When I returned to Shanghai in the summer of 2015 after a six-year sojourn in New York City, I began to see my hometown’s theatre scene with fresh eyes. Theatre is definitely happening here.
The first thing I noticed is that there are so many more venues for the performing arts. Before I left in 2009, Shanghai had already been in a building boom. Gleaming, state-of-the-art behemoths went up one after another: the Shanghai Grand Theatre (opened in 1998, home to three spaces: the 1,800-seat Lyric Theatre, the 600-seat Drama Theatre, and the 300-seat Studio Theatre), the Shanghai Circus World (opened in 1999, seating 1,670), the Shanghai Oriental Art Center (opened in 2005, housing the 1,953-seat Concert Hall, the 1,015-seat Opera Hall, the 333-seat Performance Hall, and an exhibition hall). A question kept recurring as all these new venues went up: The hardware is here, but what about the software? There was a growing concern about filling those huge halls with great programming to attract audiences.
Apparently with a kind of “build it, and they will come” optimism, even grander performing arts centers have since been built and opened. Since I left eight years ago, notable new structures include the SAIC·Shanghai Culture Square (opened in 2011 on the site for a 1920s-era canidrome originally designed for greyhound racing in the former French Concession; now an airy 700,000-square-foot space with the world’s largest underground theatre, seating 2,011, plus a spacious outdoor stage hosting regular public performances), Daning Theatre (also opened in 2011, seating 1,115, and the first big theatre north of the city’s central river, Suzhou Creek), the Poly Grand Theatre (opened in 2014, the 602,000-square-foot complex, containing a waterside theatre, is located in Shanghai’s Jiading district, a developing area about 12 miles northwest of the city’s center), and the Shanghai International Dance Center (opened October 2016, with a 1,079-seat grand theatre and a 291-seat experimental theatre). This last addition is Asia’s first professional dance center, housing the Shanghai Ballet and the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, as well as the Shanghai Dance School and College of Dance affiliated with the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA).
In the meanwhile, more midsize theatres have been constructed or have had extensive makeovers. When the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (SDAC), the city’s only designated state-level modern drama company, moved into its brand-new building in 2000, with three theatres (the 530-seat Arts Theatre, the 200-seat Drama Salon, and a flexible performance space called Studio D6), the goal was to have one show on site every day. That goal was quickly achieved and surpassed. Now the SDAC has acquired Sky Theatre (seating 600) and 1933 Micro Theatre (seating 120), housed in a reconfigured old slaughterhouse north of Suzhou Creek, to mount more experimental productions. Most recently, the SDAC has reclaimed and remodeled an old theatre built in the early 1940s, formerly the Shanghai Grand Playhouse (Shanghai Daxiyuan), which has variously been a cinema and a place for karaoke. The New Shanghai Theatre, as the new iteration is known in English, is now an ultra-modern multipurpose 300-seat space.
Obviously I have only scratched the surface of some of the new and reinvented performance venues that proliferated in Shanghai during my six-year absence and since my return. Omissions include Stan Lai’s 700-seat Theatre Above, a new, semi-dedicated venue opened in late 2015 at the top of Xuhui District’s Metro City department store, and many alternative performance venues in locations such as galleries, school auditoriums, district cultural centers, old churches, mall lobbies, restaurants, and basements. There is an abundance of places to see theatre in Shanghai.
The World Is Here Onstage
But are there shows to fill all these spaces? I would say yes. Since my return, I’ve attended theatre so frequently that some of my friends have a jocular answer to the question, “Where is Faye?” “Either in the theatre or on her way to one.” I can’t deny this is true, particularly during the Magnolia Stage Acting Awards, when performers bring shows from all over China to Shanghai; or during the China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF), presented every October-November since 1999; or during ACT Shanghai International Theatre Festival, every November-December since 2005, when the whole world comes to Shanghai. ACT, hosted by the SDAC, is an annual event showcasing international contemporary performing arts, and it’s a platform for artists and audiences to meet through theatre. Started in 2005 as Asian Contemporary Theatre Festival, ACT has now expanded its reach beyond Asia.
