Almost a one-man army

Updated: 2016-10-31 07:52

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

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A big star in his own right, Huang Lei uses his celebrity status to organize China's fastest-growing theater festival, writes Raymond Zhou.

Each year at the increasingly prestigious Wuzhen Theater Festival, there is someone who presides over the final show of the young artists' competition.

He counts the seats still available at the West Warehouse Theater, rushes out to the Youth Plaza where a long line is always waiting and ushers in a lucky few into the venue.

Before the lights dim, he takes out his cellphone and demonstrates how distracting it is for the performers and nearby viewers - a viewer's face lit from below is eerily reminiscent of a ghost story. He gently and humorously reminds the audience of the importance of having a totally attentive house for the contestants.

 Almost a one-man army

Huang Lei appears in one of several forums, a staple of the Wuzhen Theater Festival. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Almost a one-man army

Huang addresses a crowd in a Wuzhen street that's festooned with portraits of theater legends.

"It could be the break of a lifetime," he says.

This usher extraordinaire is Huang Lei, one of the co-founders and a producing director for the festival. He is also a big star in his own right, arguably the most recognizable face among the brain power that has catapulted the Wuzhen event into the pantheon of theater in record time.

In a sense, Huang is to the Wuzhen Theater Festival what Robert Redford is to the Sundance Film Festival.

But unlike Redford, Huang is not a resident of the place that he has associated his name with.

Earlier this century, he was making a television drama series in the water town, taking on the hyphenated job of writer-director-male lead.

Chen Xianghong, the boss of the newly-opened scenic attraction, learned of the production and offered support.

Ripples, a lyrical tale of a college graduate who returns home to be a librarian, turned out to be a major hit, coincidentally shining a spotlight on the town where the story is set and shot.

The friendship between Huang and Chen morphed into an idea for a theater festival.

They enlisted the help of theater impresarios Stan Lai and Meng Jinghui, who also became founders.

When theater lovers were paddled across an expanse of water and set foot on the cobblestone lanes of the ancient town, most did not expect to find the purest event of its kind in what is essentially a tourism business.

That was in 2013 and now the Wuzhen festival has grown into what Lin Zhaohua, a living legend in Chinese theater, and many others call "the best in the country".

Tourists are usually dazed when they bump into Huang in one of the narrow streets. While they give the "I can't believe it" look, he smiles at them. He does not have an entourage.

Actually, the parade of celebrities who descend on Wuzhen during the 10-day event in mid-October all mingle with the crowds. Some may try to hide their faces on the first day, but quickly take down the dark glasses and masks. They come for Huang, stay for the shows and become voluntary advocates for the festival.

Although the envy of other Chinese arts festivals, the star presence is just icing on the cake.

"The festival does not belong to the visiting celebrities. It belongs to the public. The festival itself is the biggest star," says Huang.

And it would be an understatement to call him the "star of the festival". He is not just the face, but one of the brains behind the festival.

Almost a one-man army

He hosts the opening and closing ceremonies, joking that they cannot afford professionals. He sits on the five-person jury for the youth competition. He is on the chairman's committee and is a frequent guest on the forums. He gives numerous media interviews and goes to as many of the plays as possible.

When all the scheduled activities are over, he is found in Ripples, a bar named after the TV drama, mingling with theater lovers of every stripe.

Huang admits that he needs only a couple of hours of sleep each day. He just loves work.

Huang is a role model for multitasking. While he is known mostly for his drama series - his string of hits are rolled out on an annual basis - he has done movies and stage shows.

The current production of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, starring Huang and his wife, Sun Li, as the lovebirds, is in its 10th year.

He has appeared in several reality TV shows, all massive hits, showcasing him as a father and a brainiac.

Other than that, he is a master chef and hosts a cooking show.

He is a professor with the famed Beijing Film Academy and he has a good singing voice, having released a few pop albums.

For those swooning over teenage heartthrobs, Huang used to possess pop-idol looks, which could have put the current roster to shame. OK, he is now middle-aged and is sometimes made fun of for his bulging waistline.

Scouting the web, the biggest criticism of him sounds like eulogy in disguise. "I hate Huang Lei," goes one post. "How can we men measure up if our girlfriends use him as a role model?" Some go as far as saying that such "a perfect man" must have a dark secret.

"Inexplicably we got inebriated and then sober; inexplicably we started the festival and reached this point. So many inexplicables have converged to a certainty, as if this festival has its former life and its current incarnation," Huang waxes poetic at the closing ceremony.

The Buddhist analogy is a reference to Karma, this year's big winner at the competition. The play, a tale of a Tibetan mother and her daughter, is so touching that it is almost a religious experience.

The piety embodied in this short piece is something we need to reach our goal, says Huang. "We need to kneel and prostrate, Tibetan style, all the way to the shrine of theater."

At the post-ceremony bash, Nancy Pellegrini, a veteran theater reporter for TimeOut Beijing and Shanghai, goes up to thank Huang.

She says that of all the performing arts venues across China, Wuzhen is the only place where audience members are nudged not to look at their cellphones during a show.

This is a small detail that escapes the notice of most theater managers, but Huang is attentive at both the macro and micro levels. Though only 45, he is clearly thinking of his legacy in the annals of performing arts.

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(China Daily 10/31/2016 page20)