Changing Audiences: Notes from China’s Wuzhen Theatre Festival

by Lissa Tyler Renaud

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Changing Audiences:  Notes from China’s Wuzhen Theatre Festival

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

I’m sorry to say that people do not see canvases, they only see dollars.

- Joan Miró, Spanish painter (d. 1983)

Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.

- Claude Monet, French painter (d. 1926)

All too often these days, it can seem as if the answer to every question asked in the theatre is related to money. While there is plenty of inventive, inspired work going on, it’s hard to avoid the conferences on funding, the panels on digital marketing, the subjects of grants-writing and audience-growing, the language of entertainment industry and cultural production. Who is your theatre for? Whoever can pay for it. What are your priorities for outreach? Whatever programs might bring paying customers or grants. How to encourage audiences to come? With financially supported initiatives for “engagement.” I so often hear—expressed with varying degrees of frankness—that theatres need more money to do right by their creative work.

So it was delightful and refreshing to attend the new international Wuzhen Theatre Festival in China, where the sentiment—expressed with varying degrees of frankness—was that if theatres focus on craft and creativity, the money will follow.

The Festival itself did just that, and paying audiences flocked to it, and then were generally rapt at the shows, and engaged afterwards.

For my contribution to this TCG salon, I’d like to focus on the free Wuzhen Dialogues series, which brought together masters of the theatre—veritable luminaries!–to talk informally with audiences about their work, while everyone drank chrysanthemum tea together in a lovely, comfy, historical storytelling hall. The age of the building was important for setting the tone, connecting history to the contemporary conversations that took place inside it.

And oh! Caridad’s invitation to her terrific, useful gathering here came at the perfect time: at the Wuzhen Dialogues, I took notes I’ve been feeling selfish to keep to myself. So pleased to share them now.

First, to set the stage:

Wuzhen [approximately OO-djen] is a blissful canals-and-stone-walkways town about an hour outside of Shanghai. It has a distinctive history of thousands of years as a magnet for cultural activity, and has a unique series of ancient indoor and outdoor performance and gathering spaces that served not only for traveling performers, but also for the townspeople themselves to perform operas and tell stories in. The current town’s government, tourist company, and theatre festival worked together to restore original structures of varying dimensions and personalities, and to add new ones.

The Festival’s second year was in October/November of 2014, and its program—theme: “Metamorphoses”–included productions from across the globe grouped together as, for example, Solo Shows for Women, For the Bard’s 450th, World of Avant-Garde, and Best of Chinese Little Theatre. There was also an ongoing Outdoor Carnival with performances of every description, a Young Artist’s Competition for new plays, and a series of Workshops by legends of international theatre. So: the Festival cast a wide and appealing net indeed. My introduction to the remarkable founders, and my Festival reviews, are here.

Now, turning to the Dialogues:

The philosophy underlying the series had two parts. First, that young people coming up in the theatre have a lot to learn from people who have been doing theatre successfully for multiple decades. Second, that audiences need an aesthetic education to cultivate their appreciation for the arts—that is, they don’t just know by magic what is of quality. “The [Festival’s] dream will be fulfilled,” their materials read, “when art has become a way of life for the town’s residents [and visitors], and their pursuit is of spiritual rather than material satisfaction.”

These struck me as notions that many jettisoned years ago. Instead, among many trends, there is one trend for young people to seek out celebrity teachers for the short-term to list on their resumes. The emphasis in theatre training is no longer on apprenticeship with “masters,” but on improvisation and the writing of new plays, encouraging the young to feel they have a lot to say right out of the gate, even without the technique or dramatic literature that would enable them in their efforts. Then, too, few theatres have the cultural authority, or the inclination, to suggest that their paying customers can’t tell what’s “good.” And certainly, it was possible for the Festival in China to propose the goal of “living in art” because it was completely independent of any official support or grants.

There were a dozen or more one-hour-and-forty-minute Dialogues sessions, each with two to four participants and a host: Standing Room Only occasions, and no hint of a slick press conference. Only one session, towards the very end of the Festival, was about marketing. Imagine me diving into my notebook, scribbling down the fantastic comments flying past, the translators humming along… Here are a few of the countless “gold nuggets” from exchanges that dealt with creativity, craft and audiences.

