Shanghai seeks to become an Asian capital of the performing arts and is well on its way toward achieving that goal.
So where do we stand now? Time to stop and take stock.
World-class venues and diversified artistic spaces
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Shanghai has been taking a page from performing arts powerhouses like London and New York — building venues, importing world-class productions, organizing arts festivals and attracting professionals from home and abroad.
The downtown Huangpu District is the centerpiece of that drive. There are more than 20 theaters, including the Shanghai Grand Theater, within an area of 1.5 square kilometers around People’s Square. The district has established a one-stop service center there, called Show Life, to sell tickets and give information about performances.
Major theaters around the city are defining their individual distinctions. Shanghai Culture Square is known for staging musicals. Shanghai Oriental Art Center is a popular venue for concerts. The Shanghai International Dance Center and the newly opened Shangyin Opera House are world-class venues in their performing arts specialties.
Shanghai Great World, once the prime entertainment center for Shanghai residents, reopened to the public two years ago after extensive renovation. It is now a venue for traditional folk arts.
Nurturing talent and cultivating public interest begins at the grassroots. Local venues provide performance sites that give raw talent the chance to perform and take the arts to local communities. Abandoned factories and even airport oil tanks have been turned into small theaters and artistic sites.
Such diversified venues add excitement to the arts realm. Outdoor shows and concerts held at Shanghai City Lawn Music Plaza and Gongqing Forest Park are popular with the public and have become integral parts of the ongoing China Shanghai International Arts Festival.
According to Rachel Sanger, head of participant services for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, only 23 out of Fringe’s 323 performing venues are theaters. The rest include sites such as museums, churches and university halls.
“We use all spaces in the city,” said Sanger. “And there are a lot of street performances, too. Art and artists are usually scattered around, and the Fringe cared about them and began supporting them. That’s how the festival formed and became the calling card of Edinburgh. You have to let artists take control of when and how they want to perform.”
Promoting performing arts to younger audiences
Compared with some Western countries, Shanghai has a short history in the development of the performing arts. But “short” can also foster young and modern — not a bad thing.
New York’s John F. Kennedy Center and other venerable world theaters face challenges in attracting the attention of younger audiences.
“Technology created a huge gap between our generation and the millennials,” said Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming at the Kennedy Center.
“Millennials have strong consumer power and are well connected by social media. To attract them, we are introducing programs that involve more new media and performances presented in more dramatic ways. We also are hiring more young people in marketing and operations.”
Zhao Chenlin, assistant president of SMG Live, said Shanghai isn’t suffering from an erosion of youth interest in the performing arts. Younger audiences go to theaters much more often than their parents’ generation.
SMG Live, a subsidiary group of Shanghai Media Group, brought to Shanghai the musicals “Chicago” and “Rock School,” and the Shanghai version of the world-famous immersive drama “Sleep No More.”
“More than 70 percent of our audiences are aged between 22 and 32,” said Zhao. “A lot of theater operations staff also fall in that age group.”
She added: “Ten years ago, art followers turned to newspapers or other major media for performance information and reviews. But now, they turn to the Internet. Clips of performances spread over video websites like Bilibili. A high click rate can easily boost the reputation of a performance within a short time.”
Zhao said the challenge facing Shanghai theater operators now is improving the experience for audiences.
“Audiences want more services, both before and after a performance,” Zhao said. “They want in-depth information about a show and even want to talk with performers after the show. In a sense, it shows theaters becoming part of their daily lives.”
The dearth of original theater works and the nurturing of talent
Those involved in the performing arts say work still needs to be done to increase the number of original theater works and deepen the talent pool of the industry.
“With the increase in theater numbers, what we need is original and in-house theater works that are high quality and can be staged at home and abroad for decades,” said Cao Xiaomin, deputy director of the publicity department of the CPC Huangpu District Committee. “Right now, I can hardly name even one.”
She said talent development in the performing arts also needs to involve behind-the-scenes staff to support creators, producers, directors and performers.
“Currently, the industry is being mainly pushed forward by the government,” said Cao.
“We need more participation from the market and the public.”
Most of the popular shows in Shanghai market are either imported or adapted from foreign productions. But there are signs of change.
This year, Shanghai Grand Theater produced an original Kunqu Opera “Six Chapters of a Floating Life,” based on a literary classic about a Suzhou scholar born in the 18th century.
Shanghai Oriental Art Center presented its first original drama, “Garden of the Jins.” The play follows the lives of two Shanghai women through a half century of city history.
The acrobatic play “Dawn in Shanghai,” which opened this year’s arts festival, is an original creation of the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe and Shanghai Circus School.
Moreover, the arts festival includes a Rising Artists’ Works session and has commissioned seven artists to create six new works.
According to Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of Shanghai Grand Theater, the major theaters should be the “lighthouses” of performing arts in the city.
“Apart from providing cultural content, the theater wants to become a leader in that role,” she said. “We have social responsibilities to shoulder.”
Zhang Huiqing, general manager of Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, said venues need to give full play to the influence they exert over the surrounding environment in order to make the city an artistic phenomenon.
One successful example is the Dramatic Arts Center, located on Anfu Road. It has become synonymous with quality drama and is also home to a number of popular cafes and stylish restaurants that promote that image.
“We have proved that a theater has the ability to drive other business and influence the surrounding area,” said Zhang Huiqing.
“Recently, we introduced an innovative outdoor touring performance. Audiences participate in the production by walking around Shanghai streets with us. The city, in essence, becomes a stage, and the audience becomes the performers.”