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For the past four decades, China’s small-theater movement has staged important experimental works to critical acclaim. But as pandemic restrictions continue to strain venues, the long-struggling community has found new hope in Shanghai’s ‘Vertical Broadway’

By Qiu Guangyu , Ni Wei Updated Aug.1

On August 28, 2020, the musical Mia Famiglia premiered in small theater “Star Space1” in the Asia Building, Shanghai.

Zhao Miao’s signature play Aquatic premiered in July 2012 at the Festival d’Avignon, Avignon, France. Performers are wearing Nuo masks, an element of Nuo opera, an ancient Chinese folk opera which comes from Guizhou Province

Ever since the Shanghai lockdown began at the end of March, it has been curtains for all the city’s entertainment shows. The Asia Building, a 21-story building dubbed “Vertical Broadway” is silent as well.  

At 650 Hankou Road in the heart of Shanghai, the Asia Building was transformed from an ordinary commercial space in 2019 into the country’s latest bastion for theater. It is home to 22 venues called “star spaces,” which can seat 100 people each.  

Before the lockdown, the building staged musicals and plays for up to 2,000 people a night. Catching a show at the Asia Building became a must for theatergoers from far and wide.  

The building’s renown began with Mia Famiglia. Adapted from the South Korean musical by Lee Hee-joon and Park Hyun-suk, the local production premiered in October 2020 at “Star Space 1.” Set in a New York bar in the 1930s about to shut its doors, the play centers on a Mafia boss who forces two Vaudeville actors to perform the bar’s last show – the eponymous musical about the life of a Mafia godfather.  

The set design of Mia Famiglia challenges the fourth wall. The audience sits at a long bar that extends through the venue, where they can order drinks and become an integral part of the show. Performers sing and dance so close that the audience can catch the tiniest expression and movement.  

Though the Covid-19 pandemic devastated China’s theater industry since early 2020, Mia Famiglia proved a true survivor. In the 18 months since its premiere, the show has been performed over 500 times and toured to Changsha, Hunan Province, Chengdu, Sichuan Province and Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.  

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s small-theater movement, which like Off-Off Broadway refers to experimental works staged in theaters that seat 100 or less. Beyond venue size, small theater is more avant-garde, experimental and outspoken. While Beijing and Shanghai have long been at the center, Shanghai has since taken the spotlight. 

‘Do or Die’ 
Theater producer Han Kun recalled the darkest period of his career.  

After finishing his theater degree in South Korea, Han founded the production company Focustage in Beijing. Just as his company gained a tenuous foothold in the country’s capital, Covid-19 brought theater to a halt. Dealing with huge debt, unpaid wages and high overhead, Han struggled month to month.  

His last hope was a former beauty salon in the Asia Building.  

In 2019, Han worked with property owners YHH Theater Management Company to transform the 200-square-meter space into a small theater for his production of Mia Famiglia.  

The long and narrow room was not an ideal shape for a traditional theater. But Han was inspired. He turned it into a real working bar, with a long counter running through the middle that would double as the stage. Because of the pandemic, the renovations did not pick up again until May 2020.  

“Mia Famiglia was do or die,” Han told Shanghai Observer, “At the time I thought if this project succeeded, Focustage would survive. If not, we’d go under.”  

His gamble paid off. After its premiere on August 28, 2020, Mia Famiglia went viral. Nicknamed “The Little Bar” by fans, the show quickly became the most popular small-theater production in China.  

The immersive theater provides such a unique viewing experience that some die-hard fans have attended 100 performances. They sit by the bar, sip a drink and watch the actors sing and dance among them.  

In 2021, Focustage produced two Korean musicals and one British play adapted to Chinese – Santa Lucia by Lee Hee-joon about a New York Mafia godfather, Supernova by Ahn Han-ji which details the life of an unknown singer-songwriter and Smith Run For Your Wife, based on British playwright Ray Cooney’s 1983 comedy.  

The shows all staged in the Asia Building. Similar to Mia Famiglia, each featured immersive set designs, like Santa Lucia’s casino or the living room for Smith Run For Your Wife.  

Han previously focused on the message and values a show offered to audiences. Mia Famiglia was his first foray into pure entertainment.  

“My aim is simple – that the shows we produce make audiences feel they got their money’s worth, that they are willing to come out to the theater again and let it become a part of their lives,” Han told NewsChina.  

The string of Focustage’s successes heralded a small-theater renaissance centered in the Asia Building, prompting more shows such as the Chinese adaptation of the musical thriller Flames by American award-winning writer and composer Stephen Dolginoff that premiered in 2013, and original production Light Keepers by Fu Lei and Ren Wenting about an encounter between an elderly lighthouse keeper and a young boat builder in 1940s England. 

Losing Ground 
Two days after premiering at Beijing’s Poly Theater, director Zhao Miao’s The Murder in Kairotei, adapted from Japanese author Higashino Keigo’s novel about the family of a tycoon scrambling for his estate, was shut down when the city mandated pandemic restrictions on May 1. 
Known for combining Western and Chinese dramatic traditions, the 43-year-old director is an active force in the theatrical community.  

