Theater director enjoys overseas success

Director Tian Qinxin at a rehearsal of her latest play Romeo and Juliet.
Director Tian Qinxin at a rehearsal of her latest play Romeo and Juliet.

Before going to watch the opera La Boheme at the Metropolitan on April 2, director Tian Qinxin walked along bustling Broadway like any first-time tourist in New York. As she dropped into a small book store, a poster on the wall caught her eye immediately. It was Ute Lemper in the musical Chicago.

Lemper played the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago in both London and New York, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for her performance. Tian loves her so much that she wanted to buy the poster. "Sorry," the owner said. It was his own treasure collected eight years ago. But he allowed her to take a photo.

That pleasant surprise Tian had at the small store was just one highlight of her first trip to the United States.

Tian used to believe she had a certain bond with the United Kingdom, because it was the first foreign country she visited in 1993. She returned there several times and watched a lot of shows, and she also worked on a young playwright workshop project with the National Theatre of Scotland in 2012.

But she was "overwhelmed" when she realized that two of her major works would run in the US almost at the same time. One represented China in a show at the prestigious Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The other toured Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and New York for seven shows.

From March 27 to 30 at the Kennedy Center, her production Green Snake immersed the audience in an old romantic Chinese myth that involves two female snake spirits who take human form and respectively fall in love with a scholar and a monk. The result leaves both goddess and mortals beyond redemption.

Alicia Adams, vice-president of the Kennedy Center and curator of the World Stages International Theater Festival, wants to bring together some of today's most exciting theatrical visionaries. She asked China's Ministry of Culture for recommendations and also asked Alison M. Friedman, an experienced American curator who has done lots of Chinese projects, who can represent China's contemporary theater. Both of them gave her the name Tian Qinxin. After watching Green Snake when it premiered at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March 2013, Adams decided at once to invite Tian.

The performance was as successful as it was at the Hong Kong Arts Festival and Shanghai Arts Festival last year. Many of audience members stayed to ask her questions at the after-show talk.

"I did not expect American audiences to enjoy the story so much. They can totally understand it, just the same as Chinese audiences. It was like I was sitting in the theater in Beijing," Tian says. "The only difference is that Americans are more open to expressing their love and sadness while watching."

On March 29, the other play Stunning Beauty started to tour the US West Coast. It adapts the story of a famous courtesan Sai Jinhua (starring arguably China's most popular actress Liu Xiaoqing) whose marital life influenced China's diplomatic relations with foreign countries in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The story also resonated with the Western audience. The courtesan could speak several European languages and accompanied her diplomat husband to Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. When the eight-power allied force invaded Beijing in 1900, she went to negotiate with the German command.

Both the green snake and the courtesan are active and "noisy" women who are bold to pursue the life or the person they want, but Tian herself is different-passive and quiet since her youth.

Born in 1969 to a painter mother and a military father in Beijing, Tian believes her natural gift was painting. But her mother thought it would be too hard for a woman to be an artist, so she sent the 11-year-old Tian to a boarding school to learn traditional Chinese opera, which she thought fit girls better.

Obviously, the mother did not know her girl. Tian says that she really did not like performing onstage.

Traditional Chinese opera has different set roles and every young student started to be trained in one type from the very beginning. Tian was a dao ma dan, literally, "knife, horse, woman"-the female martial role who always fights onstage. That was so not her-she ranked among the last three in the class of 70 students.

"Whenever I was waiting on the side of the curtain, I felt myself trembling," she remembers.

After graduating from the opera school, she followed her heart to receive training at the Central Academy of Arts and Design for two years and audited some courses at the Beijing Film Academy.

But the seven years in opera school gave her a love for the theater. "I don't know how to perform but really enjoyed watching the plays," she says. Meanwhile, she read many Chinese classics and always imagined putting those stories onstage. In 1991, she applied to the directing department of the Central Academy of Drama, eager to be a person "standing behind the stage".

But her passive personality took her away from theater after graduation in 1995. She left Beijing to escape from a failed relationship.

She joined an advertising company in Shenzhen, some 2,400 kilometers south of the capital. "I did a good job there and what I learned in the advertisement business even helps me in directing drama today. But Shenzhen is a very commercial city. No theater and no friends. Suddenly I realized that theater is my real love and I cannot live without it," Tian says.

"What's more, I had held too much emotion inside and I need a way to let it out."

She returned to Beijing in 1997 and put all her passion into her first production, Severance (Breaking Wrist), a modern interpretation of a historical story that celebrates love and life.

"It was hard time. I lost my job. My parents didn't understand why I went to Shenzhen nor why I came back. I felt shame seeing my teachers. The worst was I cannot forget that (lost) love," she adds.

"Finally, I heard the voice from my heart saying that I must do this play, as a kind of ending ceremony."

Her script moved a friend who had also ended a 10-year relationship. He put up 200,000 yuan ($31,984) as a sponsor.

That tragedy was a huge success. It impressed Zhao Youliang, then president of Central Experimental Theater (the predecessor of the National Theater Company of China), who went to backstage to ask whether she would like to join the company.

"It was totally unexpected. Really? Can I?" The young director could not believe it and did not take it seriously.

The next year, Tian's second play, Peach Blossom at the Post, again caught Zhao's attention. He went to her again.

Thus Tian joined the country's leading drama company and soon directed her signature work Between the Living and the Dead in 1999. Adapted from the eminent woman writer Xiao Hong's (1911-1942) novel of the same title, the play created a new style of presenting Chinese rural people and life.

Between the Living and Dead earned her dozens of awards and high box-office revenue. Ever since, she has kept a comfortable rhythm producing acclaimed works.

In the male-dominated theater world, Tian's solid background in art and traditional Chinese opera creates a distinct style combining feminine delicacy and intense stage power. Her works feature strong visual theatrical effects, physical movements and a traditional Chinese aesthetics. She loves and is good at telling a classical or historical story in a contemporary or even avant-garde way.

In 2000, Tian was introduced to Buddhism when she visited the other renowned Chinese theater maestro, Stan Lai, in Taipei in 2000.

Later she regularly went to study Buddhism at the Lama Temple and Guanghua Temple in Beijing and participate in rituals. Her works after 2008 started to explore the relationship between the God and humans.

In Green Snake, she presents a complete Buddhist ritual on stage.

During a rehearsal of her latest play Romeo and Juliet in late December, an actor came in looking depressed. He told Tian that his aunt was diagnosed cancer and was expected to die in a few months. Tian's first reaction was to introduce him to the Guanghua Temple.

On the way back from the US, Tian received confirmation that a popular actor would perform in her next work: It tells the story of Li Shutong (1880-1942), a famous scholar, musician, artist, dramatist who finally converted to Buddhism.