Acclaimed playwright and director Stan Lai is determined to build a sustainable independent theater industry in China

Photo from China Daily   It’s not easy being Stan Lai. Widely acclaimed as one of the most important and influential contemporary Chinese language playwrights and directors worldwide, Lai’s plays are popular with critics and audiences alike. His Secret  Love  in  Peach  Blossom   Land is considered a landmark in modern Chinese theater. It was later made into a movie and the film version is studied as part of the curriculum at the Beijing Film Institute and the Central Academy of Drama. Another work of his, That   Evening,  We  Performed  Xiangsheng, re- vived interest in the traditional Chinese theatrical art of xiangsheng (crosstalk) among a younger generation, and his book Stan  Lai  on  Creativity was published in 2006 and became a bestseller on the Chinese mainland and in Taiwan.

Despite the acclaim, getting financial support to launch a new project is often as much of a struggle today as it was back in 1983 when he started his own Chinese- language theater troupe, Performance Workshop. Moreover once off the ground, getting a show past the break-even point and into the black is often just as challenging.

“There is no way you can make money by producing a show. There is no way you can win,” says the American-born Lai, “Our goal is to produce a play for its artistic value. If the value is produced and no money is lost we are OK. ”

This past January, Lai mounted a second China tour with his most recent play, The  Village, which explores the changes that have occurred on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan following the 1940’s civil war.Lai began to develop The  Village in 2008 just as the global financial crisis hit and no one thought it would be a success. Since the story was a bit politi- cal he was unable to find sponsors in Taiwan, where he has lived for the past 25 years and where his Performance Workshop theater company is based. Eventually he got The  Village off the ground with money from Esplanade, the Singapore National Theater and the Sin- gaporean government, and the production ended up being a financial success.

Like most marketers Lai believes there is a vast potential audience in China for his work that lies beyond Beijing and Shanghai and he has been tenaciously trying to expand his ‘drama empire’ across the country. As with some of his previous works, The  Village was not only performed in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in some secondary cities, such as Wuhan and Chengdu. “You call them secondary cities, but they are bigger than many cities in Western countries. They have 8 million, 10 million people in those cities, but they only have one or very few perfor- mances a year,” says Lai.

Besides making an indelible im- print on Chinese stagecraft with his innovative works, Lai has also managed to have an impact on the busi- ness of theater on the Chinese main- land. Lai and his partner, Yuan Hong, took over the China Youth Art Theater in Beijing in 2001, and after two years of renovations, opened the doors of the country’s first privately-run theater. Lai called the 300-seat venue North Theater (NT).

Located in the city’s Nanluoguxiang neighborhood, NT quickly became an iconic cultural center and was one of the catalysts for the transformation of the area into the trendy district of cafes, bars, boutiques and restaurants it has now become. In addition to staging con- temporary dramas, its low ticket prices and innovative interior design, which brought the audience close to the stage, made it a popular destination for young audiences. At that time RMB 200 barely paid for a seat in the back of the Capital Theater, while at NT audiences paid much less to sit just three meters from the actors. NT played host for many important shows including Millennium   Teahouse, That  Evening,  We  Performed   Xiangsheng, Heaven  and  Earth, and Beijing, as well as the Hong Kong and Taiwan Mini Theater Exhibition, and the 2004 British Drama & Dance Festival. It also played a part in the rapid develop- ment of the China University Drama Festival, which had been started by Lai’s partner back in 2000.

Although popular, NT was not profitable. The survival of independ- ent theaters around the world relies of income was its box office earnings and the occasional rental of its facili- ties to other performance promoters. Due to its philosophy of “low-budget production, low-priced tickets” there was not much to be made from ticket sales. It was also said that NT had some problems collecting rental fees from third parties. When SARS hit China in 2003 it dealt a fatal blow. NT had to pay a monthly rental fee of RMB 60,000 to the venue owner while the theater remained empty for over five months. Lai shut NT down in 2004.

“We invested a lot of money. We had a rigging system and made several reno- vations” says Lai. “The whole market was not ready but people loved it.”

The departure of NT shocked the Chinese theater world. Some media reports claimed the theater failed be- cause of “poor management” and that “Yuan was too idealistic and persistent in his management, which was unsuit- able for practical purposes given the complicated social environment at the time.”

