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February 5, 2012

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The not-so-funny side of farce

SHANGHAI farce is another traditional art form struggling to survive as other types of entertainment have taken over. But Xu Wei speaks to a group of mostly amateurs trying to change this.

Shanghai farce (huajixi), like many regional theaters, faces the threat of losing young audience.

But a group of enthusiasts is trying to innovate and revive the art form with some seriously funny modern plays.

Xiao Pengyou Shanghai Farce Studio, established in 2007, has 18 performers. Most are in their 20s and they are mostly amateurs. They each have day jobs. But a long-term passion for Shanghai farce has brought them together in their leisure time.

According to co-founder Zhao Qingfeng, 25, it's about making people laugh and cheering them up. Zhao, a performer at the Shanghai People's Farce Company, is an assistant to famous Shanghai farce artist Wang Rugang and one of the only four professionals with the studio.

With the encouragement of Wang, Zhao and his farce partner Wu Jun, a train conductor, founded the studio. They didn't expect at the time that many young people from different backgrounds would soon join them to promote the art.

Cao Yuli, a 27-year-old animal researcher from the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, joined in 2009 in hope of succeeding in a stage art that's fading. He says his affinity with Shanghai farce started when he was only a child.

"I spent my childhood in the shikumen (stone-gated) lanes, where I learned authentic Shanghai dialect, culture and old forms of entertainment," Cao recalls. "Listening to the radio programs of Shanghai farce was great fun and taught me a lot."

However, most amateurs find the art form tricky to handle.

With a history of about 100 years, Shanghai farce is a comprehensive performing art combining monologue, dialogue, improvisation, interaction, mime, traditional opera, folk entertainment and other elements. It has been included on the list of the city's intangible cultural heritage.

Different from other theaters, farce performers are required to be more versatile, have good body language, quick wits and spot-on facial expressions.

"The grassroots art form is based on the everyday lives of ordinary people and news events," says Zhao. "All the stories should have an emotional connection with the audience. In that sense, script writing is another big challenge for us."

Over the past five years, the studio has created more than 200 scripts tackling topics such as food safety, housing prices, neighborhood relationships, low-carbon life and "leftover" women. The stories are mainly inspired by news events, gossip and what's hot on microblogs and the Internet.

One episode from the original monodrama "Aspiration" goes like this:

A: Policemen aspire for a harmonious society so they can receive fewer emergency calls.

B: Good.

A: Thieves also have their own ambition.

B: What's that?

A: One day the police force will be dismissed so that they can get more from theft.

Zhao and his team have also incorporated creative and fashionable elements in performances to appeal to young people. Most of their performances are staged at residential communities. They have also performed for large audiences in Suzhou and Wuxi in neighboring Jiangsu Province.

To celebrate its fifth anniversary, the studio last month presented its first-ever commercial performance featuring a talk show, monologue and Shanghai-dialect singing. The show received high praise from both critics and audiences. But it lost a lot of money as tickets were cheap at only 30 yuan (US$4.76) each.

Zhao says that although the studio members don't care much about making a profit, they need to build a more mature operation to guarantee they can continue. At present, the studio's annual membership fee is 100 yuan per person. Training, creating and performance costs are shared by members.

Compared with some crosstalk communities in the city, Shanghai farce groups are not very popular among young people.

"In addition to funding, the lack of a regular performing venue has turned out to be a big headache for us," says Feng Xin, a 26-year-old TV technician and a member of the studio. "We're considering seeking sponsorship and cooperation opportunities with local theaters. We hope to stage regular performances so that more young people will be introduced to the genre."

The decline of Shanghai dialect also threatens local theaters and authentic Shanghai culture.

Nowadays Zhao and his team feel shocked and sad since many local children and university students can't even speak simple Shanghainese. Parents and teachers are more pragmatic as they would rather their children spend extra time learning English than Shanghai dialect.

"This 'undertaking of laughing' is also our attempt to preserve and promote Shanghai dialect and culture among the city's young generation, whether they're Shanghai natives or 'new Shanghainese'," Zhao adds.

Later this year, the studio will work on more original modern farce plays about the lives of young people. They will also invite famous farce artists to hold training sessions on script writing and performing.

In October, a new original farce drama "If You Are the One" will be staged. The studio has spent more than one year preparing the show. It is expected to be a vivid reflection of the confusion and aspiration "leftover" young people feel based on their dating experiences.

People who have interest in learning Shanghai dialect and Shanghai farce can contact the studio on its website,, or send an e-mail to

About Shanghai farce

SHANGHAI farce, which originated in Shanghai in the early 20th century, is a popular art form in the Yangtze River Delta region.

Also known as monodrama, Shanghai farce became enriched with influences from domestic and foreign theater. It involves playful and satiric performance, sketches, talk shows, dialect singing, mime and other forms of theater. It requires considerable comedic sense, versatility and sense of timing.

Most shows are based on city news and gossip and sharp-witted performers deliver biting spoofs and comments.

Shanghai farce experienced golden periods in the 1940s-1960s and in the 1980s when people had few entertainment options.

Like many traditional Chinese theaters, the decline of the farce started in the mid-1990s when more people bought televisions. Pop culture reigns. Lack of young performers and new topical scripts for modern audiences also limit the development of farce.

The main state-owned farce troupes are the Shanghai People's Farce Company, the Shanghai Farce Troupe and the Shanghai Qingyi Farce Troupe.

Among the very few private troupes is Cai Galiang Culture and Art Studio, known for hilarious musical talk show performances.


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