As one of the vanguard directors in Chinese experimental theater, Wang Chong is used to toiling behind the scenes. But with his solo piece “Made in China 2.0,” whose world premiere ArtsEmerson is presenting at the Emerson Paramount Center Feb. 1-12, Wang decided it was time to step in front of an audience in a bigger way. Not only is Wang the show’s performer and writer, but he’s telling parts of his own story for the first time.
“I guess I reached this point of my career and life and in my understanding of theater and China where I became brave enough to put myself out there, not only my body on the stage but also my vulnerability, my personal life onto the stage,” Wang, 41, says in a Zoom interview from Istanbul, where he’s been on holiday. “Before, I was primarily a director only. This time I am responsible for the whole story. So it’s a very big challenge.”
He was anxious, he notes, about making himself vulnerable both artistically and personally, especially since he’s not a trained performer. “It’s a big self-exposure. I worried about many things. Is my body OK on the stage? Is my English OK on the stage? Is this part of my life OK to be shared? What would my dad say?”
“Made in China 2.0″ is billed as a one-person solo performance that “unpacks stereotypes of the global expectations of what China brings to the world” and “reveals an illuminating portrait of family, pop culture and the role of the artist and provocateur in uncertain times.” The description is purposely vague.
Many artists self-censor what they say and make for fear of reprisal. “No matter how daring you think my work is, I’m still self-censoring to a certain degree, so I sound safer to the Chinese authorities,” he says. “I don’t think self-censorship is good, of course. It’s just a way to survive, to be an artist in a special condition, to create your works in a special way.”
Collaborating with the Australian company Malthouse Theatre and co-director Emma Valente, Wang first did a workshop of the piece in February 2020 in Melbourne. Since then “Made in China 2.0″ has evolved to incorporate what’s happened in the world since that time and the advent of the pandemic.
Indeed, he cites legendary theatrical innovator Peter Brook’s idea of “immediate theater” as an overriding inspiration.” “The idea is very broad and you can interpret it in your own way. But certainly [’Made In China 2.0′] showcases this idea of theater. That theater should be immediate. Theater should be exciting. Theater should be alive. Theater should be about real-life events, things that are highly relevant.”
The piece employs multimedia elements, including projections and live and recorded video. “But we play tricks with those elements on the stage,” he says.
“Made in China 2.0″ includes discussion of Wang’s relationships with his tradition-bound father, his supportive, peacemaking mother, and his beloved grandmother. “My father wants me to find a job. But I have a job as a theater director, which is not considered a proper job by him. Sometimes he really appreciates my shows, but he couldn’t fully appreciate it as a lifelong job. So it’s a disagreement between us.”
The play delves into the use of symbols, emojis, homonyms, and homophones in Chinese culture and how citizens deploy these to express themselves. “There’s a lot of coding and decoding in my theater practice,” he says. “I want to reveal some secrets to the audience, and you’ll also learn some Chinese words.”
Ultimately, the theme of conscience rings throughout the work. “As a theater maker, you are bringing your conscience, your goodness to your audience. It’s not the techniques and the tricks that are important. Eventually, the audience is able to see your heart through all the intricate facades and formal, stylish things you do onstage. So it’s that heartfelt thing that you’re communicating with the audience.”
In 2008, Wang cofounded the Beijing-based company Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental. His work has been seen around the world and includes the award-winning show “The Warfare of Landmine 2.0″ and the Chinese premiere of Heiner Müller’s 1977 play “Hamletmachine,” a postmodern adaptation of “Hamlet” that draws parallels to an autocratic surveillance state. His 2016 production about celebrated Chinese dissident writer Lu Xun won the Beijing News award for Best Chinese Performance but was later shut down by the government. His Zoom adaptation of “Waiting for Godot,” featuring a couple separated during pandemic lockdown, was a pioneering early example of live online theater.
Despite his interest in the arts, Wang studied law for four years. Eventually, though, he decided to pursue a masters in theater at the University of Hawaii. He’d planned to be a scholar, but then the renowned German director Thomas Ostermeier, whom he had met in Beijing, asked a question that “puzzled” him. “Why do you want to be in the second row? In Europe, young people want to be in the front row,” Wang recalls him saying. “So I kept asking myself that question.”
Then in Hawaii, he was offered the chance to direct a play and seized the opportunity. He’s never turned back. His influences include pioneering experimental American director Robert Wilson, avant-garde leading light Richard Foreman, and visionary Canadian auteur Robert Lepage. “They really opened up my mind,” he says.
Still, he contends, it’s “dangerous” when theater makers stop developing as artists. Indeed, in creating “Made in China 2.0,” his first solo show as a creator and performer, he decided to “throw everything out there and risk myself.”
“I want to overthrow myself and the style I work in,” he says, describing a pattern he’s followed in the past. “So this [show] is really a starting point for puzzling a new era in my own creativity.”
MADE IN CHINA 2.0
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Emerson Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Feb. 1-12. Tickets from $25. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.