When asked about this, Lai says, “Our way of doing theater and produc- tions did not work in China. I was like a new businessman who learned his lesson the hard way – you can’t do it your way in China, you have to do it their way. ”

When talking about how to do busi- ness in China he likes to quote a friend. “China is like a pizza, and everyone wants a slice, but the pizza is attached to a steel plate so if you bite it your teeth with break,” Lai’s friend says. “All you can do is lick it, and licking it is enough.”

Despite the failure of NT, it clearly breathed life into the independent theater market in China.

Between 2007 and 2010, approximately 25 privately-run theaters have opened in Beijing, including Stars Drama Village, Poly Modern Art Center and Penghao Theater in Beijing. Around 20 non-profit and independent theater companies have been founded in Shanghai, includ- ing Hou Theater, Dong Theater, and Xiahe Micang. There were around 70 new theater productions produced and performed in Beijing and Shanghai in 2010.

Following in Lai’s footsteps in 2008, Meng Jinghui became the second direc- tor to build his own theater. Meng spent RMB 5 million renovating an old cinema for a revival of his play Rhinoceros  in   Love. With a capacity of 350 seats, the Fengchao Theatre shows 270 per- formances a year and Meng says on average 70% see a full house. Meng also makes money by occasionally renting the venue to other companies for RMB 8,000 per show. So far, the prospects for Meng’s theater seem bright.

The Chinese government has also been making efforts to develop the arts industries in recent years. The General Office of the CPC central committee enacted a regulation in 2003 that allows newly-formed arts companies to enjoy tax-free status in their first three years.

Since 2006, Beijing’s municipal government has spent RMB 500 million a year to support the arts. In 2009, they started a fund which allows quali- fied companies to apply for funding to organize “industrialized theatrical performances” or “reuse and rebuild performance venues.”

“Some say the Chinese government doesn’t subsidize plays – it is not true, just not in the same direct way as in Europe, Taiwan or Hong Kong. In Taiwan or Hong Kong, we have many funds which directly subsidize performers and artists. Chinese artists and art com- panies can get money through various channels and I find that the Shanghai government is very inventive in finding ways to subsidize theatre projects.

“Maybe one day they will set up an artists’ fund, but it is un-Chinese – it would mean a just and fair judging panel that decides who gets the money, which is difficult in the Chinese society.”

There is, however, still a way to go before China’s theater industry reaches the level of moderniza- tion and economic improvement that has occurred over the past 30 years in many of the country’s other industries. For professionals like Lai the change has been a long time coming. Modeled on the former USSR’s system with unique Chinese bureaucracy, many Chinese theaters have in the past carried more workers than necessary and focused on performances that would please officials rather than audiences. All scripts are still required to be reviewed by relevant authorities before a show can open. For many, changing over to a free-market system has not been easy. Some venues, such as Poly Theatre in Beijing and Shanghai Oriental Theatre, have im- proved their management considerably with innovative ideas for attracting the best shows to entice large audiences. Though multinational brands are pouring into China, Lai has found it is still difficult to find a presenter or promoter who is not solely interested in making money. “People consider theater as business,” he says with sigh. “They just want to make money. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a bath- room towel or art.”

According to Lai there are two things missing in China’s theater scene today: passion and compassion. “I want to see people have the guts to do some- thing they really believe in, with no gimmicks,” he says. “The future of Chinese theater is decided by whether or not we have young playwrights and directors who are creating new, interesting, significant, passionate and compassionate works that speak to society.”

Lai’s Taipei-based Performance Work- shop is one of only a few companies in the world surviving mainly on its box office receipts. When Performance Work- shop started in the 1980s 95% of its funding came from its box office, which has now been reduced to 80%, with the other 20% coming from corporate spon- sorship and government grants.

Lai’s successful experience in Taiwan over the last 25 years could not be du- plicated on the Chinese mainland, how- ever. In Taiwan, all performance tickets can be directly sold to the audiences. On the Chinese mainland this is not the case. A significant number of tickets are distributed free by promoters who use them to maintain relationships with clients and officials. The unspoken rule in China is that VIPs must be invited to the performances if theater companies want to get a show off the ground.

Lai has taken over managing promotion and ticket sales for his productions in Beijing and Shanghai, and hopes in the future that his company can do it in every city on the Chinese mainland. In metropolitan areas, Lai has been able to slowly increase the percentage of tickets sold directly to audiences. In Shanghai it is now at almost 100%, and maybe as much as 90% in Beijing. However this is not yet possible in secondary cities.

