Last summer, to commemorate Cao Yu’s 100th Year Anniversary, Xiao Zhan conducted a “Theatre Talk Between Two Generations” with scriptwriter Wan Fang, Cao Yu’s daughter. Xiao Zhan asked: Is “truth” an important element in our creative process? In her response, Wan Fang mentioned a line from “Winter Journey”: No path leads towards sincerity, sincerity itself is a path. Xiao Zhan is currently on this “true” path, day after day, heading to the future.
In the spring of 2020, Xiao Zhan completed post-recording work for “Oath of Love”. One day in March or April, Xiao Zhan said to Lv Ying, the director of Oath of Love, that he really envies Gu Wei. He said, “Gu Wei is so happy, he has a simple and ordinary life.” Lv Ying recalls that he told Xiao Zhan, “You don’t need to envy him, your life will surely be even better than his.”
Inside the “Youth Castle” where XFire trainees are practicing, the boys have just finished morning practice, and are going in and out of the practice room in their casual clothes. Xiao Zhan quietly sat on the couch, getting interviewed by a journalist from The Paper.
That morning, journalists watched Ep. 11 of Xfire ahead of time at Tianyu Theatre. With his standout height and bright smile, Xiao Zhan was undoubtedly “Love at First Sight” and even during interviews, the team leader Peng Chuyue kept teasing him: “Xiao Zhan is our team’s popularity king.” Halfway through the competition last year, a marketing account exposed that he would soon appear in a big IP drama. When this was brought up, Xiao Zhan looked “clueless”, and during casual conversation didn’t forget to diss himself: “Hey, I’m just a ’Z-List’ unknown artist…”
In real life, Xiao Zhan is polite, understands the rules, and has a friendly air of an upperclassman next door. His attractiveness isn’t aggressive at all, and it’s no wonder that since the first episode some students have teased that Xiao Zhan is the popular “social butterfly” in their team.
Xiao Zhan: Offering Sincerest Emotions in his Work
‘Bustling’ and ‘tranquil’ are two antonyms that have become intricately merged within the walls of the Wuhan Qintai Grand Theatre. When you pass by the passionate flowers in front of the theatre and look over at the steps stretching upwards, through the stern and serious lobby of the theatre, your gaze would fall upon the crowds of people murmuring in anticipation.
On April 22, Yang Hua’s “A Dream Like A Dream” began its nine city tour in Wuhan, greeting through art this city which had been ravaged by the pandemic. As life restarted, the play was updated as well. Young actor Xiao Zhan stood on the theatre stage for the first time, in the role of “Patient No. 5 B,” unafraid of the pressure and expectations, and offered rich and strong emotions on stage. Executive director Zhang Rui gave very high praise, remarking that he completed this task of his first stage appearance with flying colours. The attention of the public was more direct, and many topics on social media platforms were viewed more than 100 million times.
American theatre critic Hamilton wrote in “The Characteristics of Art”: “Theatre is the expression of the conflict between people’s beliefs by the actor on stage, delivered using objective actions and the irrational power of emotions before an audience. With the addition of Xiao Zhan, this conflict extended to outside the play, and gave “A Dream Like A Dream” an unexpected and pleasantly surprising layer of appeal.
Into the Dream
Shakespeare had a famous quote, that “drama is a comprehensive and concise history of the times recorded.” Artists’ inquiries into problems are both about the topics of the generation as well as the issues of humanity.
The cooperation between Xiao Zhan and “A Dream Like A Dream” is fate that came to pass. In July of 2020, the Cao Yu 110 Year Special Event held at Beijing Poly Theatre included highlight segments of Cao Yu’s daughter, playwright Wan Fang’s, six classic works. Within each segment, there was a part where Wan Fang would speak with a young person, and Xiao Zhan was one of the speakers.
Before becoming a senior in the theatre industry, Xiao Zhan was honest and proper. This conversation began with creation and explored “sincerity” “choice” and “perplexity”; it was Xiao Zhan’s time to form ties with theatre art.
It was at this event that Yang Hua Theatre producer Wang Keran felt that Xiao Zhan looked great on stage, and invited him to join the production of “A Dream Like A Dream.” Wang Keran recalled, at first Xiao Zhan was happy, but moreover, he was worried. For a film actor to act in an 8-hour long theatre epic, you can just imagine the challenge.
Though, in the end, Xiao Zhan’s performance exceeded many people’s expectations. Nearly everyone who was interviewed expressed that Xiao Zhan’s dialogue delivery was great, that he was a good new talent.
In order for the actors to get into the mindset more quickly, “A Dream Like A Dream” cast booked a hotel in Tang Shan near the theatre, and held an intensive training camp. In the mornings everyone went to rehearse at the theatre, and at night they came back to sleep. The director discussed the characters with the actors everyday, to sort out the motivations behind their actions and the logic of it all. The actors needed to get into the atmosphere of the play, break themselves down, and rebuild.
