Crowd­fund­ing be­gins to move cen­ter stage

A TV an­chor is pro­mot­ing greater pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­duc­tion of con­tem­po­rary drama. Zhang Xiaomin re­ports from Dalian, Liaon­ing prov­ince.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

We want to build a plat­form for grass­roots mod­ern drama so or­di­nary peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate in the pro­duc­tion and per­for­mance of plays.” Wang Bo, an an­chor with Dalian TV and founder of the crowd­fund­ing plat­form The Mod­ern Drama Pro­ducer

Dur­ing the Oct 28 de­but of The Jiang’s House 1912, the first crowd­funded mod­ern drama per­formed in Dalian, Liaon­ing prov­ince, pro­ducer Wang Bo waited at the theater door.

With box-of­fice tak­ings of 320,000 yuan ($46,462), Wang wasn’t con­cerned about prof­its. In­stead, he wanted to get first­hand feed­back from the au­di­ence.

He noted their crit­i­cisms, such as the theater’s poor acous­tics and the num­ber of lame jokes in the play, and promised to im­prove the per­for­mance in the next show.

“We want to build a plat­form for grass­roots mod­ern drama so or­di­nary peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate in the pro­duc­tion and per­for­mance of plays,” said Wang, an an­chor with Dalian TV. He is also founder of the Mod­ern Drama Pro­ducer, the north­east­ern city’s first crowd­fund­ing plat­form for con­tem­po­rary stage plays which is ded­i­cated to build­ing a plat­form for ac­tors, play­wrights, di­rec­tors and in­vestors.

The Jiang’s House 1912 sparked in­ter­est among Dalian lo­cals in Septem­ber, when the Mod­ern Drama Pro­ducer started rais­ing funds for a per­for­mance of the play.

Within a month, the project had raised 15,000 yuan from 123 peo­ple, who re­ceived dis­counted tick­ets and in­vi­ta­tions to take part in re­hearsals and com­mu­ni­cate face-to-face with the di­rec­tor — Wang Dong, who also wrote the play and takes the lead role — and mem­bers of the cast.

While Wang Bo was dis­ap­pointed with the to­tal raised, he re­mained op­ti­mistic about fu­ture de­vel­op­ments.

“We ex­pected to raise 70,000 yuan (the full cost of stag­ing the play). In fact, with in­vest­ment of 165,000 yuan, we made a small profit. How­ever, the project at­tracted the at­ten­tion of po­ten­tial au­di­ence mem­bers, and what re­ally mat­ters is that our team went through the whole process, from fundrais­ing to mar­ket pro­mo­tion. We will def­i­nitely do much bet­ter in the fu­ture,” he said.

“By com­bin­ing re­sources, we can pro­vide the younger gen­er­a­tion with a sta­ble stage and look for­ward to see­ing a bright fu­ture for mod­ern drama in Dalian, and even in China,” Wang said. He added that the project has paid 30,000 yuan for the rights to stage a pro­duc­tion of a new play called Run Away, writ­ten by Zhu Fu, a mem­ber of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Chi­nese Drama­tists, and will soon be­gin a crowd­fund­ing pro­gram.

At present, many small troupes de­voted to mod­ern drama are at­tempt­ing to raise money via on­line crowd­fund­ing plat­forms.

Un­like eq­uity-based crowd­fund­ing, where in­vestors re­ceive shares in a com­pany, peo­ple who do­nate money to mod­ern drama can ob­tain dis­counted tick­ets, par­tic­i­pate in re­hearsals and in­ter­act closely with ac­tors. Al­ter­na­tively, their names will ap­pear in the ac­knowl­edg­ments and pro­ducer’s list.

Groups that of­fer de­tailed de­scrip­tions of pro­posed per­for­mances usu­ally win the most sup­port from ne­ti­zens, with some rais­ing as much as 150,000 yuan.

Mar­ket re­ac­tion

In April last year, a project to stage a Chi­nese-lan­guage ver­sion of The War Horse, a play based on the best-sell­ing book by Bri­tish au­thor Michael Mor­purgo, raised 2 mil­lion yuan in less than eight hours.