*    *    *

Tom Till: Artistic Director, Schauspielhaus Zürich; Switzerland

This theatre does classics because those are the plays that have endured over time. The theatre continues to ask: what is a classic? Shakespeare? Brecht? In the 1990s, the main thrust of Swiss theatre shifted from deconstruction of classic texts to “body,” or dance theatre. Now, it’s documentary theatre at the fore, performed with non-actors, and “post-migration” or inclusive theatre. For introducing new works especially, theatres must give audiences the means to follow the move.

Audience question [AQ] about new plays:

Till’s theatre creates new works on a project-by-project basis, carefully choosing their topics and creating structures for them, sometimes with multi-media.

AQ about actor training:

Till’s theatre keeps their professional acting company in shape by sending them to ongoing speech and movement training.


Neil Murray: Executive Producer, National Theatre of Scotland

As a national theatre, they have a large budget, but they pride themselves on maintaining their “Fringe” tenor. Murray stressed that they started as a small company, simply continued to do the work they wanted to do, that it grew and has been recognized as a natural outcome.

On the whole, they find that new productions of classics sell better than new plays. Nevertheless, they’ve proceeded with what they call “Verbatim Theatre”: one production was based on the text of a trial in which the plaintiff did not receive justice; another was on soldiers just returning from war.

AQ on funding:

Tell your story. Tell it in a true, simple, honest way—instead of focusing on funding issues.

(Note: In both Switzerland and Scotland, the government subsidized theatre tickets for students.)


Mathias Woo: Co-Artistic & Exec. Director, Zuni Icosacheon; Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, we grew up without any education in poetry. So now, no one knows poetry.

A creator is not responsible to society; he is responsible to respond to society. In the theatre, you do what you do, and sometimes only three or four people show up. He no longer cares. You do it whether it will be popular or not. At the Hong Kong Arts Festival, he once saw a show that was twenty hours long and nothing happened in it. But they all still felt they had gone through something. Woo had once done a 90-minute show that changed completely after every one minute—so a lot of structures are possible.

Traditionally, theatres were in small spaces without microphones. Now they are in huge spaces with microphones—a very big change. In the 1960s, there was a great deal of voice training. And the vocal training that traditional performers received was also a good foundation for acting. Now, performers are cut off from this training. We are a fast food culture—now the period of training has been reduced from ten years to just two. So once Woo did a show without actors—just a musician, with an architect to do the staging. A multi-media piece. Woo re-does it every five years and the technology keeps improving. He stressed the importance of training for actors: they should train just as painters do.


Meng Jinghui: playwright, director, Artistic Director of Meng Jinghui Theatre Studio, Festival Co-Founder; Beijing

AQ: New directions for the theatre?

Whatever we want it to be. Meng once brought 500 sheep from Mongolia; he’s done one show over 700 times, simplifying it each time. He earns his money directly from his audiences, not from government grants.

We do avant-garde theatre in order to be free. You’re in a building, knocking to try to get out. If you’re in there, don’t just walk around.


Shi Hang: playwright, educator, producer, critic; Beijing

It is conservatives who are encouraging popular art rather than “high” art.

Has the level of art been lowered?

If you are used to watching films lying down, with the films shown on the ceiling, you’ll gradually find sitting up to view a film tiring.

There is a problem with people pretending to do new work, but really watching the market. As for “cutting edge” or “new frontier” work—well, if you eat different food, you will produce different waste!

On seeing disappointing original plays, he thinks: You appear before me in a white coat on a muddy day—you look terrible. Why do you come before me like that?

Look only at the best things—once you’re spoiled, you won’t be able to stand less than the best. So: read literature. Read the classics.


Huang Lei: actor, screenwriter, teacher, producer, Festival Co-Founder; Beijing

AQ on the need for new plays:

The remedy isn’t a question of whether to do traditional plays or to innovate new ones. The remedy is yourself.

What the audience sees of the actor is one tiny part of the whole mountain.


Tian Qinxin: Director, National Theatre of China; Beijing

The voice is a metaphor: you open the secrets of your body to the audience through the voice. This takes courage.

We can still tell traditional stories, with something contemporary in them. Regimes come and go; culture never dies.


Sohn Jin Chaek: Artistic Director, National Theatre of Korea

When he goes around the world, he tries to see how they teach rhythm and pace. His wife [actress Kim Sung Nyo] has traditional training, so she has her own, distinctive sense of rhythm and pace.

