Most theaters in China aren’t professionally run and don’t make profits, according to a recent government report.
There were about 873 professional theaters (stage performance theaters built by governments, public institutions or enterprises and with a complete set of professional equipment) nationwide by the end of 2013. They attracted 32.3 million people to 40,500shows in total.
But about 60 percent of them were unable to make profits. And 80 percent lackedprofessional management systems, the Ministry of Culture report says, adding that thenumber of theaters isn’t enough for the country’s large population.
In 2013, for instance, only 0.64 professional theaters were available to every 1 millionChinese. By comparison, the ratio in United States in 2007 was 1.8 and in Japan it was 4.4that year.
The report also points out that geographical distribution of theaters is unbalanced: Beijing,Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, Shanghai, and Guangdong－six developed province-leveladministrative regions－house nearly 40 percent of the country’s theaters, while westernChina has less than 20 percent.
“Theaters in some places crave to be exotic and large scale,” the report says.
“For example, during our investigation, we found that there is no professional theater in manycounties, but in some counties, the theaters are too large for the local populations,” saysKang Bo, a Ministry of Culture official involved in the report.
The project, which was undertaken by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Housing andUrban-Rural Development to set the national criteria for the construction of professionaltheaters, began in February. The criteria are to be released in 2016.
“The criteria for theaters will be more complex than other cultural institutions like librariesbecause most theaters are multifunctional, requiring more parameters to be considered,”Kang says.
Chinese theaters made 6 billion yuan ($961 million) in 2013, but 47 percent came fromgovernment aid, and ticket sales only amounted to 36 percent.
“Many theaters are still public institutions, which makes us unable to purely consider how tomake profits,” says Meng Xin, deputy director of the National Center for the Performing Arts‘performance department.
He is commenting on a statement in the report that says the vacancy rate in Chinese theaters is high, and one-third of their income comes from government subsidies.
“We have to draw audiences who have stereotypical notions about stage performances andgradually nurture a market.”
In 2013, on a average, one Chinese visited a professional theater about 0.024 times, thereport says. Even in Beijing, which shows the country’s highest theatergoing interest, it was0.12 times.
The NCPA has about 850 commercial shows a year, but they also organize more than 1,000free performances and lectures, which Meng describes as “drip irrigation”.
“What is urgently needed for a theater is clear orientation,” Meng says, recalling the center’sseven-year journey from being a newly established theater to becoming the country’s topvenue for operas. Adding to its fame is the diverse cultural tastes among Chinese.
The theaters can learn a few things from how Shanghai has made progress in becoming thecountry’s hub for musicals.
“We are more than just a performance venue,” says Zhang Jie, manager of ShanghaiCultural Square.
“The theater aims to become an artistic landmark, a performing arts agency, an art educationcenter for the public and an incubator of original theater ideas and productions.”
Zhang’s theater presents an established musical from the United States or Europe everyautumn, popular musical productions in Chinese every summer and reserves springtime forthe promotion of original Chinese musicals.
“China’s musical industry will ultimately produce successful original plays,” says FeiYuanhong, program director of Shanghai Culture Square.
“The industry won’t be sustainable if original Chinese musicals are not developed.”
In spite of these promising examples, a problem unveiled in the report is the lack of expertisein operating theaters professionally.
Only 30 percent of all theater staff members in China have an education background in thefine arts, management or stage technology.
Consequently, the industry is probably happy to hope that more national standards emerge.Kang from the Ministry of Culture reveals that a professional certification system for theatermanagers is also being planned.
“The ministry might appeal for public attention by offering technical guidance first, and thenthings will naturally go forward with more social efforts,” he says.
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