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Surging popularity of improvisational theatre in China

A rehearsal at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, on Dec 26, 2019. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

KUNMING – A unique stage play titled “Story Pawnshop” was recently performed in the city of Kunming, southwest China’s Yunnan province, leaving audiences enchanted.

But, unlike conventional well-rehearsed plays, “Story Pawnshop” had a distinctive flavor — the play was performed without stage-setting, props, costumes, or even a script, with the artists improvising their dialogues and acting.

Featuring a medley of audiences’ own stories staged through improvisation and original music, the 120-minute play belongs to a genre called improvisational theatre, also known as improvisation or improv. It is a form of theatre in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted but created spontaneously by the performers.

The improv performance in the city’s No. 88 Theater located on Nanqiang Street was savored by more than 100 improv enthusiasts.

Featuring a medley of audiences’ own stories staged through improvisation and original music, the 120-minute play belongs to a genre called improvisational theatre, also known as improvisation or improv. It is a form of theatre in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted but created spontaneously by the performers

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Before the performance began, Su Ai, 33, a doctor by profession, wrote down the story centering around herself and her father who had just passed away.

The actors recreated fictional scenes from Su living together with her father and put together a touching moment of family reunion.

“I’d like to thank all the performers for their excellent work. Their dialogues had those words which I could never express to my father,” said Su. “The final reunion was just like a dream for me.”

Several other stories of audiences were randomly selected by the performers for improvisation on the spot, with laughter and tears permeating the entire aura.

“Improv was introduced to China by troupes in Shanghai and Beijing more than a decade ago, receiving enthusiastic responses from local audiences,” said Wang Wentao, deputy head of Yuandong troupe which produced “Story Pawnshop.”

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Wang added that the initial success encouraged his troupe to perform improv in Kunming. The troupe has been performing at No. 88 Theater every weekend since last August and tickets are sold out almost every time.

Experts believe that the surging popularity of improv, like that of traditional opera and experimental theatre, is part of a larger trend to honor stagecraft rather than films and teleplays, as the increasingly wealthy and modernized Chinese seek more diverse ways of entertainment.

“Improv features interactions with audiences, giving us a sense of participation in the performance,” said Yang Guai, a 28-year-old programmer who watches improvisational plays almost every week. “It has become a good way to relieve stress.”

“One of the audiences has watched our improvisational performances eight times, which perhaps suggests a promising future for the improv market,” said Zhang Tao, founder of Yuandong troupe. “We are now recruiting and nurturing more actors interested in this genre.”

Zheng Siqi, 20, deems improv a way of life. “I joined the drama club on the university campus and regularly imitated professional troupes to rehearse some improvisational plays,” Zheng said, adding that improv pays more attention to acting itself than costumes or props, which is why it is more suitable for beginners.

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