Penghao Theater 3/11: Surreal, but so Real
By TAN SHUO March 16, 2017
It was a Saturday evening. At mealtime. Nanluoguxiang — a historical alley in Beijing — was teeming with sightseers. Aroma of the melting cheese along with the cries from the rival shops pulled many up, which almost caused a halt of the people flow.
I snaked my way through in the crowd and finally reached the alley where the Central Academy of Drama is sited. Here in dim light, only a few strollers were visible. I went deeper down the road for 100 meters or so till a narrower alley appeared on my left side — much narrower like a gap between walls. At the moment, in quietness, I found myself alone.
In this “gap” is hidden the Penghao Theater.
With care, I pulled open the wood-framed door. The bell jingled, with an unexpected clamor spilling out. Over a dozen were dining at a long table in soft light. Soon I realized that they were having a meeting. The food, served lukewarmly, was waiting to be eaten.
Wang Xiang, the owner of the theater, was among them, too. His voice was so distinguishable, thus I was pretty sure his presence even before glancing through the faces. They were talking excitedly. Laughter burst from time to time.
The dinner place is the foyer of the theater. Covering less than a hundred square meters, it also functions as a restaurant, a bar, a café, and a box-office. I walked it through, passed the counter and entered a smaller space behind, where I saw a library room with three walls of books. Several young people were enjoying reading — a good way to spend time waiting for performances.
The program in the evening was 40 Years of Silence. It was also the fifth of six successive performances. Last November during its eighth run, the theater once claimed to “bring the curtain down” on the production, and to match the claim, the poster featured a picture of the artist’s back. However, only four months later, it was opened again. Nevertheless, audiences were still coming. At least on March 11, it was a full house.
Planning a production as an open-ended run is a distinction of commercial theaters. While, it also applies in Penghao in a restrained manner, concerning the theater’s own well-received productions. 40 Years of Silence could be the most notable example. Since its premiere in 2010, it has run nine times already at the not-for-profit small theater.
“Penghao is my home,” Bizot said firmly, and he has reasons to say so. During the past eight years in residence, ten of his works including 40 years of Silence was born here. The small theater, or specifically, the owner of the theater Wang Xiang gives him as much artistic freedom as he wants, which has helped him develop the art form in contemporary China. To Bizot, Penghao is not only a place to take up residence but also a laboratory to conduct experiments on inspirations.
In 40 Years of Silence, there is 10-minute for improvisation, during which time the audience can decide what to perform. “Every night I make improvisation with the audience. And more and more and more, I know the mentality of the Chinese people,” Bizot said, with a strong French accent. On March 11 he was asked to mimic “red”, “eating hotpot”, “meeting again”, “being scared by a monster”, “not being understood and in despair”, “dream”…
40 Years of Silence was invited to the Macau City Fringe Festival in 2014. It was also staged at Lyceum Theatre (a theater of about 700 seats) as a Rising Artists’ Work during the Shanghai International Arts Festival in 2015. When performing in a larger theater, Bizot always makes necessary adjustments in his mime — a skill polished in his years in small theaters. “To make a creation (in a small theater) is fantastic because people see all the details,” told Bizot, “I move one finger, and people see!” The smallness of Penghao is what he likes because the audience can be so close to him, even within arm’s reach.
“Curtain-down” was not mentioned anymore in the publicity materials for the new run in March, and so, by implication, 40 Years of Silence will be opened again — almost certainly.
A Surreal Show in Reality
How do people in their 60s look back on their lives? In 40 Years of Silence, Bizot — in his 60s with a mime career of 40 plus years, gives an answer of his own. The work, made up of his personal anecdotes, presented a child wondering at his first falling tooth, a school student gloating about misbehaving in class, a young guy being stood up on a date, a middle-aged man frustrated by the uncertainty over his future…It is biographical, yet the emotions it arouses is universal.
“I play my life…It’s my memory. It’s your memory. It’s the world’s memory,” Bizot explained, “I am the audience at the same time.” To him, a mime can be referred to a mirror or a shower.
