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A toast to those who imagine and create

(China Daily)|Updated : 2021-02-07

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Winners and event organizers of the first Zebra Awards of the Beijing Fringe Festival [Photo provided to China Daily]

Voice raised, the Chinese director Meng Jinghui is about to announce the winners of the first Zebra Awards of the Beijing Fringe Festival. Standing inside Fengchao Theater in downtown Beijing, where Meng's theater studio is located and his plays are staged, Meng first opens a bottle of sparkling wine.

"Usually we open the sparkling wine after giving out all the awards but we are here not only to celebrate the awards but also to toast ourselves," Meng says. "It was a very tough year for all of us, and we should give ourselves a round of applause."

The Beijing Fringe Festival, in its 13th year, took place from Sept 25 to Nov 15 despite the coronavirus pandemic. More than 50 plays were staged with audiences in theaters and online.

"The festival is for displaying the creativity of young people, who work in theaters, such as directors, scriptwriters and actors, but this year, because of the pandemic, we had to postpone some plays or even cancel them," says Meng, founder and artistic director of the festival.

The aim of the Zebra Awards part of the festival, in which 12 awards are given out, is to encourage and recognize artists and works.

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Best Playwright award winner Gu Lei (left), his son and director Meng Jinghui (right). [Photo provided to China Daily]

"I took my son with me to the rehearsal studio when I prepared my play The Creek Between Mountains, because schools were closed due to the pandemic," says the director Gu Lei. "He has inspired me a lot because my play is about the relationship between father and son."

Gu was named best playwright in the Zebra Awards for The Creek Between Mountains. He accepted the award along with his son.

Li Jianjun won the best director award for his play One Fine Day 2020, which brought together 19 amateur performers telling their personal stories. When the audience walked into the theater they were given headphones and signal receivers. They could listen to different stories by tuning into the specific channel of the performers' signal transmitters. Audience members had to make decisions as part of this theater experience.

The play One Fine Day premiered in Beijing in 2013 as Li sought to build up a different relationship between actors and the audience in the theater. Since the play's premier it has been performed by amateur actors and actresses.

"The play has evolved by itself and I love observing the reactions of the audience during the show," says Li, adding that he had not planned to restage the play last year since the pandemic forced theaters to close doors. It was not until August that theaters gradually returned to normal.

"We always get busy for the next project and suddenly, we had the chance to slow down and look back during the pandemic," says Li. "Some of the storytellers told of their lives during the pandemic, and that was warmly received by the audiences."

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A Welder's Flash's director Li Jianjun (left) and actor Ma Jiandong (middle) receive awards from directoractor Huang Lei (right). [Photo provided to China Daily]

Another Li work, A Welder's Flash, won two special awards of the first Zebra Awards: the audience choice award and the special mention award.

More than 10,000 audience members casts votes for the audience choice award, A Welder's Flash standing out among its peers with more than 7,000 votes.

A Welder's Flash, featuring the amateur actor Ma Jiandong, who is an electric welder, follows Ma, who tells real stories about himself and his family.

During the coronavirus pandemic Ma lost his job. His father fell down from a 10-meter-tall shelf and was severely hurt, and Ma had to return to his hometown in Zhangjiakou city, Hebei province, to take care of his father.

Ma came to Beijing in 2003 when he was 16 years old and worked on construction sites as a welder. After working for a theater company making stage sets he grew fond of watching plays. In 2013 he performed in One Fine Day.

"Ma's stories are full of sadness and struggle, and he touches audiences with his sincerity and his optimistic attitude about life," Li says.

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Ma Jiandong performs in the play A Welder's Flash. [Photo provided to China Daily]

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One Fine Day 2020 directed by Li Jianjun. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The winner of the award for best actor in the Zebras was Zhao Yang for his performance in the Chinese play The Outsider, directed by Yang Ting and adapted from Albert Camus' novel of the same title. The winner of the award for best actress was Wang Xiaodi for her performance in the Chinese play Wife of a Minister, and the winner of the award for best original score was Li Luka.

During the award ceremony, Meng announced the launch of the 14th Beijing Fringe Festival, which will be open to applicants until March 31.

"One of the reasons why we love theater is that it brings us dreams and hope," the director-actor Huang Lei says. "So when we couldn't watch plays in theaters because of the pandemic we felt lost. It's also a sorry state of affairs when actors have to perform in empty theaters."

Huang says he and Meng had planned to meet up in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, during the town's annual theater festival, which had been due to take place in October but was canceled.

To find an alternative way to connect with the audiences and to transform crisis into opportunity, Huang, co-founder of Wuzhen Theater Festival, initiated a reality TV show, Theater For Living, which premiered on Jan 16 and is produced by iQiyi, an online streaming media platform.

"The theater world has had to adapt to meet the challenges of a transformed world affected by the pandemic," Huang says. "What really touches me is the artists' passion for their craft. They face the prospect of being out of work, but they never stop creating and imagining."