Liang Dandan

Beijing’s experimental theater,
the challenge undertaken by Penghao Theatre

August 26, 2013
Liang Dandan

Liang Dandan

Born in 1983. Liang is co-founder and Creative Director of Penghao Theatre. After graduating from the Advertising Science Department of the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing and working for an advertising agency, She joined with Wang Xiang to co-found the Penghao Theatre in 2008. While managing the theatre, Liang is also in charge of producing works for the stage, theatre-related forums and theatre festival planning and production. Among her representative productions are I Am a Seagull and Soul Kitchen and festivals and forums she has organized include the Nanluoguxiang Performing Arts Festival, The 1st Beijing International Solo Theatre Festival, and the China-Japan Contemporary Dance Forum.

Under China’s Communist Party regime the arts and culture have also been under government jurisdiction and the arts scene was long dominated by government-run arts companies. However, since the 1990s, Things have changed greatly under the government’s “reform and opening up policy.” Especially from around the year 2000 when preparations began for the Beijing Olympics, and the adoption of the accompanying slogan of “International City of Culture,” the number of foreign arts performances in Beijing increased and theatre activities by independent artists using private-sector companies became popular. The number of small theatres open to the public audience, such as the Nine Theatre and Star Theatre, have grown and become the venues for many theatre performances by student groups and entertainment type stages. Among these, the Penghao Theatre opened in 2008 is known as a theatre specializing in experimental theatre works. It is located in a district of Beijing known as Nanluoguxiang that has become a popular hot spot in recent years for its cafes and shops catering to the younger generation. You will find Penghao Theatre on a back street in this district in a former private residence converted to function as a small theatre. It is one of the very rare cases of a private-sector theatre in China and it is run by the owner, Wang Xiang and Liang Dandan as a “cradle for experimental plays.” In this interview we spoke with the theatre’s Creative Director and Producer, Liang Dandan.
Interviewer: Asami Tada

Renovation of a private residence

The Penghao Theatre is virtually the only privately run theatre in Beijing. Will you tell us what got you interested in running a theatre?
 The reason is simple. It is because we are both interested in theatre and we love theatre. There are a growing number of theatres in Beijing, but all of them either specialize in conservative works or entertainment-oriented works, so there is almost no place where true creators can have their works performed. This is a serious problem for the Beijing performing arts world. So, we wanted to make a theatre and do something to help alleviate the problem of the lack of creative spaces available.

Wang Xiang said in the past that he created a theatre to fight the fear and feeling of emptiness in his heart. In other words, by making a place and space like Penghao Theatre he was able to exchange words and ideas with many people and feel that presence. I believe he can be satisfied if the theatre is a place for meeting and talking and exchanging information. That is the difference between what he wants in a theatre and what I want; he places importance on the three elements of the theatre, the works of theatre performed there and the society. In short, I believe that his interest is in how to have an effect on the different people in society through theatre, how to influence them and how to give them an experience of being cleansed to the heart by seeing theatre.
I hear that Wang Xiang is active in his profession as a dentist at the same time he is running the theatre.
 Yes. He runs three dental clinics. He was the first one in continental China to specialize in dental implants as a graduate student in dentistry. Since he studied Japanese in the university’s foreign language course, he also has a deep interest and association with Japan.
Would you please tell us about Penghao Theatre? We now that it is in a renovated private home, it has a small theatre space that seats about 80 people comfortably and up to 100 at most, and that it also has a café and a roof space.
 We consider all of this as one space. It was once a private residence. In other words, it was a home where people lived. So, unlike other theatres it has a feeling as if it is everyone’s “home.” A home is a place that has tables and chairs, and food and beverages, and it is a place where people can live normally. What makes this place different from an ordinary home is that it contains a performance space, but that fact doesn’t change its fundamental nature as a place for living. As long as people preserve this important premise, it is OK for them to use it for creative activities, for work or for conversation, for relaxing or in any other style they wish. This is the big prerequisite we set for participants who use it for theatre activities. It also provides us with a hint for what kind of relationship we should have when we work with at public spaces with co-production partners and others.
Would you please tell us about your theatre’s budget?
 The theatre’s operating budget is different every year, but it is in the range of two million RMB a year (approx. $200,000). The production cost for a performance of the size that are performed here at our theatre probably ranges from about 40,000 to 80,000 RMB. They can be produced for less, but this is the range of cost for a slightly extravagant production. It is mostly small independent theatre companies that perform here, and we have about 50 plays performed here in a year, with the number of performances totaling about 240 stages.

