The small town dreams big

Updated 2016-10-24 10:29:44 Global Times
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A foreign artist performs during the Wuzhen Theatre Festival.

A foreign artist performs during the Wuzhen Theatre Festival.

Wuzhen provides contemporary theater, art and a getaway from urban life

Many Chinese often say Wuzhen in Zhejiang Province is Utopia, because at its primary tourist site, people are immersed in the beautiful scenery of traditional a Chinese water town, with wooden houses, slate pavement, green water and vagrant boats passing beneath one and another bridges. There they can also enjoy the latest updates from modern life, through a Wi-Fi connection that covers the whole site, some 140 TV channels in major languages at hotels, and live performances and art exhibitions all year round.

But Chen Yu, vice president of Wuzhen Tourism Co., Ltd (WTCL) that runs the site, still remembers what the town was like in 1999. It was old, dirty and obsolete; most houses didn't have flush toilets, and like many other small Chinese towns, its local youth had abandoned it to work and live in the big cities.

But in this southern region of the Yangtze River, some 80 towns like Wuzhen were endowed with historical heritage that bestowed potential in tourism.

Today Wuzhen is undoubtedly one of the most famous ancient towns in China, and the most popular Chinese town among the foreigner communities, due to a series of events taking place there in the past few years.

Wuzhen Theatre Festival (WTF), initiated in 2013, has grown into one of China's largest celebrations of theatrical art, with roughly 2,000 performances happening both indoors and outdoors within 10 days.

Also, the World Internet Conference (WIC), inaugurated in 2014, has chosen Wuzhen as its permanent host, attracting the world's attention here in this era of Internet.

"Wuzhen mode" is now a term heard by those envious of the town's success, who hope that such celebrity can be replicated to other places. But what is the Wuzhen mode? Is it replicable?

WTF, as one of the most influential programs of Wuzhen, serves a best example to look into the so-called Wuzhen mode.

"Wuzhen has ambitions to become a major international theatrical event like Avignon or Edinburgh, and judging from its first season, it will almost certainly realize them," American theater critic, producer and playwright Robert Brustein wrote in the New York Review of Books three years ago, after he visited the first WTF as its honorary chairman.

In 2013, WTF invited six productions, half Chinese and half foreign, as its highlighted shows. Seven newly built theaters, costing more than 500 million yuan (.99 million), were used to stage these productions as well as a competition for young Chinese theatrical talents. Meanwhile, hundreds of outdoor performances took place on the streets, rivers and in the courtyards.

Three years later, WTF was featuring 22 highlighted shows in 13 theaters, with about 1,800 performances at the town's outdoor areas.

The festival's initiators - including Chinese actor Huang Lei, directors Stan Lai and Meng Jinghui and WTCL's CEO Chen Xianghong - usually attribute the birth and rapid growth of the festival to being at the "right time, place and with right people." And among the three factors, they think "right people" is most crucial.

Audacious freedom

When asked by the media what is the temperament of the festival, Huang said it is like a pure, passionate and persistent child with talents. And these adjectives may serve as suitable depiction of these founders as well.

Chen Xianghong is the chief designer of Wuzhen, and driven by his ideal of building Wuzhen into a cultural hub, he has granted ultimate freedom to his artist friends. So although WTCL is a 100 percent State-owned company, the presence of governmental influence is barely noticeable in Wuzhen.

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