Fu­el­ing growth with a dose of art

In­dus­try play­ers and ex­perts weigh in on what’s needed to boost the qual­ity and vi­brancy of the chil­dren’s the­ater in­dus­try in China

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shang­hai

zhangkun@chi­nadaily.com.cn

High-qual­ity the­ater pro­duc­tions for chil­dren are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing high de­mand in Shang­hai as an in­creas­ing num­ber of par­ents are look­ing to in­dulge in artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ences with their chil­dren.

This grow­ing trend seems to stem from re­search that shows how ex­pos­ing chil­dren to art at a very young age can lead to pos­i­tive ef­fects in their de­vel­op­ment.

One of the pre­miere des­ti­na­tions to en­joy such pro­duc­tions in Shang­hai is the Shang­hai Chil­dren’s Art Theatre (SHCAT). Opened in 2013, it was the first place in the city to of­fer in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tions catered to chil­dren. Ac­cord­ing to SHCAT Gen­eral Man­ager Chris­tine Liang, 80 per­cent of their shows are im­ported from re­gions out­side of China, and she be­lieves that the mar­ket for for­eign chil­dren’s the­ater pro­duc­tions holds many op­por­tu­ni­ties.

One of the rea­sons for this is that China’s own chil­dren’s the­ater scene hasn’t re­ally taken off. In fact, it has of­ten been widely crit­i­cized for its lack of di­ver­sity and qual­ity. Ac­cord­ing to Zhu Guang, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist with Xin­min Evening News who cov­ers the the­ater in­dus­try, the lo­cal scene a few years ago com­prised of mostly adap­ta­tions of fairy­tales or text­book sto­ries (pro­duced by the­ater com­pa­nies) meant for adults. Th­ese pro­duc­tions tend to rely on di­a­logues and carry over-sim­pli­fied moral in­struc­tions. She said that par­ents of­ten find them bor­ing while the chil­dren lose in­ter­est be­fore long.

While there are some in­sti­tu­tions such as the Chil­dren’s Palace that are aware of the spe­cial needs and cog­ni­tive lev­els of the au­di­ence and have been cre­at­ing orig­i­nal shows for chil­dren, Zhu noted that many of the pro­duc­ers are ac­tu­ally not pro­fes­sional the­ater work­ers. Tra­di­tion­ally a fa­cil­ity of de­vel­op­ment for chil­dren’s mu­sic, the­ater and artis­tic hob­bies, the Chil­dren’s Palace pro­duces the­ater projects that at times do not have a con­vinc­ing nar­ra­tive.

The in­abil­ity of the lo­cal chil­dren’s the­ater mar­ket to meet the de­mand for qual­ity pro­duc­tions has prompted the­ater work­ers and par­ents to look for bet­ter al­ter­na­tives in the world the­ater scene. Hav­ing rec­og­nized this, the staff mem­bers at SHCAT make up to seven trips abroad ev­ery year to bring shows home to Shang­hai. Its 2016 itin­er­ary al­ready has 39 over­seas pro­grams.

SHCAT’s new the­ater, which sits on the western bank of the Huangpu River, used to be an in­dus­trial pav­il­ion dur­ing the 2010 World Expo. But though it is lo­cated a 15-minute walk from the near­est metro sta­tion and has only a few ameni­ties nearby, the the­ater has nev­er­the­less

Tony Reekie,

man­aged to achieve an av­er­age oc­cu­pancy of 77 per­cent for its shows. Pop­u­lar per­for­mances, such as the New Year’s Con­cert from Italy’s Lit­tle Choir of An­to­ni­ano, were sold-out im­me­di­ately.

Such is the state of the lo­cal chil­dren’s the­ater scene that a young mother in Shang­hai de­cided to take mat­ters into her own hands and es­tab­lish her own the­ater com­pany — A.S.K. (The Art Space for Kids) to pro­vide qual­ity con­tent.

