The following review is made possible through a Critical Residency programme supported by
By Nabilah Said
(1,000 words, 6-minute read)
Experimental Chinese theatremaker Wang Chong presented a work-in-progress showing of his newest work, Made in China 2.0, at Asia TOPA in February. Taking the form of a lecture-performance, Made in China 2.0 sees Wang performing solo for the first time, reflecting on his past projects and his position as an artist from China working across the globe in current times. It is interspersed with found documentary footage and live video elements, a signature of the work of Beijing-based theatre company, Théatre du Rêve Expérimental, which he founded in 2008.
Wang is no stranger to controversy – his 2016 work titled Lu Xun, named after a famed 1930s Chinese writer and thinker, was banned by the Chinese government for being “too critical”. He says of his work The Revolutionary Model Play 2.0, which was part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015: “The creation process was very free. That’s why we were able to explore this taboo character, Madam Mao, which we wouldn’t be able to in China.”
ArtsEquator caught up with the theatremaker in Melbourne at Malthouse Theatre, where Made in China 2.0 was presented.
[The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
You’ve just finished the work-in-progress presentations as part of Asia TOPA – how are you feeling?
I am feeling great. Made in China 2.0 will probably be a 2021 Malthouse Theatre production and go on tour internationally. It’s hard work paid off. It’s not only hard work, it’s a whole new adventure for me. I am not a trained actor or playwright. And suddenly I have to do both, and do it in my second language! Luckily, I broke the ice and made it.
You’re known as an experimental theatre director, but in this show you’re performing solo for the first time. How does this work fit in your practice and what has the experience been like?
In this work I directly talk about my theatre practice and the tension of creating theatre (and dealing with) the authority. And of course I talk about my past works. When I present my work abroad, my international colleagues are always very interested in my past. How do you make such works in China? So I thought, why not make a show about it?
I’m not a ‘real’ performer, so there’s a lot of fear and worry along the way, before we started. But with the help of my co-director Emma Valente and dramaturg Mark Pritchard, I’m conquering my fears and stepping out of my comfort zone.
What does the title “Made in China 2.0” mean to you?
It’s sort of unpacking the stereotypes. What’s made in China are not only products – there are also other things, like theatre, and conscience. I want to shed light on other aspects of what’s made in China.
I try to label my works, especially whenever there isn’t a living playwright, with a “2.0”. That’s a series of works that I’m doing. For example, I did that with SIFA when I did The Revolutionary Model Play 2.0. The ‘2.0’ means we want to do something else with the material.
You did Little Emperors in 2017 at Malthouse Theatre as part of Asia TOPA as well. What was that experience like?
It was pretty good. Again we were doing something which was not directly possible in China – talking about the one-child policy which just ended in 2016. We worked with Chinese Australian and Australian colleagues. It was a truly international collaboration.
I read an interview where you used this word, “embarrassed” to describe how you felt about Little Emperors. Why did you describe it as embarrassing?
Because the play was describing myself. It was written by a Sydney-based Australian writer, Lachlan Philpott, but the experience was like self-exposure for me – you open yourself up for the audience to see.
Made in China 2.0 is similar, but deeper than that. I have been very vulnerable in making the work. The process was a bit embarrassing as well, but it’s turned out to be empowering.
What’s it like to talk about the government and other sensitive topics in your works, outside of your country?
I had a similar experience with Little Emperors and The Revolutionary Model Play 2.0. Yes, we were finally free to speak about many things which we couldn’t in China. But at the same time, the audience is different – they wouldn’t get 100% of the content. Maybe 80%. So the feedback, the reaction would be ‘compromised’ in a way.
Is there a desire for you to do these works in China?
Not now, because I want to do more coded works in China. Because you play safe. You don’t kill yourself. But at the same time, you express yourself in a smarter way. It’s like coding and decoding becoming like a game, or an aesthetic.
For those of us not familiar with your brand of Chinese experimental theatre, how would you describe it?
Contemporary, relevant, fresh… and provocative sometimes. I want to make works like these, but I don’t know if I have achieved it.
You’ve called the Beijing theatre scene “shallow and conservative” (it’s on your website). Does that still hold true?
Definitely. All my goals above are the opposite of what theatre still is in Beijing – irrelevant, not contemporary enough, not provocative.
What do people think about your work?
People are divided. Some people think my work is too provocative, too strong. Not relaxing enough, not entertaining enough. Too biased – because as an artist, you only tell, normally, one side of the truth. Too contemporary. Too much technology. These would upset a conventional audience.
But do you hope this will change?
Changing people is the most difficult thing. But in general, yes. Because it’s not only me (doing this kind of work), it’s also the larger environment, society. And a lot of international works are performed in China. So people will gradually realise what are the lies and what are the truths about theatre.
What’s next for Made In China 2.0?
We will make a plan for 2021. I hope it becomes my second work to be shown in Singapore.
Made in China 2.0 was presented at Malthouse Theatre from 27 to 29 February as part of Asia TOPA. Click here for more information.
For more ArtsEquator articles on Asia TOPA, click here.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.