Dongcheng, the Locus for Theatre
Dongcheng is becoming one of the districts with the best resources for theatre on the national theatre circuit. Its reputation as an influential theatre centre continues to rise.
The National Excellent New Drama Performing Season 2017 was held in December to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the birth of Chinese drama and the 10th anniversary of the proposal of “Theatre Dongcheng.” During the season, top troupes from around the nation performed 18 original dramas at Beijing Comedy Academy, Capital Theatre, National Theatre of China, Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center and Fengshang Theatre. The participating dramas included: Qianzi bei (“a monument with 1,000 characters”) telling the stories of Communist Party of
China (CPC) member Mao Fengmei; Cixin guangming (“the upright heart”) about Wang Yangming, a Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644) master of Confucianism; The Legend of “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains”; Shibadong (“Shibadong Village”) about targeted poverty alleviation; and Tiegan zhuangjia about villagers walking from the mountains seeking a new life.
This performing season has seen Dongcheng District’s efforts to build “Theatre Dongcheng.” As a core functional district of the capital, Dongcheng boasts rich cultural and theatrical resources and put forward the target to build “Theatre Dongcheng” in 2007. Since then, the district has made use of its advantages, enriched theatre resources, built influential brands, supported original plays and utilised industrial upgrade and transformation, to become a theatre incubation base. Now, more than 700 plays are staged in Dongcheng every year, with total performances surpassing 6,000. Dongcheng became one of the districts with the best theatrical resources on the national theatre industry circuit. Its reputation as an influential theatre centre continues to rise.
A Decade’s Effort
Beijing has seen the history of Chinese theatre and witnessed its splendor and revival. As one of the earliest birthplaces of Chinese drama, Dongcheng launched the construction of “Theatrical and Cultural City” in 2017, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chinese drama. Ten years after 2007, Dongcheng advanced the “Theatre Dongcheng,” working out supportive policies, allocating special funds, gathering theatrical resources and set up platforms for communications among art academies and troupes, experts and writers.
In 2008, new measures integrated the district’s art troupes, experts, media, ticketing resources, cultural units and companies to establish the Dongcheng District Theatre Federation.
Dongcheng District Theatre Construction Commission established a 3-million-yuan subsidised fund for theatre development and a 10-million-yuan theatre industry guide fund and worked out tentative management measures.
In 2009, the district issued Opinions concerning Advancing the Construction of the Capital’s Theatrical and Cultural City, worked out fiscal policies and financing and investment mechanisms, and allocated subsidies for purchasing or renting houses to support theatre culture. In 2010, the district founded the Dongcheng District Theatre Construction Commission, which is a coordination institution. An office was established within the Dongcheng District Cultural Commission to carry out the measures that were developed and decisions made by the Dongcheng District Theatre Construction Commission. The office also takes charge of organising meetings and handling daily affairs. The district also established a theatrical art guidance commission, theatrical project assessment and an approval commission to standardise the
development of theatre culture.
From 2011 to 2015, Dongcheng established the development concept of “one centre, two nodes, three contents and five measures.” It focused on constructing the Capital Theatrical and Cultural City,” and took “theatre construction, play creation and influential activities” as its main contents.
The district encouraged creativity and hosted a group of distinctive theatrical activities. It introduced social capital to construct or renovate theatres and constructed an influential cluster for the theatrical performance industry. It encouraged the creation of plays and aimed to build a centre for the capital’s theatrical talents. The district supported Chinese culture and strengthened international communication to build an international exchange centre for theatrical activities.
“Theatre Dongcheng” has been accelerated as the issuing of a series of documents, such as the Strategic Plan for the Overall Development of Dongcheng District, the People’s Dongcheng Action Plan and the Theatre Dongcheng Development Plan (2016–2020). They built a favourable policy environment and set up platforms for theatrical creation, performance and communications.
Dongcheng is home to both nationallevel art academies and performance troupes, such as The Central Academy of Drama and Beijing People’s Art Theatre, and a number of private performing institutions; there are national-level art organisations, ticketing agencies such as Damai, various performing venues, and rehearsal spaces represented by the 77 Cultural and Creative Park. As of December 2017, there were 83 performing groups in Dongcheng, which have attracted renowned drama actors and screenwriters, including Lin Zhaohua, Yang Liping, Meng Jinghui, Wu Qiong and Deng Chao. It has 34 theatres, accounting for a third in the municipality, and has influential theatrical activities year-round.
