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Yuyao Carlot Le Dîner de cons ... in China and in Chinese! | Yuyao Carlot

Yuyao Carlot, who co-translated Le Dîner de cons into Mandarin with Zhiping Hou, responds to some of our questions about the current status of theatre in China.


 

After staging Joyeuses Pâques by Jean Poiret in 2006, this year the Best French Comedies in China Festival - an event sponsored in part by the Action Culturellel Department of the SACD - presented Francis Veber’s Le Dîner de cons. The play has been a huge hit, opening in Shanghai in the summer of 2007 and now on tour around China.
Yuyao Carlot, who co-translated Le Dîner de cons into Mandarin with Zhiping Hou, responds to some of our questions about the current status of theatre in China.

http://shanghaiist.com/2007/07/06/le_dinner_de_co.php
http://www.dashan.com/en/projects/dinner.htm


Entr'Actes Is there a Chinese theatre tradition? What place does this entertainment hold in China compared to cinema, dance or television? Are tickets affordable?

Yuyao Carlot The performing arts here are as old as China itself. I always say “yes” whenever anyone asks if there is a theatre tradition in China. Chinese acrobatics and the Peking opera have been a form of daily entertainment for Chinese people since the time of the dynasties. But I have to say “no” when asked if there is a text-based theatre tradition in China. Text-based theatre was first imported here in 1907. La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe were the first plays staged in China. This year, 2007, is thus the one hundredth anniversary of text-based theatre in China. It is an important event which has, of course, not been ignored. The media, the government and intellectuals are all talking about it. But not everyone is happy about this one hundredth anniversary. Creativity here is struggling. China lacks playwrights, and few high-quality texts have been staged here since the ‘90s. A director in Beijing even stated: “This one hundredth anniversary of text-based theatre in China is also its funeral. People should be mourning, not celebrating”.

Theatre is not a common form of entertainment in China. It was often seen as a vehicle for propaganda during the two world wars and after the 1949 liberation, and then was quickly superseded by television and cinema. Nowadays, theatre is a cultural product designed for entertainment and commercial uses. But it hasn’t succeeded in bringing in large audiences yet because of high ticket prices. Going to the theatre is quite a luxury in China. Tickets for Le Dîner de cons cost between 100-500 yuans, or about 10-50 euro. 50 euro is the equivalent of 10% of the average salary for someone from Shanghai. To give you an idea, a movie ticket in China costs 5 euro. So people often choose the movies over the theatre.


E'A Is foreign theatre in China influenced by Anglo-Saxon, German or Francophone theatre? Which playwrights and genres do audiences prefer?

YC Out of curiosity I googled “French theatre in China”, in Chinese. The first page of results referred entirely to Le Dîner de cons. I’m really glad the production is being talked about so much. It’s quite a big hit. But the results of my search stopped there. When I googled “English theatre in China” and “Russian theatre in China” I got a much wider variety of information, indicating a greater level of interest. And there were links to famous playwrights, well-known theatres and publications with themes such as “Russian theatre and Chinese theatre”.

Out of curiosity I googled “French theatre in China”, in Chinese. The first page of results referred entirely to Le Dîner de cons. I’m really glad the production is being talked about so much. It’s quite a big hit. But the results of my search stopped there. When I googled “English theatre in China” and “Russian theatre in China” I got a much wider variety of information, indicating a greater level of interest. And there were links to famous playwrights, well-known theatres and publications with themes such as “Russian theatre and Chinese theatre”.

Musicals are quite in vogue in China these days. In March 2006, after getting the go-ahead from the Chinese government, Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment created the first international performing arts company in China, called Broadway China Network. It is organising a tour of the musical Broadway in China with a dozen Chinese theatres. Mama Mia has had record-breaking audiences, with 50,000 people in one month and houses that were 99.9% full in Shanghai. 42nd Street opened in Beijing in September.


E'A Are there private and subsidized theatres? Which are the most active cities and theatres (in particular with regard to foreign theatre)? How are the plays promoted?

YC There are about 3,000 theatres in China, of all sizes. There are village theatres, municipal theatres and university theatres. Most of these venues are only open three or four times a year, to host a show for the Chinese New Year or hold a concert. The theatre market is concentrated in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The Beijing People’s Art Theatre, the National Theatre Company of China in Beijing and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre Theatre are China’s three biggest theatres. These three major theatres host the majority of all theatre productions and organise the tours in other cities. For example, the Beijing People’s Art Theatre has three houses (with 900, 400 and 200 seats). Every year these three theatres co-produce foreign plays with independent producers. Le Dîner de cons was co-produced by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre Theatre and a Franco-Chinese producer with the support of SACD in France. The Centre presented forty productions during the 2006-2007 season, including a dozen productions – theatre, dance, circus shows, etc. – from abroad. The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre Theatre is managed in a very modern way. It is financed in the same way as a European theatre, combining subsidies, box office returns, production sales and merchandizing. Each sector represents 1/3 of total income.