There was a lake next to the hotel, in the winter the trees were cold and barren. Actress Huang Lu often went there to practice her lines. She plays the role of Jiang Hong, and has the most scenes with Xiao Zhan. Her impression of him is that this boy is very hardworking. When Huang Lu first joined the set, she hadn’t yet memorized all her lines, but she heard Xu Qing say that Xiao Zhan had already memorized everything, this was shocking for her.
Actress Kong Wei feels similarly. Her first impression of Xiao Zhan is that he has a great voice, one that’s well suited for theatre. “For a theatre, there are standards for voice.” Kong Wei is the first film school student hired by Beijing People’s Art Theatre in nearly 50 years, and has starred in many hit plays. She thinks that dialogue delivery is the most important aspect of theatre performance.
“His natural voice and his dialogue delivery are great.” Director Zhang Rui recalls, the cast had a ritual before rehearsal everyday to get the actors to warm up, “we’ll get everyone to open their mouths wide, and project their voices.” Later on, Xiao Zhan’s lines got to a point where he could deliver them on demand.
Aside from his voice, Xiao Zhan also got a physical grasp of this character. In order to better create this role of “Patient No. 5,” he would try different methods of acting at each rehearsal, and different ways of addressing the details.
For example, the scene in the apartment where No. 5 is sick and needs to cough to get Jiang Hong’s attention, then lies down on the bed. “He needs to express his body’s condition through the details,” Zhang Rui said.
In one scene, Jiang Hong and No. 5 were mistakenly thought to be foreigners, and in order to match with the state of the characters in that moment, Xiao Zhan and Huang Lu repeatedly went over their lines together outside of rehearsals. In the show, this scene also left a deep impression on the audience.
“Get a grasp of the role” is Xiao Zhan’s task for rehearsal. He took notes of the details during rehearsal, and continuously discussed his performance with the director and his co-actors.
Producer Li Xiong remained on the stage of Yang Hua’s “A Dream Like A Dream” for many years, and has seen countless actors who came and went. He thinks that this play is the best test for an actor, “Whether or not he’s a good actor, you can tell immediately at rehearsal. Whether he’s prepared, where his heart is, it’s all laid out there, this play is too deep, and if there’s even a shred of lightheartedness, it will show on the stage.”
Clearly, Xiao Zhan was able to pass the test. Sina Weibo Vice President and Social Responsibility Director Dong Wenjun posted about his thoughts, “Xiao Zhan showed a Patient No. 5 with consistency, and he has great self-regulation and expression of details in his performance.” Evidently, it doesn’t matter what you’re acting in, what’s important is the concentration of sincere emotions, and your talent and effort will be recognized.
In some ways, Xiao Zhan is an “attack-style” actor, this kind of “attack” is reflected in his stubborn seriousness towards acting, his desire to experience the lives of different characters. This condition is borne from one’s soul, appears from one’s actions, and reflects in one’s daily lives.
One year ago, Xiao Zhan appeared on the cover of “Blog Weekly”, and in the exclusive interview, on the topic of acting, he said that he believed the foundation for actors to be their work. He is grateful for the hard work of the entire creator team that gave the character life, and that one work is the summation of everyone’s efforts, “it’s these creators who gave me opportunity.”
Xiao Zhan’s first job upon graduation was a designer at a certain studio, he worked from 9AM to 5PM. In 2015, audition shows launched and because he loved to sing, he joined the variety show “X-Fire”, and learned to sing and dance from scratch. His bright and handsome appearance and confident performance moved the hearts of the audience, and in the end he made his debut as a member of XNINE.
At that time, compared to Japan and Korea, China did not have a developed idol industry, it wasn’t mature, and as an idol, Xiao Zhan didn’t have many opportunities to appear before the audience. In an interview, he looked back on those days without lights and cameras, and described it as “sitting around at home.”
The entertainment industry is cruel with competition and refreshes at an extremely quick pace, so Xiao Zhan started trying to become an actor. In his early days, he only played small supporting roles, and gradually built up experience as he became known by the audience. In 2017, Xiao Zhan welcomed his first real, important role – bounty hunter Ji Chong in “The Wolf”.
“The Wolf” was filmed in Yunnan Shangri-La, at the time it was extremely cold, and combined with the low oxygen on the plateaus, the actors suffered quite a bit physically. Xiao Zhan’s eyes were irritated by the UV rays, and he began to doubt himself, then later he worked to adjust his mindset and finish filming successfully.
