Interview via email June 14, 2017
Photos by Li Li 李莉
KL: Let’s gradually hone in on the details. Start by giving me a background on the Nanluoguxiang Theatre Festival. Explain to me the intentions of a non-profit theatre festival? How long has it been running? Is it patron driven or funded by a government arts body?
RR: We are all idealists and enthusiasts that put art in the centre of all our considerations. Participating in such a non-profit festival you are aiming for getting the money that you invested back, no one can make any profits, however losing money is a constant risk. The financial pressure is enormous. More than any other form of theatre in China we are dependent on ticket sales.
The festival is mainly patron-funded but in recent years more and more artists become the patrons of their own art. That is why so many of us actually earn their living in the movie, television and advertisement industry while acting in a play is a thing of passion. From an actor’s salary, no one can survive in Beijing.
Only due to the generosity of the Austrian Embassy and the Austrian Cultural Forum we are able to grant the actors salaries. This is very important for me as I do not like the idea of extending self-exploitation to other artists. Only a scholarship from the German National Academic Foundation covering daily living costs puts me in a position to work for free.
It is the 8th year of the Nanluoguxiang Theatre Festival now. It was founded by Penghao’s owner Wang Xiang who made his fortune as a dentist and spends most of it as a patron of the performative arts. The ever-increasing rents in China make it more than difficult for the festival to survive. Wang Xiang and his team now put their whole life energy into saving the festival.
Many experimental forms of theatre had no home in China. Wang Xiang, Penghao, and the Nanluoguxiang Theatre Festival brought them into being. From the very start, they also cooperated with international artists, making it the biggest international theatre festival in China. They are the true creators of a theater without borders.
KL: Did you specifically choose to work with the Longfu Theatre or did they come to you? How does the relationship work between playwright and theatre?
RR: After the festival had chosen our production we were given a free hand in choosing a theatre. We had been searching for a suitable theatre a long time. We had rather contradictory expectations to the theatre building: We were searching a big stage that would grant enough space for dancing while also creating claustrophobic moments in the stage centre. The play is a lot about contradictions that appear logical the moment they are formulated. Intriguingly, a bigger stage can more vividly create the feeling of being at bay. For aesthetic reasons and because of the multinational nature of our production, this year we are the only production for a big stage within the festival.
When I saw Longfu Theatre for the first time I fell in love with it for another reason. The theatre is an old cinema with an industrial charm, apart from the big stage there are a couple of small cinema halls, the lobby exhibits old projectors and the popcorn machines are really ancient.
This ragtag interior fits the play perfectly. My idea is that the play does not start on the stage but when you enter the lobby of the theatre with the smell of popcorn and decades-old dust heated by projectors over and over again.
Longfu will be renovated soon and overworked completely. For the atmosphere of the play, we wanted to stage decidedly before the renovation. Our play is the last chance to see this industrial relict in its original form.
From the Subway Station Dongsi (Exit E) it is only 50 metres away, you will enter a Hutong and soon see the round arches of Longfu overseeing its district.
KL: What attracted you to the work of Ingeborg Bachmann? It's claimed she was perhaps the first feminist voice in German literature, is this part of her appeal for you? Are you trying to represent feminist voices in China?
RR: It is a shame! Ingeborg Bachmann was the female protagonist of the Group 47 that dominated post-war literature in the German-speaking countries. The men of this group like Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll or Peter Handke are widely known in China. Ingeborg Bachmann though, one of the most important poets of German literature and Austria’s most famous female writer is a household name only to a few experts in China. With events in context of the play, like exhibitions, readings and discussions that all feature Ingeborg Bachmann, we are trying to change this. But that is not the only reason why I appreciate Bachmann as a person. She also was a cosmopolitan figure at an early time living in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt, incorporating all the different cultures into her work starting from the guts and not as an observer keen to exoticism. She created some universal characters with universal feelings that are like forerunners of a globalized world that at the same time does not lose its regional multicultural heritage.
KL: You mentioned that Bachmann’s stories lend themselves to Chinese adaptation, what particular aspects resonate between the German and Chinese? The depth of her characters is highlighted, is it easy to reflect the nuance of the original language in Chinese?
RR: When I read Bachmann’s later stories for the first time I was amazed how Chinese they appeared to me. More Chinese than Austrian or German actually. I went on a quest to find why I have this feeling, and what particularly makes a story “Chinese” to me. That is one reason why I wanted to put them on stage and at the same time bring them into discussion. These stories have never been adapted for stage and are as such not really adequate for it because they are rather static, they illustrate situations rather than telling a story. The depth of her characters is amazing, they are each as complex as Hamlet and Medea with a colorful background and a biography that is as detailed as a poem. Thus I decided to bring these characters together and forge them into a story through the means of a Five-Act Drama. I like to see myself as the midwife of Bachmann’s characters for stage. My play then is very far away from its inspiration but Bachmann’s way of constructing characters influenced me immensely through the whole process of inventing the play.
That I had to write the play from the scratch without employing any of Bachmann’s original words made it easier to transfer them into the Chinese cultural context. However, there are some details that are so different that you cannot completely translate them into the Chinese culture. These missing links are vital spots and in my opinion some of the most interesting moments of the play. We don’t polish these lost-in-translation moments but decidedly use them as material for our play.
KL: What can audiences expect? What’s the nature of the story and how will it be presented on the stage?
RR: It truly developed into a suspense drama. We play around a lot with the expectations of the audience. Our producer keeps repeating that what she sees now is a “Hitchcock movie on stage”. When you see our play you will never be sure what happens next. We mix tragic and comic elements, music from all over the world and dance, it shows the whole spectrum of human emotions.
Not yet one year ago the 21year old Xiao Ruan married a man 40 years older than her, the world famous psychiatrist Qiao Li. Slowly Xiao Ruan begins to realize that her workaholic husband does not seem to care about his own mother at all. So Xiao Ruan decides to help both of them and take care for her stepmother. But when she sees under which terrible circumstances Old Mrs. Qiao lives – in an old hutong flat full of rubbish – Xiao Ruan starts to question what kind of man she has married. Old Mrs. Qiao seems to hallucinate dogs barking at her. She is terribly afraid of these noises. For her own sake and for the sake of Old Mrs. Qiao, Xiao Ruan has to find out what kind of secrets surround her new family. In this quest, she is supported by her older brother Ruan Mading, who recently came back from his studies abroad. Back in Beijing Ruan Mading leads a life no one but Xiao Ruan can understand. From the first moment on he questioned Xiao Ruan’s motivation for marrying Qiao Li.
KL: Can you tell us a little about the players? Who are they and how have they engaged with this project?
RR: Our actors are highly-skilled professionals that know the ropes of how to thrill, surprise or amuse an audience. Born from 1976 to 1992 they are really diverse ensemble with completely different views on life and on the art of acting. They show immense dedication. We rehearsal full days, till 10 pm, every day, no weekends. Choosing the right actors took us half a year, but I am glad that we invested this time. I have the feeling that we have the perfect ensemble for this play.
Longfu Theatre (Subway Dongsi, Exit E)
23rd 24th 25th JUNE 19:30