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In Wuzhen, all the world's a stage

By Cheng Yuezhu | China Daily | Updated: 2023-11-14 07:20
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A bird's-eye view of the water town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang province.

Take a detour from the bustling streets of Wuzhen in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, and you are likely to find yourself in one of many quiet alleyways that dot its canals and stone-paved paths.

One of them, Hongchang Long, is particularly popular with visitors, who can often be seen strolling or taking photos, drawn by the alley's unusual dimensions — it is 81.5 meters in length, but, at most, only 1.5 meters in breadth.

Paved with gray flagstones and flanked by the brick walls of ancient courtyards that rise 6 meters in height, when they look up, visitors only see a narrow strip of the sky, occasionally concealed by overhanging branches from the gardens on the other side of the walls.

One snowy day last year, when director Stan Lai, who is also co-founder and director of the Wuzhen Theater Festival, emerged from the Shen Estate Teahouse Theater, which lies just to the right of the alleyway and saw it in its wintry splendor, he had an idea.

This was to find a young director willing to take on the challenge of putting on a play in the alley. "But how could anyone stage a play in such a long, narrow space? It seemed like an impossible task," he says.

A boat with installations from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

Then, this year, Huang Lei, co-founder and producing director of the festival, challenged Lai to create a site-specific production.

The two had collaborated on a conceptual play, Sleepwalk, in 2014. It was staged in an old house in Wuzhen and wasn't ticketed or promoted. When people walked in, they stumbled upon the actors, who would offer to guide them through the house and tell them a story.

Lai accepted the challenge and asked Huang to find a similar kind of house for the new production, but then quickly changed his mind. "Three minutes later, I texted back saying there was no need. I'd found the space, which was Hongchang Long alley. I'd also found the 'young director' — myself."

Actors perform as tour guides in Stan Lai's site-specific play The Long, Narrow Passageway.

That "impossible task" and Lai's 41st production premiered at this year's 10th Wuzhen Theater Festival. Called The Long, Narrow Passageway, it begins by dividing the audience into two groups.

They then follow two "tour guides", who impart the alley's history. The groups enter from opposite ends of the alley, eventually meeting in the middle. There, the guides argue with each other about the correct direction of the tour, and discover in the process that they are actually the younger and older versions of the same person, and that they are meeting across time.

Following this encounter, the audience is taken into the Shen Estate Teahouse Theater, where the two versions of the same individual engage in conversations and debates about subjects including happiness, aging and the possibilities of life.

Lai says that he was allowed the freedom to convey his feelings without inhibition, and to drift in and out of dramatic structure for the production.

"Here at the festival, it doesn't really matter what genre or format the work you're seeing takes. What truly matters is how you feel when you see it," Lai says.

For its 10th edition, this year's festival is host to a range of international productions, some of which have also used Wuzhen's theater venues as settings.

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