No theater is above the coronavirus curse
On the fifth floor of Metro City mall in Xuhui District sits an empty theater, once crowded with audiences and resounding with their enthusiastic applause.
Theater Above is no exception. Like many other venues in Shanghai, the theater is in lockdown amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The China Association of Performing Arts reports about 8,000 performances were canceled or postponed in March in venues across the country, resulting in box office losses of more than 1 billion yuan (US$141 million).
Focusing on original drama, private-owned Theater Above was founded by Ding Nai-chu, an influential producer in Asia, and her husband Stan Lai, an award-winning playwright and director, in 2015.
“We wanted to break that feeling of ‘temple’ that theaters often present to the public,” Lai said in a previous interview. “We want theaters to become part of our lives.”
The theater has proven popular with Shanghai theatergoers. Though no date for reopening has been fixed, tickets for its widely acclaimed drama “The Village,” scheduled for staging in July, have gone on sale on the theater’s official website.
I myself have attended performances at Theater Above — one of the 699 people filling seats that are red, orange, blue and green. The distance between the half-meter-high stage and the front row is only 2 meters, which allows audiences to feel close to actors and stage action and eliminates the need to crane necks.
I was in for an epic experience with Lai’s latest work “Ago,” a five-and-a-half-hour production set in a tranquil mountain village in Yunnan Province. Lucky me, I sat in the “lotus pond,” where audiences were placed in the heart of the drama and actors performed around us.
Such innovative staging appeared in Lai’s other epic work, “A Dream Like A Dream,” which lasted seven and a half hours.
Although Theater Above hasn’t reopened yet, it has been offering an array of online programs since the early stages of the epidemic in January.
The programs include interviews with various performing arts personalities, conducted by theater Chief Executive Ding. They cover wide-ranging topics such as performances, fitness guidance, music recommendations, and even cooking and pets.
In a recent e-mail interview with Shanghai Daily, Ding shared her thoughts on how that theater has fared during the coronavirus outbreak.
Q: How has the epidemic affected the theater, and how are you coping?
A: The impact is huge. Theater Above has been closed since late January. We have had to either cancel all scheduled performances or find another time to perform them. Audiences can either choose to get a refund or wait for us to announce rescheduled dates. Plays canceled include the sold-out run of “A Dream Like A Dream.” The logistics of rescheduling a production are complex.
Q: The shutdown obviously means no revenue. How are you handling that?
A: Theater Above is the first private theater of its kind in China. We are definitely facing a severe situation. But, at the same time, all other businesses are facing the same situation, so all we can do collectively is just hope for the best.
Q: Did Theater Above have a business contingency plan to deal with an emergency like this?
A: The theater has always had a very fragile ecology. Anything can go wrong to disrupt or cancel a performance. We are used to that, but this is something way beyond that control.
Q: The epidemic has spawned cloud performances. Many cultural venues are broadcasting live performances to audiences. Is Theater Above considering developing an online platform to do performance streaming?
A: The experience of live theater is essentially changed if it is streamed or becomes a video. There are few ready-made options to do so for us.
Q: Have Theater Above staff returned to work? If so, what are they currently doing?
A: During the first phase of our closedown in February, 12 employees were working either at home or in the theater to handle the ticket refunds. Since then a few people from our marketing and production departments have returned to do planning. The majority of staff will return this month.
Q: What’s the performance schedule this year? And how do you see the performing arts industry after the end of the epidemic?
A: Our yearly plan was made a year in advance, including our own productions and rentals. We need to wait and see when we can resume full operation before announcing any revised schedule of performances.
I have mixed feelings about the future. Many people will understandably be less prone to spend money on arts and entertainment, but there may also be those who will embrace the opportunity to be back in a theater watching live performances.
Q: In these times of social distancing, do you have any new reflections on life?
A: This is a time of reflection for the whole world. What is important? What is essential? When one is stripped of one’s basic way of life, it can be turned into a positive thing by reflection and by not blindly expecting a return to normal. “Normal” is what you make it out to be. If we can learn to treat each other and the world with greater kindness and compassion, then something positive will have come from this deadly calamity.
Q: Your husband Stan Lai often explores humanity in his plays. For example, his latest work “Ago” is a panoramic view of the circle of life. What is his perception of the outbreak?
A: Stan has been taking the time off to do writing and editing. He is taking it all philosophically, noting that Shakespeare’s Globe Theater was shut down twice because of the plague. One time, over 30,000 Londoners died. Therefore, in perspective, we are praying for everyone’s health and the recovery of society as a whole.
Stan reminds everyone that in ancient Greece, for instance, at the great theater at Epidaurus, there was a large hospital adjacent to the theater. So healing has its physical and spiritual aspects, and theatre is essential for the healing and nurturing of our souls.