Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable facets of my work in international research contexts is meeting wonderful, inspiring colleagues from different countries. Currently, SUN Xiaoxue is a guest in our ERC project Developing Theatre as well as at the Centre for Global Theatre History. With a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), she is researching the reception of German theatre in China for the next six months. Sun is an impressive personality. She has a degree in law from Peking University, is a theatre researcher and, in her main profession, a theatre manager. Sun received her PhD in Arts from the Chinese National Academy of Arts, with her study on the transformation of public and commercial theatres in China.
Before turning towards theatre management, she worked in public cultural sectors experiences in policymaking and public cultural events. As programming director and operation director, she was involved in the planning and management of several Chinese public theatres, including Jiangsu Centre for the Performing Arts in Nanjing, Shandong Grand Theatre, Qinghai Grand Theatre, Guangzhou Opera House, etc. with CPAA Theatres. Since the end of 2018, she has been working on the opening of Ocean Flower Island Performing Arts Centre as managing director, exploring new possibilities of theatre models in China.
Her research interests include cultural policy, audience study, transcultural theatre and theatre in transitional society. She is currently conducting her post-doctoral research on curation in contemporary Chinese theatres and festivals with Sino-German theatre interaction as a significant component.
Nic Leonhardt: Sun, welcome to Munich! You recently returned to Munich on a DAAD scholarship for sixth months to work on a project. What is this project about?
Sun Xiaoxue: Thank you, Nic. It is wonderful to be back. My current project involves politics and curation in contemporary Chinese theatres. Although this may sound like a local topic, the history and recent developments of theatre practices in China make it a topic of globalisation with particular ties to Europe. If one picks up a programme of some leading theatres and festivals in Beijing, Shanghai or even Guangzhou or Nanjing, it will, in some aspects, display Western connections. However, this phenomenon can not be fully explained by a lack of domestic productions, marketing strategies based on audience composition or the separation of venues and companies in most Chinese theatres. A few carefully selected works may be silent catalysts of a profound theatre reform for certain managers and curators. To them, audiences are expected to contribute more than reviews or box office. That is, they should be involved in this very process of activating the long-dormant Chinese theatrical public sphere.
Although numerous barriers to this goal are present in both obvious and subtle ways, impeding Sino–Western communication within the theatre is often more complicated than the process of setting up an internet firewall. Such cases have emerged at various times in recent years, from the initial curation of the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Arts Festival in 2010 to the ‘accident’ of the Schaubühne’s Ein Volksfeind in 2018[i]. Furthermore, a good portion of these instances has been associated with German theatres. Thus, throughout my stay in Munich, I will concentrate on investigating the socio-political factors underlying these cases. If the conditions permit, I shall examine the potential corresponding coping strategies based on the mechanisms and practices of Sino–German theatre institutions.
NL: What makes the Institute of Theatre Studies and our ERC project Developing Theatre your points of contact in Munich?
SX: Five years ago, as a visiting PhD, I conducted research at the Institute of Theatre Studies at LMU Munich. Though short and somewhat cursory, this experience influenced my approach to research and practice. With specific reference to the transformation of Chinese society since the mid-nineteenth century, studies conducted at the Institute have demonstrated their significant ability to explain the cases in China. These features have been particularly evident in Christopher Balme’s works on theatre as an institution and theatre and globalisation. Yet I may not speak for all Chinese scholars on this point.
NL: At home in China you are both a Theatre Researcher and Theatre Manager. What makes up your work? What exactly do you do and where?
SX: These dual identities may sound contradictory or at least a bit confusing. Perhaps I could explain it as a Chinese case or a short-term phenomenon in countries with a theatre system still in development. As you know, for a long time Chinese theatre had been following a traditional path until the nation encountered a new system with markedly different ideas in the mid-nineteenth century. This encounter with western theatre revolutionised its form of expression, stage layout, architects, and even spectatorship, initiating the transition to modernity that remains in progress.
In theatre construction, this transitional process has been interrupted by wars and slowed down by political factors. Especially during the first 30 years of the People’s Republic of China, a lack of modern performance spaces was always a problem for Chinese artists and foreign companies invited to China through cultural diplomacy programmes. This situation did not significantly improve until the period known as the Age of the Grand Theatres. It was a direct result of the cultural policy established at the beginning of the 21st century, highlighted by grand performing arts architectures such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts(NCPA) and the Guangzhou Opera House (GOP). Sincethen, hundreds of large-scale venues have been constructed across China, most of which are managed by state-owned cultural enterprises like CPAA [China Performing Arts Agency, NL] Theatres and Poly Theatres. In this way, the position of the theatre manager was established as a true profession in China.