No verbal communication, nor mise-en-scène, a mono-mime is very much like a process of ishin-denshin. The performer “carves” the mind in the air, then the audiences restore the “carving” in their own mind. In order to fully understand, one has to concentrate or otherwise snap back to reality from the vivid “graven images” …
Fogs from the dry-ice machine hovered over the stage, layering in different thickness in deep blue light — a dreamy winter took shape. Bizot seemed to challenge the comprehension of the audience by using more abstract gestures in “Hunting in the Snow”, and he seemed to make it. “Arrow shooting” was the only body language sign understandable, at least to me. When the story was over, Bizot did not go on his performing. Instead, he broke the silence and spent a few minutes demonstrating his “hunting in the snow” with decomposed movements, such as “getting dressed”, “kissing the sleeping companion”, “hunting birds”, “drinking the spring water”, “laying in the snow”, etc.
His instant replay cut off the silent fantasies for a while. Then the show resumed. In a flash, Bizot became a middle-aged man sitting on his knees…
The ending was definitely the most impressive when the symbolic poses of each story shifted in a chronological sequence. I saw a life puzzle assembling in front of my eyes, also had a feeling of watching a documentary in fast motion.
Surreal, but so real.
A Surreal Penaghao in Reality
The seating capacity of Penghao Theater is only about 100 in maximum. One can even hear the breath sound of those who sit beside.
The theater is also something surreal, not only because it was transformed from a traditional courtyard house (Siheyuan) and given life by a dentist, but also because how it struggled to survive as a not-for-profit organization without funding by the government.
On February 21, 2017, the theater released a video of Wang Xiang’s latest speech, in which some facts were mentioned, for example it is “the first privately-owned nonprofit theater since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949”, “more than 300 different plays with a total of over 2 000 performances given in the past eight years”, “the initiator and the organizer of the Beijing Nanluoguxiang Theater Festival — the biggest and the second oldest international theater festival in China”.
What’s more, on mass media, the theater was “born an accumulated loss up to over 10 million yuan”, “a debt of 40 million yuan” and “the direct loss per day as much as 2 000 yuan”. And what Wang Xiang is doing looks like “giving blood with suicidal tendencies”, and he has been “completely lonely” and “losing money in all the nonprofit productions”, etc. Most of the information above came from the interviews with Wang and thus a public image of the theater was formed, i.e., on the edge of life and death.
Is the small theater an established fact or a miraculous mirage?
“Defending Penghao — for our nation and our descendants.” This is the theater’s crowdfunding slogan last autumn. Their first attempt to seek help from the community online turned out to be successful: about 125% of the target amount was raised. Yet, the raised amount (622,483 yuan) was far from enough to survive — not even sufficient to cover the cost of the three productions from the State Small Theatre of Vilnius last year.
Penghao is in life-threatening condition, like always, and it can be expected that even if the civil society helps to pay off the bill of the estate at the market price of 40 million yuan (about 5.2 million euro), it will still be in the critical situation, because a sound system for NPO’s sustainable development cannot be bought by money.
A piece of positive news came on September 1, 2016, just two months after the Beijing Penghao Foundation was registered. On that day, China’s first national charity law came into effect, which allows a charitable organization to certify for public fundraising as long as it fulfills a two-year registration term. Hence, if everything goes well, from the second half of 2018 onwards, the Penghao Theater can legally receive giving from the general public through the Beijing Penghao Foundation.
As the external environment is improving, will the theater keep pace accordingly? For instance, how to demonstrate financial transparency? How to stay in touch with donors? How to enlarge audience? How to implement the plan for commissioning new works? How to promote the programs? How to evaluate and enhance the contributions of the theater?…
“Theater Without Borders.” The motto was nailed to the cement wall of the main entrance, in both Chinese and English. Yet, “theater” as a performing arts venue is not a theatrical play, which has its “border” or a way to comply with.
Is 40 Years of Silence only a memory going to be, or still traceable in Nanluoguxiang some years later? Will there be a scene of theater-goers in “Nanluoguxiang” in 40 Years of Silence, or only sightseers eating and taking photos still?
“I want to guide all the ordinary people into the world of theater, spiritual richness and nobility.” Wang Xiang asserted in his speech on February 9.
Surreal, but so real — the mime of Bizot as well as the story of the Penghao Theater.
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