might be looking directly at an actor, or seeing the actor through a scrim; the scrim might have an image on it, or we might be seeing in real time through the lens of one of the numerous cameramen in continuous swarm. The action might spill out of the structure onto the stage, but still the cameras were recording, editing, interpreting. Sadly, Tian Han was less than a good
partner to the women in his life, and television star Jin Shijia, graduate of Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), didn’t bring to the role a mitigating charm. But it’s unusual to see a production with its multimedia aspect so organic to its theme: technology gave us the perfect metaphor for trying to “capture” or “record” this complex life with fragments, moments, anecdotes, fictionalized scenes, actual scenes from his plays (thus, plays-within-play); layers, simultaneity, evidence, and invention. The story of a man’s life: as illusory as history itself.
Fashion note. Shiny, sparkly fabrics.
Portraits in Motion
Created, directed and performed by Volker Gerling. Germany
Gerling has walked about 2200 miles since 2003, photographing people. He asks if he can take their photo and, while they are expecting him to take one, he takes three photos per second for 12 seconds, capturing their reactions as they realize he’s not stopping. Some are shocked, some laughing. One wonders whether he should ask permission. He turns the photo series he likes into flip books, so the still frames seem to be moving. Now, standing at a plain podium, he flips through the books as the images are projected on a screen for the audience. He tells stories about some of the people in the photos, but not all. A few of the stories are charming or revealing, but not all. His piece needs more shape or punch. But it seems to be his point to offer a non-theatrical, understated presentation about his walks and his “priority”: contact with people. Having over-staged a
photo session in his early years, he now works to capture spontaneous or real emotion.
Another day, at their Dialogues discussion, it was interesting to compare Gerling and two brilliant Chinese photographers. Xiao Quan, China’s preeminent portrait photographer, is after the single frame that captures a specific or decisive moment “and the rest of the time we’re waiting for those moments.” Gerling’s interest was in the moments between a quick succession of photos. Li Yan, incomparable recorder of China’s theatre since the 1980s, has to select one moment to communicate many. Documenting live action in performance, “You can’t go back and do it again later.”
Three photographers; three perspectives.
Fashion note. Knits made on enormous needles: hats, shawls, sweaters.
Devised and performed by Gob Squad. UK/Germany
My last show and the best possible conclusion for my time at this year’s Festival.
The hosts greet us from downstage microphones, half-dressed figures in preposterous gold lamé mini-shorts, awkward hair, odd sunglasses, and too many love beads. Not like anybody we know.
They describe their project in a friendly manner, without hurry: they want to re-enact onscreen an actual video they found online that’s only been viewed a few times. It’s of a mundane family gathering in an unexciting living room in “California.” Our hosts propose to have people from the audience play most of the parts. Our hosts are so likeable that we never stop to wonder why they want to do this.
Seven people who’ve caught silly objects thrown into the audience are selected (game show! plastic fish!), and when they reach the stage, they’re each given a headset with instructions for everything they will do. They can see on the screen exactly where they’re supposed to be, and in what posture: this one is eating cake, that one is playing with the remote, others are dancing, reading, or drinking, and so on.
So, that’s the set-up. Gradually, as they all work together to re-construct the family scene, we begin to learn about the real family members simply by watching them so closely—that is, by giving them our attention—and to feel familiar with the people pretending to be them, and with the cast members in their alien attire, who also join the onscreen scene. Everyone participating seems to be developing “family feeling” for the others; they all become something of a family by behaving like one, and we in the audience begin to be fond of the real family, just as if we were relatives absent and watching the family video.
On a parallel plane, our hosts give each other media-style Q&A sessions that start out offering choices between innocuous things—bread or cupcakes, this or that pop star—and slowly cross boundaries, becoming intrusive, sinister, political, obscene.
The pretend-family participants are instructed to move out of the screen, as if leaving the room, until only one of our original hosts is left on a couch, with a “mother” and “father” on either side of him. Their headphones instruct them to kiss the “son” on the cheek at the same moment and to hold it: photo op! We understand that this actor’s character has never been kissed by parents before. Alone with his “father,” he asks if he can call him “Dad.” Of course,” the father is directed to say. Pretend-father and son sit together, family-like. This actor’s character has never had a dad before.
The participants who had left are now relaxing around a large table off to the side, without their headphones, eating and drinking champagne as if they’ve always known each other. Our hosts have taken off their wigs and glasses, and without them, they look just like people we know.
Now we’ve seen the real life onscreen, and the actors behind the screen, and the actor-characters the actors are playing, and the people the actors really are, and the real people who pretended to be real.
But the miracle of this show is that it doesn’t stop at asking the how-is-technology-changing-our-world questions—about lives filled with video screens, recording devices, celebrity culture, social media, reality shows, and surveillance. Instead, the show goes much farther, turning technology on its head and creating loving human contact from it, and in spite of it.
Congratulations are due this audience, and particularly the seven who became the family: full of good will, game for anything, on point with the style of the piece. The Dad was especially marvelous—humorous and poignant; I hope he’s actually an actor so we see him again.
If you search <gob squad western society> on YouTube, you can see the same re-enactments done with audiences in countless cities, further connecting the worldwide participants and audiences through their shared experience. And there are our hosts: outlandish, inspired, tender; turning strangers into families wherever they go.
Fashion note. Heavy leather bags are in; nylon
backpacks are out.
Elaborate breakfast room ceiling
reflected in my morning coffee.
Photo by the author.
Video Clips Available on YouTube: International Shows Only (Alphabetical)
FANTÔMAS: REVENGE OF THE IMAGE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bK8vCNE4Ug8 (3:25, in Polish)
PORTRAITS IN MOTION
Article plus video
RIDING ON A CLOUD
Cover photo: Wuzhen’s audiences are lively day and night.
Photo by the author.
All production photos are from the Festival website.
Please also see the full Festival program there:
See my previous Scene4 writings on the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, in the archives: https://www.scene4.com/archivesqv6/