He stayed on set for four months, and filmed 300 scenes, without leaving once. When he filmed Ji Chong’s final scene, he heard the staff say that this would be “his last time wearing Ji Chong’s outfit”, and Chen Yushan saw “heartbreak” on his face. Based on her experience, this was an actor who was too immersed in the role and did not want to leave it behind.
Thinking back on this experience, Xiao Zhan said, “The Wolf was when I grew the fastest, from zero to maybe 40 or 50, this was a substantial improvement. For the first time, I understood what filming was like, how to face each lens, how to build up an avenue of communication with opposing actors, so that time was unforgettable.”
“The Wolf” did not air immediately after filming wrapped, but was a precious asset for Xiao Zhan’s acting experience. It built the foundation for his future roles as main characters, and solidified his desire to be an actor.
In 2018, great change to the industry was taking place quietly, giving rise to genres of dramas targeted towards audience members who were followers. Xiao Zhan worked to gain the opportunity of starring as the main character Wei Wuxian in the Xianxia drama “The Untamed,” a handsome, cool, and unrestrained character.
In the summer of 2019, “The Untamed” aired, and immediately took off. It’s been marked as watched by more than 1.5 million people on Douban, with a rating of 7.7. Xiao Zhan created an unrestrained and distinguished “wandering hero,” who held firm to his own beliefs of right and wrong even if he was betrayed by the world. This character engraved itself into the hearts of the audience, his delicate and youthful image and wild and free persona pushed him to become one of the most popular celebrities of that year.
Improvement is about injecting sincere emotions into your work, and when it comes down to it it’s a process of learning. When filming “Joy of Life,” Xiao Zhan made time to go through the script with director Sun Hao. The director described this student’s desire to learn as “like a sponge, he’s stepping onto the battlefield without any armor.”
When we take a closer look at Xiao Zhan’s unwavering will when it comes to acting, his strength is derived from his love and respect for the characters. He feels that the stories of those characters he’s played are lives that he can’t experience otherwise, and therefore he has deep admiration for them. Like he once said to Blog Weekly, “When I portray these roles, I hope that we can fulfill each other, and gain the recognition and affection of the audience.”
The attention that came from his sudden rise to fame required Xiao Zhan to adapt to it using his own methods. In these last two years, we can clearly feel his humility and maturity when facing the public. At the same time, his opportunities are increasing, and he’s continuously widening his view of the world, and trying to cross into different fields, offering his talent and emotions in a diverse set of works.
Music is one such product. In 2021, on the BTV Spring Festival Gala stage, Xiao Zhan and The Black Panther band sang “To All Those Who Know My Name” together. Surrounded by the bright red lights of the stage, Xiao Zhan wore a fitted black suit, and his hands firmly grasped his standing mic. Along with the passionate live atmosphere, he gradually opened himself up, and when he got really excited, he ran towards the center of the stage with the band’s main vocal and began to jump up and down, imitating the motions of playing bass as the two stood with their backs against each other, releasing their emotions.
When he sang, “May we share the glory, and may our dreams never come up empty,” he pointed to an area below the stage, and his gaze was brimming with freedom and playfulness. This action pulled the audience back to the “X-Fire” stage – when this young man had first stepped into the entertainment industry. As people who were there, no one could be unmoved by the simple happiness he exudes on stage.
Last year, he released a single “Made to Love”, this song encapsulates all of Xiao Zhan’s past experiences, and the lyrics are full of his love for life and realizations about humanity. “Life, it’s small and incredible, life, you can never give up easily.”
If we say that music liberated Xiao Zhan and made him livelier, then theatre showed off more of his possibilities and allowed him to grow. In “A Dream Like A Dream,” he wore black-rimmed glasses, his hair was brushed back, his brows were slightly furrowed, and his gaze was forlorn as he stood on the 360 degree surround stage; like a dream but not a dream, amidst the intersections of light and shadow, his soul became one with the story.
Patient No. 5 is the character who guides us through the play, and brings the audience and the actors together into an exploration of the philosophical questions around life and death. This performance is undoubtedly draining, and requires the actor to have control of his voice, volume, and rhythm in between each line, and his emotions needed to peel away like layers, with progression and fluctuation and richness.
After the premier charity show ended, in the backstage interview, Xiao Zhan discussed his feelings towards this theatre appearance. He admitted that at first, he would get nervous, and his hands would be sweaty, but later on he became relaxed, “I would warm up with everyone else, and feel all my cells from head to toe opening up.” More importantly, he felt everyone’s fields of energy merging together, this experience is new, and powerful.
As to the greatest challenge he faced, at first, he felt that it was, “you can’t NG, and have to do everything in one take,” but after rehearsing with everyone, focusing and immersing himself, he now feels that the core is “whether you can deliver your most sincere emotions in that moment.” Just like in each of his past works, he’s only able to really gain the realization that life is like a dream by putting all his emotions into the role and sinking in the dream entirely.
