Readings of Plays by Swiss Writers

Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Letteratura

Nota: questo post è disponibile solo in inglese.

Two plays written in German by Swiss authors – The Dead Friends (Die Toten Freunde) by Ariane Koch, and The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter (Die Hand ist ein einsamer Jäger) by Katja Brunner, were translated into Chinese for the first time and presented to the Chinese audience through staged readings by local theater-makers.

Presented in the fall of 2023, the Play Market Project (Stückmarkt) featured staged readings, workshops and discussion. Three plays by young authors from German-speaking region – The Dead Friends (Die Toten Freunde) by Ariane Koch, and The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter (Die Hand ist ein einsamer Jäger) by Katja Brunner, and The Triumph of the Clematis in Europe (Der Triumph der Waldrebe in Europa) by Clemens J. Setz – were translated into Chinese for the first time and presented to the Chinese audience through staged readings by local theater-makers. The goal of the Play Market Project (Stückmarkt) is to support emerging theater-makers and promote international exchange and collaboration on stage.

The Dead Friends (Die Toten Freunde) by Ariane Koch

The Dead Friends (Die Toten Freunde), written by Ariane Koch, directed by Huang Jiadai, ©️ Goethe-Institut China & Pro Helvetia Shanghai, photo by Jingshen Xiaomei

About the play

Originally from Basel, Switzerland, Ariane Koch created The Dead Friends in 2022 and received the Else Lasker-Schüler-Stückepreis. The story unfolds in a distant future: 200 million years later, dinosaurs (once again) live on Earth. A group of them vegetates in immortality until an unknown being appears. Rosmarie falls in love with the being, who’s accidentally stamped to death. Then, the creature is stuffed, animated, and kept in a museum for scientific research. The characters in the story engage in a conflict between Utopia and evolution. In the end, birches take over the world.

Director’s statement

The Dead Friends is a beautiful fabliau. A group of talkative animals brings us on a futuristic archaeological exploration of the Anthropocene. Is extinction the fate of “others,” or the doomed destiny of humanity? Through constant shifts in perspective, I hope to take the audience on a journey designed by Ariane along the river of time, all the while posing the question: can humans imagine an alternative version of species evolution and symbiosis on Earth’s geologic time scale?

The Dead Friends (Die Toten Freunde), written by Ariane Koch, directed by Huang Jiadai, ©️ Goethe-Institut China & Pro Helvetia Shanghai, photo by Jingshen Xiaomei

About the playwright

Ariane Koch, born in 1988, likes to create plays, contemporary performance pieces and projects of other art forms in collaboration with creative partners. She studied Fine Arts, Interdisciplinarity and a few semesters of Philosophy and Theater Studies in Basel and Bern. Ariane has been awarded several work grants in Switzerland, Berlin and Paris. Her first novel The Imposition (Die Aufdrängung) won various awards, including the ZDF Aspekte Literature Prize. She was the author-in-residence at Theater Basel throughout the 2022/23 season.

About the director

Ophelia Jiadai Huang is an artist, curator and researcher from Shanghai. She currently works in Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre leading international projects and is Program Director for ACT Shanghai International Theatre Festival. She curated Forest Fringe Festival in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and was the dramaturg of New Writing in China Project by Royal Court Theatre, UK. She has been consultant for festivals, publishes on performing arts and cultural policy while playing an active role in regional performing arts networks. Ophelia was a founding member of Asia Network for Dance and co-facilitator of AsiaTOPA Artist Lab 2023.

The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter (Die Hand ist ein einsamer Jäger) by Katja Brunner

The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter (Die Hand ist ein einsamer Jäger), written by Katja Brunner, directed by Xiao Jing, ©️ Goethe-Institut China & Pro Helvetia Shanghai, photo by Ning Biao

About the play

The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter is a play by Swiss playwright Katja Brunner from 2019. It breaks the boundaries of stage characters and plot, allowing for cross-monologues and vocal collisions between different “female bodies.” In this experimental play performed exclusively by women, a “male hand” wanders at a party among female genitals, triggering reflections on body politics, genital manipulation, schoolyard rivalry, hunger and bullying, and other sensitive issues surrounding women’s bodies and gender. Princess Selda, a female body imagined by patriarchy, takes center stage. She is a pseudo-creature of the Virgin Mary. Processes of elimination become the highest aesthetics, and vomiting serves as a mating mechanism. Around this self-exposing body lurks a ghostly collection of disparate voices, intrusive and resistant, while female desire, fertility, and aging are revealed in a humorous yet elegiac stage syntax. (Ludwig Yang)

Director’s statement

The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter is a piece composed of “voices,” filled with abused bodies and unnamed women in constantly shifting perspectives and fragmented monologues. Katja Brunner’s non-narrative plays are not structured on clear-cut dialogues, characters, plots, or even a linear storyline. However, the power inside challenges and provokes the world we live in. She can always connect everyday details to the vastness of time and space, physically and painfully pointing out social maladies. Her unique style demonstrates new forms of writing in Switzerland and the power that scripts can achieve, inspiring both Chinese theater-makers and audiences.

