There’s a Chinese saying that it takes 10 years to grow a tree but 100 years to educate people.
The timing may be exaggerated, but the same principle might also apply to a theater.
The Shanghai City Theater in Minhang, which first opened to the public in 2009, is still in its teething stages. It’s become popular with parents like Zou Minjin, who attend children’s shows, and with elderly people, who like its proximity to home, but it’s had some problems attracting the attention of young people who want quality contemporary entertainment.
“Shanghai City Theater will introduce more good performances from home and abroad, and will take further steps to enhance the cultural appreciation of local residents,” said Fang Yongnian, vice general manager of East Shanghai International Culture, Film and TV Group, operator of the theater.
“We are planning to expand into traditional Chinese folk music and building an exhibition hall to display traditional folk musical instruments and historical information,” he added.
Zou, 33, a resident of the Xinzhuang area of Minhang, is a frequent visitor to the theater with her six-year-old son. This month they have attended the puppet show “Fantastic Journey to the Toy Country” and the multimedia fairy tale “Anderson Code.”
“It’s close to home, has good facilities and performances, and is a good place for families with children,” Zou explained.
The theater, located on Dushi Road, was built by the district government as part of its cultural enhancement program. The facility, an anchor of Chunshen Culture Square, covers 7,012 square meters and seats around 1,000. The theater’s performances rank about fifth in Shanghai, Fang said.
The theater hosts concerts, ballet, modern dance, dramas, musicals, children shows, Chinese traditional operas and evening galas. Some 380 shows have been staged in the theater since it opened, drawing 350,000 people.
Among the most popular performances were the Broadway musical “Fame,” the Chinese kungfu show “Soul of Shaolin” and the dance performance of “Thousand Hand Goddess.” In April, the Haydn Orchestra of Europe made its Chinese premier in the theater.
Demand on contents
However, not every Minhang resident is happy about the entertainment line-up.
Luna Gu, 29, who describes herself as a “lover of the arts,” said she likes to see plays, musicals and painting exhibits but has been to City Theater only once.
“It was two years ago,” she said. “I went to see the musical ‘Princess Sisi,’ performed by an international troupe. The tickets, at 80 yuan (US$13), were slightly cheaper than theaters downtown, and the theater was very nice inside, but the quality of shows there still isn’t up to venues like the Shanghai Oriental Art Center or the Grand Theater.”
Gu’s criticism reflects the attitude of many in her generation.
“We are different from the elderly or from children who live in our area,” she said. “Some of them just want a place to kill leisure time, while we place an emphasis on content. We want very professional shows.”
It does take time and a lot of hard work to build the reputation of a new theater, said Yu Rongjun, general manager of the Shanghai Drama Arts Center in downtown.
“In recent years, many theaters have been built in China and hailed as achievements by local officials,” he said. “But sometimes they are not willing to follow through with the support and effort it takes to make a theater truly great.”
Still, the City Theater can’t be accused of not trying hard to please audiences with a wide variety of programming.
This month’s schedule of performances includes American violist Gregory Harrington and pianist William Lewis; the Song Men, a UK chorus; the original musical drama “Zhou Xuan;” and the traditional Yueju Opera “Pan Qi Suo Qi” (“Asking for the Wife”). In September, popular actor Chen Peisi will appear in the drama “Balcony,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet will be staged.
Lectures are held in the theater twice a month, on Sunday afternoons. They are themed around the cultural arts, utilizing interactive multimedia and stage professionals. About 15,000 people have attended these sessions in recent years.
But there’s more work to do. For example, the website for performance and ticketing information still doesn’t have an English version for expatriates who might like a night out at the theater, as Gu pointed out.