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Huichang theater villages a stage for more vibrant future

Renowned director brings plays to remote ancestral home, boosts locals' prospects

By SUN SHANGWU,TANG YING and DENG ZHANGYU in Huichang, Jiangxi | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-05-22 07:10
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Chi Tao (center) performs the leading role of a localized tea-picking opera version of Stan Lai's Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. WANG KAI/FOR CHINA DAILY

Eight years ago, Chi Tao experienced his first taste of modern theater in his hometown of Huichang, Jiangxi province. Then 22 years old, the budding performer from a caichaxi, or traditional tea-picking opera, troupe found himself baffled by the contemporary play.

Understanding it was virtually impossible, the thought of one day playing such a role seemed a distant dream to him.

But Chi now has the leading role in a localized version of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. The work, which combines comedy and tragedy, is a signature play of United States-born, Taiwan-based theater director and playwright Stan Lai, who helped establish a village theater in Huichang.

On weekdays, Chi performs with the Huichang Tea Harvest Opera Theater, a local troupe that specializes in Gannan tea-picking opera, a traditional form of Chinese opera that has flourished in the region for centuries. On weekends, Chi simply crosses a bridge from where his troupe performs to the Huichang Theater Village, where he transforms into a contemporary actor, performing for drama lovers from across the country.

The changes seem unreal to the young man and he still feels a bit nervous about them. "I often doubt whether I'm good enough to deliver a perfect contemporary performance," he said.

Since the grand opening of the Huichang Theater Village in January, about 500 plays have been staged there. Drama performances from China, Italy, France, and Spain have attracted more than 3.5 million theatergoers. The small county in a mountainous area is usually associated with rice noodle production and agricultural products, but now it is being related to the arts.

Lai said the Huichang Theater Village is an experiment to explore through art and culture other possibilities in the region, which is little known to outsiders due to its inconvenient transportation.

Lai's father was born and raised in Huichang. After his father left for Taiwan and then the US, Lai did not visit his ancestral home until 1997, when he reconnected with his uncle.

"When I returned to Huichang and imagined the roads my father walked, the alleys he passed through, and the old house he lived in, I felt a special connection to this land," Lai said.

He believed that establishing a theater village could provide a new future for local youths. Many of them had limited life choices, either working in factories in coastal cities, earning money and returning home to marry, or going to college and never coming back.

In 2015, Lai started a project to stage his own theater productions in his hometown every year. He has worked with the local government since 2017 to transform an old community into the Huichang Theater Village.

The community used to be inhabited by families, with many houses historical buildings, including the old residences and ancestral halls of prominent families. Some of these halls were renovated and repurposed as theaters. A printing factory in the area was converted into the Hui Theater, where renowned plays are often staged, including the tea-picking opera version of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land.

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