However, we depend on the personal funds of Wang Xiang for about one-third of our operating budget. China doesn’t have much in the way of legal incentives for supporting the development oft the arts and culture, and since there is no common concept that theatres can only exist if many people in the society do something to maintain them, we have to do everything by ourselves. But, Wang Xiang is already 60 years old and he has some problems with his health. In order to solve the theatre’s financial problems, he has already sold one of his houses and has taken out a mortgage on another. He is prepared to continue using his personal funds until they are exhausted, but that can’t be considered a very healthy state of management. However, it is impossible to present commercially viable productions at a small theatre of our size. Since what we are doing here is really only sustainable with public-sector support, there are always worries about our present state of affairs.

This year is the fourth year since our theatre opened, and I have begun to think that from now on we will have to depend on the power of the younger generation to sustain the theatre.

A place for international exchange

Since 2010, Penghao Theatre has been organizing a theatre festival named the Nanluoguxiang Performing Arts Festival. It uses eight theatres in the Nanluoguxiang area as venues, and again this year it was held from early May to the end of July. As part of the festival program you had from Japan the contemporary dance artist Un Yamada, the instrumental band Sangatsu and you had a workshop by the director Makoto Sato.
 We started this festival with the aims of getting as many people as possible to come to theatres and experience encounters with the arts, and to encourage the spread of highly creative activities widely throughout Beijing. We use the festival to encourage multifaceted exchange among theatre people from throughout China and abroad by inviting works from around China as well as from overseas.

This year’s program had 39 works of experimental theatre, dance, traditional theatre, music and poetry reading. Sixty or seventy percent of the program is theatre and we also a diverse schedule of workshops, lectures, conferences, forums and film showings, etc. In the festival, we have systems where some theatre companies pay to rent the theatres for their performances and others share the profits of their ticket sales, but as a rule, Penghao Theatre provides support for the artists without compensation. Because there are still some problems in the organizational aspect, we will need to search by trial and error to find ways to manage the festival as a more independent entity.
How were the performances by Ms Yamada and Sangatsu received?
 Ms. Yamada was in a great amount of physical pain at the time of her performance and we were impressed by her strength of will. With regard to Sangatsu, we hear that they have been practicing together on Sundays for nearly 15 years, so I were impressed by the strength of their bonds as a group. With both I found that the world they present through their performances are very open and not limited to their identity as Japanese artists. I find that Japanese artists like these have a clear vision of the world of their art and of their lives, and they have the ability to decide for themselves how they want to live and pursue their creative activities. This is an area that I think many Chinese artists need to think about more.

Also, although China appears to be growing into an economic giant, for some reason the people living here don’t appear to be any happier in their lives. In the commercial society, people all feel alienated. This may be an area where the arts and theatre can play a positive role. I believe this is another thing that Chinese artists need to think about.
Do you have Japanese artists performing in venues other than your festival?
 Kan Katsura has also done workshops here. Although it is not something we have done deliberately, we find that since our theatre opened, the number of opportunities for Japanese artists to come here has increased naturally. As a whole, I find them to be artists that you naturally come to respect. That is one of the basic reasons why we invite them here from Japan. What that means is that I want have their personal actions and their attitude toward their art make an impression on Chinese creators and out audiences. Although there will inevitably be differences in degree, I want everyone in the audience that sees their performances to learn something from them.

One other reason that I invite Japanese artists here is that I want people in China to understand that, no matter where you live, being active as an artist is never easy. Japanese artists also have a tremendous pressure to make a living, and most of them are pursuing their artistic activities while working at another job to make a living, but they still manage to produce awesome works of art. Also, by having them come here and interact with our staff, I want our staff to have more contact with the stability of Japanese society and the education and knowledge they have as artists. And in the end, I think it will be wonderful if the exchanges that occur between Japanese and Chinese leads to mutual stimulation. In my work I also have exchanges with Western artists, but I feel that in the end we have more in common with the Japanese in our spiritual and intellectual bearing, and this leads to stronger interest.
You are clearly positive and serious about introducing Japanese performing arts in Beijing, but are there any other people who are taking such action?
 It may be simply that I don’t know about them, but I believe there are not many Japan-related performing arts performance events going on here. In fact, Un Yamada’s performance for us this year was the first one to receive government approval since the recent worsening of China-Japan political relations. There was the feeling that the ban [on Japanese-related events] had been lifted, so people involved here in Beijing were excited.

