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  Beijing Scene

Experimental Theater Gets Busy in Beijing

Every Friday night, Central Academy of Drama students practice their craft at Busy Bee Bar

There aren't any heavy-metal bands or Rage Against the Machine videos playing at Busy Bee Bar tonight. Instead, Stravinsky's angst-ridden concertos greet the artiste-dominated audience as they slouch in their seats. Microphones and amplifiers usually set up for live rock shows are unplugged and the main stage lights dimmed. Only soft track-lighting glinting off of posters, candles quivering on tabletops, and a small overhead lamp illuminate the off-the-beaten-track venue where the experimental theater group Double X Productions is stretching the boundaries of contemporary theater in Beijing.

Tonight's show is Closed Space, a skit featuring Central Academy of Drama students Zhang Che, 27, and Tang Huiqing, 24. It is one in a series performed by academy students at Busy Bee since last April.

Just as the crowd begins to murmur with restlessness, Tang, a sturdy woman with chin-length hair and high cheekbones, emerges from behind the bar. She has just changed out of blue jeans and a sweatshirt into silk stockings and a floor-length black gown. The lights begin to dim. She sits before a boudoir mirror applying make-up, then turns and arches like a swan until her hair falls into a basin.

Playing the role of her disillusioned lover, Zhang enters, rolls up his sleeves and washes her hair. Zhang takes the audience back to 1993, the year the story of their love began.

"I only had enough money to buy her noodles," he says. "Love is like that. You believe in it and it flies away."

Zhang, a handsome, dark-skinned young man with a crew-cut, is wearing faded jeans, leather boots and an army-green sweatshirt. He tells the love story in spurts, hitting the audience with staccato, angst-filled phrases.

"It was in 1993 that I found love, and in 1993 that I lost love," he explains, before continuing the story through movement. He portrays the loss with painful, downcast eyes and long silences as he gently caresses his lover's hair. Tang's character remains silent throughout the skit, a patient receptacle for his pain, until the very end when she stands on the make-up table, towering above him. She then wraps her lover's entire head in bandages and tells her version of their story by slowly repeating "In 1993, in 1993, in 1993" over and over as the lights go down.

"Closed Space is a love story. That means that it is totally ambiguous," Zhang explains. "In each performance, we tell the story three times and the ending keeps on changing. That's love - today you see it one way, tomorrow you see it another."

The skit, which lasts only a few minutes, is poignant and well executed, a cunning scheme for introducing the MTV, sound bite-generation to experimental theater.

An entire bar of teenagers and twentysomething beer drinkers are absolutely silent for the 15-minute performance. Chinese men in dark business suits stop their conversations, and even the kids with long hair in heavy-metal t-shirts are concentrating on the performance, perhaps the ultimate test of the troupe's stage presence.

Double X Productions personifies and epitomizes a new wave of creative energy in China as it looks to define a space outside government-subsidized theater.

"There is no market for our performances, but even if there was, we wouldn't perform for money. We just perform in bars and that makes what we do the most basic, pure form of art," Zhang asserts.

All of the actors with Double X Productions perform unpaid. As such, the shows at Busy Bee are free, unlike the venue's weekly rock concerts which can cost as much as RMB50 per person.

Jilin province-native Zhang, a set design major at the academy, creates sets for other people's productions in order to fund his own projects. Most recently he helped build the much-acclaimed set for last year's production of Laoshe's Teahouse, directed by Lin Zhaohua at Beijing People's Art Theater. In 1997, he had the opportunity to work with director Mou Sen, who first introduced experimental theater to China in the late 1980s, on a piece called Sentiment. Zhang came to Beijing after graduating high school in 1990 with dreams of becoming a painter. He studied painting on his own until 1996 when he began noticing the work of directors like Mou Sen. Ultimately, he was inspired enough to switch over to theater design and enrolled in the academy. Zhang says throughout his venture into experimental theater his schoolmates have been his greatest source of support. Few professors at the academy, however, have come to his performances.

Zhang remains critical of what passes for avant-garde theater in China. "Very few people in Chinese theater are willing to try something new," he laments.

Frustrated with the dearth of innovations, he started Double X Productions in 1999 with fellow students and began doing shows at Busy Bee in an attempt to redefine contemporary theater. Performance art has been gaining ground in Beijing's art scene since the late 1990s, with performers like Luo Zidan staging events at art openings and local clubs.

Unlike all the other acts in town, most performance art in Beijing happens spontaneously, often with only a few days' notice to skirt authorities who have been known to shut down events. Double X Productions, on the other hand, have been holding performances at Busy Bee on most Fridays for almost a year. With skit titles like Nightmare, Puke, Sticky Liquid, Sanitary Science and The Final Day of 2000, the troupe brings a level of theatrical training that makes the performances unlike anything else in the city's underground art scene.

"Performance is the best word for what we do," says Zhang. "I don't want to define our work as theater because it needs freedom to move. These days in China, most forms of art - painting, rock and roll, and film - are developing, but theater is totally stagnant. Not only that, but it is losing interest among audiences."

So Zhang masterfully packs what his audience might otherwise consider an anachronistic art form in between live bands at an indie-cred bar and makes it fresh.

"My themes always come back to the most basic human experience," Zhang asserts. "Are you happy today? Is your love life smooth? Is your heart joyous? There are so many circumstances that shape us. The big city throws us off. I go back to basic themes and question how we are living."

Once Closed Space ends, Zhang and his troupe pack it up. The TV comes back on and the place grows brighter. The majority of those in the audience are busy ordering drinks and exchanging thoughts on the show. The performance has generated controversy, and no one can agree on its message.

This suits Zhang just fine.

"I don't want every person to watch my shows and immediately understand. I want people to watch and hate it," he says, laughing. "Or they may like it, and it may be a month later or a year later, but suddenly, one day, they will get it. Someone will feel something. They will understand something new about the world."

Double X Productions and other Central Academy of Drama students perform free at 9:30 pm on Fridays at Busy Bee Bar, 208 Dongsi Beidajie, Dongcheng, tel. 6402-5788.



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