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Penghao's passion play

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

14:24, July 10, 2013

Wang Xiang with performers during a rehearsal of a new play at Penghao Theater. (China Daily/Zhu Xingxin)

Dentist Wang Xiang made his money fixing teeth but his true love is bringing independent theater to the masses. Chen Yingqun reports.

Wearing a faded blue shirt and old gray trousers, sipping a cup of tea, seemingly without a care in the world, you would hardly guess that Wang Xiang is going through tough times.

His business has lost more than 3 million yuan ($490,000) over the past five years. But that's of little consequence to Wang, because his business, Penghao Theater - Beijing's first private theater - is more a passion than a commercial venture. A theater lover for many years, Wang's dream is to stage great dramas that are affordable for ordinary people.

The money Wang pours into the theater comes from his other job as a dentist. Wang was a pioneer of private dental clinics in Beijing and among the first to offer tooth implants in China. He now has four clinics in Beijing.

They essentially pay for his 86-seat theater, which cost him 1.2 million yuan to open in Beijing's Dongcheng district in 2008 and has eaten up more of his income every year since.

"Penghao means ordinary people in Chinese," he says, sitting in the theater's cafe, amid walls of colorful photos from a drama festival running in the building.

Wang's love of theater began in 1985 when he saw the play He Shi Bi Jade in Beijing. In the play, many people give China's emperor fake jade, so when one man named Bian gives him the real thing he believes it to be fake and orders Bian's legs cut off. Bian tries to drive his apprentice away to save him, but the apprentice refuses to leave and cries: "Don't drive me away! I love real jade."

Three decades later, Wang still recalls the director's explanation of the play: "Life is precious and even formidable. But what's more precious and formidable than life is its thrilling pleasant surprises, the enthusiasm of dreams, the admiration and yearning for kindness and beauty, and the attention of strangers."

Wang considers himself like Bian - suffering for offering the real thing.

Since watching He Shi Bi Jade, Wang has thrown himself into theater. He has seen the play Copenhagen 44 times and once invited 60 friends to the theater.

"Drama is like a necklace that connects the most beautiful pearls in life, such as wisdom, will and intelligence, and presents them in concentrated form," he says.

He believes that necklace is broken in Beijing, where ticket prices - ranging from hundreds to thousands of yuan - are too high for ordinary people and plays are too commercialized.

"Even if one can afford the price, it is difficult to watch good drama that can touch your heart. Directors and playwrights must follow commercial rules and cater to public taste, which usually makes the drama shallow and blundering."

Wang visits theaters wherever he goes and was inspired to launch Penghao after seeing the small private theater culture of Europe and the US.

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