Growing up in a family of opera performers, Wang Xiaoying，former Executive Vice President of the National Theater of China (NTC), developed a keen interest in stage performance from an early age.
"I've actually been involved in the arts since 1975. I was part of the Chizhou Art Troupe in Anhui Province, singing, dancing and acting in operas," he told Beijing Review.
In 1977, China's college entrance examination resumed after a 10-year suspension due to the impacts of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Going to university was a dream Wang had longed for. The next year, the dream came true as Wang was admitted to a polytechnic university. However, instead of thrilled, he felt trapped in a dilemma. "When the admission letter came, I suddenly realized I would have to leave behind the theater, a field to which I had devoted my passion and efforts, and shift to a totally different path," he said. After pondering the predicament for more than 10 days, he made an unexpected decision—giving up the seat at the polytechnic university and preparing to apply for a performing arts program in the next academic year.
Luckily, the following year, the Central Academy of Drama resumed its undergraduate program in directing. After retaking the college entrance exam, Wang applied and was admitted into the program. "From then on, I began my standardized and systematic study of the art of directing," Wang said.
After graduation, Wang worked as a director with China Youth Art Theater, now the NTC, and has devoted himself to directing ever since.
Grasp the nettle
"There's one unique thing about directing stage plays and I sometimes dub it a 'sad thing.' When a play takes to the stage, it's beyond the director's control—everything is performed by someone else. But the responsibility for the overall quality of the performance still rests with the director," Wang said.
"My teacher always said that a director should have a strong will, which means, no matter what happens, no matter how difficult things get, a director should not skimp on the artistic ideal he or she wants to reach. In other words, a director should stage their dream performance," he added.
In Wang's opinion, a director's growth is achieved through directing plays with different themes. In his career of more than 40 years, Wang has directed many genres including plays, operas and dance dramas with a variety of themes. All of them have one thing in common: a theme that carries deeper meaning.
To Wang, art is beyond entertainment, so the goal of his works is to portray the human spirit in the richest, most profound way possible. "Our personal life experience is limited. When watching a play, the audience are able to experience life beyond their own experiences and that's what I hope the performing arts can truly convey to audiences." This wish has, at times, doomed Wang to face difficulties throughout his directing career.
"Every creation process I went through made me feel like I was walking on eggshells. I never thought I would be able to handle any directing job with ease, because to me, the process of creating an artwork should always be gut-wrenching. I have to challenge myself, to dig deep, to seek new forms of onstage expression," Wang said. However, he also admitted that prompted him to generate greater energy to create better productions.
His sincere pursuit of and devotion to art led him to the position of vice president of the NTC and to receive a number of national awards. His play Copenhagen, a deep exploration of the ethics of science premiered in 2003, has been a hit for 20 years.
Wang dares to challenge even foreign classics. Richard III, a classic play by William Shakespeare, has been performed in countless versions in different styles. In 2012, Wang was invited to bring his standard Chinese-version of Richard III to Shakespeare's Globe theater in London, the United Kingdom.
The plot of Wang's version stays true to most of the original script, but the stage presentation is full of traditional Chinese cultural elements, such as ink painting, ancient characters and costumes, martial art-style movements, and props inspired by cultural heritage.
"I wanted the play to have a distinct national identity, but at the same time, to tell a universal story," Wang said. To achieve this, he reshaped the protagonist of the play. "In the Western context of Shakespeare's time, congenital disability was often a symbol of evil personality. But I think Shakespeare meant to show the damage that greed can do to human nature, so I don't think there is still need to express greed with deformity," Wang explained. In Wang's play, the limp and hump were rarely seen.
Director Wang Xiaoying works with young actors at the rehearsal hall of the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing on June 1 (YINKANG)
Wang's plays feature the concept of poetic imagery. "This poetic imagery has two pillars. One is that my dramas observe theatrical conventions, which is a universal rule in the performing world; the other is deeply rooted in Chinese traditional culture," Wang explained. "Chinese arts emphasize the power of mental imagery. Like poetry, painting and calligraphy, they all tend to minimize the form and amplify the undertones by using imagery that can vividly depict the imagination and emotions."
He gave a vivid example to further explain the concept. "My drama Prince of Lanling is based on the legend of Gao Changgong (541-573), one of the four most handsome men in Chinese history. Gao was a man of extreme beauty. But to frighten his enemy on the battlefield, he chose to put on a fierce-looking mask. Here, the mask is my chosen imagery," Wang elaborated. "The topic of masks and the tradition of using masks on stage can be traced back to traditional Chinese drama genres, like Peking Opera. The story that develops between his real face and his masked persona contains certain life philosophies or certain parables about human nature. Whatever the cultural context, people can relate to such a
When Prince of Lanling was staged abroad, it was received with pure enthusiasm.
"Staging this play helped us believe we can achieve our artistic ideals," Wang said.
"I hope poetic imagery can be developed into a signature technique of Chinese drama, because it conforms to the intrinsic artistic requirements of the performing arts; more importantly, it reflects the cultural characteristics of our nation, so that on the world drama stage, there is a very clear, very distinct banner of Chinese drama," Wang added.
Today, this 66-year-old director has already retired from the NTC, but he has never stopped directing or engaging in the field of performing arts. "Ever since making that life-defining choice at the age of 21, I feel that my life has been closely linked with the performing arts. Except for my own family life, everything I do is related to drama plays, from creation to research, and now more and more teaching. Sometimes I even envy those who have a hobby aside from work, because I don't. Theater is my life and I think it will be with me for the rest of my days," he concluded.
(Print Edition Title: The Act)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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