What I would like to share, however, is the theatre scene in Shanghai beyond these high-profile festivals. Below is a small sampling of professional theatre productions I have attended and enjoyed in the last 18 months, not in any particular order or grouping, whose titles alone I thought might be more recognizable and meaningful to the readers of this publication. (An asterisk signifies a production in Chinese, the rest are performed in their original language with Chinese sub-/supertitles.)
- The Beauty Queen of Leenane* by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, directed by Zhang Tong
- Glengarry Glen Ross* by David Mamet, directed by Hu Xiaoqing
- The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol, Petersburg Alexandrinsky Theatre, directed by Valery Fokin
- The Valley of Astonishment, written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
- Uncle Vanya* by Anton Chekhov, SDAC, directed by Adolf Shapiro
- Blackbird* by David Harrower, SDAC, directed by Claudia Stavisky
- Der Meteor* by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, STA, directed by Xia Tianheng
- Hamlet, an original ballet interpretation by Shanghai Ballet of the Shakespeare play with music by Tchaikovsky, choreography by Derek Deane, and Michael England serving as conductor and music adapter
- Mozart! Das Musical, by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, from Austria
- Man of La Mancha, the Broadway musical, Seven Ages, directed by Joseph Graves
- Avenue Q*, an adaptation of the Broadway musical from Seven Ages, directed by Joseph Graves
- August: Osage County* by Tracy Letts, STA, directed by Liu Ning
- A Streetcar Named Desire* by Tennessee Williams, SDAC, translated and directed by Wang Huan
- I, Hamlet*, a solo Chinese Kunqu opera rendition of the Shakespearean classic, conceived and performed by Zhang Jun
- 1984*, based on the novel by George Orwell, written, directed and produced by Xu Yingzi
- The Secret*, the Jay Chou Musical, China Broadway Entertainment, directed by John Rando, written by Huang Xiaoqi and Marc Acito
- White Deer Plain (白鹿原), based on the novel by Chen Zhongshi, written and directed by Hu Zongqi, produced by Shaanxi People’s Art Theatre
- Mr. Donkey (驴得水), written and directed by Zhou Shen and Liu Lu, made into a hit film in 2016
From Theatertreffen Berlin:
- Common Ground by Yael Ronen, Maxim Gorki Theatre, Germany
- John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen, DeutschesSchauSpielHausHamburg, Germany
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Deutsches Theater, directed by Ivan Panteleev
From the Royal Shakespeare Company:
- The King and Country Cycle, nine hours of Richard II, Henry IV, Part I and Part II, and Henry V
- National Theatre Live series, broadcast at the SDAC since 2015, 10 shows including Skylight, Man and Superman, A View From the Bridge, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus, The Audience, One Man, Two Guvnors, and Frankenstein
Of course, no matter how discerning and selective I’ve tried to be, I have experienced my fair share of duds in the theatre in Shanghai. It’s always disappointing to know how much money, time, human resources, and talent have been wasted, especially when the shows were sponsored by the China National Arts Fund, established in late 2013. I will not waste any space on them here.
The Young People Have Entered
What really caught me by surprise since my return is the volume of young people who seem to embrace theatre despite the lure of other media. They’re typically the artistic and creative types, smart, talented, educated, hard-working, open-minded. Many of them have traveled overseas or studied abroad—true global citizens. On the stage, off the stage, behind the scenes, and in the audience, they are passionate about theatre. In the U.S. you might have been introduced to some young theatremakers based in Beijing: Wang Chong of Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental, whose Ibsen-inspired Ghosts 2.0 takes a multimedia look at a family with dark secrets, or Yang Jiamin, founding CEO of Seven Ages musicals. Here are a few promising theatre people from Shanghai.
Wang Huan was the translator and director for the Chinese premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire at the SDAC. When I walked into the Drama Salon and saw the set, I thought the director must have a strong background in scenic design. He does: Wang Huan completed his B.A. degree at STA in stage design, and worked for nine years on more than 40 theatrical productions before going to London. There he acquired a master’s in performance design and practice from Central Saint Martins in 2011, and a master’s in directing from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2012, and he worked in the U.K. at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Young Vic. Wang Huan then returned to Shanghai, directing an enthusiastically received production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the SDAC and designing an impressive set for Zhang Jun’s I, Hamlet.
