Thinking Inside the Box

Black box theater and Chinese opera, what’s not to like?

The iridescent opera costumes are opulent against the backdrop of black box theater, yet at times, at the lower registers especially, you lose the words sung on the cavernous stage. Such are the lessons of Star Theatre’s third annual Xiqu Opera Black Box Festival in Beijing, held from October to the last week of December, 2016; in the formidable undertaking of making contemporary adaptations to millennia-old Chinese art forms, you win some and lose some.

The festival’s Chinese translation for “black box” is, literally, “small theater” ( 小剧场 ). It’s not exactly accurate, since black box theater primarily tends to be defined not by size as much as by an unadorned, streamlined look and flexible use of space, as the arrangement of the seats are not fixed and can be changed as needed. In this year’s festival, 17 out of the 19 official selections played in Star Theatre’s two biggest auditoriums, boasting more than plush 200 seats each, with an audience seated on one side as with the traditional proscenium stage.

In this case, explains Hu Hanchi, a student director whose work was featured in this year’s festival, black box or “small theater” ought to be interpreted in a relative sense. “It’s not the space getting smaller, people getting fewer, but it refers to a closeness of performers to the audience,” he says. “It’s about getting close enough to see what the creator wants to express.” At the Xiqu Opera Festival, this comes of playing directly on the auditorium floor, using minimal sets and technical distractions, and by creatively reimagining of the boundaries of the stage—including emotional boundaries.

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author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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