I believe that the arts and politics should be kept separate, and I think artists and theatres should keep an appropriate distance with regard to political issues. Severing relations completely with the political establishment and issues is impossible but I believe that the arts should be on a higher level than the constantly changing political tides. There should not be gaps or divides in the arts deriving from national differences. If such divides do occur at times, in the end things must return to normal, so it is really a waste of time to become involved in such things. In my work, I want to use my involvement with artists to communicate things to the populace in general.
Besides your festival, are there any other international programs you have that involve exchanges such as co-productions with foreign artists?
 We have one with the Swedish director Mathias Lafolie. He is a visiting professor at the Central Academy of Drama (Note: a theatre arts university dedicated to the education of people in all areas of theatre) and during the period that he stays in Beijing each year we do a collaborative production with him. Recently, he directed Chinese actors in a performance of Johan August Strindberg’s play The Pelican . The staff was composed of Swedish and Chinese members. We have never done a co-production work with Japanese artists, but I would very much like to try one if the financial aspect can be worked out.
In China in general, I believe there are few opportunities to see foreign performing arts. For that reason, I feel that the programs you are undertaking at Penghao Theatre that are open to foreign arts are very important.
 Theatre must be open to the outside world. History has shown that when you close yourself off to the world outside your borders, you become conservative and invite all forms of rigidity and inflexibility. Within such a closed world, your realm of activities becomes smaller, you become confined to the old frameworks and resistant to things that are new.

In China there is still a sense that out world extends only from Taiwan in the east to Tibet in the west and thus the Chinese people’s awareness of the world is very limited. In other words, we have not engaged in systematic judgment of the values of Western culture, and I believe that is one of the weaknesses of Chinese contemporary artists. Even though we now have air travel and it is easy to have contact with the West, we have not reached the stage were we can truly understand Western culture. However, the West and other parts of the world are also not making the effort to come here [to China] and provide stimuli that make us want to understand them either. So, we are in a state now where everyone is feeling insecure and restless. For this very reason, I believe it is necessary to open theatre to the outside world.
What is your view of today’s Chinese performing artists?
 The big majority of them are conservative and there are few artists whose work is inspiring or exciting to see, but I think one interesting artist is the dancer and choreographer Hou Ying, who was a director/instructor for the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Unfortunately, theatre in China has lost its inherent strength and spirit as an art. What most people are doing is no more than entertainment. They have little of the questioning mind artists should have and they are not doing what they should. There are plenty of other forms of entertainment already out there. If things go on this way, the theatres will die and it will lead to the death of theatre itself.

Private sector initiatives giving birth to new values

One of the pioneers of privately run independent theatres was the Beijing North Theatre active from 2002 to 2005. Its producer was Yuan Hong of the democracy generation, who was in his early 30s at the time.
 North Theatre went out of business. After that it became the property of the Central Academy of Drama and presently it is not open to the public. The manager, Yuan Hong, was a pioneer of collaborative projects/productions between China and Japan, between continental China and Taiwan and Hong Kong, and between the countries and regions of Asia. Now legendary productions like Sho Ryuzanji’s Ningyo no Ie ( The Doll House ), Taiwan director Stan Lai’s Secret Love in the Peach Blossom Land and Lin Zhaohua’s The Cherry Orchard were all performed there. The quality of the productions performed there were outstanding.

