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Xinhua Insight: Theaters in transition as China reforms

English.news.cn   2014-06-17 22:22:29

HANGZHOU, June 17 (Xinhua) -- Clean-cut actor Wei Peng is one of the "emerging forces" in east China's theater circle. He has his own groupies and rehearses everyday -- even after an evening show.

"He is a little tiger. He has endless energy. He and other actors discuss a play passionately. They respect and are in awe of dramatic art and they like teamwork. It's simply precious to them," said Wang Hong, head of the drama group under the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army, when describing Zhejiang Drama Ensemble, Wei's base.

The ensemble had to find ways to survive in 2010 when the country decided to cut government funding for such groups as part of reforms to free up artistic creativity and create competition.

"I didn't know what these so-called reforms would bring," Wei said.

Fortunately, his career is turning out fine.

Figures revealed by the Zhejiang Drama Ensemble show that its total annual revenues soared from 3.12 million yuan (500,000 U.S. dollars) in 2009 to 7.89 million yuan last year. Commercial performances have increased from 19 to 337 shows, contributing 60 percent of its 2013 earnings.

"Ticket prices usually range from 100 to 280 yuan, and it's hard-earned money the audience spend to come and watch our shows," Wei said.

In the past, the troupe put on shows in school halls and canteens.

"Not many people came then, and there were sound system issues," Wei recalled.

During the past fours years, the troupe has recruited popular stage directors and given emerging actors opportunities, catering to a younger audience. They create five new plays each year.

The troupe has grown into something of a phenomenon.

"Commercialization is like a mirror. It reflects cultural workers' situation, psychology and their opinions of the future," said Zhang Lei, associate professor with Zhejiang University of Media and Communications.

According to Zhang, the troupe revived because it started to produce works that attracted audience.

In November, the Communist Party of China pushed forward cultural reforms on a larger scale, urging government-affiliated cultural institutions to become independent.

"It's not about whether the government can afford to support them. It's about creating a sound cultural market environment, improving industrial structures and honing the competency of artists," said He Weiping, a senior official with Zhejiang's provincial cultural department.

However, many are stuck in a make-or-break transition, fumbling for a signature production and an effective marketing strategy.

"To compete, one must first understand the market, but most art groups lack marketing skills or funding," He said, urging groups to have their own style, define target customers and attract investment.

Meanwhile, He also called for more favorable government policies to help cultural institutions in transition as many problems "are out of the hands of art groups themselves."

In June 2013, nine central departments, including the Ministry of Culture, released a document stressing that the government will not abandon cultural groups, but "help them get on the horse and guide them for the first leg of their journey."

While helping major, well-managed cultural groups become more competent, the document encouraged both governments at all levels and financial institutions to grant loans for small- and medium-sized groups.

The document vowed greater efforts to build infrastructure and cited a special government funding program for cultural groups to develop productions that are innovative, popular and showcase good values.

"Producing works that can stand the test of the market is key to this transformation," said Gu Xin, president of the China Oriental Performing Arts Group, a commercial integration of China National Song & Dance Ensemble and the Oriental Song & Dance Ensemble.

Gu also stressed that pursuing revenues does not mean one has to bend artistic principles.

Gu's company offers both mainstream dance blockbusters and fusion works that integrate traditional dance from across the world.

Earlier this year, the company presented "Neighbor," a performance that integrated folk songs and dances from India, Spain, the Republic of Korea and other countries and regions. The sold-out production will return to Shanghai later this month.

"This cultural reform is like a filter. It screens off people who muddle along and unites those with ambitions and a serious attitude," said Wang Wenlong, head of the Zhejiang Drama Ensemble. "Whether the metamorphosis is successful lies in the soul."

Editor: Tang Danlu
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