Dongcheng has organised public theatrical performances for the benefit of its residents. It held performances in residential communities, which led to a large number of theatrical attendees and promoted cultural consumption and the development of the theatre industry. The Theatre Art Performing Centre has become one of the six industrial clusters in Dongcheng with “Theatre Dongcheng” as the artistic face of the district.
Watching dramas is common in Dongcheng. If one looks at a map, many theatres can be seen in the district which form five theatrical clusters: Wangfujing, East Second Ring Road, Nanluoguxiang, Qianmen and Longtan.
Near the Wangfujing area, there is the Capital Theatre, the Vanguard Theatre of the National Theatre of China, Chang’an Grand Theater and the Forbidden City Concert Hall; along the East Second Ring Road, there is the Poly Theatre, Fengchao Theatre, Lei Theater and Beijing Comedy Academy; near Nanluoguxiang, there is the Experimental Theatre of The Central Academy of Drama, Penghao Theatre, Fengshang Theatre and Tangguo (Candy) Theatre; in the Qianmen area, there is Liu Laogen Stage, Tianleyuan Opera House and the Super Theater; around Longtan Lake, there is the Red Theatre, Longtan Theatre and Beijing Children’s Palace Theatre.
According to Dongcheng District’s Action Plan to Build into a Cultural District and Promote National Centre Construction, these five theatrical clusters will be upgraded from 2017–2020. In the Wangfujing cluster, the construction of Beijing International Theatre Centre, east of the Capital Theatre, will be accelerated, including the construction of the Performance Avenue. Dahua Cinema will be renovated into Dahua Theatre, scheduled to be put into use in 2018. In the East Second Ring Road Cluster, the China National Opera House will construct a new theatre.
In Qianmen, Xida Theatre will be constructed to support Xidamochang Street and revive the city’s central area; Guanghe Chalou will be repaired and Guanghe Theatre will be restored. In the Longtan Lake cluster, Happy Theatre, including a large theatre and two small theatres, will be constructed on Xingfu Street. It can accommodate 900 audience members and will be put into use in 2018. Each cluster or theatre will be guided to form its own
characteristics. For example, Chang’an Grand Theatre will be a centre for opera performance, the Nanluoguxiang cluster is for original dramas and the Happy Theatre is for mass performances. Each cluster contains both large and small theatres, with the larger for commercial performances and smaller for creating original plays.
Apart from these rich theatrical resources, Dongcheng has theatrical activities and festivals year-round, suitable for all audiences.
China Children’s Theatre Festival is one of the renowned theatre festivals in China and even in the world. Established in 2011, it has become a regular event during every summer vacation and has been held for seven consecutive years. Since then, 177 performing groups from 21 counties, Hong Kong and Macau have performed 301 plays 1,443 times, benefiting 1.06 million audience members. The festival is a platform to promote communication and enrich the lives of children.
In 2010, Dongcheng cooperated with the theatre academies and performing groups within the district and Jiadaokou Sub- district to host the First Nanluoguxiang Theatre Festival. In 2013, the festival was expanded into the Nanluoguxiang Theatre Performing Season, committed to highlighting elements of Dongcheng, spreading theatrical education and encouraging participation among the masses. It is held from May to July, attracting many theatregoers.
Beijing Fringe Festival is another Dongcheng theatrical brand. In 2008 and 2009, the district, together with Beijing Federation of Literature and Art Circles and Beijing Dramatists Association, hosted the Beijing Youth Theatre Festival for two years, which was upgraded into the current Beijing Fringe Festival in 2010. The festival aims to explore, discover and cultivate young theatrical talents and offers them opportunities to practice. The festival has been held for eight years, exploring potential among young talent in theatre.
The Capital Theatre Great Plays Performance Season is an international theatre brand created by Beijing People’s Art Theatre and Dongcheng District in 2011, bringing together world-renowned performance groups, directors and artists. Since 2011, many great events emerged from the performing season. Beijing Comedy Festival, established in October 2016, is a younger one. It lasts two months, with activities like forums and comedy studios working to bring comedy to the campus. It contributes to the spread and development of comedy art.