In terms of management, theatres only hire full-time, year-round staff, so there are no seasonal jobs. Following their training, the most fortunate actors find an agent and manage their careers independently. The others are immediately hired by theatres while keeping the option of working on film projects on the side. The work force is consequently larger in Chinese theatres than in Europe. For example, the National Theatre Company of China has 600 employees, while the Comédie Française has 400.

Promotional budgets are becoming increasingly large, and theatre publicity can be seen in all media. Le Dîner de cons is being advertised not just on the radio and in the press, but in television advertisements, on the internet and even in taxis.

When a production goes on tour it has to feature two or three “stars” in the cast. Shows usually stay for two or three nights in each city. After 15 performances in Shanghai in July, Le Dîner de cons toured in 10 cities and 2 provinces (Jiang Su and Zhe Jiang) in just one month. The tour ended on 31 August at Beijing’s Poly Plaza International Theatre, the most prestigious house in the capital. The Poly Theatre, which has a capacity of 1500, presented 16 performances of Mama Mia in August. Le Dîner de cons concluded the Beijing summer season with three shows. A new tour started in late September in southern China.


E'A Are major stage actors also known for their work in film and television? Are there any drama schools?

YC The major stage actors are known above all as film and television actors. Acting students try out for a career on the big or small screen first of all. Theatre is always their last choice. What is common nowadays is for stars from the movies or TV series to go back to the theatre from time to time “just for fun”.
Most actors come from one of three schools in China: the Central Drama Academy (Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi are both graduates), the Shanghai Theatre Academy and the Beijing Film Academy. These three establishments are on the same academic level.


E'A How are plays published/promoted in China (whether foreign or Chinese)? Are there any theatrical publishing houses? What themes are Chinese people interested in?

YC Many publishers in China publish plays, but only plays that have been around for a while. Contemporary plays are not sought after by these publishers who prefer to avoid the risk. The plays currently on the boards mainly succeed through word of mouth. For instance, an amateur author published a novel on the internet last year. The novel was immediately well received across Chinese society. The story is about the problems in the traditional family triangle of the young bride, the mother-in-law and the young husband living in the same house. The theme is of great interest because the Chinese are currently living in a context combining modernity and tradition. The novel was a big hit (I read it on the internet too) and prompted much discussion. The story was then adapted for television and the stage. The theatrical version is becoming this year’s hit production.


E'A What are the specific problems involved in translating?

YC Translating also involves adapting. Before translating from French to Chinese I first try to find the common elements between the two cultures. Le Dîner de cons is a very French story that takes place in the distinctive Parisian environment of the 16th arrondissement. But the scorn shown by sophisticated “high-society” people towards the common folk is the same all over the world. So the Brochant and Pignon characters are easy for the Chinese to identify.

Then there is the issue of language. The problem of being faithful to the text crops up every time there is a pun, double meaning or traditional song. How can you translate the cancan melody on François Pignon’s answering machine for example? How can you respect the text while retaining its comic effects created by the rhyme, rhythm and melody? I chose to invent new lyrics set in verse to an old-fashioned local song. And I suggested to the producer that he should change the song depending on the region where the show was being performed.
Another difficulty was in translating a neologism for one of the character François Pignon’s miniature oil-well models, nicknamed “beau Derrick”, a reference to the American actress Bo Derek. My solution was to faithfully translate the actress’s name into Chinese as “bao di ri ke” and to call the model “bao bei di ri ke”, “bao bei” meaning “baby” in Chinese, which resulted in “baby Derrick” instead of “beau Derrick”.
There are also great cultural differences between France and China. When you say “Lafitte-Rothschild 78” a French person knows you’re talking about a vintage Bordeaux. But most Chinese have never heard such names before.
The same goes for the way football teams are indicated by their colour, which doesn’t exist in China. So when François Pignon makes fun of the Saint-Étienne team by yelling: “Les Verts ! Les vers de terre !” (“The Greens, those worms!”), I used the Chinese saying “dress in green, like a green tortoise”, since the word “tortoise” is an insult in China meaning someone who is good-for-nothing.


E'A Have you seen a change in the number of contemporary plays produced? If so, what are the reasons?

YC Chinese authors write novels, essays and biographies, but rarely plays. Hence the lack of good plays in China.
This also explains why musicals occupy a large share of the market.
The search for financial profits does not encourage change in the theatre. The producers and agents are mainly focused on operating a business that is reliable and profitable, so they rarely take an interest in unknown playwrights. The lack of financial support and training offers no incentive to authors to write for the theatre.
But at the same time the performance market is opening up. Since 1st September 2005, a new law has authorized the influx of foreign capital to produce and present shows. Foreign investment in culture is no longer taboo. Shows have become true free-market products.
Contemporary theatre still has a lot of room to develop, and I am very confident about its future.

 
 
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