Unlike most arts troupe directors, Zhao Chuan, founder of underground theater troupe Grass Stage, the name borrowed from China’s ancient wandering troubadours, has never bothered recruiting beautiful actresses. Instead, he wants average-looking people (or even ugly people) to play parts in Shanghai’s burgeoning grass roots theater scene.
The theater scene in Shanghai today, “is like a gold rush,” says Zhao Chuan. “People are seeking quick money. It’s called ‘white collar’ theater. They create what can sell. Theater with more form and thinking won’t sell well, so they can’t do those there. So we do them.”
Without any formal drama education, Zhao Chuan started his love affair with script writing at his late 30s. Feeling that pretty, professional actors are too good to be real, Zhao Chuan and other drama advocates co-founded Grass Stage, a non-profit “underground” theater group, to reenact the average person’s “anonymous” life, affected by China’s ever-changing ideologies and to “show the beauty of those who are not beautiful enough [to perform in mainstream theaters],” explains Zhao Chuan. “Theater guidelines say ‘no vulgarity and no politics,’ but for me, it’s vulgar not to be political.”
Speak your mind
Different from directors who always tell actors exactly what to do and what to say, Zhao Chuan wants everyone who performs to express themselves their way.
“We want to resolve the problem of ordinary people feeling uncomfortable to present their own thoughts. With the help of our drama performances, everyone is able to open up in public, and let their own voice be heard,” he says.
Founded in 2005, Grass Stage has been a platform for nearly 200 amateur actors for performing drama. Yet, only a few original actors remain in the group. “There are too many reasons for that,” says Zhao Chuan. “For example, a friend of mine used to come here once a week, but he had never shown up again since taking on a new job.” In Shanghai, being an artist or actor is still only a full-time job for a lucky few.
Despite a few minor losses along the way, Zhao Chuan says they don’t get him down. “As long as [the actors] benefit from their experience in Grass Stage, that’s good enough for me.”
Drama for the masses
Along with bringing ordinary people on stage, Zhao Chuan also works hard to bring drama to the public sphere, especially to China’s countryside.
“If you ask a farmers to buy tickets, he will never watch a drama in his life,” he says. “I want to create a space for them [to watch a drama for free].”
Zhao Chuan once tried to bring the concept of dramatic theater to a small village in Zhejiang province. Bringing their own stage lights from Shanghai, Grass Stage members managed to pull off their first rural drama show in an outdoor basketball field.
Their performance attracted hundreds of villagers.
Zhao Chuan recalls how “a motorcycle carrying four people rushed onto the field stage, took a quick glance at the actors, and then drove away after loudly stating their conclusion: ‘not so interesting.’”
“However, the next day,” Zhao Chuan continues, “a middle-age woman came and complimented us. She even gave each performer a thorough review of their performance.”
Based on this experience, Zhao Chuan insists that drama is not so complicated, and can be understood by people with less exposure to art.
“If that woman could understand our show, so can the rest. It is a test for us to see whether our theater work can talk to people from the countryside.”
Together with free drama performances for farmers, over the past two years Grass Stage has also run several shows in urban communities to raise funds for Sichuan earthquake victims. They’ve also cooperated with other troupes for Shanghai’s first Fringe festival in 2009, performing a show called “Lu Xun 2008” in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo.
Photo courtesy of the Grass Stage