Every Friday night, Central Academy of Drama students
practice their craft at Busy Bee Bar
There aren't any heavy-metal bands or Rage Against the
Machine videos playing at Busy Bee Bar tonight. Instead,
Stravinsky's angst-ridden concertos greet the artiste-dominated
audience as they slouch in their seats. Microphones
and amplifiers usually set up for live rock shows are
unplugged and the main stage lights dimmed. Only soft
track-lighting glinting off of posters, candles quivering
on tabletops, and a small overhead lamp illuminate the
off-the-beaten-track venue where the experimental theater
group Double X Productions is stretching the boundaries
of contemporary theater in Beijing.
Tonight's show is Closed
Space, a skit featuring Central Academy of Drama students
Zhang Che, 27, and Tang Huiqing, 24. It is one in a
series performed by academy students at Busy Bee since
Just as the crowd begins
to murmur with restlessness, Tang, a sturdy woman with
chin-length hair and high cheekbones, emerges from behind
the bar. She has just changed out of blue jeans and
a sweatshirt into silk stockings and a floor-length
black gown. The lights begin to dim. She sits before
a boudoir mirror applying make-up, then turns and arches
like a swan until her hair falls into a basin.
Playing the role of
her disillusioned lover, Zhang enters, rolls up his
sleeves and washes her hair. Zhang takes the audience
back to 1993, the year the story of their love began.
"I only had enough money
to buy her noodles," he says. "Love is like that. You
believe in it and it flies away."
Zhang, a handsome, dark-skinned
young man with a crew-cut, is wearing faded jeans, leather
boots and an army-green sweatshirt. He tells the love
story in spurts, hitting the audience with staccato,
"It was in 1993 that
I found love, and in 1993 that I lost love," he explains,
before continuing the story through movement. He portrays
the loss with painful, downcast eyes and long silences
as he gently caresses his lover's hair. Tang's character
remains silent throughout the skit, a patient receptacle
for his pain, until the very end when she stands on
the make-up table, towering above him. She then wraps
her lover's entire head in bandages and tells her version
of their story by slowly repeating "In 1993, in 1993,
in 1993É" over and over as the lights go down.
"Closed Space is a love
story. That means that it is totally ambiguous," Zhang
explains. "In each performance, we tell the story three
times and the ending keeps on changing. That's love
- today you see it one way, tomorrow you see it another."
The skit, which lasts
only a few minutes, is poignant and well executed, a
cunning scheme for introducing the MTV, sound bite-generation
to experimental theater.
An entire bar of teenagers
and twentysomething beer drinkers are absolutely silent
for the 15-minute performance. Chinese men in dark business
suits stop their conversations, and even the kids with
long hair in heavy-metal t-shirts are concentrating
on the performance, perhaps the ultimate test of the
troupe's stage presence.
Double X Productions
personifies and epitomizes a new wave of creative energy
in China as it looks to define a space outside government-subsidized
"There is no market
for our performances, but even if there was, we wouldn't
perform for money. We just perform in bars and that
makes what we do the most basic, pure form of art,"
All of the actors with
Double X Productions perform unpaid. As such, the shows
at Busy Bee are free, unlike the venue's weekly rock
concerts which can cost as much as RMB50 per person.
Zhang, a set design major at the academy, creates sets
for other people's productions in order to fund his
own projects. Most recently he helped build the much-acclaimed
set for last year's production of Laoshe's Teahouse,
directed by Lin Zhaohua at Beijing People's Art Theater.
In 1997, he had the opportunity to work with director
Mou Sen, who first introduced experimental theater to
China in the late 1980s, on a piece called Sentiment.
Zhang came to Beijing after graduating high school in
1990 with dreams of becoming a painter. He studied painting
on his own until 1996 when he began noticing the work
of directors like Mou Sen. Ultimately, he was inspired
enough to switch over to theater design and enrolled
in the academy. Zhang says throughout his venture into
experimental theater his schoolmates have been his greatest
source of support. Few professors at the academy, however,
have come to his performances.
Zhang remains critical
of what passes for avant-garde theater in China. "Very
few people in Chinese theater are willing to try something
new," he laments.
Frustrated with the
dearth of innovations, he started Double X Productions
in 1999 with fellow students and began doing shows at
Busy Bee in an attempt to redefine contemporary theater.
Performance art has been gaining ground in Beijing's
art scene since the late 1990s, with performers like
Luo Zidan staging events at art openings and local clubs.
Unlike all the other
acts in town, most performance art in Beijing happens
spontaneously, often with only a few days' notice to
skirt authorities who have been known to shut down events.
Double X Productions, on the other hand, have been holding
performances at Busy Bee on most Fridays for almost
a year. With skit titles like Nightmare, Puke, Sticky
Liquid, Sanitary Science and The Final Day of 2000,
the troupe brings a level of theatrical training that
makes the performances unlike anything else in the city's
underground art scene.
"Performance is the
best word for what we do," says Zhang. "I don't want
to define our work as theater because it needs freedom
to move. These days in China, most forms of art - painting,
rock and roll, and film - are developing, but theater
is totally stagnant. Not only that, but it is losing
interest among audiences."
So Zhang masterfully
packs what his audience might otherwise consider an
anachronistic art form in between live bands at an indie-cred
bar and makes it fresh.
"My themes always come
back to the most basic human experience," Zhang asserts.
"Are you happy today? Is your love life smooth? Is your
heart joyous? There are so many circumstances that shape
us. The big city throws us off. I go back to basic themes
and question how we are living."
Once Closed Space ends,
Zhang and his troupe pack it up. The TV comes back on
and the place grows brighter. The majority of those
in the audience are busy ordering drinks and exchanging
thoughts on the show. The performance has generated
controversy, and no one can agree on its message.
This suits Zhang just
"I don't want every
person to watch my shows and immediately understand.
I want people to watch and hate it," he says, laughing.
"Or they may like it, and it may be a month later or
a year later, but suddenly, one day, they will get it.
Someone will feel something. They will understand something
new about the world."
Double X Productions
and other Central Academy of Drama students perform
free at 9:30 pm on Fridays at Busy Bee Bar, 208 Dongsi
Beidajie, Dongcheng, tel. 6402-5788.