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Enjoy a courtyard drama in Kunming

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Enjoy a courtyard drama in Kunming


By Li Xilin   Photographs provided by the interviewee


The Yuanyuan Song once played in Lotus Pond Theater, thus starting the tradition of local courtyard dramas in Kunming. After showing 20 times in the courtyard, and twice in theaters, the original local courtyard drama Conscience had its first public performance in Deyi House Theater in Kunming. Not far away from Deyi House, the local modern courtyard drama When Death Arrives, adapted from Woody Allen's Death Knocks, was played for the first time at the Pin Theater on Qianwang Street.

Conscience, touching your heart

The old buildings established in the late Qing Dynasty(1636-1911) on Nanqiang Street stood at the first commercial area in Kunming. Nowadays the area has been renovated and has become a new symbol of Kunming. In 2014, the drama Conscience was first staged at Nanqiang Street No.88 Theater in Kunming. Today, it has been stage more than 20 times, and the venue has moved from courtyard houses to the grand stage of the Kunming Theater. Conscience has obtained great attention from all walks of life, and gained agood reputation from every performance. The drama has taken in almost 100,000 yuan at the box office and become an outstanding example among all other local dramas.

The story of Conscience happened during Japan's invasion of China. At that time, the antique street was in an unprecedented crisis. As the man in charge of the Mu family-the most famous clan on the antique street-Mu Ziyu experienced a time of troubles and full of strange adventures. On the memorial day of Mu Ziyu’s second younger brother, a mysterious master named Huang Youde who could make imitation antiques, came to the antique street to challenge many experienced collectors. He won several games in succession, while the antique street was at stake. With a rumor that one legendary national treasure had flowed into the antique street, people began to pay  attention to this little street. As the key person in the street, Mu Ziyu had to cope with strife, both openly and secretly.

“I want to present what life is like for Chinese people and how we get to know our culture today. Young Chinese people usually misunderstand our culture. They may think Chinese culture is conservative. On the contrary, our culture is open and full of tolerance. Culture can be seen in a pair of chopsticks, a bowl or a sentence. It is the same as what Mu Ziyu told his children in the drama. He said he knew they didn't like these rules. However, wherever they went, all these cultural factors would always flow in their veins,”Yang Yang said.

Yang Yang is the director, the scriptwriter and also the leading actor of Conscience. He is a teacher at Yunnan Arts University and started to write scripts 13 years ago. He has completed historical dramas including Empire, Song of the Wind, Wordless Memorial Stele, and courtyard dramas such as The Trilogy of Conscience and Deep in the Tang Palace. His encyclopedic knowledge of history, well-designed scripts and great intensity of feeling have made his two-hour-long plays powerful and  heartsending.

Yang Yang is always on the way to make more perfect costumes, stage designs and makeup. He thinks excellent production not only respects history to the greatest extent, but also shows sincerity to his audiences. “The color and style of every piece of furniture has been carefully examined. In each performance, the chinaware we smash costs more than 1,000 yuan. Many people told us to replace the chinaware with cheaper ones, but I said 'No' to them. Our audiences cannot feel the sincerity of the show if we do so. I hope everything appearing in the show reflects our sincerity,” Yang said.


A night at Deyi House

Deyi House was built in the late Qing Dynasty. It is located near Golden Horse and Jade Rooster Archways in Kunming, with a traditional quadrangle courtyard layout. With three-story main rooms and wing-rooms, and two storeys of rooms in the south, the house forms a style called Vaulting-Horse Turret, which is a classic architectural style of old Kunming dwellings. Luo Zhewen, a famous Chinese ancient architecture expert, once inscribed his name here. In this historical and cultural setting in Kunming, the drama Conscience is performed in public. On performance days, audiences are divided into three areas, the east area, west area, and south area. The courtyard is the stage. During the drama, actors and actresses sometimes go in and out through the gate, and sometimes stand on the second floor to watch every move in the courtyard, and sell peanuts to the audience. The experience of close proximity to the stage can make the audience feel like they are living on the antique street. “Performance on a big stage contains more pureness, but playing in a courtyard can help the audience build interactions with the drama. In addition, a performance in small theater is closer to a film on television performance, and thus can make the audience connect with daily activities,” Yang Yang said.

Planner Yang Rong told us that Deyi House Theater is China’s first small theater combining drama and film together in the former residence of celebrities from Yunnan. It is a non-profit theater.