However, we face different challenges from our counterparts in the established system with a long history and relatively constant tradition. Thus, it is crucial to learn, research and explore with self-reflection. Moreover, as in the process of law-making, a random, fragmented research approach may create systemic confusion, producing increasingly complex problems. This need for a focused investigation is where my research began. Of course, at the very beginning, my work was relatively unstructured. As the operation manager of CPAA theatres, I am often involved in projects from the planning stage through construction, including bidding or negotiations with local governments. Once a theatre management agreement has been signed, the regular work officially begins. What is significantly different from German theatres is that critical decisions related to the contents of the performing season are generally made by the Beijing office. In Poly’s case, it is even more extreme. The focus of most of their local theatre managers will mainly involve the box office. Since touring rather than local productions is the principal component in programming for both Poly and CPAA Theatres, they need more stops to share the expenses on the road. It was made possible by the massive construction of venues across China. However, the logic of theatre management was therefore heavily shaped by the pursuit of standardisation and reproduction. To a certain degree, it has been leading us to the current identity crisis of public theatres in China.
On the positive side, some theatres have tried to change this model in recent years, with content independence at their core, developing a more refined, elaborate institutional arrangement. The NCPA was the first to put this idea into practice, followed some years later by the JSCPA. However, such ventures are not conducted by many because they often require a much larger establishment and more financial support that is not available to most. Moreover, compromises regarding contents are still unavoidable with either the government or the market. This is evident in my work as programming director at the JSCPA. For instance, to generate revenue, I often have to undertake work assigned by the government and commercial productions that may not fit with the artistic niche of the institution. Thus, despite having a larger budget than many other theatres, the autonomy in terms of content is still minimal.
In 2018, the merger between the Ministry of Culture and the Administration of Tourism caused a drastic restructuring of China’s cultural policy. This union resulted in the emergence of performing arts venues invested in and managed by private companies, including the performing arts centre I am currently working on. However, this policy has been controversial for its intentions and risks, and the impact it brings to the Chinese theatre landscape has yet to be examined.
NL: What do theatre studies and theatre research look like in China?
SX: I am afraid I cannot provide a comprehensive answer to this question. However, from my own experience working with Chinese experts in various fields, the disciplines remain very fragmented, and some of them are still struggling for self-identification and self-legitimation. This issue likely arose when huaju (Chinese translation of spoken drama, also known as new theatre) was introduced to China over a century ago. At that time, it was interpreted by a group of Chinese social reformers as a weapon to challenge the feudal establishment and its cultural representations. At the end of this battle between the old and the new, the common vernacular replaced the literary language, and simplified writing gradually replaced traditional ones. To some degree, though, the competition between huaju and the old theatre (xiqu) has continued to this day. This is only one of the cases that created barriers to integrated theatre studies. Although there have been ongoing fruitful fusions of the traditional and the modern, the East and the West in music and dance theatre, certain institutional boundaries remain problematic in theatre studies in China today.
NL: What topics dominate the current discourse there?
SX: From the 1980s to the present, the question of whether to change or not to change has been a constant topic of discussion in China. This concept has been the subject of both academic research and artistic exploration, and broadly reflects the Chinese public’s social mentality. Therefore, many wonder in what way and to what end the reform will continue. In the context of a globalised world, this issue is universally relevant, so I have been exploring theatre’s role in this process for quite some time. Germany has undergone a few dramatic social transformations in the last century, which has also occurred in some other countries at different times, with diverse processes. If change is going to be a regular part of the world for the foreseeable future, then theatres must consider how to contribute to, adapt to and live with such fluctuation. Thus, I hope to use my time in Munich to better familiarise myself with the aforementioned histories, a study that could also help other theatre practitioners in China prepare for the change.
NL: Is there anything that appeals to you about German theatre?
SX: As I mentioned above, German theatre’s history and present have relevance for China. I find this particularly interesting as a theatre researcher in a transitioning country with a particular political and cultural environment. It includes one’s accomplishments, mistakes and current issues. For someone following German theatre with an external perspective, any discovery in this realm is precious. As for many Chinese artists and audiences, German theatre arts, or performing arts in general, indeed have their unparalleled aura. In turn, it establishes a good foundation for intercultural communication in some areas.
NL: At the Centre for Global Theatre Histories, we are looking at transnational and global exchange movements in theatre history. The ERC project Developing theatre is mainly about the expansion of (international) expert networks and development of theatre in emerging countries after 1945. At the turn of the 20th century, European theatre aesthetics and formats played a central role in China, for example in Shanghai. For some time now, many new theatres, especially opera houses, have been built in China; at the same time, China is investing heavily in culture abroad and taking over cultural institutions. For example, the headquarters of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), which was based in Paris for decades, has been in Shanghai since 2015. How are these movements and ventures discussed among you professionals? What opportunities does this bring? Perhaps what challenges as well?
