Director Continues Improving While Chasing Dream on Stage

ByLi Wenjie November 27, 2020
Xia Yu works with her producation team in the backstage. [For Women of China]


Xia Yu, a producer and director with the large-scale-program center of China Media Group, was named deputy general director of the 2021 CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala, the most-watched annual show in China on Chinese New Year's Eve. Xia has worked as one of the directors on the program eight times. She has also directed several national brand events, including the program, I Want to Perform on the Spring Festival Gala.

Passion Leads Direction

As a child, Xia loved painting woodblock prints and making clothes for dolls. She also wanted to be a dancer. She was enthusiastic about things related to literature and art. Her father, though, didn't support her artistic pursuits at first, as he felt being a teacher or a doctor was the "best choice" of a career for a woman.

The turning point in her life occurred when she and her mother took her sister to university. Another passenger on the train noticed Xia's knowledge about art and literature, and persuaded her to apply to Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now Communication University of China).

Xia applied and was admitted. After she graduated, her father wanted her to find a job in her hometown. "If you stay in Beijing, your family won't be able to help you at all, and you can only rely on yourself," he said. Xia was determined. "Then I will stay," she answered.

Xia started her career in TV-program production, and she received an internship with the Chinese Opera and Literature Department of CCTV, now the Literature and Art Center. In 22 years, Xia has never stopped working in the field she loves. From helping produce a small program to directing The Same Song, a popular CCTV music program, she has continued moving, step-by-step, toward the stage of the Spring Festival Gala.

"Some things seem to be destined, but it is more likely it is because of my passion that has led me to the ideal place," Xia says.

Devil in the Details

In 2002, when Xia was 26, she directed the opening and closing ceremonies of Guangxi Nanning International Folk Song Arts Festival, one of the largest cultural events in the country.

She met famous Chinese film director Zhang Yimou at that time. Zhang hadn't worked on a theatrical performance to that point, but he was eager to learn. Xia proudly gave him a tour. After he gave Xia a few compliments, Zhang unexpectedly criticized her. "Xia, I guess you didn't pay much attention to details. The stage of the show is splendid, but the stage floor is so dirty," Zhang said.

That caught her attention. The stage for the folk song performances was more than 60 meters long, and it had hundreds of people on it. Xia only saw the big scene: How bright the lights were, how bright the costumes were, how brilliant the stage was, and how wonderful the show was. She did not notice the details that might have affected the whole picture.

"Pay attention to the expression of lens language. When you decisively switch to close-ups of real characters, your picture is powerful; the series between programs can be more colorful," said Zhang.

His sharp, but pertinent, criticism gave Xia, who was a green hand at that time, a "precious lesson" about production. Since then, she has paid more attention to details, and she has become humbler and calmer.

Xia Yu receives an interview. [For Women of China]


Dream Comes True

In 2005, Xia was offered an opportunity to help produce the CCTV Spring Festival Gala.

"It was just like a dream! The Spring Festival Gala is a symbol of my family memory, and also a time of reunion for hundreds of millions of families. So, I always have a sense of sacredness and concern for this show," says Xia.

Even though she was only the director in charge of the song and dance performances, she was happy and proud to be a part of the production team.

"It doesn't matter if my name is on the credits or not. It's really valuable if I can incorporate my feelings and thoughts into the program, and be recognized by the audience," Xia says.

To prepare for the program, Xia often stayed with the programming group. Every time she finished a meeting, she would think about what kind of show she would like to watch if she were a member of the audience.

"At that time, I was in charge of the song and dance performances during the gala. After I learned some of the performances that I directed became popular all over the country after the gala, I felt I had realized my dream for my career," she says.

To ensure her work is of the highest quality, Xia often stays up late. "As a producer and director, my thoughts are involved with thousands of staff. I have to forget other things and make the best judgments and decisions efficiently," says Xia.

She believes a person will not be a good director if he/she is self-centered. "I often tell the young members of the programming group that directors can apply their creativity, wisdom, experience and artistic sense to the show, but shouldn't decide the direction of the show based on their own preferences. They need to understand the audience's psychology, and serve them," Xia says.

Xia's creed is to make full use of the program creators' wisdom, and to produce programs according to the needs of the audience.

Xia Yu examines the performance in the backstage. [For Women of China]


Setting a Trend

The program, I Want to Perform on the Spring Festival Gala, is a platform for selecting outstanding creations and talent for the formal gala. Xia began directing the show three years ago.

Xia led her team out of the recording studio in search of performances by various folk artists across the country. She wanted to find more vital performances, from the grassroots, for the program.

At the same time, she promoted the integration of TV programs and new media. Xia says communication has undergone substantial changes in recent years, both for the audience and for channels of communication.

"Even with the most powerful publicity platform, CCTV, we still need to find ways to attract more people into the audience," says Xia.

In 2013, Xia participated in the production of the Glory Bloom Concert Series for Top 10 Young Performers and Singers, and, for the first time, she invited a new-media team to help with the production.

"Our production team paid more attention to the content of the program … and the new-media team helped us open up a world where production and promotion were different from the traditional methods. I discovered there was much to do outside the enclosed space," Xia says.

Traditional media, she says, has gathered a group of talented people and produced a large amount of high-quality content. New media attaches great importance to User Experience and information spreads quickly on new media.

Learning from each other, and making progress together, is the right way for dealing with the relationship between the new media and traditional media.

"When the tide of integration comes, it's better to set the trend than to follow the trend," says Xia. Since 2018, she has produced derivative new-media products for the program, I Want to Perform on the Spring Festival Gala, such as online variety shows and short videos, to expand the influence of the program on new-media platforms.

Last year, a media-observation area was set up on the site of the show, and radio hosts and popular online live broadcasters were invited to give comments. "We don't control their opinions, but let the audience judge the program," says Xia.

At first, she worried that new-media programs would affect the show's television rating.

Unexpectedly, the show remained the highest rated national variety shows on Saturday prime time, and the show also received many comments from netizens. It has attracted both TV viewers and Internet fans.

Xia realized that ratings are no longer the only yardstick being used to evaluate a program. Public reception and the attention and comments on the Internet are more worthy of attention.

"I love browsing netizens' complaints about the Spring Festival Gala. Many are sharp, and some are particularly funny. Criticism can keep me awake, because the most terrifying time for creation is to lose yourself in arrogance," says Xia.

Re-Examining Life

Before she turned 40, Xia was a perfectionist. "If my requirements were not met, I would 'mend' things back at all costs," she says.

Xia worked for 20 hours a day, and work was her whole life. Later, when her mother was facing a serious illness, Xia left work and went to the hospital to take care of her. During that period, she re-examined the meaning of life, and she adjusted her "strict lifestyle."

In 2018, Xia was recognized as a National March 8th Red-banner Holder by the All-China Women's Federation.

"After receiving this honor, I thought about what kind of contribution I could make to repay such affirmation. I hope my efforts will help more people realize their dreams, let more young people, who come from small towns like me, find their own stage in life," she says.

In Xia's view, next year's Spring Festival Gala will be a special one, as it will reflect Chinese people's care for their families and country.

"In the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic, we have seen that 'people first' is no longer a concept, but refers to real action. The Communist Party of China and the State have worked together with people to achieve today's results. Everyone has something to say. I especially look forward to expressing these emotions in a sincere way. With a heart-warming program, everyone will have a good year," Xia says.

"When people enjoy their New Year's Eve dinners, I hope that a warm gala will help them get a sense of relief and outlook to welcome to the new year. This is my original intention to create the 2021 Spring Festival Gala," she explains.


Photos supplied by Xia Yu

(Women of China English Monthly October 2020 issue)


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