In the official handbook, Xiao Zhan sincerely said, “To me, being able to fall into the dream together with No. 5 and experience a series of happy, or regretful, or ridiculous, or events with conflicting tragedy and joy allowed me to understand the world’s unpredictability while returning to my original roots, and experience a cleansing of the soul within this exploration of life.”
During the curtain call of the premier charity show, he bowed his head and took the hands of people on either side of him, then lowered them. His gaze was gentle as he faced forward, he stretched out his arms, put his right hand over his left arm, and bowed three times.
“Thank you to each Wuhan person. Thank you to each hero who fought on the frontlines of the pandemic. It’s your perseverance that welcomed in spring for Wuhan.” After he said this, he retreated to the main stage, clapped, lifted his glasses slightly, as if he was still immersed in the story.
The path of an actor is one that needs to be paved by talent, hard work and sincerity, and work remains the foundational rocks; the more rocks, the steadier his steps forward will be. From the TV screen to the movie screen then to the theatre stage, Xiao Zhan continuously broadens his fields of performance. Before making his way into the story, he turns dreams into reality. Because he gave his sincerity, it’s only right that sincerity is what he gets in return.
Excerpt From Wang Keran’s Article:
The 2021 version of “A Dream Like A Dream” saw the addition of 14 new actors. When the cast was announced, the news of Xiao Zhan playing the role of “Patient No. 5” caused waves of discussion on the internet. Wang Keran isn’t new to such voices; in as far back as 2013, the additions of Hu Ge and Li Yuchun led to similar voices of doubt about celebrity participation in theatre.
He feels that this kind of discussion is prejudice against celebrities, and stems from not understanding the relationship between theatre and the audience. He believes, “We only consider influence once we have the most suitable actor for the most suitable position, we’ll never give up our requirements for the role because of your influence; these are two different things altogether.”
Wang Keran doesn’t want to treat celebrities and actors differently, he describes his philosophy, “There’s always been only one standard, and that is whether or not you can portray this role, not whether or not you’re a celebrity.”
In “A Dream Like A Dream,” Xiao Zhan plays the role of Patient No. 5, and in some ways they’re alike. As a key character throughout the entire play, Patient No. 5 is face to face with death because of his strange illness, and is led to question his own fate by the unpredictability of his life’s events. In his interview with Blog Weekly, Wang Keran once experienced the elements of theatre he saw in Xiao Zhan’s person, “The most mysterious element of fate is its unpredictability, and that is also where the crux of theatre lies.”
Their first time working together was at the Cao Yu 110 Year Anniversary Special Event. He saw the complexity of this generation in Xiao Zhan, “The idols of this generation are different from those of 5 years ago, they’re placed there as a symbol, as something to be used, fought over, or even trampled upon.”
Excerpts From Li Xiong’s Article:
For Xiao Zhan who plays the role of Patient No. 5, his experiences coincide somewhat with those of the character in the play. The unpredictability of life; Xiao Zhan already had an understanding of this role outside of the play.
On April 22, A Dream Like a Dream charity show in Wuhan was still ongoing, but several related topics have already found their way to Weibo’s hot search rankings.
This might be the hottest theatrical play on the internet to date.
As a major IP work with 21 years of history and the participation of the most popular celebrity actor, A Dream Like a Dream paid respects to the heroes of the pandemic last year through a premiere charity showing and it is full of stories both in and out of the play.
On the third day before the start of the show, Yuli Studio went backstage, and entered the dream ahead of time.
At noon on April 19, with still 15 minutes to go before the first dress rehearsal of A Dream Like a Dream, there weren’t many audience members, and all were sitting in the lotus pond seating area.
The main producer Wang Keran was suddenly informed that someone was secretly recording, and immediately called over the executive producer Da Shan to ask, they expressed that they’ve already told the audience to not take pictures several times. Wang Keran’s expression darkened, and loudly criticized Da Shan’s inadequate work, before getting up and saying, “Everyone seated here are friends deserving of our trust, we ask that you protect the actors, and stop filming.”
Xu Qing, Xiao Zhan, Zhang Liang, Huang Lu… the participation of many celebrity actors greatly heightened the attention received by A Dream Like a Dream.
Protecting the actors became something that Wang Keran has been doing since the group was formed.
Yanghua Culture worked with Poly Theatre and did a massive amount of detailed work to ensure that the project would proceed smoothly, “The theatre put in a lot, the small amount of ticket revenue the theatre can get is far from enough to cover their huge investment.”
Wang Keran also helped Xiao Zhan refuse countless autograph and photo requests. His good old classmate came all the way to Wuhan just to get a picture with Xiao Zhan, but Wang Keran still declined, “I promised to give the actor a pure creative environment.”
