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March 11, 2017

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Curtain rises again at renovated theater

AFTER closing its doors six years ago, the renovated Shanghai Theater, located on the corner of Shaanxi Rd S. and Fuxing Rd M., turned on its lights and welcomed residents again yesterday.

“RE” — a crossover contemporary art exhibition — is the opening program for the revamped venue, with free admission. In the show, old items like wooden cases, used tires, discolored plastic pins and electric wires are shaped into contemporary installations by young artists. It will run until March 31.

“It is about the old encountering the new, which happens in almost all areas of our lives today,” says Zhang Ling, curator of the exhibition. “The old commodity encounters new channels, old parts encounters new industries, old designs encounter new usages, and old crafts encounters new technologies. The boundary between the old and the new are blurred, just like the reborn theater itself.”

Construction began on the Shanghai Theater in 1942 under the original name of Yinguang (Silver Light) Theater. It was renamed thus when it opened to the public in 1943 with the drama “Woman,” starring actress Sun Jinglu. The premier of Yihua Theater’s production of “The Wilderness” by Cao Yu in that same year help spread its prestige.

Poor management meant that the theater’s days hosting stage plays were limited. It became a cinema in 1944, amid a series of property disputes that lasted until it was nationalized in 1956.

Shanghai Cinema is the name that most local residents today know the building by. Wang Meiyue, 62, was once a frequent visitor as it was within walking distance of her home. Jeff Jiang, a 35-year-old office worker, also remembers watching movies there organized by his primary school.

Yet, box office sales declined sharply in the 1990s as more entertainment options became available. Although the cinema experimented with other businesses, such as running a cafe and karaoke rooms, it fell into disrepair and was shuttered in 2011.

“We felt lost when it was closed down; and I am much looking forward to its reopening,” says Wang, who noticed signs of repair work at the building several months ago.

Almost half of the original lobby was given over to an open anteroom that connects the theater and street. And three dormers set on the roof of both the lobby and anteroom help bring in light and scenery from outside.

“The dormers are to allow natural elements like light, rain and snow landscapes into the building,” says Lyndon Neri, designer of the new Shanghai Theater. “I want people to experience a sense of solitude when they come into this space.”

“We live in such a very busy city where everybody does a million things a day. I hope that the architecture will slow people down, and bring them to a sense of calmness and solemnity before experiencing the amazing cultural and theatrical artworks,” says Neri.

The main hall in the new theater was designed to seat about 300 people, according to Tong Xin, director of the new Shanghai Theater as well as a producer at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center.

New market demands

Most current theaters in Shanghai are either large-scale venues with more than 1,000 seats, or smaller places with less than 200 seats, according to Tong. It’s hoped that this medium-sized space can fill a gap in the current market.

“Quite a number of productions staged at Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center do not fit the big stage of its main theater, yet they’ve complained about the limited seating in the two small ones,” says Tong, “I think this new 300-seat one may just serve them well.”

According to him, almost 60 percent of the shows that have been staged at the Dramatic Arts Center can work just as well at the new Shanghai Theater. And some small musical and traditional opera productions have also enquired about renting the space for performance.

Having not yet set a particular orientation for the theater, its opening season will features a variety of shows, including art exhibitions, stage dramas and experimental operas.

Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center’s new production, “Wilderness,” will hit the theater from March 31 to April 5, while a Contemporary Kunqu Art Week will be presented by Shanghai Zhangjun Kunqu Art Center on April 7-16.

“Quality is the only criteria to select programs for the new theater,” says Tong. Though he had planned on making it a theater for award-wining stage dramas, Tong does not want to push this goal too early as it takes time to guide audiences and cultivate market.

The theater will also launch a series of free activities and programs in the first few months, including inviting audience members to tour the venue. Tong is also considering arranging low-price performances for particular groups like the elderly, teachers or children.

“We will invite the audiences in first, and then guide them to appreciate what we recommend,” says Tong.

Boasting a rich collection of historic buildings, Xuhui District has been searching ways to turning the cultural relics into spaces that are open to the general public, according to Li Mingyu, director of Xuhui District Cultural Bureau.

Some former residences of celebrities reopened to the public, while poorly operated cinemas have been shifted into community cultural centers.

“It would have been easier to have a community center here, but it would be a great loss if Shanghai Theater disappeared,” says Li. “After all, there’s still a lack of quality theaters in the area, while the residents’ growing needs for cultural activities are rising.”

Currently there are about 130 theaters in Shanghai, with over 50 in downtown area of Huangpu, Jing’an and Xuhui districts, according to a recent research on Shanghai performing arts market conducted by Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

A number of new theaters have popped up across the city as stage performance gains in popularity. Other older venues, including the Majestic Theater and the Huangpu Theater, have also undergone repairs to tap into the new trend.

According to Li, some 20 new theaters are expected to be completed in Xuhui District in five years.


Shanghai Theater

Address: 1186 Fuxing Rd M.


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