Young Playwright Embarks on Her 'Latest Odyssey'

ByChen Nan November 25, 2020

When COVID-19 first hit early this year, plans were inevitably put on hold for scriptwriter Yan Xiaoping. Like many people, she stayed at home, which allowed her lots of reading time. One of the books she revisited was Jiu Ge, also known as Nine Songs, which she has enjoyed since she was a teenager.

Written by Chinese poet Qu Yuan during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), Nine Songs is his signature work and an important chapter of Chuci, also known as the Songs of Chu. Despite the "nine" in the title, it consists of 11 songs to describe and celebrate the religion, ritual and local culture of the region south of the Yangtze River.

"When I first read it, I was intrigued by the portrayal of the beauty of nature and the mysteries of animals and spirits. Though I didn't know the meanings of some of the words, I still loved reading it over and over again," recalls Yan, 34.

During her days at home, keeping herself safe from the pandemic, Yan gained a different perspective of Nine Songs. Yan's personal emotions, such as fear, anxiety and depression, caused by the COVID-19, led her to consider the communication among spirits and between human beings and ghosts.

"Those conversations inspired me to think about disaster, parting and even death," says Yan.

Within two months, she finished three drafts of a script for a play. In her own words, she had never been so productive and efficient. "I usually write one script a year but I had so much to say with this script," she adds. "I didn't even know if the script would be turned into an actual play one day. I just wanted to write."

On Nov 15, the script came alive onstage with a play, titled The Latest Odyssey. Directed by Shao Zehui, it premiered as the closing play of the Beijing Grand Canal Culture Festival, which celebrates the Grand Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history of about 2,500 years. As the longest artificial waterway in the world, the Grand Canal consisted of three sections built in different periods to connect Beijing and Hangzhou, in East China's Zhejiang province, unifying the powerful northern and the fertile southern regions in ancient China.

The 80-minute play, though based on the stories of Nine Songs by Qu Yuan, sets the leading roles, the Goddess of the Xiang River and Priestess of Birth, against a background of the contemporary world. Scenes, such as an amusement park, a night club and a wedding ceremony, are portrayed. The two leading roles are personified as two beautiful, young women, who discuss their lives and struggles.

"The play creates an interesting laboratory experiment for exploring poems of Nine Songs and their influence on the contemporary world," comments Shao, who is also president of Beijing Young Dramatists Association.

In 2004, Yan came to Beijing from her hometown in Sichuan Province to study literature at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, where she immersed herself in the world of traditional Chinese literature and Chinese operas, such as Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. From 2013 to 2015, she furthered her studies at Peking University where she gained a Master of Fine Arts degree.

In 2017, Yan's play, Before the Fall, premiered in Shanghai and was performed by Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. It was her first play staged in theater, which was supported by a foundation for young Chinese scriptwriters.

The original play revolves around the romance between Luo Niang and Li Shanfu over the course of four seasons. The play, directed by Shen Kuang, featured four young Kunqu Opera actors and actresses from the troupe, and became a hit among young Kunqu Opera lovers.

"I usually sat among the audience during the performance to observe their reactions and absorb their feedback. They seemed to have enjoyed the beautiful movements and singing of the Kunqu Opera artists. Meanwhile, they were drawn to the story. It's an encouraging experience for young scriptwriters like me to take the audience closer to traditional Chinese operas," Yan says.


(Source: China Daily)


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