“The success of Conscience in our courtyard theater has been a connecting link between the old and the new regarding original courtyard dramas in Yunnan. The tradition continues with the exploration of Yuanyuan Song and keeps original courtyard dramas in Yunnan moving forward. After Conscience obtained continuous successes, original local dramas in Yunnan have sprouted up. These include historical courtyard drama The Setting Sun of Dian’s Capital, the drama Happiness, and the modern courtyard light comedy When Death Arrives. All of them have been played in courtyard theaters in Kunming one after another. Since the first public performances of Yuanyuan Song and Conscience, courtyard dramas have formed a new fashion of city culture in Kunming,” Yang Rong said.

When Death Arrives

Unlike numerous courtyard dramas copying classic Chinese themes, When Death Arrives adapts the work of a Western master and tells the story in a Chinese way. The original story of the drama comes from Woody Allen’s classic script. Adapted by local director and scriptwriter Zhang Yuan, and based in a local context, When Death Arrives is created according to the condition of the performance site—Pin Theater.

It tells a contemporary true story. On a dark night with the wind blowing, Gong Shaobao editor-in-chief of a newspaper, had a female guest called Death to his villa. Her sole goal was to take Gong Shaobao away. Was it a joke? Or was it the day of Gong’s doom? Nobody can tell. Therefore, the sophisticated editor-in-chief led Death into a fraudulent chasm with the help of his mistress. The dawn of fate showed up. What we see behind the comedy is Woody Allen’s considerations of human nature. This drama also contains Zhang Yuan’s understanding of current social problems.

“A professor of Yunnan Arts University once told me that adapting foreign works might be a way to create original Chinese dramas. Nowadays, Chinese dramas lack good scripts, or good scripts cannot be played due to various limitations,” director Zhang Yuan said. He has worked on local original dramas for 11 years, including To Love or to Die, Encounter, and The Setting Sun of Dian’s Capital, all of which are original drama works by Zhang.

This time, the performance venue of When Death Arrives is the Pin Theater on Qianwang Street in Kunming. The first Pin Theater was founded in Beijing by Zeng Li, a national flower arrangement expert. According to Zeng Li’s introduction, the original intention of settling Pin Theater in Kunming was to create a quiet place in a downtown area. With a yard, a few friends, a pot of green tea, and a drama, the theater brings peace and comfort to all.

“The Pin Theater is a bastion of traditional architecture in Kunming. It is a place for cultural study. In early times, I planned to use it to hold theater tea parties. My idea was to create drama scenes. For example, if you come to have tea then you may be an actor. You can find people playing the Chinese zither or lute in two wing rooms. It is a way to pass on old and graceful dramatic traditions. We hope to popularize our culture. Now, When Death Arrives is going to have its first performance at the Pin Theater. It is a play happening in the Pin Theater, and it is also an echo of classical work staged at the Pin Theater.”


Come to watch drama in Kunming

Zhang Yuan told us that he didn’t have any chance to act in any drama publicly for a long time. “It costs too much to perform in a big theater, and would have been too costly for us. We used to perform in a coffee house. The environment there was much worse. No light or stage, it was just a café. We wrote a script to match the performance venue and started to perform. Nowadays, more and more places which were previously not theaters are embracing modern drama. We have more theaters now, so we need more scripts. This phenomenon creates a platform for actors, leading to a supply and demand balance.”

While continuously importing superior drama works from other cities, or even other countries, the drama circle in Kunming has also witnessed a batch of original local works in recent years. Many drama fans are happy to watch plays in Kunming-Yang Rong, a senior media professional, is one of them. After watching The Life Comments of Two Dogs, she developed a crush on modern drama.

“A friend told me there was a drama to be played in a warehouse, so I found the place and watched the show. That was my first time watching a lively drama originally created by young local people. The name of the drama was Encounter. It was created by the same people who wrote When Death Arrives (Zhang Yuan and his co-authors). I see the young me in the play and feel like crossing the boundary of time.” Yang Rong cannot stop her love for drama. Gradually, she has even stepped into a local drama circle and shown up as a planner of many local dramas.

However, local audiences who are used to dramas  staged outside of Kunming, it is hard for them to accept original local dramas. “Many people have doubts about local works, including the guests we've  invited before. They told me they planned to show up for a while and then leave. They didn’t expect to sit down and watch the entire show.” Yang Yang told us when Conscience was staging trial performances, they invited everyone they met to watch the play, from professors to stall keepers. “I was worried about the result, yet it turned out that no one left during the performance. Another example is an old lady who was picking up her grandson and asked whether she would go inside and watch the drama. She sat down and watched the whole performance until it ended. After that, we became more confident. I just wanted to write a drama which keeps everyone watching and feeling good, and restore people’s confidence in local dramas.”


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