A Dream Like a Dream theatre group worked hard to try to give actors a fair and cohesive creative atmosphere. Here, there would be no celebrity actor Xiao Zhan, just Patient No. 5 B.
Backstage of Wuhan Qintai Theatre, the sign outside Xiao Zhan’s waiting room doesn’t read “Xiao Zhan”, but “No. 5”.
The directors Chen Limei and and Zhang Rui said, the group won’t treat Xiao Zhan like a special actor; Huang Lu who plays the role of Jiang Hong and has the most scenes with Xiao Zhan said that everyone here is just an actor.
In private, Xiao Zhan would treat Huang Lu to fruits, and ask her for movie recommendations. Huang Lu said, it’s no different working with Xiao Zhan compared to with other co-actors, the biggest difference might just be the increase of private messages from Xiao Zhan fans, the vast majority of which are words of encouragement.
At the start of rehearsals, the director put Huang Lu and Xiao Zhan into a small practice room to work on their synergy.
“When we were rehearsing the French scene, I knew that he’s from Chongqing, so I would suddenly use Chengdu dialect translated from French and say to him, whaddya want to eat, and then he’ll reply to me in Chongqing dialect.”
Huang Lu recalls, when Xiao Zhan joined the cast, he had already memorized the script, and it only took three to four days to build their synergy. When it comes to details of performance, they also inspire each other.
For example, the scene in the Paris apartment, which received the biggest reaction from the audience at the charity show, was Xiao Zhan’s idea. Xiao Zhan suggested that they got to the “Monday Wednesday Friday, Tuesday Thursday Saturday” lines, they can put their heads together for a better effect.
For the comedic scene where the two spoke to each other in the Japanese, there were traces of the old version, as well as new creations; “Pikachu” was from the old version, while “sleeping” was Xiao Zhan’s own idea.
A Dream Like a Dream has a long run time, with an enormous number of lines. During rehearsal, one actor suddenly lost their train of thought, and their lines became more and more fragmented as their voice continuously lowered, and they were harshly criticized by the director Chen Limei that day. But in the director’s memory, Xiao Zhan never had such problems.
“Xiao Zhan is very serious; we can all feel that. Every night he goes home, he definitely goes through all his parts in his mind, so he wouldn’t make this kind of mistake.”
Xiao Zhan expressed that his familiarity with the lines is already to a point where he can “say them without thinking”, his focus now lies in “the feeling in the moment and the sparks with his partner actors.”
Xiao Zhan is very strict with himself, after the first dress rehearsal on the 19th, many live audiences gave his performance good reviews, but he said, “I’m not too satisfied today, it wasn’t as good as yesterday.” Even though the audience couldn’t hear any issues with that “Monday Wednesday Friday, Tuesday Thursday Saturday” part, but after going offstage, Xiao Zhan himself felt that it was slightly lacking.
To Xiao Zhan, the seating arrangement of the lotus pond for A Dream Like a Dream was a challenge; it made it easy for him to be distracted, and if he loses focus for a moment, it’s easy for lose hold of the scene altogether. He described, “for concerts, the feeling is that you have to interact promptly, while theatre to me is about making myself lonely.” Therefore, he has to be able to not notice the audience.
Wang Keran invited a theatre scholar to watch the rehearsal on the 19th. After the first part ended, they praised Xiao Zhan for acting well, and Wang Keran proudly recommended this newly discovered good actor: “He has different layers of the creative process; on the first day we finished reading the script, and on the second day he stepped on stage and immediately shocked me, he was still green, but his instincts were on point. He’s able to paint the character in intricate and rich layers, it wasn’t just the passionate scenes, for which everyone bursts with power, but also that he’s intricate, moving, and funny, and able to convey the essence of the character, his rhythm is so good.”
Xiao Zhan’s fate with A Dream Like a Dream began at least year’s Cao Yu 110 Year Memorial Special Event.
In 2019, Wang Keran had heard of Xiao Zhan’s name, but quickly forgot it. “Back then, I was in Wuxi, there was this huge crowd in the hotel, and I heard that the most popular actor these days is here, his name is Xiao Zhan.”
Then in 2020, a psychiatrist friend told Wang Keran to pay attention to this actor Xiao Zhan.
“Before then, I was an older person, and I only picked actors over the age of 35. But after hearing from the psychiatrist, I started taking note of this person both consciously and subconsciously, and I found that he was really interesting.”
“Interesting how? When many people were attacking him, I wanted to understand what the reason for this attack was, and I discovered that for this group of people, the realest and most hypocritical things existed as a contradictory entity. The idols of this generation are different from those five years ago, they’re placed there as a symbol, as something to be used, fought over, or even trampled upon. Through Xiao Zhan, I paid attention to the new waves in the development of society; only by understanding this wave, can works of art be in tune with the generation. That’s my theatrical outlook; theatre must make emotional connections between theatrical actions on stage in this moment and the people of this time and place.”
