Setting the stage for success

By Mei Jia (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-14 07:23
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 Setting the stage for success

Director and producer Mei Shuaiyuan, who loves the legend and folklore associated with the country's scenic mountains and rivers, sees much potential in landscape shows. Provided to China Daily

The originator of the highly acclaimed Impression shows Mei Shuaiyuan is still creatively inspired by the country's folklore and stunning scenery. Mei Jia reports

Many people have heard of director Zhang Yimou's Impression series and some may even have seen one of the shows. But few know that the series is actually the brainchild of director and producer Mei Shuaiyuan.

He introduced the concept of an open-air performance with the landscape as a dramatic part of the show.

Mei loves the legends and folklore associated with the country's scenic mountains and rivers and over the last decade, the 53-year-old has staged many of the country's legends and folktales in the natural environment where they originated.

"The open-air show is an original Chinese production which strengthens the harmony between human beings and nature," Mei says. "Half of the work is done by nature."

Impression Liu Sanjie (2003), a collaboration with the director Zhang Yimou, was the first show of the series. It was a sensational success and Zhang went on to direct four other Impression shows.

In one of Mei's latest shows, The Fox Fairy on Mount Tianmen, Mei for the first time presents a musical. With leading Chinese composer Tan Dun as the music director and 530 performers, the show is based on a Hunan folktale about the forbidden love between a fox fairy and a woodchopper.

With an investment of 120 million yuan ($17.6 million), Mei built the central stage in a valley at the foot of Mount Tianmen in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province. When the show is performed at night, interlacing lights among the hilltops make the picturesque valley a natural and imposing stage set. At the climax of the show a 60-meter bridge spans the valley 40-m-high in the air providing a dramatic setting for the lovers to meet.

The show is subtitled in English and Korean.

Mei was born in Nandan, a mining area in northwestern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. His childhood experiences in this mountainous area fueled his imagination, providing constant inspiration for his creations.

At the age of 12, he was enrolled by a Guangxi theatrical troupe as an actor, where he indulged his appetite for reading and became a self-trained writer.

"There was a small library next to my dormitory. And the wall between the two had a big hole in it. I'd always step through the hole to read at night," Mei recalls.

He started publishing novels and short stories at the age of 17. Later he received professional training at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts and Wuhan University. He says he found he had a natural talent for writing plays. "I wrote one play a year. Many won national awards," he says.

In the latter half of 1980s Mei ran a successful advertising company in his spare time and with this experience he was appointed president of the acting troupe in 1994.

Mei's life took a new turn in 1999. Though doing well as an administrator he wanted a breakthrough in his artistic career.

"I wanted something big and unprecedented," he says.

He decided to create a show about the Lijiang River in Guilin based on the legends of Liu Sanjie, a folksinger who sang to help the poor, and he pondered how to stage the legends amongst the landscape.

"The scene of the fishermen's boats floating on the Lijiang River is a performance in itself. The scenery and Liu Sanjie are name cards of Guangxi," Mei says.

He proposed the project to local officials after six months' preparation.

Mei invited Zhang Yimou, Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue, later known as the "Impression Troika", to produce the show. In 2009 alone, Impression Liu Sanjie made a profit of 55 million yuan and the show's success dispelled any investor uncertainty about the commercial viability of the new form of performance, and started a craze in producing similar shows.

Mei says that, "I don't like repetition and franchised my shows. I want every show of mine to be artistically unique."

Having rejected 80 percent of local government's invitations to create open-air shows for them, he currently runs eight shows over the country, saying with unrestrained pride.

Mei says he still sees lots of potential in landscape shows and says: "Though I've moved to Beijing, most of the time I'm away from home and busy exploring the cultural and tourist values of the country's mountains and rivers."

 Setting the stage for success

Composer Tan Dun (third from left) and Mei Shuaiyuan (right) discussing the musical The Fox Fairy on Mount Tianmen. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 06/14/2010 page8)