For­rina Chen re­called how she once took her then 18-month-old daugh­ter to a the­ater in Shang­hai only to find that “the light­ing was too bright and daz­zling and the show was sim­ply too noisy.” The lit­tle one then de­manded to leave half­way through the show, though at that time Chen thought it was only be­cause her daugh­ter was tired. How­ever, she later dis­cov­ered that her daugh­ter ac­tu­ally en­joyed the­ater pro­duc­tions and could sit through those that they at­tended dur­ing trav­els to Den­mark and Ja­pan.

This was when Chen, a pro­gram­mer who has 10 years of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing for the Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val, re­al­ized that there are many out­stand­ing the­ater pro­duc­tions around the world for chil­dren of all ages. In 2014, buoyed by en­cour­age­ment from other par­ents and peers from China’s the­ater scene, Chen brought Cloud­man, a Bri­tish pup­pet show in which au­di­ences are seated just a few me­ters away from the per­form­ers, to the wa­ter town of Wuzhen, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, and Shang­hai. The out­stand­ing re­cep­tion for the show then con­vinced Chen to set up A.S.K..

Since its open­ing in May, 2015, A.S.K. has staged 240 per­for­mances at Life Hub Dan­ing, a mall in down­town Shang­hai’s Jing’an district, draw­ing a com­bined crowd of 36,000 peo­ple. The space can host up to 150 peo­ple — about the stan­dard size of a chil­dren’s the­ater in Europe — but it is still smaller than most of the other fa­cil­i­ties in the city. How­ever, the re­cep­tion has none­the­less been over­whelm­ing.

This year, A.S.K. has hired Tony Reekie from Scot­land to iden­tify qual­ity pro­duc­tions all over the world be­fore bring­ing them to Shang­hai. Reekie, 60, has a ca­reer in the­ater that has spanned 30 years and he has seen more than 7,000 the­ater pro­duc­tions for chil­dren.

Al­though ev­ery­body be­lieves chil­dren’s the­ater should be sim­ple, Reekie points out that it is re­ally hard to achieve sim­plic­ity with­out los­ing qual­ity and rich­ness of the con­tent.

“Pro­duc­tions for chil­dren have to have the same qual­ity as those made for adults. You have to make it as well as you pos­si­bly can. If you don’t, the chil­dren will know, and they will get bored,” he said.

Reekie hopes that by bring­ing out­stand­ing projects to Shang­hai, lo­cal tal­ents will be in­spired to cre­ate orig­i­nal works that take into ac­count China’s own cul­tural con­text.

“This is not about copy­ing things from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, but rather, we want lo­cal artists to find their own lan­guage, bring out China’s own cul­ture and his­tory, find some­thing in­ter­est­ing and make it work,” said Reekie.

Liang be­lieves that it is im­por­tant to in­crease the num­ber of orig­i­nal pro­duc­tions from China at SHCAT in or­der to im­prove the scene. One of the first steps she has taken to ac­com­plish this is to seek out more in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions. For ex­am­ple, the the­ater has re­cently ac­quired the copy­right for the Frozen Planet doc­u­men­tary con­cert, which de­picts the beauty of the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic re­gions, from the Bri­tish Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion.

In this pro­duc­tion, the Shang­hai Opera House Or­ches­tra will per­form a Ge­orge Fen­ton com­po­si­tion, con­ducted by Zhang Chengjie, while the doc­u­men­tary is pre­sented on a gi­ant LED screen. Tick­ets to four Frozen Planet con­certs, which will take place on Feb 27 and 28, were sold out many weeks ahead of the event.

There have al­ready been shows jointly cre­ated by Chi­nese the­ater com­pa­nies and for­eign di­rec­tors, and Liang be­lieves that such col­lab­o­ra­tions will bring about pos­i­tive changes to the do­mes­tic the­ater scene for chil­dren. Fur­ther­more, a grow­ing num­ber of the­ater artists as well as big names such as Academy Award-win­ning com­poser Tan Dun have ex­pressed their readi­ness to work on chil­dren’s the­ater pro­duc­tions.

