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Drama competition nurtures future of Chinese theater

Budding actors and directors from across China have gathered in the canal town to compete in the Young Theater Artist’s Competition. Some big names are on the jury panel, offering career-building advice and support. Here’s Qi Wei with the story of some aspiring young stars, who all have a tale to tell.

An invisible door, a hat and a musical instrument - that’s all you need if you’re a budding performer, here at the Wuzhen Theater Festival.

It’s a small space, with only 200 seats. But it’s also a door for industry newcomers hoping to break into the big time.

On the jury - the best of the best: Raymond Zhou, Shi Hang, Tian Qinxin, Meng Jinghui, Stan Lai, and Huang Lei. Whichever play they judge to be the best will win a cash prize of 200,000 yuan ($33,0000). The best actors will win 60,000 yuan.

[Photo/cntv]

“As well as the cash prize, we can link these young talents with more opportunities and resources, as well as helpful social connections, to allow them to express their ideas on a bigger stage,” said Meng Jinghui, theater director and juror of Young Artist Competition, Wuzhen Festival.

It’s no wonder that nearly 200 plays were submitted for consideration. Only a lucky 12 will be chosen to perform at the festival in front of the jury.

The Possibly hardy Tin Soldier is one of them. It tells a story of a hardworking young man who slowly falls in love with a statue, during his daily commute.

Director, Chen Danlu, won the Most Outstanding Artist Award at last year’s competition. She says the award changed her life.

“In the past year, I’ve produced my first plays, thanks to subsidies and prize-money, as well as investment from Huang Lei’s company. This year, I was hired by a culture research institute in my hometown. This enables me to keep producing my work and find actors who can work with me,” Chen said.

But despite her success, the theater world is always tough. Chen Danlu’s play Long Table never broke even, when it was staged in Beijing.

The financial uncertainty makes it all the more harder to deal with parents, who always want the best ...

“When my family came to the festival and heard the applause in the theater, they were very happy. But they’ve always worried whether this is a good career for me. Now, I think they’re satisfied, now that I have a job,” Chen said.

Chen Danlu is one of the lucky ones. For those that didn’t make the final 12, the only stage left is Wuzhen’s public square.

“I’ve been an actor since I left college. In July, I switched to production, staging my first play, which I funded entirely by myself. When I was an actor, I thought producing a play was simple. But when you manage a team, you find out it’s not. Every step is hard, especially trying to make back the money you’ve invested,” said Zhao Zhao, producer of Zhao drama.

“Theater is really not very profitable compared to movies and TV. It’s the same all over the world. It’s really driven by passion. You have to have passion to work in theater and to express this unique art form,” said Raymond Zhou, theater critic and juror of Young Artist Competition, Wuzhen Festival.

That’s certainly the case for aspiring young actors, most of whom rely on adverts and small TV roles for their income.

Theater may be their main love - but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Another entry that did make it to the last 12 is Kidnap a play that deals with a very modern issue - personal information on social media.

“It all started with a real nightmare I had. I explained it to the director and he asked me to write it down. I finished it the day after my final exam. We then spent two days and nights polishing the material, so we could submit it for the competition here at Wuzhen,” said Cao Taianyi, writer of kidnap.

Kidnap is a modern tale that stands side by side with more traditional themes.

Juror Raymond Zhou says he’s delighted by the creativity of the entries.

“Young artists in theater should learn from the masters, be familiar with the classics. But most importantly they should know what they want to express and try to find out what fits their own stories. Don’t copy others’,” Zhou said.

Kidnap was put together by high school classmates with a passion for drama - a passion that took them to Wuzhen.

For aspiring actors, writers and directors, the key to a long and fruitful career is learning how to keep that passion alive.