Finding the right direction

Print Share Updated: 2022-01-21 14:31


Director and playwright Stan Lai speaks at Arts for a Shared Future, a three-day forum in Beijing, on Jan 14. CHINA DAILY

Theater experts gather to discuss industry issues at Beijing arts festival, Chen Nan reports.

What's the mission for a director who works in theater? It's different for every one, but Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas, who is the artistic director of the Eugene Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow, got his own answer decades ago after suffering from a throbbing toothache.

Then a young drama student, Tuminas went to see a dentist early on a rainy morning. While waiting to be seen, Tuminas saw an old woman through a big window, walking laboriously through the rain.

"She walked and stopped for a few minutes to take a break. One thing came to my mind: 'Who is enduring the most pain at that moment? Me or that woman?'" recalls Tuminas.

Soon, the dentist put an end to Tuminas' toothache, but the image of the woman remained, as he wondered about her feelings at that moment, about what happened to her after she arrived at her destination and even later in her life.

"The mission of a director working in the theater is to fully immerse themselves in a particular story and feel what the characters feel, express what they want to express. It's about telling other people's stories," says Tuminas, who later created a character based on the woman he saw.

He shared the story during a three-day forum, held from Friday to Sunday, titled Arts for a Shared Future, part of the ongoing 22nd edition of Meet in Beijing International Arts Festival.

Held at the Inside-Out Theater in Beijing, the forum gathered over 30 experts working in the field around the world to explore topics such as the development of theater amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector's relationship with technology and children's theater.

Tuminas, 70, was born in Kelme, Lithuania, and studied at the Conservatory of Lithuania from 1970-74. In 1978, he graduated from Russian Institute of Theater Arts. From 1979-90, he worked as a director at the State Academic Theater of Lithuania. In 2007, Tuminas took the helm at the Eugene Vakhtangov Theater as its artistic director.

In 2017, a play, titled Eugene Onegin, directed by Tuminas and performed by the Eugene Vakhtangov Theater, opened the Wuzhen Theater Festival, an annual event held in the ancient water town in Zhejiang province. Later, the play was staged in Beijing and Shanghai.


Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas addresses the forum over video link. CHINA DAILY

The director says he is currently working on a five-hour play adapted from War and Peace, a classic novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, which he hopes to bring to China when the pandemic is over.

"Tuminas was in Wuzhen in 2017 and we had a lovely talk," recalls director and playwright Stan Lai during the forum. Lai is one of the cofounders of Wuzhen Theater Festival. "Thanks to technology, we can still have conversations during the pandemic.

"What's the mission of a director working in theater? It's a question that I have been thinking about since 1983, when I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and received my PhD as a drama student," says Lai, 68. "I also asked myself questions about the function of theaters and which theater is the best. While I have found the answers to some of these questions, others remain unresolved."

He recalls once traveling to Amsterdam as a student to work in a small theater. There were 12 people working there and all of them spoke Dutch.

"They once produced a play about a bathroom attendant. As the story went on, I saw audiences laugh and cry with the characters. The audience gave the actors and actresses waves of applause, which I had never seen before. That's the kind of theater I was hoping to build," says Lai. "I want my plays to have a real connection with their audiences."

Lai also notes that he lives in Shanghai, a city which is home to 149 professional theaters, which stage 8,700 performances every year.

"You can watch the same plays as those in New York, which is a great thing for theatergoers. It also poses another question for Chinese directors: what kind of productions can we bring to our audiences?" Lai says.

To attract more young Chinese directors to create plays, Drum Tower West Theater, a small theater in downtown Beijing, has launched a project to support young Chinese directors in 2021 and in 2022, and the project will continue, according to Li Yangduo, founder of the theater, who attended the forum.

One of the most popular small private theaters in Beijing, Drum Tower West Theater, founded in 2013, has endured a tough time through the pandemic.

In April 2020, Li came up with the idea of selling cherries to solve the theater's financial difficulty. It was an idea based on a bookshop called Cherry Orchard, named, obviously, in Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's honor, inside the Drum Tower West Theater.

"Luckily, we've survived and the theater is still putting on shows," says Li. "Audiences, actors, actresses and directors are returning to the theater. Now, each performance is like a celebration and we will stage more new plays this year."

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn