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.
(Thank you Bri for the beta <3)