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December 2, 2010

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How to get audiences to the theater

PEOPLE used to think those who went to watch plays were young, educated and artistic people. However, it is my hope that people of all ages and social backgrounds will come to see our performances," says Fan Xing, founder of a private theater in Beijing.

Fan says to realize this goal, Star Theater, one of about 20 private theaters in the Chinese capital, carefully chooses plays to suit different audiences.

For instance, the three plays on stage this month are very different in style: "Rashomon" is a serious Chinese adaption of Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film, revealing the weakness of human nature; "Star Factory" is an acidic comedy about the film industry; while "Once Upon A Time" is a warm portrayal of childhood in the 1980s.

Fan hopes middle-aged couples, those from the urban elite, business people, the elderly and children can all find plays to suit them at his theater. "We did not choose a very avant-garde style like some other small theaters in town," Fan says.

The theater lies in a traditional courtyard in downtown Beijing, with light grey brick walls and red painted doors.

Founded last November, Star Theater now has five small theater halls each with an audience capacity of about 100. The theater includes a restaurant, library and gallery and a club is under construction.

"We are trying to create a space for different kinds of art, including drama, dance and painting," he says. "As far as I know, we are the first theater in Beijing with this aim."

The idea is a good one as profits from the restaurant and club would go toward supporting the less commercial performances.

Fan admits that it is much harder than he had first imagined to run a private theater and has had to give up his original aim of breaking even after a year, making a profit after two years and earning back the initial investment in six years.

"It seems impossible to meet our goal now. One year is nearly up but we haven't broken even yet."

But he is still optimistic about the market's potential.

"Among the 20 million residents in Beijing, less than one percent regularly go to the theater."

Fan sees hope in the booming film market as "Those, who are willing to go to cinema instead of watching a DVD at home, might also go to theater."

China's box office film sales reached 6.2 billion yuan (US$932 million) in 2009, up from 4.3 billion yuan in 2008 and 800 million in 2002.

"We need to build more theaters and create good quality plays to attract audiences," Fan says.

In the past two years, some private theaters have had some very good performances.

Tickets for plays by famous directors like Meng Jinghui were sold out on Valentine's and Christmas day, for instance.

Honeycomb Theater, run by Meng himself, has reported 70 percent of its seats are filled on average. But the industry is still dominated by state-owned theaters with more resources, better actors and less financial pressure.

"A private theater is unable to spend much money in production and promotion of a play. That's why we often create plays for small theaters," said Fu Qingyu.


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