For Cao Yu memorial event, Wang Keran needed to find a young actor who could converse with Wan Fang. A colleague suggested Xiao Zhan, and Wang Keran suddenly realized, this is so fitting, “Xiao Zhan’s complexity is sufficient to represent the complexity of theatre.”
The first time he met Xiao Zhan, Wang Keran caught on to the mysterious sense of fate behind him, but he also radiated a youthful flair and gentle feeling. Wang Keran gave Xiao Zhan a book list, and told him to read them, then Xiao Zhan took several days to read all the books, and wrote tens of questions for Wan Fang; the questions were simple yet deep, and moved Wang Keran.
At the Cao Yu memorial event, Wang Keran observed Xiao Zhan, and found that he gave off a great feeling on stage, then immediately invited him join A Dream Like a Dream.
To Wang Keran, the similarity between Xiao Zhan and Patient No. 5 lies in the unpredictability of their fates.
Xiao Zhan’s interpretation of Patient No. 5 gave Wang Keran a pleasant surprise, and they haven’t yet discussed whether he will continue to play the part of Patient No. 5 after this year’s tour, but Wang Keran thinks that A Dream Like a Dream already gave Xiao Zhan some results, “I think he can prove that he’s a good actor through this play, and I feel that A Dream Like a Dream gave him a kind of power.”
Entering the Dream Again
Not only did it include the addition of Xiao Zhan, the cast of A Dream Like a Dream was almost completely changed.
There wasn’t much time left to the directors. Rehearsals, outfits, formations and such work proceeded simultaneously. A Dream Like a Dream is already a large amount of work, and there’s also strain on the time, so the entire cast and crew had hellish schedules.
For example, their schedule for the actors on the day of the April 22 charity show was as follows:
10:30 and 11:30 Actresses and actors leave from their hotels and head to the theatre for makeup, styling, and change into their costumes.
12:30 Put on audio equipment and test microphones
13:10 Warm up
13:30 Audience entry
14:00 Start of charity show
After a show nearly 8 hours long, when the actors were finished media interviews it was already 0:30.
12-hour work days have been the norm for the cast and crew this past month. Even for rehearsals without makeup and styling, they still need to leave at 12:00, begin rehearsals at 13:00, eat dinner at 17:00, rehearse again at 18:00, and wrap up after 22:00.
“We really gave it our all, we’ve never worked this hard before, because we didn’t change this many people in the past, so we might only head into the rehearsal venue at 2PM,” Chen Limei said.
Intensive rehearsals are a big test for the actors’ stamina, and nonstop rehearsals every day at the practice hall once made Huang Lu feel disoriented.
“Because we’re acting out the same things every day, we go in at daytime and come out at nighttime, I suddenly really wanted a normal lifestyle during that time. Once we were in a video call with Teacher Lai, and at the end each of us had to tell him our feelings about the play, I said that after watching this play, I suddenly feel that theatre and movies aren’t that important; life is more important, and that I really want to experience the feeling of interacting with people and spending time with family, friends, and lover.”
“When you film a drama, you’re still outside every day, and after wrapping up you can come in touch with real life. Before when I did a drama with Zhang Ruoyun, we rehearsed in Beijing, maybe three hours a day, then we could go see friends in the afternoon and at night. But these play was intensive practice, and every day by the time we finished it would be midnight.”
Wang Keran had predicted that actors might experience this kind of exhaustion, so the plan was always to take a break for awhile after 17 days of practice, until the week before the Wuhan show when everyone would be called back.
This kind of work style is not commonly seen in theatre, but for actors, it’s a good time to refresh and process everything.
“On our first day back, Keran said that was the time I acted best with Xiao Zhan,” Huang Lu said, “maybe after having processed everything and getting back in touch with real life, I was able to gain new understanding.”
Compared to A Dream Like a Dream from 8 years ago, this year’s version not only changed the cast, but also reduced the time by 15 minutes on the basis of not changing the script.
The main adjustment was the actors’ rhythm. For example, at the end of the first part, when the old butler talked about the story of the Earl with Gu Xianglan, originally it was done in a slow tone, but Wang Keran felt that it wasn’t right, “That form of expression was as if the grandpa had just arrived in Shanghai and was unfamiliar with his surroundings, but in reality, he’s familiar with the castle, he might come back often, like a tour guide.” Therefore, he adjusted the pace and tone of the dialogue so that it became richer and more layered.
Each improvement in detail began with the daily notes meeting.
During rehearsal, the two directors sat in the center of the lotus pond, set up a little table with a dim table light, and as the actors performed and the directors found problems, they would make notes on the script, or write furiously on white paper. After a day of practice, the papers were filled with two to three hundred lines of notes.