“It’s the most suc­cess­ful ex­am­ple so far,” said Xu Xun, head of the per­for­mance de­part­ment at Dalian Reper­tory Theater. How­ever, he cau­tioned that crowd­fund­ing is not re­al­is­tic for most small theater com­pa­nies that lack big-name ac­tors. “But it helps to test the mar­ket re­ac­tion in ad­vance, and the par­tic­i­pa­tion of ne­ti­zens makes the mar­ket for per­for­mances of con­tem­po­rary drama more pros­per­ous,” he said.

Small theater com­pa­nies still have a way to go, though. A sur­vey of cul­tural con­sump­tion pub­lished in March last year by the China Art and Sci­ence Tech­nol­ogy Re­search In­sti­tute, showed that the­atri­cal per­for­mances ranked as the eighth most-pop­u­lar leisure ac­tiv­ity, be­low surf­ing the in­ter­net, watch­ing TV or movies, and travel. The re­sults in­di­cated that mod­ern drama is still a “mi­nor­ity art form”, ir­re­spec­tive of the scale of in­vest­ment, all-star line­ups or box-of­fice tak­ings.

Nev­er­the­less, au­di­ence num­bers are ris­ing, ac­cord­ing to Wang Decheng, gen­eral man­ager of Dalian Poly Theater, one of the city’s best-known venues. “Many lo­cals who have never watched the­atri­cal per­for­mances are now vis­it­ing our theater,” he said.

With 1,600 seats, the theater pos­sesses first-class fa­cil­i­ties and pro­motes more than 100 high-level con­certs ev­ery year. It also in­vites well-known theater com­pa­nies from both home and abroad to per­form.

In the first half of this year, the theater launched a Mod­ern Drama Fes­ti­val, which fea­tured per­for­mances of more than 10 re­cent clas­sics, such as Peach Blos­som Land, Cell­mates and Of­fice Ro­mance.

Pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion

“Com­edy drama is the most pop­u­lar form of en­ter­tain­ment,” said Cai Wenyu, founder of the Daoy­azi (a Dalian di­alect word mean­ing “kerb­stones”) Drama Work­shop in Dalian.

The work­shop, which was founded in 2014 and has just 12 mem­bers, has rented a 700seat con­fer­ence room next to the Dalian Poly Theater at the Dalian International Con­fer­ence Cen­ter. Last year, its first pre­sen­ta­tion, a com­edy per­formed in the Dalian di­alect, earned crit­i­cal praise and good au­di­ence num­bers. This year, a sim­i­lar com­edy drama also earned rave re­views.

De­spite that, the sit­u­a­tion is still pre­car­i­ous. “For small troupes, the suc­cess of one or two dra­mas can’t cover up the dif­fi­cul­ties,” Cai said. “It’s hard to find suit­able ac­tors”.

Ac­cord­ing to Cai, although there are film schools in Dalian, most grad­u­ates leave to work in larger cities such as Bei­jing, Shang­hai and Guangzhou, Guang­dong prov­ince, where there are greater op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Young ac­tors can only grow faster and earn more money when there are enough per­for­mances,” he said.

The Dalian Reper­tory Theater Com­pany, a State-owned troupe, boasts pro­fes­sional play­wrights and a large num­ber of ac­tors. It gives about 200 per­for­mances a year.

“Small folk troupes are too far be­hind to catch up. As far as I know, all five grass­roots mod­ern drama troupes ac­tive in Dalian are fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties as a re­sult of a lack of ac­tors, play­wrights and money,” Cai said.

Those prob­lems aren’t just en­demic to Dalian, though; they also present chal­lenges to small theater com­pa­nies in other cities. De­spite that, Cai be­lieves the vi­tal­ity of mod­ern drama in China de­rives from smaller troupes, but he re­mains cau­tious about the po­ten­tial ef­fect of crowd­fund­ing.

“It’s an in­no­va­tive busi­ness model, but not a so­lu­tion for all our dif­fi­cul­ties. Ev­ery­thing should re­sult from the high qual­ity of our work,” he said.

Con­tact the writer at zhangx­i­aomin@chi­nadaily.com.cn

PHO­TOS BY WEN LEI / FOR CHINA DAILY

A scene from TheJiang'sHouse1912 in Dalian, Liaon­ing prov­ince. The pro­duc­tion was the city's first crowd­funded mod­ern drama.

Au­di­ence mem­bers await the first per­for­mance of TheJiang'sHouse1912 in Dalian.

Ac­tors in re­hearsal for TheJiang'sHouse1912.

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