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He directed Peony Pavilion, lots of opera productions but not at the Met. Regards, Len
Theater Director Returns to China With ‘Liberating and Cool’ Vision
By Edward Wong
July 27, 2018
In the way Chen Shi-Zheng imagines his theatrical adaptation of “The Orphan of Zhao,” the production will bring out all the elements of the story that have appealed to Chinese audiences through the centuries, like the timeless themes of revenge and self-sacrifice.
But despite the familiarity of this 13th-century play to spectators in Mr. Chen’s homeland, they might have trouble understanding all the lines.
The principal actors Mr. Chen has cast for this staging in China are almost all Americans, and they will speak in English. In fact, very little about the production will signal the story’s Chinese origins.
Subverting audience expectations is one of the goals of Mr. Chen, a veteran stage director.
“I think young people will love it,” Mr. Chen, 55, said. “It’s like fresh air coming to the mind and the eye.”
“The classic story can be interpreted in a new way,” he added. “It can be so liberating and cool at the same time.”
Mr. Chen plans to start rehearsals in August in New York, where he lives, for the English-language performance of “The Orphan of Zhao,” which is scheduled to take place in October before a mostly Chinese audience at the Beijing Music Festival in China’s capital.
Since his debut as a theater director in 1996, Mr. Chen has created works for prominent spaces around the world, from New York to Sydney, but a big production in China has eluded him.
His appearance at the Beijing festival will mark his return to presenting public performances in China, where he was born and where he trained in opera through his teenage years.
Not since a 1996 touring production of “The Bacchae” by Euripides has Mr. Chen directed a work for the Chinese public, although he has done private stagings in China and drawn on Chinese talent for his global productions.
In the late 1990s, officials in Shanghai tried to hobble an epic opera production he was bringing to New York. The officials objected to aspects of the production, and for years that incident cast a shadow over his career in China.
Over a recent dinner in New Haven, Mr. Chen and Audrey Li, his wife and business partner, talked with excitement about the chance for him to create a work for a Chinese audience again, playing the role of a cultural bridge as relations between the United States and China become more fraught over a variety of economic and security issues.
“It’s about time,” Ms. Li said, putting her arm around Mr. Chen.
Throughout his career, Mr. Chen has mixed Western and Chinese influences in his work, with a particular emphasis on avant-garde framing, and his visions for the two productions he is taking to the Beijing festival in October are likely to challenge the Chinese audience’s ideas of how traditional stories are told on stage.
Besides the version of “The Orphan of Zhao” with mostly American actors, Mr. Chen plans to produce another classic, “Farewell My Concubine,” for the opening performance of the festival.
The story is well known to a Chinese audience, and unlike “The Orphan of Zhao,” this production will have Chinese actors dressed in period costumes. But Mr. Chen plans to eschew the traditional staging: The production will use two large video screens with close-ups of actors’ faces as its main design element, and it will have a pit orchestra.
Mr. Chen’s career in the United States and Europe took off two decades ago as he grappled with a production that nearly failed.
After his directorial debut in 1996, Mr. Chen aimed to present to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York a 20-hour production of “The Peony Pavilion,” a prominent example of the traditional form of kunqu opera. He put the production together with actors in Shanghai, but officials there objected to him exporting it. He had to reassemble it piecemeal in New York, and the resulting news coverage, and well-received production, brought Mr. Chen into the spotlight.
“My work has always been controversial,” he said. “I think new interpretation is essential for classic art to find its young audience in our time.”
Since then, Mr. Chen has gone on to produce Western opera, from “Eugene Onegin” to “Turandot,” and more than a dozen Chinese works.
He first trained in opera as a teenager in Hunan Province, where he grew up without his parents. His mother was killed by a stray bullet at a street celebration for Mao when he was 4; his father was labeled a “rightist” and sent to a re-education camp. After his formal arts education in China, he was invited to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University as a graduate student, where he studied experimental theater from 1989 to 1991.
“He’s one of a number of artists who have tried to make Chinese theatrical traditions come alive in a very contemporary fashion,” said Nigel Redden, who was the longtime director of the Lincoln Center Festival, including during “The Peony Pavilion” controversy, and is now the director of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. “He’s very much informed by a Western theatrical experimental tradition.”
Mr. Chen said the goal of widening global appreciation for classic Chinese works had been at the forefront of his artistic thinking. “I felt part of my mission in this country was to present Chinese culture in a way that a 21st-century audience could appreciate,” he said. “Nobody reads Russian, but everybody does Chekhov.”
“I was very passionate about introducing this into a Western canon,” he said of China’s literary heritage. “It should be performed, it should be read.”
While his works have been less embraced in China, he did a private production in 2012 of “Farewell My Concubine” in an upscale Beijing hotel. After the initial performance, the plan was to have the production be the centerpiece of dinner theater at the hotel, but that plan fizzled. Before that, Mr. Chen directed a Chinese version for Disney of its “High School Musical” franchise, but it failed to draw a large audience.
While working on that film, Mr. Chen met Ms. Li, who was a producer with Disney in China at the time, and the two began dating later and married in 2013. As co-founder of their company, Ovationz Production, Ms. Li talks as much about trying to get a foothold with the Chinese audience as he does, and both hope his productions in Beijing will elevate his profile.
“I just can’t wait to see how people receive Shi-Zheng and these productions, which are maybe a little different from what they have been seeing and hearing in China,” Ms. Li said. “I also think this is a very good window. Once we open that window, we can bring more into the big picture in China, so people know there’s Shi-Zheng, there’s us, and we can have more opportunity to present things.”
“It’s quite a big step for us,” she added.
Mr. Chen is juggling the China productions with two other large projects, a sign that he is not about to forsake his Western audience anytime soon.
For the 2019 opening season at The Shed, a new multimedia arts space in Manhattan, Mr. Chen is directing a piece of performance theater with a new vision of Chinese-American mythology. He is developing the project, “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise,” with the two writers of the hit film “Kung Fu Panda.”
The story is an adventure tale of hybridity and immigration, involving a sect from China that has taken root in a near-future version of Flushing, Queens, and harbors a secret that everyone is after. Martial arts and spirituality figure in the plot, but Mr. Chen is striving to make those aspects of Chinese culture more universal in the presentation.
“It’s not this binary of East and West,” said Alex Poots, artistic director of The Shed. “Through migration and diasporic movement, there are pockets of identity all over the place. That’s an important aspect. It resonated with me.”
Mr. Chen is also developing a production of the epic “Ring” cycle by Richard Wagner that will be performed in Australia and will have Chinese elements. Looking at the work, Mr. Chen said he did not see a Europe-centric story, but rather a universal one.
“The Chinese philosophy may play a part in it — how you look at things — gods and demigods and hell and human behavior” he said. “There’s tangible power and invisible power, both. That’s something quite interesting.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/worl ... tival.html
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