“My message to you: we have to go beyond ideology and politics.”

How to become a director?

Education isn’t everything. A director has to think about life all the time.


Beppe Chierchetti: actor, Artistic Director, Teatro Tascabile Di Bergamo; Italy

In India’s Kathakali, dance is a prayer. Study takes ten years, and makeup takes three hours. The performer dances, cleans his face and goes home. The dance isn’t for the audience, it’s for god.


Myself: actor, teacher, critic, scholar, writer; California

Nothing keeps audiences coming back like wonderfully developed actors.

National and international theatres that include Director’s Notes in their programs help critics engage audiences more than superficially. Notes are becoming rare—instead, programs show the production’s packaging, funders and advertisers. But what is the intention of your production? Context? What can you tell them that would make them The Perfect Viewer for your show?


Raymond Zhou: cultural critic, author; Beijing

Lots of people pretend to be masters, imitating others’ styles on the surface. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say it.

AQ on fostering theatre:

Get together and do your own play readings. Organize your own amateur drama (“Am Dram”) groups. Create online forums where you can communicate about plays and productions with people around the country.


Eugenio Barba: Artistic Director, Odin Teatret; Denmark

The DNA of the theatre is that you can entertain people and make a profit. In the 20th century, a few individuals began to think of this enterprise as art. Fascists, Communists, Nazis—these began to think of theatre as ideologically profitable. We have an obligation—a necessity—to offer a vision of the purpose of the theatre beyond entertainment, emotional exhibitionism, mental prostitution. Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov, Brecht: they all changed their audiences.

Don’t think you’re doing theatre for other people: you’re doing it for yourself. Nobody sent a letter or petition to the government to ask you to do theatre. Ask yourself what you’re trying to get away from. You have to build a relationship to the complete social, political environment—to your epoch, to your audience.

At the start, I don’t know whether ours was creativity or a poor man’s despair. What could we do, and where? We began in a teacher friend’s classroom at night. I told the young people not to expect compensation for theatre work. You have to go through a desert, without gratification. One thing is sure: my actors were not zombies.


Stan Lai (Lai Sheng-chuan): playwright, Artistic Director of Performance Workshop, Festival Co-Founder; Taiwan

For me, theatre is a simple thing. There is a space, performers, and an audience. What do the people onstage want to tell the audience? This is fundamental. When we tell a story, we are all transformed in the process.

Creativity is a craft—a craft to cast a magic spell. The important thing becomes: what does the sorcerer want to cast the spell for? What is your motivation for being creative? Many people come into the theatre to work out their personal problems. But if you see the motivation clearly—why you’re doing what you’re doing—you see how quickly you have to overcome these. There’s so much to do!

Starting out, we had nothing. The government wasn’t interested in having theatre be a part of its society. There were film and TV, but there was no theatre industry. I thought a society couldn’t be healthy without theatre. Theatre is like circulation, it’s the blood. For rehearsals, we used our own living room. We had to find our relationship to our time. Audiences respond to our work—sometimes in surprising ways–because it’s made organically. We keep our minds on what our society needs.

*     *     *

It’s hard to emphasize enough how luminous these luminaries are, or how scrappy their beginnings were. Today, each of them is, as Barba said above, changing his or her audiences. In China, they are changing their world—and thus the whole world—one audience at a time.

Referring back to the quotations I began with: it seems to me that the theatre doesn’t need more money, or more discussion. It needs more love. Participants in the Wuzhen Dialogues series at China’s new international Wuzhen Theatre Festival confirmed the notion that—although perhaps counter-intuitive—focusing on craft and creativity can be a sophisticated and effective development strategy for audience (r)evolution and engagement.

Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism, U.C. Berkeley) is founder of InterArts Training (1985- ), based in Oakland, California. She has taught, lectured, and published throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions of Asia, of Mexico, Russia and Sweden. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Council teaching grants, she is an award-winning actress, a director and popular recitalist. She was co-editor of The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge 2009/2011), author of an invited chapter on Stanislavsky’s voice and movement work (Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, 2013), and founding editor of Critical Stages, 2007-2014. Renaud is longtime Senior Writer for Scene4 international cultural magazine.

Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.