Unlike Wang Huan, who had extensive theatre experience before going abroad, Chen Wencong and Sun Siqi (a.k.a. Sissi Sun) went to other countries to study theatre as undergraduates. Chen earned his B.A. in theatre and film from Emory University in Atlanta, while Sun received her B.A. in acting from Brown University in Providence, R.I. I picked these two as examples for a few simple reasons: One, I have personally experienced their work in the theatre. Two, I find it heartening to see young people today still choosing to pursue careers in arts, while most are pressured by their elders to invest in more lucrative degrees in business or finance. Three, they recall a time about 100 years ago, when young students traveled overseas to learn new ways to modernize China: Tian Han went to Japan, Hong Shen went to Harvard, Xiong Fuxi went to Columbia, and Huang Zuolin went to Cambridge, studying with Saint-Denis in the London Theatre Studio and with Michael Chekhov at Dartington Hall. They all returned home to create and develop modern Chinese theatre.
The first theatre work I saw Chen Wencong direct was a performance of three short works inspired by Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver in a underground space in a shopping mall in 2015. He would go on to produce and direct the Chinese premieres of Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, The Island, and The Train Driver in the Shanghai Culture Square’s outdoor Container Theatre. In 2016 he was assistant director for The Secret, a game-changing original jukebox musical produced by China Broadway Entertainment Co., Ltd. In addition he served as assistant director and dramaturgy consultant for Sleep No More in Shanghai.
I met Sun first in 2013. Sun, who speaks six languages, was the interpreter for Lee Breuer, who was directing William H. Sun’s Shalom Shanghai (a.k.a. North Bank Suzhou Creek), a bilingual intercultural theatre piece about Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Sun has remained active as a polyglot stage performer while winning national speech contests, hosting TV shows, teaching theatre to high school students, and earning a master’s in intercultural communication studies at STA. I have seen her play Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Xiaoying in the third run of Sun’s Shalom Shanghai to standing ovations.
Attending theatre in New York or in London, one notices that typically 90 percent of the audience are 45 or older; here in Shanghai it’s reversed, with around 90 percent of the audience aged 40 or younger. I have really enjoyed the company of these young people. Seeing them in the theatre, hearing them during intermissions, reading their comments online, and sharing with them information of an upcoming theatre event in chat rooms, I must say they are the kind of supportive patrons and insightful critics our theatre really needs. In one of the chat rooms designated for theatre lovers, young enthusiasts can be found eagerly volunteering for next October’s Wuzhen Theatre Festival or making plans to travel to Tianjin to attend the eight-hour performance of Brothers and Sisters from Russia’s Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, under the direction of Lev Dodin.
Young people are also making a difference in the traditional theatre, where Kunqu operas or Beijing operas are performed and where the audience members tend to be “older and wiser.” Zhang Jun, whose one-person Kunqu opera I, Hamlet I mentioned earlier, and other young artists practicing traditional theatre forms—including Lan Tian, Yan Qinggu, and Wang Peiyu—are making bold innovations while refining centuries-old conventions, all in the spirit of “giving the past a future,” to use Zhang Jun’s words. By taking their performances to universities and schools, by highlighting the finer points of their artistry, by keeping up with the times, and by turning on their personal charisma, they are making China’s traditional theatre forms more appealing to the younger generation. I have noticed many a young fan cheering for their stage idols at the 1,000-seat Shanghai Yifu Theatre, the major venue for traditional operas since 1925.
I’m not so naïve as to believe for a minute that theatre is all peach blossoms in Shanghai, or in China generally. But what gives me real hope for the future of theatre is that young people have entered, and are making it work.
As I sign off on this report, Vertebra Theatre, a brand-new company, has just publicized its first season, titled “Shall We Talk,” with three Chinese-language productions: The Open Couple by Dario Fo & Franca Rame, adapted/directed by Li Minyuan from Taiwan, Lungs by Duncan Macmillan (U.K.), directed by Elias Perrig from Sweden, and Poison by Lot Vekemans (Netherlands), directed by Jeroen Versteele from Belgium. All three plays are to be performed at the Lyceum Theatre, where the Chinese modern theatre was born nearly 110 years ago, in November 1907, with the spoken drama Black Slave’s Cry to Heaven, an adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by a group of young Chinese students returning from Japan.
Faye Chunfang Fei is an artist/scholar of theatre at the East China Normal University.