After the rehearsal, the actors would sit together in the lotus pond and listen to the director explain that day’s notes one by one, and each actor would record the part belonging to them.
The Notes app on Xiao Zhan’s phone was filled with each day’s notes. For example, there were ten notes on just April 19. Xiao Zhan’s notetaking method is simple and concise, he would note a particular scene, or a set place, and mark down the emotions and pacing that he would need to pay attention to.
In Zhang Liang’s memory, his own notes peaked at over 20 in one day, then as his problems decreased, so did his notes.
Director Chen Limei said, some actors would wonder, why is it that even with daily notes meeting, there were still hundreds of new notes every day, and if this meant that they haven’t improved. In reality, everyone was just improving further on the basis of already having improved.
“There’s a process to rehearsal, at first you might not be able to memorize the lines, and the notes would be about your lines. Once you pass that, it might be about your formation and actions, until in the final stage your acting had already gotten much better, I might pay attention to costume, hairstyle, and things that I wouldn’t notice before if I didn’t take a close look. Each stage had different issues to discover, and only after going from step one to step two, can you stee the problems in the next step, or your focus isn’t there.”
For example, on the final day before the official performance, the notes for Xiao Zhan became a minor detail like, “For the singing before the curtain call, stand further to the West.”
After experiencing three days of full rehearsals on April 18, 19, and 20, the rehearsal on the final day became “notes rehearsal”, where they would focus on the problems in the notes, then practice those specific elements and reinforce scenes they were likely to have problems with, such as the rhythm in the group scene at Tian Xian Ge, the Earl’s scenes with young Xianglan, etc. For Xiao Zhan and Huang Lu, their practice revolved around the scene where they circled the stairs, and they needed to pay special attention to their eye contact going up and down the stairs and their performance without props when they pushed open the door to enter.
After the premiere show on the 22nd, the notes meetings will still continue, and there will be improvements to each future show.
After the dress rehearsal on April 19, all the actors gathered backstage and stood silently around the directors, it appeared to be a special ceremony.
The new actors who joined this year were also seeing this for the first time, but to those who were part of A Dream Like a Dream before, this has already become a habit.
Director Chen Limei introduced this ending ceremony as “Echo”, it was Lai Shengchuan’s habit – one that goes back to when A Dream Like a Dream first toured in Mainland. “After each show, when we receive applause from the audience and emotions toward our characters, we want to relay those feelings again to more people. You can think of a large group, and we’ll spread this blessing and share it together.
Two years ago, at Chongqing Grand Theatre, Wang Keran had the thought of getting more people to understand and feel theatre, so he started planning A Dream Like a Dream’s nine city tour.
When they first heard this plan, Chen Limei and Zhang Rui both thought it was an impossible wish.
“Because for such a large-scale production like A Dream Like a Dream, it’s likely that we’ll be operating a loss. With such a large crew of around 130 people, there are so many people’s food and living expenses, and then in each location we would have to set a new stage which would take a week to put up, all for a few shows.”
Until early last year, Keran still said that we have to do it, I was like, really? How, with the pandemic? Last year he was already saying that we can definitely do it next year. This might be related to his perspective on life, he will definitely accomplish what he sets out to do. Like in the old days, when he did his first play, he sold four houses.”
Compared to A Dream Like a Dream from earlier years, this year’s scale of investment was clearly larger. More tour cities mean higher costs associated with the move. Rehearsing in Tang Shan is not like rehearsing in Beijing, actors have to eat and live in Tang Shan, all of which costs money.
On the other hand, the seating capacity of theatres is fixed, and there is an upper limit to ticket prices. But even with these low profit margins, Wang Keran still decided to do an unsold charity show. “The cost is too high, after the charity show, this stop’s profit is actually just gone,” Wang Keran said.
During the pandemic, Wang Keran already got the idea of doing a charity show in Wuhan.
At the time, he called the theatre’s general manager, and asked about the situation in Wuhan. “He stayed in Wuhan, and told me, if you really care about us this much, bring your best show over. I asked, which one? And he said, A Dream Like a Dream. So I thought, if A Dream Like a Dream doesn’t go, we can’t express our respect to this city, and we’ll do a charity show, for free.”
The actors share this idealism.
Wang Keran said, working in theatre is tough, practice time is long, and even though official shows at each stop only lasted three days, we needed a week’s time to rehearse. The time of popular celebrities is calculated in days, but they willingly left time in their schedules for the play.
Actor Sun Zhongyi who plays the role of the old butler and the professor in the play is a key actor of Yanghua, and he had received an opportunity to star as the male lead in a movie, this was very important to him, but it clashed with one show of A Dream Like a Dream. For the sake of the play, he let go of this rare opportunity.
