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January 22, 2010

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Curtain rises on old theaters

IT is easy to miss Huangpu Theater if you don't have the exact address of the four-story European-style building. Located at the corner of bustling Beijing Road E. and Guizhou Road, the 1930s structure is surrounded by hardware shops and shabby eateries.

Only recently has the venerable old cinema attracted media attention. Renowned local comedian Wang Rugang, director of the Shanghai People's Farce Troupe, has worked with the Huangpu District government to renovate the building into a modern, 570-seat theater.

Every Friday and Saturday, Wang and other famous comedians from the troupe stage "Shanghai Fengqing" ("Shanghai Flair"), a dujiaoxi performance of traditional farce in Shanghai dialect.

Popular in the 1920s and 1930s, dujiaoxi (single foot/role play) was recognized in 2008 as a national intangible cultural heritage by the State Council.

Dujiaoxi or monodrama, which is also called huajixi or buffoonery, is a traditional performing art popular in Shanghai as well as Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. It used to be performed by one person and was much influenced by shuochang (storytelling and singing).

At first, dujiaoxi was mainly about imitation and singing. But in recent years, artists have created many new works that reflect the real life.

However, the local farce troupe had a hard time finding a suitable stage as most theaters are either too big or too small for such performance.

"The ideal theater would be mid-sized and allow the audience, even in the last row, to catch the vivid expressions of the performers on the stage," director Wang explains.

Huangpu Theater happened to be "the one." The size is perfect. So is its downtown location. Equally important, it boasts a long, interesting history.

Built in 1934, the Jincheng Theater, as it was called, was the movie house that premiered many domestic left-wing films. On May 24, 1935, with the premiere of the patriotic film "Feng Yun Er Nu" ("Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm"), the movie's theme song "March of the Volunteers" was played for the first time. It would later become China's national anthem.

"It was once acclaimed as the 'palace of domestic movies'," says Zhang Guofu, vice general manager of Huangpu Theater, with pride.

The Huangpu District government spent more than 2 million yuan (US$292,825) renovating the stage, add lighting, a sound system, dressing rooms and other features.

The theater looks much as it did in the 1930s. It has staircases with copper banisters, stained-glass windows and a large hanging lamp/chandelier in the foyer.

Besides the weekly dujiaoxi performances, it screens films every day, targeting students and retired people. Tickets are 20-30 yuan, and 15 yuan for students.

Wang and his troupe have invited famous Chinese writer Yu Qiuyu as the artistic director in revitalizing the old arts of dujiaoxi farce. They have chosen to perform six of more than 20 traditional dujiaoxi plays and added modern elements. Most haven't been staged in many years.

"More than 80 percent of the dijiaoxi tickets till March have been sold out, which is beyond our expectations," says Zhang.

He hopes to introduce more stage performances, such as dramas that are very popular in Shanghai nowadays.

Old Shanghai flavor

About five minutes' walk from Huangpu Theater is the Xinguang Film Art Center, formerly the Strand Theater in the 1930s.

Located on Ningbo Road, off the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall, the building retains its classic and ornate facade. Four months ago, the 320-seat theater was renovated to become the city's first "whodunit theater," staging detective plays such as Agatha Christie mysteries.

Built in 1930, the former Strand Theater was place for all kinds of art, including theatrical plays, Peking Opera and movies. It was the first theater to screen a Chinese movie with recorded sound, "Ge Nu Hong Mudan" ("Singing Girl with Red Peony") starring Hu Die in 1931.

Charlie Chaplin paid a visit to the theater during his short stay in Shanghai in 1936. "Love in a Fallen City," one of the most famous plays by renowned writer Eileen Chang, made its debut in the theater in 1944. Chang is best known for works describing life in the 1930s-40s in Shanghai.

Some scenes from Ang Lee's 2007 movie "Lust, Caution," based on a story by Chang, were also shot in the theater.

"Many new theaters and cinemas have been built across Shanghai in recent years, while historical theaters like Xinguang were neglected," says Zhang Yu, director of the Shanghai Modern People's Theater.

Before the renovation, Xinguang was used as a cinema which, like Huangpu Theater, could not compete with five-star cinemas with advanced equipment and facilities.

Today films are still screened during the day (30-50 yuan), but at night the curtain goes up on drama.

The Shanghai Modern People's Theater plans to stage as many as six detective and thriller plays, as well as works by Eileen Chang, in Xinguang this year.

"We hope such plays with a distinctive Shanghai style staged in a historical setting will attract travelers from both home and abroad, especially during the upcoming World Expo," says director Zhang.

Nearly 90 stage plays are performed in the city every year, he says, mostly in the Shanghai Drama Arts Center, the Shanghai Theater Academy and Shanghai Grand Theater.

"Many plays, especially those touring from other parts of the country, always have difficulties finding a suitable theater in Shanghai," he says. "It is a pity that many historical theaters in the downtown area, however, are abandoned, demolished, or rented out for other use."

Opera theater

Just one block away from Xinguang is the Great Theater of China, once one of Shanghai's four big theaters featuring Peking Opera performances. Famous artists such as Mei Lanfang, Ma Lianliang and Cheng Yanqiu performed there.

The structure on Niuzhuang Road, built in the early 1930s, was renovated in 2006 and now stages traditional opera and contemporary drama.

It is surrounded by all kinds of stores, restaurants and wet markets.

"While a great amount of money has been spent in building new theaters, we ought to work on renovating these old, existing resources, which is not only more meaningful but also more economical," director Zhang says.

"After all, without these historic spots, Shanghai, as a place with a long, abundant history in performing arts, will be no different from any other cities," Zhang adds.


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