However, the social environment at the time was not as pluralistic as it is now and there were even fewer people who knew about experimental theatre than there are now. What’s more, there was the problem of large numbers of free tickets being given out. The people who went to see that kind of experimental theatre were all in the theatre world to begin with and they were not in the habit of buying tickets. These factors also influenced the theatre’s management negatively.
There are a number of new theatres appearing in Beijing like the Nine Theatre culture center (a community center with nine small theatres) in the Chaoyang District, with its concentration of foreign businesses and embassies, and the Star Theatre (a complex with five small theatres, a small museum and a library, etc., on grounds of 5,000 sq. m.).
 Nine Theatre has been engaged in excellent activities such as organizing the Young Director’s Theatre Forum, Asian Theatre Festival and the Feifei Theatre Festival since 2004. Near Penghao Theatre, the Beijing Contemporary Dance Company (founded under the direction of the City of Beijing and privatized in 2004) was operating actively in a renovated old factory named the Fangjia Hutong Theatre, but the building was eventually torn down.
What kind of official application is necessary to get approval to hold a performance in China? Is there a difference in the process between private and public theatres? And is it possible to establish a private-sector theatre company?
 First of all, it is possible to establish a theatre company if it is only for the purpose of giving free performances. But, if you want to sell tickets for performances, you have to undergo the necessary system of checks (inspections). This is true for both private- and public-sector companies. In the case of Beijing, there are three ranks of inspector departments. First, there are checks performed by the cultural committees of the districts, then by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture, and finally by the Ministry of Culture (the equivalent of Japan’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs). For a performance within China, the approval of the district culture committee is sufficient, but for an international performance, all three ranks must be cleared, which requires a lot of official paperwork. The process is complex and not very efficient.
Is there a possibility that a theatre like yours could be ordered to close down by the authorities?
 I don’t think that could happen. The reason is that the Dongcheng District where Penghao Theatre is located was for a long time a historical center of the theatre culture in China. The Imperial City, in other words today’s Beijing was one of the birthplaces of the Qu plays of China’s classical Zaju theatre form that arose in the Yuan Dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty, there was also the great playwright Tang Xianzu.
I have heard that Nanluoguxiang was one of the main streets of the Yuan Dynasty capital city.
 Unfortunately, however, there is no figure that in Chinese traditional theatre that has gone beyond the achievements of Shakespeare, I believe. I feel this can be accredited to the fact that Western theatre has long been based on a worldview that is open to the universe, whereas in China, traditional theatre has long been, and still is, based on a worldview defined as “the dome-like heaven embracing the vast earth” (a flat, square expanse of earth covered by a hemispherical dome of the heavens), which is the “hemispherical dome cosmology” worldview held in China since ancient times.

In China there is no universal recognition of the importance of individual people or entities&8212;in other words, the “individual.” The individual is associated with selfishness, and there is a misunderstanding that individuality is equated with selfishness or egoism. That misunderstanding is the cause of a number of problems in Chinese society today. In fact, however, these [Chinese] beliefs about individuality are completely wrong. The truth is that individuality means exerting the full limits of the power of the individual, or in other words, realizing the potential of the self to the fullest. So, there are many things that we must re-learn. By re-educating ourselves we will finally be able to stand with confidence and pride on even footing with our Western counterparts. I believe this is a path that can bring new hope and aspirations.
In the performing arts, are efforts being made to nurture these new values?
 I am very much inspired by the tings that come out in workshops lectures and experimental type performances. At Penghao Theatre, I want to make sure that we continue to devote efforts in these three areas. I hope that we will be able to maintain a balance of these three areas as we increase the diversity of styles and contents in line with the directions we are pursuing at our theatre. If we can do that, I believe that artists and literati with experience and knowledge will come here to share things that they feel are important for the human spirit. By countering the material with the spiritual/intellectual, people can maintain a good balance in their lives. When people are able to maintain a positive balance in their homes and in their work, society will also be in balance. And that will help bring back the common humanity and concern for others that used to exist between people.
Do you see others around you trying to do the same thing?
 There are many. However, they need to become organized and be given encouragement. They need to be told, “You can do it here,” or, “This is how you can do it.” Because, even if they have an idea and have the talent to create, the mountains of difficulties that lie in their path often causes many of them to lose the courage to make the challenge and give up hope of realizing their ideas.
I hear people say that many famous directors have trouble finding outstanding plays to bring to the stage.
 That is true. There is a very grave vacuum that exists in that area. There is a problem with a lack of expertise in innovating and adapting plays [for the contemporary stage]. But creating new domestic plays is not necessarily the most direct way to stimulate creativity in theatre. Plays in translation can often be a big stimulus. It may be Western plays or Japanese plays, but introducing excellent contemporary plays in translation that are written in new styles and with new methods can surely make creators who see it realize that there are different ways of seeing and doing things. Then, immediately they may reach a moment of enlightenment and realize that there is no need to give up the ideal of trying to bring their own ideas to life. This can be a positive form of encouragement that will lead to creative efforts. You can describe it as an exchange of energy between the inside and the outside worlds.

Artists depend on inspiration, and inspiration doesn’t always come by simply sitting there waiting for it. What is needed is surely a lot of stimulation and contact.
In that sense as well, I feel that the presence of Penghao Theatre and the work you are doing to bring such a rich variety of domestic and foreign experimental works to the stage there in such numbers is extremely important.
 That’s why we want to continue to be experimental, a place of education and a cradle for nurturing progressive performance artists.