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Better show next time

Wang Kaihao and Zhang Kun
Updated: Mar 17,2015 9:52 AM     China Daily

Pu Cunxi, left, and Gong Lijun perform in the Beijing’s People’s Art Theater’s drama, The Gin Game, at the Beijing Capital Theater. [Photo by Bi Xiaoyang / Xinhua]

There’s need for smarter theater management in China, a recent government report cautions. Wang Kaihao and Zhang Kun report in Beijing and Shanghai.

Most theaters in China aren’t professionally run and don’t make profits, according to a recent government report.

There were about 873 professional theaters (stage performance theaters built by governments, public institutions or enterprises and with a complete set of professional equipment) nationwide by the end of 2013. They attracted 32.3 million people to 40,500 shows in total.

But about 60 percent of them were unable to make profits. And 80 percent lacked professional management systems, the Ministry of Culture report says, adding that the number of theaters isn’t enough for the country’s large population.

In 2013, for instance, only 0.64 professional theaters were available to every 1 million Chinese. By comparison, the ratio in United States in 2007 was 1.8 and in Japan it was 4.4 that year.

The report also points out that geographical distribution of theaters is unbalanced: Beijing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, Shanghai, and Guangdong — six developed province-level administrative regions — house nearly 40 percent of the country’s theaters, while western China has less than 20 percent.

“Theaters in some places crave to be exotic and large scale,” the report says.

“For example, during our investigation, we found that there is no professional theater in many counties, but in some counties, the theaters are too large for the local populations,” says Kang Bo, a Ministry of Culture official involved in the report.

The project, which was undertaken by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development to set the national criteria for the construction of professional theaters, began in February. The criteria are to be released in 2016.

“The criteria for theaters will be more complex than other cultural institutions like libraries because most theaters are multifunctional, requiring more parameters to be considered,” Kang says.

The drama Chinese Lesson is staged at the Beijing People’s Art Theater. [Photo by Li Yan / Xinhua]

Chinese theaters made 6 billion yuan ($961 million) in 2013, but 47 percent came from government aid, and ticket sales only amounted to 36 percent.

“Many theaters are still public institutions, which makes us unable to purely consider how to make profits,” says Meng Xin, deputy director of the National Center for the Performing Arts’ performance department.

He is commenting on a statement in the report that says the vacancy rate in Chinese theaters is high, and one-third of their income comes from government subsidies.

“We have to draw audiences who have stereotypical notions about stage performances and gradually nurture a market.”

In 2013, on an average, one Chinese visited a professional theater about 0.024 times, the report says. Even in Beijing, which shows the country’s highest theatergoing interest, it was 0.12 times.

The NCPA has about 850 commercial shows a year, but they also organize more than 1,000 free performances and lectures, which Meng describes as “drip irrigation”.

“What is urgently needed for a theater is clear orientation,” Meng says, recalling the center’s seven-year journey from being a newly established theater to becoming the country’s top venue for operas. Adding to its fame is the diverse cultural tastes among Chinese.

The theaters can learn a few things from how Shanghai has made progress in becoming the country’s hub for musicals.

“We are more than just a performance venue,” says Zhang Jie, manager of Shanghai Cultural Square.

“The theater aims to become an artistic landmark, a performing arts agency, an art education center for the public and an incubator of original theater ideas and productions.”

Zhang’s theater presents an established musical from the United States or Europe every autumn, popular musical productions in Chinese every summer and reserves springtime for the promotion of original Chinese musicals.

“China’s musical industry will ultimately produce successful original plays,” says Fei Yuanhong, program director of Shanghai Culture Square.

“The industry won’t be sustainable if original Chinese musicals are not developed.”

Despite these promising examples, a problem unveiled in the report is the lack of expertise in operating theaters professionally.

Only 30 percent of all theater staff members in China have an education background in the fine arts, management or stage technology.

Consequently, the industry is probably happy to hope that more national standards emerge. Kang from the Ministry of Culture reveals that a professional certification system for theater managers is also being planned.

“The ministry might appeal for public attention by offering technical guidance first, and then things will naturally go forward with more social efforts,” he says.