Theatre is not as profitable as film, and no matter how famous the celebrity is, the income is far below what they normally charge for dramas. The rehearsal fee for the actors of A Dream Like a Dream is 100 yuan a day, but all the actors cooperated seriously.
Huang Lu said, sometimes they’d joke that they’re “missing out on earning money”, but everyone felt that this was good, it’s rare to have the opportunity to spend a whole year to concentrate on one thing. The days when everyone ate and practiced together in Tang Shan was like returning to campus.
“We all didn’t come for money,” Huang Lu said. She treats A Dream Like a Dream as a hard to come by opportunity, as training for her acting, and as a session for self-improvement.
Each actor put their all into their performance.
The new addition Ge Xinyi, who plays the young Gu Xianglan, looked to the senior actors and actresses for guidance; the experienced actor Feng Xianzhen’s grasp of the character is graceful and powerful, the three versions of Gu Xianglan have a cohesive soul; Zhang Liang portrayed an Ear different from Jin Shijie’s version but equally deep; a group of old actors with Fu Xing as their representative worked as the rock foundation in rehearsal and on stage, their solid performances helped each new actor build a strong and accurate system for acting.
Xu Qing, who has already played the role of Gu Xianglan for nine years and engraved it into her blood and bones, also followed the progression of the whole cast, and participated in all the rehearsals. Wang Keran expressed his gratitude to Xu Qing in Tang Shan, “I’m really grateful that you appeared at practice, because you’re able to accurately complete each detail, and even if it’s a basic practice, you’re still serious and don’t hold back, you fully and accurately painted this character.”
Xu Qing looks to continuously improve in her acting, and she used to consult with Wang Keran for how to deal with each word, like for the scene after the Earl’s car accident, where Gu Xianglan hurriedly runs up to the police and says, “I see you incompetence,” she tried many different ways of expression. Even after nine years of A Dream Like a Dream, Xu Qing is still thinking hard and looking for the best way to handle each detail.
During the Wuhan rehearsal, Yuli Studio also saw that Xu Qing put plenty of emotion into each rehearsal. Especially for the key scene where Gu Xianglan takes off her Qipao and traverses the lotus pond in her pajamas, Xu Qing’s eyes were filled with tears after each performance.
Later, Xu Qing said to Wang Keran something that she hopes for him to share with the new actors, “Just tell them one thing, one minute on stage takes nine years off stage.”
People in theatre guard the stage with a form of idealism and passion. With this year’s A Dream Like a Dream receiving so much attention, Wang Keran hopes for more people to understand and come to love theatre.
He intentionally added a livestream segment after the charity show, so that more people outside of the 1200 seats in the theatre could see A Dream Like a Dream and hear the actors’ thoughts. He hopes that not only Xu Qing, Xiao Zhan, but also the unknown actors will be seen.
“I know how the news works, if it wasn’t a livestream, you guys will definitely edit out the unimportant people right? But I hope that everyone’s effort will be seen. Xu Qing and Xiao Zhan are also glad to use this method, I think this is belief in equality of cooperation established within them by theatre.”
A Dream Like a Dream will continue to tour in 9 cities. Wang Keran hopes that more youths will be moved to join theatre through this play, “I’ve had this thought since a long time ago, I just needed the right opportunity. We spend our whole lives hoping for theatre to have greater influence and for more people to join theatre, if we can make it happen, then Xu Qing, Xiao Zhan, Zhang Liang and all the other actors will have done a great thing.”
Q: You started preparing long ago for this performance. What do you find challenging about this new field of theatre?
Xiao Zhan: If you had asked me this before, I might have said it was that you can’t NG and have to do everything in one take. After focusing and working together with everyone, rehearsing, immersing myself, I feel that the biggest challenge is not being able to deliver my most sincere emotions in the moment.
Q: Were you nervous, standing on stage before the audience for the first time?
Xiao Zhan: I was at first, and my palms were sweaty, but later on I relaxed.
Q: What kind of preparations did you do prior to going on stage?
Xiao Zhan: Warming up with everyone, opening up every cell in my body from head to toe, and feeling our states become a cohesive unit.
Q: How do you review your performance on the first day?
When he was filming in Xiangshan, Xiao Zhan went for runs in the field almost every day. The sky was so blue, and he often found himself in the midst of the paddy fields, with rolling hills of uneven heights lying in the distance. As the breeze gently blew past, he didn’t need to think about anything. His friend still has some of the videos he took in those fields, often filmed under the setting sun with only the sound of the wind and rustling leaves as the person taking the video is holding his breath. The camera would slowly pan up from over the fields, and occasionally there would be the sound of distant thunder, but the camera doesn’t waver. He is still at ease as he stands in the center of the field.