Dongcheng has many theatrical festivals, but many of them don’t have strong influence at home or abroad and haven’t formed defining characteristics. In the future, Dongcheng will guide these festivals to better define their orientation. For example, the Nanluoguxiang Theatre Performing Season held in the spring will focus on popularising theatrical knowledge and guiding theatrical consumption. It will serve the public. The China Children’s Theatre Festival in the summer will perform excellent domestic and overseas children’s plays and enhance the industry by hosting the International Children’s Theatre Salon. The Beijing Fringe Festival in the autumn will stage plays created by young talents to explore theatrical personnel.
Stories of Dongcheng
Theatres and events aren’t enough to attract audiences though there must be great works also. Though these years have seen the emergence of more performance groups and more works, there are few original works focusing on popular issues and social conflicts.
In recent years, Dongcheng has issued measures, established funds, and introduced celebrities’ studios to encourage original play creation. It has gathered a substantial amount of resources to attract personnel. It gave support to original plays that tell stories of Dongcheng and launched the drama Nanluoguxiang No.7. Dongcheng encourages creating excellent historic plays and those reflecting residents’ lives. With “Dongcheng’s stories” as the core, these stories either took place in Dongcheng or were relevant to the district.
Jiangjunli tells the story about the demolition of dilapidated houses, resettling residents and reconstruction. Qi Jiayong from Dongcheng District Cultural Commission, explained that, “The director and screenwriter went to many streets to obtain materials with plots based on real
stories.” It displays various Beijingers in the process of rapid urban development. The story, with strong local characteristics, is close to the lives of audiences.
Shinian (“ten years”) is similar to Jiangjunli. It tells the stories of the elderly couple Sun Lina and Zhu Mincai. Sun used to be a senior primary school teacher and Zhu used to be a diplomat. After retirement, they give up the high life in Beijing and choose to teach in the mountainous areas in Guizhou Province. They stay there for ten years. Director Song Tianshuo talked with Sun and was touched by their experience. Song selected several impressive stories to create the drama. The couple illustrated the spirit of “not embroidering flowers on brocade, but offering timely help.” Thanks to the drama, their story became widely known.
There are about 100 plays reflecting the life of Dongcheng residents, such as Chaogan (“stir-fried liver”), Longfusi (Longfu Temple), Qianmen renjia (“households in Qianmen”) and Quyun Zhong Gu Lou (“Drum Tower and Bell Tower”). According to incomplete statistics, in 2016, Dongcheng and the performing groups within the district launched 52 original plays, accounting for 30.9 percent of the municipality and 10.1 percent of the country.
To support original creation, the district government changed the production process. It solicits screenplays with Dongcheng style characteristics and selects teams to transform them into plays. In the past, the government initially commissioned a performance team to create a play and took the responsibility of the production and ticketing. It cost about 1 million yuan to produce a play. The new method now combines governmental support and market- oriented operation. The government offers material that the performing group writes screenplays based on. After experts’ assessment and approval, the performance group can begin production and stage the plays. The government purchases tickets to support the plays. Under this model, it costs 30– 40 million yuan to produce a play.
Dongcheng District gives three-round support to original plays. The first-round is purchasing tickets, the second round is to fund performances and the last round is awarding excellent plays according to specific criteria. This method benefits performance groups, who are motivated to create plays and receive awards. These groups also have a platform to showcase themselves to audiences.
Dongcheng selected four popular plays in recent years to join The National New Drama Performing Season 2017. Dongcheng considered the season to be an opportunity to promote itself and to communicate with other state- owned performing troupes, such as Shenyang Drama Troupe, Liaoning People’s Art Theatre, Dalian Drama Troupe and Qingdao Drama Troupe.
Unlike some other types of art, theatre can’t be easily copied or duplicated. To let more audiences appreciate plays at theatres, Dongcheng combined “Theatre Dongcheng” construction with public cultural service. The government purchased tickets and 100,000 residents in the district got the chance to watch performances for free, ensuring low- income families the ability to watch a performance each year.
The district offers targeted services for special groups, such as migrant workers, the disabled, seniors and teenagers. It adheres to low-price tickets for performances at the China Children’s Theatre Festival and the number of tickets whose prices are less than 100 yuan accounted for 37 percent of the total. It enables more children to access to the performances. Organisers also prepared performances for migrant workers, low-income families, orphans and children with disabilities and others.
