Chinese Playwrights: Diverse Backgrounds, Common Struggle

NEW YORK, March 11, 2013 — "Going to the theater is a romantic thing to do," said Professor Wei-jan Chi, a celebrated Taiwanese writer who teaches in the Department of Drama and Theatre at National Taiwan University. Addressing a question from the audience about the demographics of theatergoers in contemporary China, Chi was one of four Chinese playwrights in Asia Society's panel discussion centered on playwrights of the Chinese world.

Supported by Candace Chong, an award-winning playwright based out of Hong Kong, and Meng Jinghui, a leading Beijing-based "playwright and director whose avant-garde, experimental works have brought him widespread popularity," Chi concluded that the demographics of theatergoers in China are consistently young, unmarried adults and college students. When young, they are romantic and as they age, their romance fades and they stop going to the theater.

"America's most-produced living opera librettist," with seats on the boards of the Dramatists Guild, the American Theatre Wing, and the Lark Play Development Center, David Henry Hwang moderated the discussion with Chi, Chong, and Jinghui. Noting that Americans are "myopic" concerning foreign theater, Hwang asserted its importance, labeling it "inherently social" and thereby, a useful medium through which America can better acquaint itself with major world powers that are becoming "more central to the American mentality," like China. In this light, Hwang opened the conversation by asking how each member of the panel became a playwright, an unusual occupation and title in China, and their sources of influence and inspiration for reviving the "Chinese spoken drama tradition."

Jinghui began his career as a student, writing plays as an undergraduate and directing them as a graduate student. He didn't understand the appeal of Stanislavski’s writing style, which was popular when he was a student, and so he opposed it, finding inspiration in experimental avant-garde theater instead. According to Jinghui, this inspiration was rooted in previously inaccessible art and thought that poured into China in the 1980s. With the dynamic change brought on by the fusion of business and politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s, new opportunities emerged to adopt new points of view and people like Jingui were able to embrace cultural outlets like avant-garde theater.

Unlike Jinghui, Chi "never went for the avant-garde stuff” because he produces dialogue-heavy scripts and isn't interested in directing. Chi found his inspiration in the writings of playwrights like Gibson and Chekhov and in Hollywood movies. In fact, he loved movies so much he originally thought he would be a screenwriter. Chong, whose father was a director, realized she enjoyed writing in high school, when she wrote and directed her first play. Writing from a different tradition than her parents, however, Chong acknowledges her freedom to choose her focus and happily pointed to the distinct and true Hong Kong identity that has emerged with the production of original works like her own.

Hwang then asked the panel how they handle the pressures they experience as theater artists. Struggling with the way he perceives things, which he insisted won't change this late in his life, Chi sees the theater as simple and predictable entertainment that doesn’t challenge or change people. He expressed hope for using theater to create intellectual entertainment that spurs thought. According to Chong, commercial and censorship pressures are present in Hong Kong theater. For Jinghui, all pressure comes from himself, to find and settle on a path of expertise.

A major pressure all three playwrights face is that of balancing their artistic vision with commercial success. Hwang noted a "paradigm shift" in theater over the past 20 years, from an emphasis on artistic quality to more purely commercial considerations. Yet Chi, Chong, and Jinghui concluded the discussion affirming their dedication to their art form and the freedom they intend to exercise continuously in future productions.

Reported by Renny Grishpan

Video: Highlights from the program (4 min., 23 sec.)

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