Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts

Ma Yue
Music, dance and drama became the nonperforming arts during the coronavirus outbreak. Now they are poised to resume productions, much to the delight of audiences.
Ma Yue

All art and cultural performances and activities have remained suspended since the coronavirus began its deadly spread in January. We talk with three industry insiders about how the stoppage has affected their business and how they view the future.

Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts

Crystal Deng, curator of the Edinburgh Fringe Showcase

Q: When did you first hear that theater performances would be suspended?

A: I was in Macau for the Macau City Fringe Festival in mid-January when I started to take notice of news about the virus. We were preparing for our performance tour in April and May at that time, and I was a bit hesitant when signing contracts with theaters. In late January, I told my company staff to be prepared for performance cancelations.

I was in theater business during the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, so I was prepared for a big impact this time. However, the current epidemic seems to be affecting more industries and more deeply.

Q: How is the coronavirus affecting your company’s schedule, and how are you and your staff coping?

A: We canceled performing tours of two plays — the French classic “Antigone,” and the Mexican interactive mime show “Perhaps Perhaps ... Quizas.” They involved seven to eight theaters. I told my staff that we were in for a difficult time. They can work from home, and the company will continue to pay wages. The least we could do is to give our staff a sense of security.

People are not able to go to theaters these days, but there are dramas more touching and intense happening around us. This might not be a good metaphor, but when a big social event happens, real stories from the real world arouse our strong feelings. That is similar to the theater experience and even more dramatic.

Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts
Ti Gong

Edinburgh Fringe Showcase has brought award-winning theater works from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to China.

Q: How do you see the market’s situation when theaters resume operation?

A: I believe that some performances will be able to be staged starting from May. But the promotion and ticket sales for a performance in May usually start in March and April. So, the box office might be affected.

According to Shanghai’s latest work resumption directive for theaters, the occupancy for each show can be no higher than 50 percent of capacity. On one hand, selling 50 percent of tickets won’t cover the cost; on the other hand, the performing arts are an “experience economy,” and audiences expect relaxed time with their friends and family. If they are required to sit separately, I wonder how many will be willing to attend.

There are other technical problems, too, because we are working with a lot of foreign troupes. With many international flights canceled, transport is a problem. Artists and performers might face quarantine issues after traveling. 

We expect the situation to improve in June. Since our business low season is in July and August, a real recovery for us probably won’t come until September at the earliest.

Q: How do you evaluate the overall impact the pandemic has had on the performing arts?

A: We are just one of many affected industries. Companies and troupes are looking for survival solutions. But you do get the feeling that the performing arts are suddenly being pushed aside. The whole society could live without drama, literature and movies for three or four months. Unlike doctors or couriers, our occupation is rendered pretty “useless.” You start to wonder what we can do and what is our value.

But there will be a moment when we can make our contribution. When we return to normal life and people start to forget about the pain, our works and creations can become reminders. I used to be an optimist, but I realized that the world needs pessimists. When people indulge in the peace of daily life, we remind them to stay alert to the uncertainties.

At this year’s Xintiandi Performing Arts Festival in Shanghai (date to be announced), we plan to introduce a “sound theater” creation inspired by the coronavirus. We were not having our voice heard for a while, but it doesn’t mean that we are not important. We “sacrificed” to assure public security and were given time to do some thinking. This work will serve as our answer sheet to the epidemic.

Q: Are you receiving any subsidies or preferential treatment?

A: Last month, Shanghai Grand Theater was deputed by the Shanghai city government to inform us that we will be refunded part of the tax we paid last year. The refund is worth about 30,000 yuan (US$4,240), and it’s very practical help. 

We are a Beijing-based company, but there is no subsidy from the Beijing authorities yet.


Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts

Li Bukong, operations director of DrumTower West Theater

Q: How many performances has DrumTower West Theater had to cancel? What have your staff been doing the past month?

A: We usually stage four to five performances a week. So, at least 20 performances have been canceled to date. We are still waiting for further notice from the industry authority as to when we might resume operations. The company’s 20 staff are all working from home.

Our social platform accounts have been updating content for our followers. The theater has been organizing “book reading meets” since 2017, inviting performers and celebrities to read from their favorite books. In the past month, we have been sharing the video and recordings of previous book reading meets. And we are considering organizing a new online book reading meet.

Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts
Ti Gong

DrumTower West Theater is a 260-seat, privately owned theater just to the west of Beijing's landmark of Drum Tower.

Q: Has being a private theater made survival more difficult?

A: Tickets account for more than 50 percent of our income. So, yes, our cash flow is becoming tight but is not “life-threatening” yet. The company can survive for half a year without staging performances. We did submit a subsidy application to Beijing’s financial authority, but there has been no feedback yet.

The main effect of the epidemic has been on new production work. We originally planned to introduce a new play in June or July — a production based on Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s work. Given the current situation, the production team couldn’t gather and no rehearsals organized. 

The original schedule of this year’s national tour was also forced to change. Our Tony Award-winning play “The Pillowman” was supposed to visit cities like Shanghai and Nanjing from April to June. Now we have to contact these theaters about date adjustments.

Q: As a theater operator, do you feel your industry has been sort of forgotten amid the epidemic?

A: Not exactly. Facing a highly infectious disease, we theaters are naturally affected. It has got to do with the group activity nature of our business, and it’s the same with cinema operators.

Currently, there is not much we can do. But to me, this is a temporary phenomenon and will have limited impact on the long-term development of the industry and DrumTower West itself.


Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts

Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of Shanghai Grand Theater

Q: What have Shanghai Grand Theater staff been doing since the outbreak of the coronavirus?

A: As you know, Shanghai Grand Theater canceled all performances and theater activities in April, apart from staff in the ticket office who have been busy with refunds and sanitation staff who have been disinfecting the theater on a daily basis. We have recently bought ultraviolet-ray sterilizing equipment. It works like a central air conditioning system, allowing us to disinfect more conveniently.

The theater is currently undergoing technical equipment check and repair, including a complete check of all stage machinery. We usually carry out these examinations every March and October. Considering that performances might be piled up in October as a sequel of the epidemic, we are doing the check-up more comprehensively this month, lest the theater become too busy in October.

Lights on, curtains up! The renaissance of China's performing arts
Ma Yue / SHINE

Shanghai Grand Theater is a cultural landmark in the city.

Q: How many performances have been affected and how difficult is it to reschedule them later in the year?

A: This year, we initially planned to stage some 700 performances — similar to last year. To date, about half have been canceled. We canceled instead of postponed because we didn’t want audiences holding onto tickets without knowing when or whether a show would be rescheduled this year. But the theater has been communicating with the troupes, hoping to bring some of the good ones back when our operations resume.

There predictably will be clashes in dates for rescheduled performances because everybody wants to perform on weekends or holidays. So rescheduling performances is not an easy job. We have “force majeure cancelation” clauses in all contracts with performing troupes.

Q: In the eventual recovery of the performing arts, what kind of role will Shanghai Grand Theater play?

A: The epidemic situation has been improving in China, but not globally yet. The art industry is pretty much globalized, and many imported projects will continue to be affected.

Shanghai Grand Theater is aware of its responsibility and will devote more effort toward original creations. We will promote the debut and restaging of some high-quality and popular works by domestic troupes, such as the musical “Jekyll & Hyde,” the play “White Deer Plain” in Shaanxi Province dialect and the Kunqu Opera “Six Chapters of A Floating Life,” which debuted last year.

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