SX: I fully agree with your opinion on the role European theatre has played in the development of modern Chinese theatre. In fact, I see its introduction, dissemination and localisation as an important dynamic that is still driving the movement. Of course, as a cosmopolitan with its European settlements, Shanghai played a vital part in the early introduction of western theatre, but this is not the only city where the marks are left. You may also recognise certain early familiar theatre buildings when visiting Macau, Tianjin and Harbin. Furthermore, vibrant cultural lives are what they have in common. Besides, the early adaptations of Western theatre architecture can also be found in cities like Nanjing and Dalian.
In the 1950s, the first generation of theatres built after the founding of New China, including the Tianqiao Theatre and the Capitol Theatre, was more or less indirectly patterned after the construction and management of East German theatres through the Soviet Union. These Chinese theatres even adopted the institutional structure of integrating venue and company, in China, we named this model “场团合一”. Thus, the Central Ballet and the Beijing People’s Art Theatre were among the very few renowned performing arts groups to have their own venues. However, the continental influence met with competition from commercial concepts in the 1980s as the country shifted its focus of study to the United States. This change was associated with China’s cultural policy transformation after the Opening of China in 1979 and the subsequent market economy reform. To this day, several related paradoxes and problems remain for us.
NL: The Covid -19 pandemic temporarily paralysed numerous sectors all over the world. In Germany, theatres, museums, cinemas and other cultural institutions were closed for months. What was the situation like in China?
SX: Those institutions were among the first to close after the breakout of COVID-19. This state lasted for about half a year. After a slight improvement in the pandemic situation, we were gradually allowed to open, beginning at 30% capacity, moving to 50% and then 75% before finally returning to full capacity. Thus, it has been a tough year for most of us working in live performance. As a result, many agencies, production companies and commercial theatre companies have gone out of business. However, most public theatres, which the government mainly funds, are not in danger of bankruptcy. Throughout the pandemic, some theatres have attempted to extend themselves through the internet. However, the qualities of this medium and the modalities of its dissemination are unquestionably something we need to continue investigating. Looking at the current cases in China, it is still a medium for connecting with the existing audience groups rather than expanding them, let alone developing new ones. However, the separation, I feel, made our bond with audiences stronger. In most cases, it made them appreciate the live experience even more and made us rethink the position of theatre in our society with a perspective we used to avoid.
NL: What opportunities are there for theatre scholars from Germany to do research or enjoy further professional education in China? Do you have any tips for them?
SX: Between China and Germany, the differences in theatre education and research systems are very pronounced. This also reflects the fragmentation and internal politics we mentioned above. Take the two drama schools that German scholars are very familiar with, the Central Academy of Drama and the Shanghai Theatre Academy, as examples. Their common Chinese name “戏剧学院” in fact, tells us a lot about the inherent ambivalence. Although they have both already begun to establish dance, musical, opera and Xiqu programmes in recent years, German theatre scholars may still find it challenging to engage in conversation with them on a number of subjects. If such is the case, I suggest broadening the looking into institutions that may not have the word ‘theatre’ or ‘drama’ in their name, for example, the Beijing Dance Academy, the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts and Central Conservatory of Music. In addition, universities such as Peking and Nanjing boast an advantage in interdisciplinary fields. For theatre architecture, Tsinghua has the leading programme in China.
In terms of funding, the support provided by the Ministry of Education is relatively limited. However, one can also work directly with theatres and artists to gain access to additional funding sources. Most Chinese theatres will gladly provide support for German students, researchers, and artists if there is common ground to develop.
NL: What are your goals, what does an ideal stay at LMU look like for you?
SX: If the COVID-19 situation continues to improve, I wish to conduct my previously planned literature research and in-depth interviews, and LMU is the perfect place to do so. In addition to having excellent resources for research, LMU is located in a city with outstanding theatres, opera houses and orchestras; each has its own legacy. This provides various materials for researchers. It is fascinating to see how the city’s performing arts and civil society have come together to breathe. The cultural map of the city is very interesting to look on. When I arrived in Munich, I heard that the new venue of the Volkstheater would be open this year, which I eagerly anticipate. In the meantime, I am also looking forward to the opening of the Isarphilharmonie. Such scale of urban developments in the cultural sector, I believe, is not very common for European cities of similar size, making those actions of Munich very impressive. Therefore, I hope to use my time in Munich to continue following those new developments and the changes they bring to the city.
NL: Thank you very much for the interesting interview and for taking the time! I wish you all the best for your future work!
SX: Thank you for the invitation. It was a pleasure to complete this interview.
[i] See, for example, https://www.dw.com/de/berliner-schaubühne-muss-china-tournee-abbrechen/a-45460328 .