All the world's a stage, and more people are watching

Shanghai's Edinburgh Fringe Showcase brings some of the world's best theater productions to China's stages — and audiences are loving it.
All the world's a stage, and more people are watching
Ti Gong

“Andre and Dorine” by the Kulunka Teatro from Spain

Everyone likes a play, indulging in two hours of stories, drama, tears and laughters to take a break from reality. But few people watch 200 plays in four months. Shui Jing (better known as Crystal) does.

From Edinburgh in Scotland to Avignon in France to the Adelaide Festival in sunny Australia, Shui and her team travel the world, rushing from one fringe to another to dig out the best plays on stage and bring them to China.

“The first time I went to the (Edinburgh) Fringe (in 2010), I was amazed by the variety of the plays,” says Shui. “I felt we were frogs in the well who knew nothing of the great ocean.

“We’d thought that we knew what plays should be like, but it turned out we had hardly scratched the surface. There’s still a big gap between domestic plays with international performances,” she says.

But Shui is also quick to add that modern theater only took off in the late 1980s thanks to the reform and opening-up policy.

“It has only developed for decades. I’d say we are still in the early stage,” she notes. “And it’s hard to ask playwrights to keep pace with the world. For them, traveling around the world and watching plays for months is impossible. Most of them don’t speak good enough English, and they don’t have the time.

“So that’s what we do. We attempt to bring the best plays back and keep domestic audiences and creators in pace with the world.”

But still, Shui says she has seen some changes. For example, drama clubs in universities have started rehearsing more mimes after “Andre and Dorine,” a play without dialogue, was produced here.

Shui’s team, Edinburgh Fringe Showcase, has presented 55 shows for the past five years, including “Missing” and “The Overcoat” by the Gecko Theater Company from the UK, “Andre and Dorine” by the Kulunka Teatro from Spain, “What Happens to the Hope at the End of the Evening” by Tim Crouch and Andy Smith from the UK and Paul Dabek’s “Magic Show.” Most of them received good reviews.

“Antigone” and “Andre and Dorine” were performed at the Shanghai Grand Theater this month.

“‘Antigone’ is the best long drama I’ve seen from Edinburgh Fringe Showcase,” says Zhang Bi, who watched the performance. “A heavy Greek tragedy was narrated in a light and easy way, yet it preserved all the deep meaning.”

All the world's a stage, and more people are watching
Ti Gong

“Antegone” is a tragedy by Sophocles.

With only 10 core members on the team, Shui sometimes can’t help but think of giving up because of the great stress, but “the positive feedback from the audience always managed to bring me back.”

Shui dipped her toes in the water in early 2000 and quit her investment banking job to focus on theater in 2006. It was ideal timing as the drama world was slowly recovering from a low ebb then.

The trend of drama was shifting from experimental and pioneer theater to comedy. “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” and “Guo Degang’s Crosstalk” were one of the most successful productions in 2006. Their success was a boost to the market.

The art world started to target young office workers and 2007 happened to be the 100th anniversary of contemporary drama. All things combined to stir renewed interest in stage plays.

Edinburgh Fringe Showcase was set up around that time and started to introduce foreign plays in 2012.

“Before that, there were only two types of dramas dominating the Chinese market,” says Shui, “one type was popular musical, like ‘Lion King.’ The other were plays brought in by cultural institutes for exchange.

“Luckily, we’ve made it, not through financial support from government or other companies, but through the box office.”

Shui reveals that there was a moment when only 140 yuan (US$20) was left in the bank account. “But there’s also a time when 22 productions were presented within one day during the Xintiandi Festival,” she says.

Shui is very optimistic about Edinburgh Fringe Showcase’s future and what’s waiting ahead.

“We’ve only just began,” she says.

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