But though the mar­ket is cur­rently filled with op­por­tu­ni­ties, Zhu be­lieves that it will take more than just sharp busi­ness acu­men to pro­duce suc­cess­ful the­ater pro­duc­tions for chil­dren. She noted that the­ater art is far more than just en­ter­tain­ment for young au­di­ences but rather a “spir­i­tual prod­uct” that can be used to fill in the gaps in school and fam­ily education.

To cre­ate a good pro­duc­tion, Zhu said that the­ater work­ers need to fo­cus solely on the art and the needs of the chil­dren, in­stead of on the box of­fice prof­its. How­ever, fi­nan­cial sup­port will be re­quired to help lo­cal the­ater com­pa­nies achieve this goal.

Both SHCAT and A.S.K. do not have to pay rent for their the­ater spa­ces, thanks to sup­port from their re­spec­tive land­lords — the mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment in the for­mer case, and Life Hub Dan­ing for A.S.K.

SHCAT is able to sup­ple­ment its in­come by lend­ing its large the­ater space for com­mer­cial events. “It helps us to keep the ticket price at a low level,” said Liang of SHCAT.

“Go­ing to the the­ater is a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, and with chil­dren’s the­ater, it be­comes even more in­ti­mate and in­di­vid­u­al­ized,” said Zhu. “While a pro­duc­tion is meant for ev­ery­one to en­joy, it should also al­low ev­ery sin­gle per­son to in­ter­pret it in their own ways.”

Tra­di­tion­ally, chil­dren’s the­ater com­prises just one or two seg­ments, such as a dance or pup­pet play. How­ever, Reekie notes that the trend th­ese days is for pro­duc­tions to fea­ture a va­ri­ety of dis­ci­plines. Pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies have also started to cre­ate per­for­mances for ba­bies as young as six months and though Reekie ad­mits that he didn’t un­der­stand the con­tent, he con­cedes that in­fants are some­how en­gaged by th­ese sorts of ab­stract vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

All th­ese trends in the in­dus­try have in­her­ently re­molded the cre­ation process for chil­dren’s the­ater. Reekie said that writ­ers now do not merely pen a script, as what was tra­di­tion­ally ex­pected of them. Rather, they now also help to con­cep­tu­al­ize the en­tire pro­duc­tion, which at times may not even fea­ture the use of lan­guage.

“It’s all about us­ing dif­fer­ent ways to say some­thing. There are even pieces to­day which are just in­stal­la­tions, with no ac­tors in­volved. They are all about the space and ar­chi­tec­ture,” he said.

While Reekie added that the con­tent of chil­dren’s pro­duc­tions can be about al­most any sub­ject, there are cer­tain el­e­ments he said should never ex­ist.

“I don’t think you should be cyn­i­cal with chil­dren, and I don’t think you should be hope­less. Life can’t be fixed by turn­ing on a switch. You can show chil­dren that things don’t al­ways end happy but they must be able to feel as if they can do some­thing about it,” said Reekie.

“In other words, it can be sad, and it can fin­ish sad — that’s okay — but there still has to be a sense of pa­role.”

I don’t think you should be cyn­i­cal with chil­dren, and I don’t think you should be hope­less. Life can’t be fixed by turn­ing on a switch. You can show chil­dren that things don’t al­ways end happy but they must be able to feel as if they can do some­thing about it.”

in­ter­na­tional di­rec­tor for the A.S.K.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The de­sire to boost their chil­dren's de­vel­op­ment while spend­ing qual­ity time to­gether has led to a surge in de­mand for qual­ity chil­dren's the­ater pro­duc­tions.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Ex­perts say that the­ater art is far more than just en­ter­tain­ment for young au­di­ences but rather a “spir­i­tual prod­uct” that can be used to fill in the gaps in school and fam­ily education.

Tony Reekie, di­rec­tor for young peo­ple's the­ater in Scot­land

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