Students act out their own 'peach blossom land' in heart
Eleven senior high school students, with an average age of 16, have stunned Shanghai audiences with a novel interpretation of renowned playwright Stan Lai's stage play "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" at Theater Above.
The play sees two theater groups mistakenly booked into the same theater for dress rehearsals.
"It is a classic text using Bertolt Brecht's defamiliarization concept," said director and actress Yang Ruoran. "One play within a play is a calm, contemporary tragedy and the other is a clamorous ancient-time comedy."
The students are from the Theaomai Theater Club of UWC (United World Colleges) Changshu China in neighboring Jiangsu Province.
Several years ago, Lai launched a survey on Weibo asking how many students and amateur troupes had played "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" – the result turned out to be tens of thousands.
The playwright and director then decided to do something to reward fans – giving a chance for students and amateur troupes to perform the play at Theater Above.
Starting in 2017, hundreds of troupes nationwide and globally – with members ranging from white-collar workers to lawyers and students, among others – have enrolled annually.
Last year, in addition to the venue of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, the theater also added a sub-venue in neighboring Suzhou Industrial Park.
Two theater clubs – the Loulan Theater Club from Shanghai Normal University and the Theaomai Theater Club from UWC Changshu China – stood out. The troupes, after receiving professional tutoring from Theater Above, staged their own versions of "Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land" for Shanghai audiences.
Putting themselves in the shoes of the characters
"We rented an old house in January in downtown Suzhou for rehearsal," said Yang. "We usually rehearsed till 1am or 2am, and went on discussing the script afterwards.
"As the performance was approaching, we did individual training, group training, singing. We felt excited as we were the first high school troupe to stage the play at Theater Above."
"Secret Love," the tragedy part, is about the ups and downs of 1949 when the Chinese civil war ended and the Kuomingtang fled to Taiwan.
So many families and loved ones were separated at that time. They thought they could get back together within a few months or a year, but it turned out that it was 40 years later till they could finally communicate with each other.
"Peach Blossom Land," on the other hand, is a lampoon of "A Chronicle of the Peach Blossom Land," which is probably one of the most famous pieces of classical Chinese literature. It tells the story of a fisherman who chances upon a beautiful land and all his troubles are forgotten but he could never find it again.
"The two plays within a play are echoing each other," Yang noted.
"Jiang Binliu, the male protagonist in 'Secret Love' who's married but finds his first love unforgettable, and Lao Tao, a husband in the 'Peach Blossom Land' who suffers cheating from his wife, are both obsessed with a thought in two different worlds."
Yang said the female protagonist she played in "Secret Love" is a character entrusted with hope and all the best memories in life.
"Though her appearance is scarce, the audience remembers her," she said. "She is a character in a chaotic era, a man's young love and a hope, though disillusioned later, for a brilliant future."
Some of the young performers adeptly play roles with a wide age range.
Liu Jingyi, who played the role of Chun Hua, the disloyal wife of Lao Tao in "Peach Blossom Land," said she liked the character's flamboyance and her longing for romantic feeling.
"She appealed to me at first sight," she said. "Through her, I was also expressing myself."
Zheng Zijue, a 15-year-old, played the role of Jiang Binliu's wife, a senior character in her 50s or 60s. She had paid special effort in learning the native Taiwan accent.
"It is a challenging character considering the age gap," she said. "I felt it hard to grasp her feelings, her emotions. And her voice and gesture.
"She must somehow feel depressed. We had talked and agreed that she knew her husband's secret love from the beginning. But she still cared him in every aspect."
Tackling social issues
Yang, also head of the UWC Changshu China theater club, was enthralled in drama at a theater course when she was a freshman.
Her teacher still remembers how she acted out Sister Xianglin, a tragic figure whose child turns prey of wolves in "The New Year's Sacrifice" by Chinese writer Lu Xun.
"She cried with a heart-wrenching pain and patted one of her shoes on floor – a scene I could still remember clearly after three years," said Peng.
Later she shouldered responsibility of the school's theater club and tried, for the first time, to relate it to off-campus resources.
"In my freshman year, we created 12 original plays and also competed in the Wuzhen Theater Festival," said Yang.
"The next year, some professional institutions, like the Suzhou Culture and Arts Center, started to recognize us and invite us to perform. We believe that acting can be a heroic deed and we care about social issues.
"We also launched interactive programs in primary schools, teaching girls from Grade 3 to Grade 6 on how to protect themselves from sexual harassment."
Peng added: "Teachers and the school provide guidance and inspire them on a subject."
"Everybody has a 'peach blossom land' in their heart," said Peng. "For the group of youngsters at an age of 16, their 'peach blossom land' is full of passion and glory. The youths are marching forward in spite of difficulties."