The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Beijing Modern Dance Company
“Fei Chang Ma Jiang”
Private Sector Theaters and the Emergence of a Democratizing Generation
Up to this point we have discussed the movements among government-affiliated theater companies, theaters and agents, but what about the private-sector theaters? It is believed that theater facilities now being built by real estate development companies and the like will be used primarily for an entertainment-oriented lineup of performances or ones aimed at the tourists staying in the hotel complexes they are built in. However, at the same time we are seeing movements suggesting that a new wave of cooperative efforts between the private sector and government-affiliated performing arts companies will bring a fresh impetus to the Chinese theater arts scene.
Spearheading this movement is the North Theater in Beijing where Yuan Hong, a 30-something artist born in the early 70s, serves as both producer and art director. This small theater of about 400 seats stands on a quiet Huton, a small street in one of Beijing’s older residential areas. This is one of the theaters that belonged to the former China Youth Theater Arts Company and was vacated when the company merged into the China National Drama Theater Company as mentioned earlier.
At the time in 2001, there was a plan for Yuan Hong and his friend, the well-known Taiwanese director Stan Lai to invest in the purchase of the theater and make it the Beijing base for Lai’s company, the “Biao Yan Workshop.” However, official approval for investment from Taiwan was not given and Yuan ended up running the theater by himself. The staff are all people with independent sources of income who have gathered in support of Yuan’s activities. With their individual expertise in different fields from finance, media, research and the like, they combine their abilities in the creation and production of works.
The theme of Yuan’s activities is the “popularization of theater” and “returning theater to the people.” Although the government-affiliated theater companies are gatherings of professionals who command an unshakable position in their respective roles, there has long been a problem that the theatrical fare they provide is lacking in variety of expression and that the contents of their plays lack relevance to people’s lives today. And, as seen in the fact that Tsao Yu’s first play was written when he was a college student, theater is a field where anyone, pro or amateur, should have access to the stage as a place of expression. In reality, however, the present theater scene in China has become one where only the pros have the opportunity to mount productions and perform.
Yuan’s desire was to break down the status quo and bring new stimulus to the Chinese theater world by opening up the stage to imaginative young college students. In 2001, he planned and organized a student theater festival named the “Beijing High School and College Student Theater Festival.” Using the small theater of the People’s Art Theater Beijing, six student plays were presented in the festival’s first holding. By its fourth holding in 2004, however, the festival’s schedule had grown to include 31 plays performed at the North Theater, the small theater of the People’s Theater Arts Beijing and the theater of the National Drama Theater Company Experimental Theater. Also, the venues had spread outside Beijing to include performances in Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Presently, the People’s Art Theater Tianjin is apparently planning a student theater festival also, and it is expected that this movement will spread throughout China. It is exciting to think about the potential new talents that will emerge from this movement in the future. Despite its limited budget, the North Theater is organizing small-theater festivals in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan and is nurturing new talents and conducting tours around the country with its productions.
Another movement in private-sector theater worthy of mention is that of modern dance companies. In China, the very concept of modern dance is still a new one, with the country’s first modern dance company having been founded in Guangdong in 1992. Due to this short history of barely ten years, most of the companies are made up of young dancers and most are privately run. What’s more, the Beijing Modern Dance Company established under the auspices of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture in 1995, was privatized in April of 2004. Its director, Zhang Changcheng, is still in his early thirties, like Yuan, and he is working actively to create a network to enable overseas performances and invitational performances, while at the same time directing efforts toward the establishment of a foundation to support young artists.
When we think about it, these people now in their mid-30s are from the generation that were college students at the time of the Tiananmen incident in 1989. That generation that called for democracy back then are now at the forefront of the privatization movement and are beginning to move the Chinese performing arts world as well.
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