Making the stage his own

By Chen Nan(China Daily)
Updated: 2017-05-24 07:52:15

Playground, directed by Cui Hao, is performed by students from Peking University. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Jin Shifei, then a freshman majoring in computer science and technology at Tsinghua University, walked by the student canteen and was intrigued by groups of students handing out brochures about different campus clubs to recruit new members.

"I was attracted by the students of the drama club immediately because their voices were much louder than those of the other students," recalls Jin.

He joined the drama club and started from scratch to learn about theater. Recalling his first experience with drama, he says that it was full of surprises.

"Before university, I had no idea about what I was going to do in the future. With the drama club, I discovered a passion for the arts and decided to pursue drama as a lifelong career," says Jin.

That was back in 2005. Jin is now 29 and working with renowned Chinese theater director Tian Qinxin. But over the past decade, Jin has become a major promoter of his old drama club-the Tsinghua drama troupe established in the 1920s.

A scene from Our Middle Summer Night's Dream, written and directed by Jin Shifei, is performed by students from Tsinghua University. [Photo by Wen Ya/provided to China Daily]

Jin also founded Tsinghua Student Drama Association in 2014, a campus club for students who love original Chinese drama.

Before Jin graduated from Tsinghua University in 2013 with a master's degree in computer science and technology, he worked on 18 plays along with other club members, focusing on several different subjects, such as environment protection and campus love stories.

"Campus dramas are the future of Chinese theater. The drama club, which is a form of art education, nourishes students' interest in drama and offers them opportunities to perform onstage, to express their thinking, to enlighten both themselves and the audience," says Jin, who recently gave a speech at a theater forum in Beijing.

He says original works best showcase the talents of amateur actors, scriptwriters and directors. In June, Jin will lead students of Tsinghua University to participate in the original script writing competition held by Mai-Drama, a theater-promotion company that sponsored the forum.

Born in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jin formerly was a math teacher at a training school in Beijing. In 2016, he directed the original drama Lost and Found, which was performed and produced by Tsinghua University students; it won the top award at that year's Gold Hedgehog College Students' Theater Festival held in Beijing. The award gave Jin confidence to work as a director. This year, he also starts working with Wuzhen Theater Festival, a major annual event launched in 2013.

Jin Shifei, playwright/director. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Fan Xinying, the manager of Beijing Nine Theater, who helped launch the annual Gold Hedgehog College Students' Theater Festival since 2001, says more than 1,300 drama clubs from over 1,100 universities across China had participated in the theater festival until 2016.

"Students are creative and open-minded about theater. Though they were not theater majors and most will not work as professionals in theater after graduation, they are interested and passionate about theater. Every year, we are surprised to receive works that offer fresh perspectives about our societies and lives. It's quite inspiring," says Fan.

Jin points out that Tsinghua University has a successful history with original dramas. In 2001, an original play titled Zi Jing Hua Kai premiered at Tsinghua University, marking the university's 90th anniversary. Adapted from a Chinese movie, Roaring Across the Horizon, the play tells the story of China's first successful atomic test in the 1960s.

In 2013, another original play, Ma Lan Hua Kai, was staged on campus, which chronicles the life of Deng Jiaxian (1924-86), a leading nuclear-physics expert and a major contributor to China's nuclear-weapons programs. The play has toured nationally and has been staged 52 times. Jin says that the play has become a must-watch for Tsinghua University students.

"These stories, which are rarely told through commercial theatrical productions, are closely connected to Tsinghua University since many great Chinese scientists studied and worked there," says Jin. "The firsthand materials helped us tell a good story."

Cui Hao, playwright/director. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Like Jin, Cui Hao, 23, was not a theater major but now works at a theater company in Beijing.

The Beijing native, who became interested in theater in high school, is the leader of the drama club at Peking University, which was founded by famous Chinese director Ying Da, a psychology major at the university, in 1981.

Roar! Roar!, an original play directed by Cui, won awards at the Gold Hedgehog College Students' Theater Festival in 2014.

"Some of the members join us for fun while some are fully dedicated to the field, hoping to work with theater companies after graduation. Either way, they do it for pure passion," says Cui, adding that the average production cost of a play is 15,000 yuan ($2,200). The club doesn't sell tickets and the main revenue comes from donations after each show. Now, the club has over 300 members.

Besides regular training, the drama club of Peking University also invites veteran dramatists, including Chinese comedian actor-director Chen Peisi and actor-director Fang Xu, to give workshops to students.

The major challenges for campus drama clubs include the frequent changing of members and the lack of professional guidance, says Cui.

In June, Cui will organize a festival at which drama clubs of Beijing-based universities can showcase their works.

"There are many talented students who are not theater majors. We want to offer platforms for them to present themselves, and hopefully gain attention from professionals," says Cui.

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