Shanghai Aims to Become ‘Broadway of the East’

SHANGHAI ~ The Majestic Theatre, a reminder of when Shanghai was enthralled by jazz, Gable and Garbo, stands at the heart of plans to restore the city as a cultural centre by creating a Broadway of the East.

Multicoloured stars hang from lamp posts in the downtown area around the Majestic – a district with more than 20 theatres, including other art deco wonders – announcing it has been rechristened “Drama Valley.”

“Our plan is to build a magnificent modern Drama Valley that within 10 years can compete side-by-side with America’s Broadway and London’s West End,” Zhang Rengliang, head of the district government, said at a launching ceremony.

The first 30-play season features a mix of mostly contemporary Chinese drama with Broadway productions added in, such as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats, the light spectacular Luma and Disney’s High School Musical.

But the project also faces unique challenges. Shanghai’s theatre scene is in the early stages of its development with non-government troupes struggling to find space and funding, and censors controlling what goes on stage.

“Media control remains a top priority in China,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

“Obviously that has profound ramifications for anything resembling social and political exploration in Chinese dramas.

“But commercial development, not soul searching, is the major impetus behind China’s recent push to revitalize what it calls its cultural industry. This, presumably, is what Shanghai has in mind.”

The Jing’an district government has invested an initial 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) in the project – most of it spent on promotion, according to Yang Yong, general manager of the Shanghai Drama Valley Development Company.

That funding will be increased to upgrade theatres, develop original shows and help foster young artists, Yang said.

The government also seeks to offer established artists incentives to set up studios in the district, he said, adding these could include lower rents, tax rebates and other subsidies.

Officials hope a theatre centre can pump money into businesses in the area and have hired Broadway theatre operators Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment to manage the Majestic, help develop shows and act as consultants.

But the project’s success will depend heavily on what happens outside the theatre lobbies, said Toby Simkin, a Shanghai-based producer and vice president for Nederlander Worldwide.

“Everybody in the world wants to create such a thing,” Simkin said. “But people often forget Broadway and the West End are not about bricks and mortar and not even about shows.

“Around Times Square, there’s 36 theatres but there’s also 100 restaurants, 50 different hotels, marquees, neon lights, street peddlers, musicians, naked guitarists,” he said. “All of these things create an energy and vitality.”

Chinese theatregoers are the core audience the project needs to attract to succeed, Simkin said.

Shanghai’s current theatre scene is in its early stages, said Alison Friedman, the former general manager of composer Tan Dun’s production company.

“You see all these seeds that you see everywhere else; it’s just on a smaller scale,” said Friedman, now a Shanghai-based theatre consultant.

“Instead of the thousand experimental theatre groups that you might find in New York or Chicago, here there will be four.”

Encouraging more theatre groups to stage more productions is the only way to develop a world-class theatre scene, said Yang Shaolin, head of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre.

“We have to produce more plays to ensure high quality. How did Broadway and London’s West End become drama centres? They both have massive production environments,” said Yang, who is closely involved in the project.

Ma Yue, a young director who recently graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, staged a play this month at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, but had to team up with an old established troupe to get all the necessary permits.

When it comes to censorship, Ma said a script can be approved by the authorities within days if it contains no nude scenes or material considered politically or socially objectionable.

“If the Drama Valley project can boost the number of underground, small-sized theatres or workshops, that would be very good. We really don’t need lots of super big theatres,” she said.

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