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Full of Eastern Promise

Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts
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For the generation of the Cultural Revolution, performing arts in China arguably consisted of renditions of The East is Red, and variations on just eight model operas reinforcing communist state propaganda. Today, their children and grandchildren may be more familiar with the songs of Abba and the works of Agatha Christie than The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.

An altogether different cultural change has taken place in the past decade, with China’s growing middle class consuming more creative arts than ever. Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou are the three major cultural centres, with shows regularly selling out at the 2,000-seat Shanghai Grand Theatre and Beijing’s 5,000-capacity National Centre for the Performing Arts.

[pullquote name=”David Elliott”]One thing the Chinese are particularly good at in the arts is that they get things done really quickly – they’re building concert halls, theatres and museums at a rate of knots[/pullquote]

Mandarin versions of Mamma Mia! and Cats have staged almost 500 performances combined, playing across 19 cities and grossing millions of pounds at the box office, while negotiations continue for Chinese-language tours of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.

The Chinese government has authorised the building of upwards of 150-200 theatres by 2015. There is a huge amount of development in smaller ‘tier-two’ cities including Chengdu, Sichuan and Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors, while even ‘tier-three’ cities such as Mianyang, which has a population comparable to Scotland, have seen a boom in construction to house artistic projects.

One of the main drivers for this is the ruling Communist Party’s 12th five-year plan, which has stipulated that the creative arts should be built up into a pillar industry. It expects the sector to account for at least 5% of GDP by the end of 2015 – double the current figure.

But what is driving the plan? The Chinese government recently stated that culture is important in “improving life happiness” of its people.

It is about job and wealth creation too – the basis for China’s recent economic success has been its huge manufacturing base and successful export market, rather than domestic consumption.

But growth in manufacturing has slowed, the export market is sluggish, and as its own people become wealthier with disposable income for leisure, the opportunity for the arts is undeniable.

Mamma Mia! China’s executive producer David Lightbody says: “It’s estimated there are 100 million people on the Eastern seaboard that can afford tickets at West End prices. That’s not to say everyone is going to go out and buy tickets – just the disposable income is there. That is an extremely attractive proposition whether you are in the Chinese government, a Chinese promoter [or a] Western producer.”

The interest is also there from audiences, particularly from younger generations, who are increasingly aware of global trends due to internet consumption – those surfing the web in China now total 564 million, rising by 10% a year.

Nicholas Allott, managing director at Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, spent more than a decade laying the foundation for British musical theatre in China. He explains: “It is remarkable how many songs from Western musicals are recognised by young people, they know even the most obscure shows. Increasing online access is fuelling this knowledge.”

Nick Rongjun Yu, deputy general manager at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, agrees: “For young people, theatre has become part of their mainstream culture. Spoken theatre is gaining bigger audiences.”

He adds there is an increasingly diverse range of plays translated from English to Mandarin, including adaptations of Shakespeare, Noises Off and The Woman in Black.

Productions performed in English have proved less popular because of the language barrier.

Musical theatre in China has followed a slightly different pattern, perhaps because the country has a long tradition of sung drama and opera. In the past 12 years, more than ten English-language Western musicals tours have successfully been staged on the mainland, including Les Miserables, Mamma Mia! and Cats.

But Lightbody argues that it makes more cultural and financial sense to localise foreign musicals.

He explains: “I think more people have come in to watch it because it is in Mandarin. It became Chinese. Musicals need to have the personal connection and that works better in your own language.”

There were some concessions to Abba’s original songs – the opening lines to Dancing Queen and Money, Money, Money are too iconic not to remain in English.

Last year, Shanghai-based United Asia Live Entertainment signed a strategic deal with the Really Useful Group to bring more musicals to China, with The Phantom of the Opera earmarked for Mandarin translation next year.

So should more British firms be rushing to cash in on this arts boom? Allott says a Chinese working partner is vital to navigate the bureaucracy.

Cats and Mamma Mia! were joint ventures with commercial and public Chinese bodies – and collaborations are becoming more popular. For example, the National Theatre of China’s Green Snake was a collaborative drama using local directors and actors, but staging and music from the National Theatre of Scotland.

There is some help available for those considering making a leap – the British Council runs the biannual Edinburgh Showcase, during which Chinese promoters are brought to see the best of British shows, with a view to bringing them to the Far East.

David Elliott, the British Council’s director of arts, adds: “One thing the Chinese are particularly good at in the arts is that they get things done really quickly – they’re building concert halls, theatres and museums at a rate of knots. What might take five years of public consultation, planning permissions and building in the UK, takes half that time here. [But] comparatively little thought – and money – goes into what will be programmed within them. This is actually a great opportunity for UK plc. We’re very good at the ‘soft’ side – the content, the running of things [and] engaging with audiences.”

Nonetheless issues of language, censorship, talent pool, infrastructure and etiquette remain significant obstacles.

Audience behaviour in China can be poor during shows – mobile phone calls are routinely answered and chatting over the dialogue is common, as is flash photography. Venues employ specialist lighting to highlight those using their phones, and ushers to shame and even remove repeat offenders.

Chinese dramatists say censorship remains a “significant constraint”. The state stipulates what can be staged and if edits are required. In musical theatre, translating Mandarin into the traditional melody, rhythm and pace of English-language songs is a painstaking process.

Investment in developing artists who can sing, dance and act is a recent thing in China and there are few lyric theatres in the country – most of the venues are built in the style of an opera house, as it remains the nation’s premiere performance art.

Allott insists that a Mandarin tour of Les Miserables in China is dependent on improvements in infrastructure. He explains: “It is now contingent on there being a purpose-built musical theatre venue in Beijing. The Shanghai Grand Theatre has the right qualities to stage Les Miserables but there needs to be one in the capital.

“There needs to be investment in training for artists, production, and infrastructure. I think we will get there. The Chinese are taking the long-term view and the hunger is there now to make it work.”

Lightbody adds: “China is going to be an important market. The potential is undeniably there for it to be as important as London or New York.”

Facts and Figures

• China’s total population: 1.34 billion (Beijing population, 20.2 million; Shanghai population, 23 million)

• Audiences at performing arts venues across China: 110 million (2011/12)

• Number of venues across China: 5,000-plus

• Overseas productions: 30% of total staged

• Mamma Mia! (Mandarin tour): 300 performances, box office £13 million

• Cats (Mandarin tour): 162 performances, box office £6 million (estimated)

• Cultural industry as percentage GDP: 2.5%

• Rate of expansion: 6% higher than overall economy growth

• Funding – China Culture Industrial Investment Fund: £2 billion, 2011-2015

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