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Wuzhen dares to dream big

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-20 14:31
Wuzhen dares to dream big

A riverside performance takes place as part of the theater festival in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province. Photos by Li Yan / For China Daily

A new theater festival, set in an unlikely locale, has attracted not only old pros and budding talents, but ordinary arts lovers and even people who never set foot in the theater, by forgoing superfluous glitz and emphasizing the allure of the art form itself.

On a riverbank in a small town about one hour to the southwest of Shanghai lies a Western male who seems to be inebriated and muttering something. A growing crowd gathers around him. Suddenly, he blurts out something - in perfect Mandarin. People are bewildered, trying to figure out why he is here and what kind of person he is.

Then, someone in the audience realizes that this foreign guy is not a real drunk, but an actor impersonating one.

Wuzhen dares to dream big

This is just one of some 500 acts that took place throughout Wuzhen West, during the 11-day Wuzhen Theater Festival, which ends on May 19. Just as the festival took the glamor of performing arts from big cities to the small town of Wuzhen, the carnival section of the festival took the art form further, from indoor venues onto the streets so that residents and tourists wandering the cobblestone paths would bump into something unexpected: something, like the seeming bacchanalian, that reflects our lives but in a dreamy and surreal manner. The barflies hanging out at the waterholes along the river would probably be amused at the sight of a foreigner acting like a typical Chinese drunk, a reminder of a fictional character in a Lu Xun short story.

"Beyond the real, all Wuzhen's a stage." So goes the slogan of the festival, a debut event that has taken the press and participants by pleasant surprise. Wuzhen is already a hotspot for tourism with its Jiangnan-style (Yangtze River Delta) architecture and aesthetics, and the art of the theater, especially plays, has added a sparkle to what is already a diamond in the canal-festooned landscape of rice paddies and black roofs on white walls. Like the lyricism of the watery reflections of the bridges and riverside bungalows, the reenactment of life on the stage is dreamlike.

Nothing encapsulates this spirit better than A Dream Like a Dream, Stan Lai's eight-hour epic that opened the festival. But days after many watched this marathon piece, they still felt as if they were in a reverie, walking up and down the narrow streets and bumping into veteran theater artists and young peers - and of course the occasional street performers surrounded by a throng of festival participants and tourists and surprising them with a flash of theatrical ingenuity.

The person who hatched this intricate dream is Huang Lei, a movie and television star who came to Wuzhen in 2003 to direct and star in a TV series called Lost Time. A popular hit, it helped propel the small town that had recently started promoting tourism as its pillar industry into a wider public vista, and Huang has been associated with the place ever since, building a vacation home and opening a bar, also called Lost Time.

Photos: Wuzhen Theatre Festival, A Small Town's Ambition

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