What Makes Chinese Audiences Appreciate Polish Theatre?
‘Krystian Lupa’s Woodcutters hit the bull’s eye of the problems faced by Chinese intellectual elites. No accusation has yet been formulated so precisely against us!’, Marcin Jacoby speaks with Qian Cheng, the director of the Tianjin Grand Theatre.
Marcin Jacoby: For the past few years, the names of Polish directors have regularly appeared in the repertoire of the Tianjin Grand Theatre, which you are the head of. Where does this interest of yours in Polish theatre originate from?
Qian Cheng: Polish culture has a very significant place in the world, and especially in the domains of theatre, opera and contemporary dance. But the Chinese are not aware of this. I once spoke to a renowned Chinese theatre director and together we wondered what is the source of this power that Polish theatre has. There are a lot of interesting things taking place in South America, but for me there is nothing more interesting than that which can be seen on Polish stages. For me it’s quite natural. Quality is what is most important and it is what I was observed here, in theatre from Poland. The Adam Mickiewicz Institute also has its own input, and your Project Asia endeavour. It is rare to come across institutions which are so committed to supporting and promoting culture.
When it comes to historic experiences, and the fate of the Polish intelligentsia, I notice quite a few similarities between Poland and China. Perhaps this is the reason why it is easier for us to collaborate. When we began our exchange with the showings of Elżbieta Sikora’s Madame Curie and two performances by Krystian Lupa – Persona: Marylin and Woodcutters – it was as if a gate to a wholly new universe opened itself up for me, a world that was previously inaccessible and completely unknown. Of course, I had heard of Fryderyk Chopin, but I knew very little about Poland itself. I came here, I learned more about the history and I discovered a very rich culture. I believe that the Chinese audience shares this interest.
The Woodcutters performance, which you mention, depicts the downfall of European intellectual elites. Is that an interesting subject from the point of view of the Chinese audience?
When Lupa presented Woodcutters in Beijing, a very famous Chinese TV presenter commented that if a bomb was to explode during the two days of the showings, then the world of Chinese culture as such would end, because all of its most important figures were there in the audience. All those accused by Thomas Bernhard and Krystian Lupa in the Woodcutters were there, watching the play and humbly listening to allegations which targeted the world of Chinese culture. It was the most precise blow this cultural world ever received! It was very inspiring to examine this detailed analysis of history performed by the actors of the Teatr Polski from Wrocław – Woodcutters is a vivisection of the intellectual landscape of this part of Europe. We never saw anything like it! Lupa himself admitted that both Person and Woodcutters actually incited a more fruitful debate among Chinese intellectuals than among Polish ones.
And this year, the Tianjin Grand Theatre is preparing to push Polish culture from April through to December. What other stagings from Poland are going to be brought to the Chinese audience?
I would like to invite Lupa’s staging of Heroes' Square, (A)pollonia by Warlikowski, The Martyrs by Jarzyna, Paweł Passini’s Hideout, and the opera The Passenger by Weinberg. I am also thinking about Twarkowski’s Acropolis and a few other productions and concerts by the Sinfonia Varsovia with Krzysztof Penderecki. We would like the sketch out the entire landscape for the public. It was a community initiative from below and real interest that lead to such a large scale presentation of Polish culture. It is a unique project which we are working on right now, and it is also a way of reaching out to the Chinese intellectual elite, whose interest in Polish culture keeps on growing.
How did your own fascination with the theatre begin?
As a teenager I worked in a metal processing factory in the south of China. My family is from the region, and that is where they also live. Later, I studied portrait painting at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, and memory of my student years was recently refreshed when I found my old notebook with sketches done some 30 years ago. I taught at a pedagogical school, and I conducted classes of listening to symphonic music, and finally, thanks to the famous conductor Li Delun, I obtained a job at the Beijing Concert Hall. The post of Beijing Philharmonic director had just become vacant, after the previous director prepared a politically incorrect display on Tibetan Buddhism.
The party had a programme of supporting culture, but in reality very little was realised. New cafés and restaurants were opening up all the time, but no one wanted to invest in culture. I wanted to change this.
Before I became the head of the concert hall, it would give about 60 concerts per year. Towards the late 90s, when the government introduced two labour-free days, the number went up to 510! We played concerts in the afternoons as well as in the evenings, we organised days with classical music, and the tickets sold very well, even those for standing places! And it was then that a new team emerged, and with it – new problems and new ideas for managing the concert hall. It was a time of difficult talks, and the situation got worse every day. In the meantime, I became the director of the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing, as well as the Grand Theatre of Nanjing Culture and Art Center. I also became the vice-president of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, my managing skills were apparently insufficient, and after one and a half years of directing the orchestra, I was arrested and sent to jail for 5 years. I was a very loudly commented on affair in the cultural world.
When I was freed in 2006, there was no place for me in Beijing anymore. So, I came back to Tianjin and there I began anew, organising cultural events in the theatre, opera, and music. China began to change, and each city had its own cultural ambitions, each city wanted its own stages and a theatre, but there were not enough professionals who could programme the repertoires. Theatres soon became a burden, seats were empty. A huge stage was built in Tianjin, too, and this became a great opportunity for me. I did not want to go commercial, I bet on the ambitious kind of art.
And was that a good strategy? Does culture play along with the Chinese system of business and politics?
When it comes to politics, every system has a place for showing significant works. Even that which was impossible to show some 20 or 30 years ago, such as art connected to sexuality, has now become standard. In classical music, theatre and in dance there is nothing to be censored, the government is open even towards problematic issues concerning religion.
And the economy? The problem lies here. The Chinese government devotes significant amounts to culture, but this money is not always invested in the most effective way. For the three years during which I managed the stage, I spent more than I was earning because quality is something that costs. We invited orchestras from Philadelphia, Chicago, Dresden, and we try to capture the newest trends and the latest phenomena in global culture. We do a lot with a small team, luckily our efforts are being noticed. We are judged very well. Audiences come to our theatre from across all of China.
The talk was conducted by Marcin Jacoby, December, 2015.
Written with the collaboration of Anna Legierska
Translated by Paulina Schlosser