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Penghao Theatre Visit

Down in a Hutong we visited Penghao Theatre, run by Artistic Director Dandan Willis, a young, visionary woman with passion and interest for making a difference to the live performance scene in Beijing and possibly beyond.

This is not the first time that I was made aware of an apparent effort to generate and ’educate’ audiences about contemporary theatre and what I may call ‘performance’. There is a passion for being sensitive and prioritising ‘processes’, and I was impressed by the programming of not only theatre shows, but along with their performance works companies spend time in the theatre running week-long workshops and also participate in talks or conferences.

Dandan is very concerned about the ’quality’ of the works she puts on, and she is keenly integrating a selection of international companies in her programme. Every last Saturday of the month a group of Beijing-based ‘foreigners’ put on an improvised theatre show, which seems to be a great success in terms of audience numbers. A half Chinese, half non-Chinese group of people apparently crowd even on the floor to witness these performances.

Theatre training in China seems to still be strongly Stanislavski-based. Improvisation, Dandan explains, is not taught in the sense of what I have chosen elsewhere to refer to as a technical set of the ’inventive’ performer. This way of performance-making, which in the UK is often referred to as ’devised’ performance, or is also known more widely as collaborative or experimental performance, is probably less known and practised here, but no doubt it is growing! In the West it has emerged largely as part of a development which tied to US- and European universities, where from the fifties onwards artists trained as intellectuals. A movement towards the self-expressive performer emerged, as distinct from the actor and dancer that would work with a set of technical skills transmitted at drama or dance conservatoires, working under the reign of the ’authorship’ of a playwright and director or choreographer.

An appetite for such ‘different’ ways of working and creative processes seems to exist here, and I have seen some great examples of such ways of making work over the last week. It feels like an exciting time here in China at present, and in some sense I wonder whether I am getting a glimpse of something that I had always regretted to have missed: the  SIXTIES….

But before I get too excited, I want to hold back from looking into our own Western past and applying the historical developments to the trends I witness here. China is writing its own history at present, and who knows who is ‘ahead’ of whom?!?

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