【Minsheng WE Theater】Stage Design as Performance
Time & Date: 14:00–16:30, May 29, 2021
Guest: Li Yan
Venue: Interactive Multimedia Room (1F), Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum
With his lens, Li has documented actors, time, growth, and everything in the theater. As Huang Lei once remarked, his passion for theater surpasses a vast majority of theater lovers; he’s a theater enthusiast, or even, a fanatic…
For Li Yan, it is almost his reflex response to bring the camera along with him to the theater. He failed to enter the theater academy back in his student days, but he did enter the theater by another way. In the past thirty years, he could be seen with his camera in every theater event in Beijing, Wuzhen, and Daliangshan. There is no performance venue that he hasn’t been to and no play on show that he doesn’t know. Grand theaters, independent theaters, modernist plays, avant-garde experiments, remakes of masterpieces from abroad, and senior projects of graduates from home—he has been everywhere.
The mid-1980s to the mid-1990s is known as the “Double M Era” for Chinese contemporary theater, during which young directors, represented by Mou Sen and Meng Jinghui, pioneered the experimental and creative direction of contemporary theater, and Li Yan has documented almost the entire developments of this period. In the past thirty years and so, Li has not only documented theatre with his camera, but also gone to extraordinary lengths to promote and popularize the theater. He has published a great many reports, reviews, and stage photos of plays, for which he has been hailed as “a living fossil of Chinese contemporary theatre” by the media and as “the mainland’s Christopher Doyle” by the renowned theater director Stan Lai.
The introduction of multimedia and the innovations in technologies, productions, concepts, and forms of theatre have worked together to bring about a new context for the relationship between audience and performer. Chinese contemporary theater has been powering through for a span of thirty years ever since Lin Zhaohua’s directing and staging of Absolute Signal in 1982. By breaking the fourth wall and creating a brand-new audience–performer relationship, this play was in the vanguard of experimental exploration in independent theaters. The ever-increasing demand for a landscape on stage has informed theatrical performance, and stage design is not just a silent agent, but also speaks for a layer of aesthetics that is accomplished throughout the performance under the limitations of the fictitious time and space on the stage.
Li not only documents the stories of certain people but the stories of different times. In this temporal passage constructed by the numerous presses of the shutter, we can draw near to the plays of patterns of past and present theater people. This lecture will unveil the fragments of thirty years of Chinese contemporary theater and allow us to perceive through Li’s lens how the multilateral relationships unfold on stage and in the theatrical space per se. From Li’s first-hand experience in theaters at home and abroad, we will also get to learn how the stage design has grown from a spatial accessory to theatrical performance into a self-contained form of performance.
“Li Yan with his truthful and subtle lens has precisely captured those precious moments on and off the stage.”
“(Li) had documented the eclectic movements peculiar to theater on the stage of times: the diving, the flaunting, the composed, the desiring, the suppressing, and the entangled. Year in and year out, Li Yan has never detached his eyes from his camera in hand and is bound straight to the core of theater.”
“The countless pressing of the shutter, like the beating of his heart, must have sprung from his love for life. Today he captures and frames the most loveable moments on stage and contributes to us with his love.”
—— Pu Cunxi
Li Yan (b. 1964) grew up in Beijing. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and works for Xinhua News Agency. Since the mid-1980s, he has been taking stage photos and has documented the development of contemporary theater in China (mainly in Beijing) through photography. For over 30 years, he has published nearly one million words of reports and reviews of theater, as well as stage photos, in domestic and foreign newspapers and magazines, and has been hailed by the media as “a living fossil of Chinese contemporary theatre.” From 2012 through 2020, he has held exhibitions of stage photos and more than twenty lectures in places including Beijing, Taipei, Shanghai, Shuhe, Changsha, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Nanjing, Shenzhen, and Saint Petersburg.
In September 2016, Li’s book When Theatre is a Thing of the Past (in two volumes) was published by the Writer’s Publishing House. It is a documentary of contemporary theater in China from an individual’s perspective with more than 300,000 words and nearly 500 pictures and is the first non-fiction of its kind in China.