“You have the brightest smile,” he flirted with the young waitress. “Only your teeth need to be straightened. Here’s my name card. I’m a dentist. Call me whenever you want to.”
The girl giggled and drew back a little, “No thanks. I like my teeth.”
He grinned, “That’s the spirit. Remember, next time if someone suggests the same thing to you, slap him in the face! If you get your teeth straightened, it won’t be you anymore.”
My colleague Ginger and I were sitting with Wang Xiang (王翔), a middle-aged dentist who owns a chain of successful dental clinics in Beijing.
But a more appealing title for him is founder and artistic director of Penghao Theater (蓬蒿剧场), an independent, non-governmental theater located in Dongmianhua Hutong (东棉花胡同) just off Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷).
Established in September 2008 in a renovated siheyuan (四合院), or traditional Beijing courtyard, the 100-seat theater has hosted a variety of performances that run the gamut from modern dramas to experimental music. Its name, 蓬蒿, literally refers to two kinds of weeds—fleabane (飞蓬) and wormwood (蒿草), which, put together, rather poetically connote the notion that this is a theater for the “grassroots” or common people.
Discussing his original intention in opening the theater, the seemingly frivolous Wang turned solemn. “It is to resist the fear and scarcity in our cultural life,” he said. “Small literary theaters or creative cultural organizations are common abroad, but in China this kind of scene is still a rarity.”
For Wang, theater is not only a means of creating artistic community, but of enriching one’s inner world—including his own. “I find that drama is one of the best art forms for interpreting the meaning of ‘being,’” Wang explained philosophically. “Life should be vivid, witty and warm. In addition to the basic needs of living, we need to pursue a rich spiritual life and find an artistic outlet for our hearts. I like to do that through plays.”
One of Penghao’s most recent runs was “Sylvia,” an American play written by A.R. Gurney and directed by Joseph Graves, the current artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film in Beijing. Though some background elements of the play were adapted from New York to Beijing, the storyline remained unchanged. The absurdist plot revolves around an owner’s obsession with his dog Sylvia, and how it drives an increasing wedge between him and his wife. Impressively, both English and Chinese versions were performed by the same cast, who, like the director, are members of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film. Most of the regular actors are also graduates of the Central Academy of Drama, which is just down the hutong from Penghao.
Indeed, the playhouse is more than a conventional theater but also serves as a center of creative brainstorming and collaborations. It has produced several original plays including “Bust of a Girl” (塞纳河少女的面模), “I Am a Seagull” (我是海鸥) and “The Story of Luoguxiang” (锣鼓巷的故事).
On the last Saturday of each month, Penghao holds a mini-theater festival featuring Beijing Improv, an international troupe who, Wang says, turn the playhouse into “a sea of joy.”
But it’s not all merriment for Penghao or its owner. Recently the 58-year-old dentist had emergency triple-bypass surgery due to years of stress and overwork.
“The cost of doing a wonderful endeavor independently is high,” said Wang, with an ambivalent expression.
After an initial investment of RMB1.2 million in 2008, each year he has devoted around RMB400,000—profits from his clinics—to the theater. Despite income from tickets and the coffee bar, the theater still suffers an annual loss of over RMB600,000. “For every day it stays open, I lose another 2,000 yuan,” Wang said.
More about the theater:
Penghao is located about halfway down Dongmianhua Hutong, between Nanluoguxiang and Jiaodaokou Nandajie. Keep your eyes peeled for a blue lit sign that reads “蓬蒿剧场”; this will lead you down a tiny alley-like hutong where the theater’s entrance is located. On the entrance wall, it will say “Theater Without Borders” (戏剧是自由的). Inside you’ll find a cozy cafe dotted with tables. On the second floor is a balcony where you can see over the roofs of traditional Beijing courtyards. It’s a surprisingly tranquil respite in the middle of a bustling Beijing neighborhood.
Check out Penghao’s latest performances at www.penghaoren.com