The 2023 Wuzhen Theater Festival recently kicked off in Wuzhen, Tongxiang, Jiaxing, east China’s Zhejiang province.
The festival showcased 87 performances selected from 28 specially invited plays from 11 countries and regions. Eighteen performances were staged during the festival’s Emerging Theater Artists’ Competition. Additionally, there were 12 Wuzhen Dialogues, 12 workshops, 27 reading sessions, six major exhibitions, and over 2,000 carnivals.
What sparks would fly when the ancient town of Wuzhen meets theater and tradition encounters modernity?
Since its establishment 10 years ago, the Wuzhen Theater Festival has nurtured local talents in various aspects such as theater construction, stage design, theater services, and brand promotion. More importantly, it has strengthened the local community’s capability in the theater business.
In 2016, Andi, who studied drama performance, returned to his hometown Wuzhen and founded a small theater group called Utopian Youth Drama Club. In 2016, the group performed an interactive drama themed with the pawnshop culture of Wuzhen during a Carnival of the Wuzhen Theater Festival. In the following two years, it brought to the festival a segment of Chinese cross talk on intangible cultural heritage.
“The Wuzhen Theater Festival provides us with a platform for learning and communication,” Andi said. “Without the festival, I wouldn’t have started my career in theater, and I couldn’t even imagine being able to make a living by drama.”
The Zhaoming Academy, a historical site situated on the north side of Xizha Street in the Xizha scenic area, Wuzhen, enjoys a long history. Today, with sound maintenance and protection, the Zhaoming Academy has become a tourist attraction and also serves as a performance venue during the Wuzhen Theater Festival.
Wuzhen is steeped in cultural relics and historic sites that showcase its rich history and heritage. Chen Xianghong, initiator of the Wuzhen Theater Festival and president of Wuzhen Tourism Co. Ltd., said that Wuzhen possesses a wealth of historical and cultural assets and the Wuzhen Theater Festival has further lifted the artistic vibe in the town.
Over the past 10 years, the Wuzhen Theater Festival has been continuously developing. Its Wuzhen Carnival has turned bridges, streets, and alleys into stages and theaters, bringing the art of drama to more audiences who have never stepped into a theater before.
This year, the Wuzhen Carnival was hosted in the public spaces, on the rivers, and even in the air above the Xizha scenic area, featuring a variety of performance art forms, including parades, installation art, improvisational performances, multimedia, and more. In addition, the inclusion of music, film, trendy toys, installations, reading, exhibitions, and markets has made the festival more diverse and open.
“The theater becomes a part of Wuzhen, and Wuzhen becomes a stage for theater,” Chen commented. The Wuzhen Theater Festival, with its unique charm, has gradually integrated into the local lifestyle.
Gao Yunchao, a skilled craftsman at a lantern workshop in the Xizha scenic area, was a volunteer for the second Wuzhen Theater Festival.
“It was my first close encounter with drama, dance, and other forms of art, and it was quite fascinating,” Gao said.
Starting from the third Wuzhen Theater Festival, he became an apprentice at the lantern workshop. The place in front of the workshop happened to be a stage of the Wuzhen Carnival, and it became a prime spot for Gao to watch the performances.
Over the years, he has watched many performances such as shadow puppetry, sketch comedy, and contemporary dance in the workshop, and growing from an apprentice to a skilled craftsman.
Over the past 10 years, the Wuzhen Theater Festival has nurtured a multitude of local audiences. Visiting Wuzhen in October to watch plays has become a cherished tradition for many locals. Everyone was talking about drama during the festival, from homestay owners to chefs, and from taxi drivers to young mothers.
Ji Mengting, a resident of Wuzhen, has parents who run a homestay in the Xizha scenic area. The family of three has been attending the Wuzhen Theater Festival since its first edition. In her eyes, the festival is an annual theatrical extravaganza that not only boosts local tourism but also allows the locals to experience a variety of artistic styles.
As Wuzhen becomes more and more international, it is attracting more and more international talents. Wei Zhehao, who had worked in the tourism industry in the UK for eight years, returned to China in 2020 to work at a university in Jiaxing and is currently on assignment at the Wuzhen scenic area. In his view, Wuzhen has two major brands, the Wuzhen Theater Festival and the World Internet Conference, making it an internationalized ancient town in China.
He believes the hosting of the Wuzhen Theater Festival has not only brought positive impacts on Wuzhen’s economy, culture, and education, but has also brought about significant changes to Wuzhen in rural tourism and brand image building. Every year, Wuzhen attracts people from all over the world to visit, invest, and settle down.
Chen said the theater festival provides a new idea for the development of small towns and rural revitalization.
“Some people say that the Wuzhen Theater Festival is a mirror reflecting a cultural pursuit that belongs to Chinese small towns in the process of contemporary urbanization. It is referred to as a new rural development model,” Chen noted.
“Wuzhen has evolved from a tourist town to a cultural town, and now it has entered a new stage of development. This is also a manifestation of the strength of small towns,” he added.