Despite the efforts of Lai and other directors to try to keep ticket prices down, promoters are always raising prices, and in fact the face value of a ticket has become a sign of prestige in China. Relative to the cost of living, the ticket price for a show at many of the large theaters in Beijing is much higher than the equivalent seat in London or New York. The average wage for a low- level white collar worker in Beijing is RMB 3,000 a month, yet tickets for The  Village cost between RMB 100 to 880.

“We are not rock concerts,” says Lai. “We don’t need those flattering prices to massage our egos or anything like that. Our goal is not to be the cheapest, it is about [reaching] the average. I think RMB 200 is something most people can afford, but RMB 200 means much less profit for the promoter.”

Ever the optimist, Lai is looking for a new venue and says that sooner or later he will open a new theater in Beijing. Meanwhile he will also begin hosting a series of theatrical workshops in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Singapore and Taipei. Thirty students from over 100 applicants have been chosen to participate in the Stan Lai Theater and Directing Advanced Research and Study course which will be held in Beijing from August 1 to 5.

Finding a Place for Contemporary Theater in China

The relationship created between the actors onstage and the audience is one of the unique features of theater compared to the way a film or televi- sion program is viewed. Western-style theater was first introduced to China in the early 20th century, as China was transitioning from feudalism to a republic. Soon after its introduction, a unique Chinese form of theater called dahoufang  huaju, which means “Great Supporting Plays”, was developed as a propaganda tool to boost morale of citizens during the Sino-Japanese war. During this period, most Chinese professionals working in the theater industry were either staunch communists or had revolutionary ties.

As China’s political conflicts slowly  faded away, theater in China gradually lost its purpose. Since the Reform and Opening-Up period began in the 1980s, television and cinema have become the dominant form of mass entertainment in China, and national theaters fell into decline.

At the same time, a handful of pioneering directors began to lead a Chinese theater revival. In 1982, Lin Zhaohua, famous for his Chinese adaption of Western classical dramas, presented the first Chinese experimental play Absolute  Signal (绝 对信号) at the Capital Theater, telling the story of a young unemployed man in modern times.

Absolute  Signal marked the birth of Chinese experimental and independent theater. However the art form was regarded as a money-losing business until director Meng Jinghui cooperated with his playwright wife to create Rhinoceros  in  Love, a play about a new love philosophy, which made a net profit of RMB 200,000 (USD 30,900) from its 40 performances in 1999. It was the first drama to make a profit in almost a decade.

— Cecily Huang



A group of Chinese students studying in Tokyo found the first Chinese drama troupe, Chun Liu Association, and perform the third act of La   Traviata, marking the birth of modern Chinese drama.


The debut of the satirical plays Mourning   Jiang  NanThe  Spring and The  Autumn  of  The   Mainland, which lampoon the Chinese feudal system (then in the final year of the Qing dynasty). This dramatic style is regarded as a ‘new performance’ in China.


Inspired by Ibsen’s A   Doll’s  House, Hu Shi writes The  Greatest  Event   of  Her  Life in English, one of the first Chinese drama scripts.


Hong Shen translates the word ‘drama’ to be huaju in Chinese.


The Communist Party of China leads the drama scene, spearheading the production of numerous plays in China, defining the ‘Left Wing Era’ of Chinese drama.


The Huaju movement creates plays to boost the morale of citizens during the Sino- Japanese war.


Chinese drama is influenced by Russian dramatists. The Stanislavsky method is intro- duced in China and becomes popular. Lao She writes Teahouse in 1957, the most well-known play in modern Chinese drama.


Lin Zhaohua presents the first Chinese experimental drama Absolute  Signal(绝对作信号), at the Capital Theater.


Rhinoceros  in  Love, created by avant-garde director Meng Jinghui and his playwright wife, is the first profitable drama performed during the 1990s.


Yuan Hong starts The University Drama Festival.


Stan Lai and partner Yuan Hong take over the China Youth Art Theater and North Theater (NT) debuts.


The General office of the CPC Central Committee grants newly formed arts companies tax free status during their first three years of operation.


More than 180 small theaters staging drama performances are in operation in Beijing.


Beijing’s municipal government starts a fund to develop the cultural and creative industry.


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