Renaissance of small stage

08:47, December 11, 2009      

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A scene from a drama rehearsal at the newly opened Star Theater Village in Beijing. (China Daily Photo)


Standing near his second-floor office window in Xicheng district, Fan Xing gazes at the flow of passengers at a subway station nearby. Downstairs, five small theaters at the Star Theater Village, which opened in November, are busy with rehearsals.

Resembling a courtyard house, Fan's Star Theater Village includes a handful of theaters, restaurants, an art gallery, bookstore and a caf. It is everything Fan, the general manager, has dreamed about and it has taken him nearly 10 years and 20 million yuan to realize.

The five theaters, ranging in seat capacity from 80 to 200, showcase different plays every day, from the restaging of classics to original plays.

"All are to attract diverse viewers and provide them with more choices," Fan said.

Opening a theater has been a dream for Fan, who studied drama at the Central Academy of Drama. But as a businessman, he has had to be practical. He spent two years simply looking for a good location for his village and now spends 14-16 hours, Monday to Sunday, discussing scripts, genres to be showcased, costs and everything.

Small theaters are known for their low budgets and experimental drama productions for a relatively limited audience. The Absolute Signal, directed by famed Chinese director Lin Zhaohua, is possibly China's first drama of its kind, leading the following boom of low-cost drama productions.

The capital has grown to be the hub of small theaters, with 20 dotting the city, said Yang Qianwu, secretary-general of Beijing Theater's Association. Over the past 10 years, small theater productions have attracted tens of thousands of viewers.

But according to Fan, investing in small theater is still very risky in an undeveloped market.

"The location, the audience flow, the area, everything should be carefully calculated," he said.

He also admitted that the investment is long-term with a minimum of a half-a-year to see smooth operations. His concerns are not without reason.

More small theaters are popping up, but business has not been good for them. Some famous theaters still run quite efficiently, such as the Oriental Pioneer Theater, Honeycomb Theater and Nine Theater. Reservations for plays at these theaters are booked until next year.

And they are located around eastern Dongcheng or Chaoyang districts, a traditional hub of small theaters.

But in small theaters scarcely located in districts such as Haidian, Xicheng or Xuanwu, drama producers are unwilling to book shows there under the pressure of the box office, said Yuan Zihang, from Xixiaotang, a Beijing-based drama troupe.

The price of admissions is also a sticky issue. According to Yang, a ticket of about 100 yuan is acceptable to most white collars. But if the price goes higher than that, people will shy away. But Zhang Yue, a drama producer, thinks a price range of 100-150 yuan is reasonable if a play production is to be profitable.

Another problem that many theater managers encounter is a lack of good plays. Good scripts with a good crew of directors and actors are sorely needed, especially plays that make a profit and win critical acclaim. But at present, more and more comedy plays without artistic depth are shown.

"Small theaters should not give up their stages to those plays. They should carry on the responsibility to pursue the art. That's the reason why we need the small theaters," said director Wang Xiaoying.

Fan's solution is implementing his concept of a "combination of production and performance", which means his theaters not only provide stages for other drama troupes to play, but will also be involved in the whole process of production, including finding good scripts and working with promising young people.

With his strategy, now 60 percent of plays at the village are originals, which has reduced costs. The theater also offers the stage for them to do rehearsals.

Beijing has the largest number of small theaters in the country, but compared with cities such as New York City, London or Tokyo, there is a long way to go. Each of the above cities has at least 10 times the number of theaters as Beijing, Yang said.

"With such a huge population in Beijing, several hundreds of small theaters will be more or less enough," he said.

Although difficulties lay ahead, theater insiders firmly believe that going to a small theater for a show will bring about a unique experience.

"Small theater is a place with soul. When the light goes dark, people just forget everything but get easily involved by what's on the stage," said Li Hui, general manager of Honeycomb Theater in Dongcheng district.

Xu Xiaolei, a drama producer, said to perform in a small theater is a kind of enjoyment for the actors and for the audience as well. "The distance between the two sides is so close that the audience can almost hear the actors' heartbeats and see their perspiration falling down," Xu said.

Statistics shows that the number of theatergoers is on the rise, and around 400,000 Beijing residents flocked to small theaters to watch a dramatic play last year. Feedback from the audience also gives confidence to theater managers to continue with their careers.

Li still remembers the response of one audience when China's avant-garde director Meng Jinghui's Rhinoceros in Love was shown at her theater.

When the play ended one day, an old man in his 60s suddenly stood up and spoke out loudly: "Everyone deserves true love", echoing a line that one of the actors on stage.

After a moment of silence, the audience erupted into huge applause. It is a touching scene that has been replaying in her mind over and over again.

"That is the real charm of small theater productions," she said.

Source: China Daily
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