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October 17, 2010

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Theater chief balances market, artistic values

YANG Shaolin, the man in charge of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, is trying to balance artistic and cultural values with the need to make money, appeal to audiences and survive in a market economy.

Yang has been general manager of the center for 15 years, over a crucial period of structural or market reform since 1995. That's when the center began to stand on its own feet and wean itself away from total dependence on state funding and a rigid theatrical hierarchy. It had to become more nimble, adaptable and innovative to survive.

It represented a huge shakeup in the theater and the mentality of everyone involved.

Yang is a 30-year veteran in the theater industry, working as an actor, producer and theater manager.

A graduate of the Shanghai Theater Academy, he has played and starred in more than 50 stage plays, movies and TV series. He has also produced around 100 stage plays.

Yang came on board when the center introduced the producer system, becoming the first in the nation to finance plays with private investment instead of government funding.

Under his leadership the center has widened its audience and reached out to middle-class young people. Box office revenues have increased by an average of 20 percent a year in the past few years.

Today, one third of the center's revenue comes from ticket sales, a third from government funds and a third from its self-supporting income such as property leasing.

Shanghai's theater audience has increased from about 30,000 to 200,000 in three or four years and the number of plays staged in the city has increased from 30 or 40 to hundreds. Yang plans to bring major international works to the stage in Shanghai by strengthening copyright management.

Since 2001, the center has staged experimental productions in its three theaters, invited overseas companies to perform and staged joint productions with international theater groups.

He recently spoke to Shanghai Daily.

Q: The center is China's first to get investment from the market, present plays in a more commercial way and thus expand the audience. Why do more people now go to the theater?

A: Despite numerous forms of alternative entertainment, including the Internet, TV, cinema ... the theater remains irreplaceable. This is because, unlike the theater, all the other forms do not have a sense of immediacy. Theater is a lively art form that encourages audiences' participation and active interaction with the performers on stage. Theater allows the artists to communicate their emotions to the audience with immediacy; in return, the direct feedback from the audience prevents the artists from falling into the trap of self-indulgence. This exchange between the artists and the audience brings forth a sense of complementary enhancement and growth, which is a unique quality of the theater art.

Q: What makes an outstanding production?

A: This is an era characterized by diversity and differentiation. We promote diversity in theater as long as we do not forego artistic principles and mainstream values. Caring about humanity and spirituality remains at the core of the theater art. In an era of materialism, the theater should remind people not to abandon their fundamental principals in pursuit of materialistic needs. The kind of productions we need are those that exert subtle influence on cultivating the mind and the spirit. The production that can be deemed outstanding is the one that can stand the test of time, that can be simultaneously thought provoking, entertaining and aesthetically pleasing.

Q: Some media suggest your recent work "Das Kapital" is a warning against compromising artistic quality for the sake of market profit. How does the play relate to the market reform of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center?

A: This is an era pushed by capitalism. The issue of being either a slave to or master of capitalism is a difficult one to handle. As a manager in the pursuit of investment, I found myself walking on the same road as the bank investors on Wall Street. Among artistic values, mainstream values, market values and the vicious circle of capital management, how to maintain the energy and vitality of the creativeness of art is what we should stand for. We should avoid treating our professional work as a means to earn our daily bread. Theater art requires our total engagement of soul, spirit and heart. Theater professionals can only succeed if they keep participating, using innovation and inspiring each other. The center is undergoing structural change at the moment, which will inevitably result in increasing exposure to market forces. But in the market economy, our center should implement the strategy of interacting with and complementing the market to achieve balanced development. And it should also be in line with the identity of Shanghai as an international city.

Q: What did you draw from your US tour of Broadway in 2007?

A: I mainly focused on Broadway's management model and noticed that on Broadway, there are only 60 to 70 commercial cultural organizations, but more than 400 nonprofit cultural organizations. Nonprofits include Lincoln Center whose job in the market is to create great ideas, make high-quality plays and nurture a stable audience. Their job is more the development of art appreciation and continuing education. On some level, nonprofit theaters support commercial theaters. In Shanghai, even in China, we have not yet built such a mode. We need to create an atmosphere of cultivating the theater market, a model in which nonprofit models coexist with profit models.

Q: Please describe cross-country and international cooperation with other art groups and troupes.

A: We have carried out a lot of cooperation and exchanges with international performing groups. We invited a stage design group from Denmark for "Das Kapital;" we cooperated with Broadway in making "I Love You" which did well at the box office. Now, we are doing "Re-orientation," involving performing groups from China, India, Britain, Sweden and France. In these international cooperations, we learn how to speak with the world.

Q: What do you mean by "how to speak with the world?"

A: When we talk about cooperation with foreign artistic companies, there are differences between parties in cultural policies, habits, working styles, cultures, the working state of actors, and the systems. In a word, we should find a way out of these differences, a solution to overcome all the difficulties and maintain due respect for each other despite differences. Coproduction is not the ultimate objective, communication is. For example, we cooperated with Danish artists on China's traditional story "The Legend of White Snake" in 2009. For the international platform we decide to reconstruct the relationship among its characters Xu Xian, Fa Hai and Bai Suzhen. The Danish director saw two love triangles in the story - the monk also loved the beautiful young man Xu Xian and was jealous of White Snake. I think that's due to the cultural differences between Chinese people and Western people. In China, people understand retribution in life, but in Western culture, people are more familiar with the idea that human beings are inherently bad and commit sins. So the foreign group considered jealousy the reason the monk tried everything to break up Xu Xian and White Snake. It's a kind of emotional jealousy that is not considered evil but selfish. This unusual interpretation meant the show was well received by foreign audiences who can fully understand and accept such relations among the characters. This does not mean we are denying ourselves; the point is how to make people understand.


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