A Theatre Base
Several years ago, the Beijing Offset Printing Factory sat on the Meishuguan (Art Gallery) Back Street. There are two signs at the gate now: a bronze one with the characters for “Beijing Offset Printing Factory” and an iron one with the characters for “Beijing Theatre Rehearsal Centre.” The factory was reconstructed into a rehearsal centre inside the 77 Cultural and Creative Park.
In 2011, the noise and smell produced
by the factory exceeded limits and the factory’s business declined. In early 2012, the CPC Beijing Dongcheng District Committee and Beijing Dongcheng People’s Government relocated the factory’s offset printing business. The factory signed a 20-year cooperation agreement with the state-owned Beijing Orient Asset Management Company to jointly construct a cultural and creative industrial park. On November 19, 2015, the Beijing Theatre Rehearsal Centre, located inside the park, opened. The rehearsal centre, renovated from old plants, offers rehearsal services to registered stateowned and private performance troupes.
In Beijing, private performance troupes accounted for 90 percent with the number increasing. It is not easy for them to find a suitable rehearsal space in Beijing. Developing performance groups led to inadequate rehearsal spaces and theatres. Most of the private troupes had to rent a venue just to rehearse. As the rehearsals and venues weren’t ensured, this affected the quality of their work. According to an investigation report, the rent for Beijing’s rehearsal rooms ranged from 800 yuan a day to 10,000 yuan a day, a large expenditure for many performance troupes.
The Beijing Theatre Rehearsal Centre solves private troupes’ difficulty in finding a rehearsal venue. The centre covers a construction area of 3,000 square metres (sq.m) and contained 19 large, midsized and small rooms in various sizes and a 130-sq.m hall for dress rehearsal. Under the model of government purchasing services, the rehearsal centre is a nonprofit institution and offers services for performance troupes, but charges less. The fee is 500 yuan per day for renting a large hall, 300 yuan per day for a midsized hall and 200 yuan a day for a small hall. The rent is half the market price. In principle, the maximum continuous rental period should be no more than 50 days.
The low rent attracts many performing troupes to rehearse here. Since its opening, 350 dramas were rehearsed here, 340 of which were staged, meaning half of the original dramas staged in Beijing’s performing market were rehearsed here. Some were staged in other cities or even overseas. Famous actors, directors and hosts, such as Zhang Guoli, Zhang Tielin, Wang Gang, Chen Peisi, Lai Shengchuan and He Jiong all once rehearsed here. The stage art creation fund established by the government will be allocated to support original and outstanding plays. The performance troupes with municipallevel plays within the circle have priority. Plays whose rehearsals are complete get the chance to be performed in 39 theatres affiliated with the Poly Group with the help of the Beijing Poly Forbidden City Theatre Management Co., Ltd. Therefore, Beijing Theatre Rehearsal Centre is regarded as “Hengdian in the circle of theatre” by insiders.
This rehearsal centre offers high quality, yet affordable, venues for rehearsal. It lowers performing troupes’ production costs and enables audiences to enjoy reasonably-priced performances. The Beijing Theatre Rehearsal Centre inside 77 C&C • Park, is an example of a factory’s successful transformation and is not an individual case. As the relocation and shifting of functions unrelated to the city’s status as the nation’s capital advances, many underground spaces used for civil defence are intended to become professional rehearsal venues.
The Dongcheng District Cultural Commission is communicating with governmental departments and plans to transform the underground spaces used for civil defence in Min’an Community, Beixinqiao and Donghuashi sub- districts into theatre incubation bases. The space, comprising about 1,000 square metres, can be divided into 10 rehearsal rooms. After being renovated, it will open to more troupes and theatregoers. In the future, more public rehearsal venues like the Beijing Theatre Rehearsal Centre will benefit both audiences and troupes.
As a core district of Beijing, Dongcheng has seen the birth and development of the theatre in the city. It is an important force for the development of China’s theatre. In the future, Dongcheng will construct a “theatre ecosystem” characterised by theatrical talents, more plays, leading institutions, performances and intensive communication. It aspires to become a place with a complete industry chain and improved service, bringing together Chinese and foreign performance troupes.
The Grand Theater at Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center
The drama The Drum Tower is at Beixinqiao staged at Lei’s Studio
A Xiju Opera troupe from Changshu, Jiangsu Province performs Happy Trojans at the China Children’s Theatre Festival.
77 C&C • Park in Dongcheng District