Can a Sleepy Chinese Town Become a Cultural Mecca?

For Salon, Jonathan Kalb reports on the Wuzhen Festival, a new international theater festival being launched in a canal town in Zhejiang:

In a brand new, eye-popping, $67 million, 1135-seat Grand Theater designed by the renowned Taiwanese architect Kris Yao — a massively elaborate, jarringly tilted and filigreed structure completed only three years after planning for it began — a monumental, 8-hour magnum opus by China’s premiere playwright, Stan Lai, played to spellbound crowds, with scalpers getting up to 7000 RMB ($1,166) per ticket — about a month’s salary for an average urban theatergoer. There and in three other meticulously restored traditional theaters in town, five other prestigious productions from four countries also played to sell-out crowds, and panel discussions with the artists packed the venues through the afternoons.

A quaint converted warehouse space hosted a Young Playwrights Competition in which a dozen original plays by college-age authors competed for a prize of 200,000 RMB ($33,333)!

On top of all that, the first international Wuzhen Theatre Festival also featured a carnival component, with 71 different groups and individuals performing on the streets every day. A yellow-clad Brazilian band clanged and tooted past squinting concessionaires. A raucous Chinese domestic drama played out beside a public drinking fountain. French mimes on stilts spread mysterious silent warnings at storefronts. My favorite act was a lovely lone modern dancer who whirled on steps beside the canal, teasing carp with her bare feet and mesmerizing the passing gondola-drivers.

[…] China has experimented before with international theater festivals, notably in Beijing and Shanghai over the past decade, but it has never seen anything like this enterprise — an astonishingly well-financed, instantly credible play for global recognition and artistic legitimacy. The Wuzhen Festival leaders clearly want no part of the modest, slow startups this country has been used to. Their eyes are on dynamic and established Western festivals like Avignon, Spoleto and Edinburgh, and for the first time in this fast-changing land, their aspirations can’t be dismissed. [Source]

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