The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter (Die Hand ist ein einsamer Jäger), written by Katja Brunner, directed by Xiao Jing, ©️ Goethe-Institut China & Pro Helvetia Shanghai, photo by Cai Yuan

About the playwright

Katja Brunner, born in 1991 in Zurich, is a Swiss playwright. She studied at the Berlin University of the Arts and worked as a dramaturge at Lucerne Theater. Her play Too Short a Leg (von den beinen zu kurz) received the 2013 Mülheimer Dramatist Prize. Since then, Katja has worked as both a playwright and a live performer in European theater. Her plays have been translated into multiple languages and performed in several countries. Austrian playwright Gerhild Steinbuch describes her work as “challenging combat partners,” “linguistically outstanding” and “decidedly political.” In 2022, her play Ghosts Are Only Human (geister sind auch nur menschen) was presented at the Sound and Fury Play Reading Festival in China.

About the director

Xiao Jing works as a director, playwright and performer in theater. From 2017 she started to work independently as a director, devoting herself to exploring the combination of fiction and non-fiction, introducing real material, events and history into the theater. She hopes to use theater as a medium to explore the current situation in China, the construction of human identity, how people view history and themselves, and the shaping of people by ideology. Her personal works have been selected for the audio theater AKT1 in Denmark, Wuzhen Theater Festival, Beijing Fringe Festival, Hangzhou International Theater Festival, etc. She was selected for Pro Helvetia’s residency in 2022 and 2023 A4 International Creator Residency Program.

Comments from Huang Jiadai

Q: What significance does staged reading have for introducing international plays to China?

A: Only a very limited number of plays can afford international touring, due to its complexity, high cost, as well as language barriers. After the pandemic, there is a growing emphasis on the economic and ecological impact of international tours. Play Market Project promptly showcased the diversity of German-speaking theater through staged reading of translated plays, thereby saving the cost of cross-border travel. The in-depth analysis and rehearsal of The Dead Friends brought me into an intimate yet remote dialogue with Swiss playwright Ariane Koch. It was a truly amazing experience.

Q: What topics did you discuss with Swiss playwrights during online conversation? Any valuable insights that you would like to share with us?

A: We exchanged ideas mainly on production and support mechanism of playwriting. Throughout the entire discussion, we intentionally and unintentionally touched upon how theater-makers live and work. What Chinese and Swiss playwrights share in common impressed me the most. For example, we often have to switch roles between playwright, director, author, project manager, etc. And the three German-speaking colleagues showed great interest in Chinese theater, asking a lot of questions. In fact, we deal with many other non-artistic issues in China, including censorship. Therefore, I believe that Chinese artists have a more complex and conflicted relationship with languages.

Comments from Xiao Jing

Q: What significance does staged reading have for introducing international plays to China?

A: I believe that staged reading is a form of live performance centered around dramatic text. With shorter rehearsal time and smaller production scale, staged reading is a more feasible solution than a complete play project for artists and audiences to delve into a story and catch a glimpse of the topics and styles of theater in other countries, as well as literature and society of those regions. At the same time, staged reading is also the most straightforward approach to cultural exchange. The cultural and stylistic interpretation by Chinese theater-makers also inspired and encouraged German-speaking playwrights.

Q: What topics did you discuss with Swiss playwrights during online conversation? Any valuable insights that you would like to share with us?

A: I mainly asked about projects and themes Katja was working on, which has always been my primary concern. Faced with creative limitations, I’m trying to explore relatable topics through deliverable production. Katja said that she was doing some research for a project about female taxi drivers. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Comments from Chen Si’an

Q: What significance does staged reading have for introducing international plays to China?

A: The production costs of script readings are relatively low, providing organizers and creators with significant flexibility. This allows us to choose the plays and playwrights that we believe are worth introducing to the Chinese audience, without worrying about market sales. For some works that have not been translated into Chinese and are relatively unknown to Chinese audiences, especially those by younger foreign contemporary playwrights, this presents a unique opportunity that might be challenging to obtain.

Fully produced works need to consider costs and market factors, making it difficult for experimental texts and lesser-known playwrights to secure performance opportunities. Furthermore, I believe that the audience willing to attend script readings has an inherent expectation of exploring the latest international creative forms and embracing intellectual challenges. These audiences are often professional audiences in the theater market, enthusiastic about participating in discussions and sharing, which can be beneficial for the further development of introduced scripts and playwrights in China.

Q: What topics did you discuss with Swiss playwrights during online conversation? Any valuable insights that you would like to share with us?

A: The topics discussed during the event cover various aspects such as creation, translation, production, and Sino-Swiss theatrical exchange. As a playwright myself, I have a profound interest and resonance with the dramatic writings of two Swiss playwrights. What impressed me the most is the openness in the creative process of these two young Swiss playwrights.

Their writing exhibits a strong contemporary relevance, deeply connected to the everyday lives of ordinary people. However, they diverge in their approaches, employing expansive allegorical and literary treatments. The texts carry distinct personal styles, constantly venturing into linguistic and formal innovations, avoiding the repetition of traditional tropes. They ground their work in practical interviews and research while combining it with wild imagination. I greatly appreciate the innovative nature of their works.

Play Market Project (Stückmarkt)

Organised by Goethe-Institut China. Supported by Pro Helvetia Shanghai, the Swiss Arts Council, and Austrian Cultural Forum at the Austrian Embassy in Beijing.

  • Title: The Dead Friends (Die Toten Freunde)
    Playwright: Ariane Koch
    Director: Ophelia Jiadai Huang
  • Title: The Hand Is a Lonely Hunter (Die Hand ist ein einsamer Jäger)
    Playwright: Katja Brunner
    Director: Xiao Jing