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Royal Court: Developing New Writing Theatre Project in China

Theatre, like literature, sometimes is referred to as the mirror of society. Playwrights may then be considered as the ones giving voices to the figures in the mirror. What are the voices of contemporary China? How can they be heard? An observation of the role of playwrights, especially the young, emerging ones in China nowadays may shed some light on these questions. This time we speak to Elyse Dodgeson, International Director of Royal Court Theatre, as she brings a New Writing Theatre project to China for the first time.

A Quick Look at Theatrical Sector in China

From voices of the government’s propaganda agenda to individuals in a relatively free market looking for dramatic content, playwrights in China have seen huge changes in the recent decades. Until the early 90’s, making performing arts productions was the job of multiple levels of state-owned troupes, and theirs only. There wasn’t much of an open environment for independent artists, including playwrights. Being a professional playwright meant that you were a graduate from one of the few drama academies in China and then were employed by one of the state-owned theatre troupes permanently. Since then, with the restructuring of a few pioneering troupes, the role of playwrights has been gradually freed from the state-owned production system. After decades of government dominance, the performing arts market emerged in response to audience needs in first-tier Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, looking for new voices and diverse content. Nowadays an increasing number of Chinese playwrights choose to work independently, having the opportunity to work with various production houses from national theatre institutions to private production companies.

Yet this change does not necessarily guarantee a much improved environment for playwrights. The lack of literary agents or the protection of an independent guild in China can be further difficulties for the playwrights to overcome. Though Chinese theatres are desperately looking for new content and creative voices, most opportunities go to the established playwrights, leaving a big gap for the development of emerging playwrights.