Every time Dmitry Troyanovsky flies from the US to work in Shanghai, he must grapple with jet lag for one week before regaining his concentration and energy. That's a big challenge for a theater director, who typically only has one month to produce and rehearse a play before debuting to local audiences. From April 7 to 23, Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC) will stage a Chinese version of The Ugly One, written by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg and directed by Troyanovsky. The story revolves around an unattractive man who turns to plastic surgery, becomes a heartthrob but later finds out that many other people who also had the surgery look identical to him.
Director Dmitry Troyanovsky in a rehearsal of 4.48 Psychosis Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre
"The topic of the play translates well to the realities of today's life of China, the obsessive pursuit of beauty and physical perfection," Troyanovsky told the Global Times.
The Chinese Industrial Economy News reported that the number of Chinese who received plastic surgery had reached 8.5 million in 2016.
Troyanovsky first set foot in China in 2010, as a guest lecturer at Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA). The Ugly One is his third production in China.
In 2013 he directed STA students in the Chinese version of Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi's fairy tale The King Stag, and in 2015 he brought British In-Yer-Face Theatre representative Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis onto the stage with SDAC actors.
"I think it's interesting to be in Chinese theater right now, because anytime a society is going through big transformation, people are hungry for meaning, and some of them will find meaning in the theater; I'm sensing it here," said Troyanovsky, who is also an assistant professor of theater arts at Brandeis University.
The history of foreign directors working on Chinese-language plays in the Chinese mainland dates back to 1983, when American playwright Arthur Miller was invited to direct Death of a Salesman with actors at Beijing People's Art Theatre.
But in the last few years, China witnessed a surge in foreign theater talents working on Chinese productions following the success of the Chinese version of Broadway musicals Mamma Mia! in 2011 and Cats in 2012.
In 2010, SAIC Shanghai Culture Square (SCS), one of Shanghai's premier theaters for musicals, invited Björn Dobbelaere, head of musical theater at the Royal Academy of Music in London, as the conductor for Ultimate Broadway, a gala of Broadway and West End hit musicals featuring not only famous foreign singers but also emerging Chinese actors.
Following Ultimate Broadway, Dobbelaere directed a Chinese version of musical Spring Awakening at SCS 2016.
In 2013, SDAC started a long-term project working with foreign directors on Chinese versions of foreign plays; thus far it has produced Uncle Vanya, The School for Wives, Henry V and Dreamer, among others.
British director Paul Garrington, who directed the Chinese version of Mamma Mia! in 2011, started cooperation with SDAC in 2015 with a Chinese version of Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden. Most recently Garrington directed Stephen King's Misery, which will run at SDAC till Sunday.
(From top) Directors Björn Dobbelaere and Paul Garrington work with Chinese actors for various productions. Photos: Courtesy of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre and SAIC Shanghai Culture Square
New talent, new challenges
"Choosing plays that will be approved by the (Chinese) government can be a challenge and the censorship guidelines can be difficult to get my head around," Garrington told the Global Times.
Indeed, the Time magazine earlier reported that for the Chinese Mamma Mia!, a reference to male ejaculation and a play on words for "counter-revoluntionary" were cut.
"The main challenge to my working process is the language. As a director, I choose my vocabulary very carefully, as the nuance of a particular word I use can have a dramatic effect on the actor's understanding," Garrington said.
Dobbelaere, who was the only foreigner in the production team for Spring Awakening, said he was pleasantly surprised at "the real mutual respect, trust and friendship there was between the whole team and how that affects the hierarchy."
"The decision process might take slightly longer, but it's a collective solution to any issue, where everyone's arguments are heard and understood, whether it is something to be dealt with as a performer, or a technical issue on stage, or even related to marketing, administration, etc.," Dobbelaere said.
Troyanovsky noticed upon his first visit to China that local theater students are less exposed to classical or contemporary foreign plays and texts, yet he sees no difference in rehearsals in China from other parts of the world.
"I see the same strengths and weakness (in actors), I see the same dedication to creating the most interesting and convincing performance as they can," said Troyanovsky, noting that wherever and whenever he works, the most exciting moment is when his actors begin to "intuit" what he wants and come to him with ideas and proposals.
Chemistry between Troyanovsky and Chinese actors has reportedly worked out quite well, as the lead actress from 4.48 Psychosis won a Zuolin Drama Award for Best Actress in 2016; this time Troyanovsky will be collaborating with two of the four actors from 4.48 Psychosis in The Ugly One.
Tian Shui is a deputy manager who serves as supervisor for a series of Chinese-language plays directed by foreign directors, and is also the leading actress in Garrington's plays for SDAC.
"To select a foreign director is like to buy a lottery," Tian told the Global Times.
"Usually we don't have too much information to refer to other than their resume, and we try to see some video clips of their works before we make the decision," she said, explaining that SDAC prefers to choose directors who already have a powerful voice in their country and who have proved popular with young audiences.
Contact with the outside world
As for the choice of plays, Tian's venue prefers contemporary interpretations of classic scripts. In that way, Chinese theater actors and audiences alike can broaden their vision with knowledge not only of the root of foreign theatrical arts but also the direction they're heading.
Tian believes that SDAC has selected "the right lotteries" but admits to once failing when a French director quit from a collaboration one week before rehearsals started with an "excuse" of having health problems. SDAC quickly replaced him with another French director, as tickets had already started selling.
"We're really learning a lot from those good foreigner directors," Tian said. "For instance, Garrington requires every cast member to write a biography of their characters to help us understand their roles, and he even draws maps to illustrate the locations of a story and how it can affect a character's thinking and behaving."
Chen Wencong, a theater director and producer based in Shanghai, told the Global Times that he expects to see the "Chinese New Wave" of theater happen in the near future thanks to the extensive collaborations between Chinese and foreign creative talents.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong and Taiwan respectively embraced an era of New Wave in their respective local cinema scenes along with a rise of local directors shooting films observing their societies.
"I think the Chinese mainland is very likely to embrace its New Wave, because we're the very first generation who have had so much contact with the outside world," said Chen, who was born in the late 1980s and has worked on Chinese productions of immersive theater Sleep No More and musical Secret with foreign directors such as Felix Barrett and John Rando.
"Working with people from a different culture is always an opportunity for both sides to appreciate each other's cultures, and it also offers a great chance to look at our own culture through their lens," Chen added.
Dobbelaere likewise is sensing the country's great need for Chinese playwrights and composers to step up their efforts to write more and better materials.
Witnessing so many Western commercial productions coming to China, he is a bit worried whether China will be dominated by them, but nonetheless bestows confidence on original Chinese content.
"Continental Europe went through the same process over the last 30 years, and now we see extremely successful Dutch, German and French musicals, completely based on their own history, and even exported to the London and New York theaters. There is no reason why that could not also happen in China," Dobbelaere said.
Troyanovsky, whose works always have a musical sensibility, told the Global Times that he would love to try opera with his future partners in China.
Garrington is looking forward to a new production with SDAC in 2019 and also would like to see more work opportunities from other parts of China.
Dobbelaere said that he will start learning Putonghua soon so as to spend more time directing, conducting and teaching in China.
"I would advise any foreign artist to come to Shanghai and China, and preferably alone, if you have the chance. It's a priceless experience. You will be welcomed with open arms and extreme kindness. And you will be inspired as an artist, by learning so much about the subtleties and details of the Chinese culture and lifestyle," Dobbelaere said.