A black backdrop, several stools, script in hand-this is probably the most minimalist mise-en-scene that ever existed. Yet with minimum expenditure, the crew was able to stage the play while displaying the same intensity to lure the audience into the story.
Play reading, a form of drama that may not be so familiar to Chinese audiences, has been the focus of the Sound and Fury Play Reading Festival since it was founded in the country last year.
"With this format, we hope to draw attention to the script itself, and present the entirety of the script in a simplistic way," director and co-curator of the festival, Chen Ran, says.
This year saw the second edition of the festival run from Oct 11 to Sunday, when it visited the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Qinhuangdao in Hebei province, to present play-reading performances, panel discussions and workshops.
Playing a major role in the festival since its inception, Chen directed The Sewing Group, a play by British writer E.V. Crowe, which she described as an "intensive learning experience".
"I feel this festival is like a boot camp for us. We started rehearsing on Oct 7. Each actor performs two to three roles, and each director is responsible for an entire play," Chen says.
"Within such a short period, I needed to lead the actors to read and understand the script, and then turn the two-dimensional script into a three-dimensional stage production. It's very challenging."
The Sewing Group opens with a scene of needleworkers working in a country house in preindustrial England. However, the scenes and dialogue exhibit certain irregularities as the mystery gradually unravels.
Since the script contained puns that indicate the truth beneath the facade of country life, Chen had to discuss the script with the translator throughout the rehearsal process.
The translator is Chen Si'an, who is also founder of the festival. She was inspired to launch the festival after noticing how emerging playwrights often lacked resources. Play reading offers them the chance to stage their own story, identify problems and improve the script along the way."During the rehearsal process, playwrights get to work with directors and actors, reflect on their own writing and concepts, and then polish the script, which is helpful to their comprehensive growth in the future," Chen Si'an says.
Director Chen Ran concurs that the experience was also collaborative and rewarding: "One thing I especially like about theater work is that you are never fighting alone. To stage a play, we must work as a team, eating, resting and rehearsing together. Working to such a rigorous schedule can really help you realize your potential."
This year's festival saw four plays being staged, two written by Chinese playwrights and two from the United Kingdom. Support from the British Council made it possible for British plays to be staged in China, and for the playwrights to attend the performances and share their expertise.
When The Sewing Group was staged in Beijing on Oct 13, the writer sat in the audience to watch the performance.
"It was completely mind-blowing and thrilling. I found it very exciting to watch the play that I thought I was familiar with, reflected back in another language, another experience," Crowe says.
As far as the festival goes, Crowe says play reading is a great way to see new work without having to stage a full production, and a "brilliant way to connect British and Chinese writers".
"We really believe that arts and culture are one of the most powerful ways to bring together our people and to build more understanding," says Danny Whitehead, British Council's deputy country director for China.
"It's all about dialogue and about forming connections for mutual exchange. And I think one of the best things about the festival this week is you see that dialogue and you see those connections running all the way through it."