Zhao’s signature small-theater production Aquatic which premiered in 2012, originates from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer Pu Songling’s novel Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, which centers on a friendship between a water spirit and an elderly fisherman. The play features Nuo traditions – an ancient form of Chinese folk opera that involves elaborate masks and folk rituals intended to drive away evil spirits.  

While known for larger commercial productions, Zhao’s true love is small theater, where he can take risks, break rules, experiment and make mistakes.  

“It feels like diving in deep waters. Sometimes I surface to take a breath, then dive back in again,” Zhao told NewsChina.  

As the cradle of the Chinese small-theater movement, Beijing has witnessed four decades of its development. The worn stages of small theaters in Beijing have hosted many avant-garde dramas. Beijing’s small theater has a reputation for being original, trailblazing and highly critical.
In 1982, director Lin Zhaohua staged China’s first small-theater play Absolute Signal in a rehearsal studio at the Beijing People’s Art Theater. The work revolves around a robbery in a train carriage and featured an innovative minimalist set design unprecedented in Chinese theater.  

Absolute Signal heralded the Small-Theater Movement in China, which inspired more avant-garde productions. The China Youth Art Theater produced works like The Old B on the Wall (1984) and Social Image (1986). The Central Experimental Theater presented A Visit from the Dead to the Living (1985). Lin Zhaohua directed what became his “trilogy of idlers” – The Wild Man (1985) by Gao Xingjian, and The Chess Man (1995) and The Fish Man (1997) by Guo Shixing.  

Director and playwright Meng Jinghui has carried the torch since the 1990s. As China’s most popular experimental theater director, Meng balances art and pop appeal. He directed a series of acclaimed plays including his work I Love XXX (1994) and The Life Comments of Two Dogs (2007) by Liu Xiaoye and Chen Minghao. Meng’s production of Rhinoceros in Love, written by his wife Liao Yimei, which tells of a rhino keeper’s romantic obsession with his neighbor, has been staged over 3,000 times since its premiere in 1999.  

Nevertheless, Zhao told NewsChina that Beijing’s small-theater movement has lost ground since 2019. As the market contracted, creatives moved south to Shanghai for new opportunities.  
Beijing’s small-theater boom came in the 2010s, with venues like the North Theater of the Central Academy of Drama, The Little Theater of Beijing People’s Art Theater and the Avant-Garde Theater of the National Theater Company of China taking the lead.  

However, the number of small theaters has since dwindled. Only a few, such as the Drum Tower West Theater and Penghao Theater remain, struggling to keep their doors open.  

Rising rents are partially to blame. In the mid-2000s, Zhao said small theaters paid about 2,000 yuan (US$300) per show. But over the past five years, that has increased to 10,000 yuan (US$1,500).  

Another reason is a shift in audience tastes. Younger audiences prefer light-hearted commercial shows over serious theater. “For many, life and work are already somber enough. Do they really want to unwind after work with a serious show?” Zhao said.  

Li Yangduo, founder of the Drum Tower West Theater said that all a good play takes is a space, imagination and creativity. “But the sad fact is that Beijing has lost more and more theaters and talent over the past two years,” Li told NewsChina.  

“But if Beijing’s small-theater movement no longer takes on serious issues, no longer explores the world and the individual, then it would lose its meaning,” he said. 

Shanghai’s Way 
Learning from Beijing’s venue woes, the Shanghai government issued a policy in 2019 that allowed any venue in the city that holds at least 50 performances a year to become a “new space for performance arts.” This directly benefited the Asia Building, whose success further fueled the city’s theater boom.  

“In the past, it was quite difficult for small companies like us to find a proper theater. The new policy has helped match up partners to settle the venue problem,” Han Kun said.  

Apart from commercial buildings, pop-up theaters have been created in venues such as cafes, bookstores, tea houses, old factories and public squares. Since 2019, more than 100 new performance spaces have opened in Shanghai. In 2021, more than 40 percent of plays and shows in Shanghai were performed in pop-up theaters.  

On December 19, 2021, a medley of four popular musicals including Mia Famiglia was presented in an open square in INLET, a refurbished cultural complex in Shanghai’s Hongkou District. When the show ended, projected words slowly appeared on the wall of an old building: “Where there’s people, there’s a theater.”  

Shanghai-based theater producer Wei Jiayi describes China’s two small-theater hubs as having their own distinct brands: Beijing productions are avant-garde, while Shanghai’s are more commercial.  

Wei told NewsChina that before the pandemic, theater in Shanghai relied heavily on foreign theater companies and Chinese adaptations of foreign works. When pandemic restrictions prevented foreign theater companies and new works from touring China, original smalltheater productions took their place.  

“When the two giant mountains fell, local small-theater rose instead,” Wei said.  

In 2019, Wei produced Frankenstein: The Dream of Ice and Fire, an original small-theater production that pays homage to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. In 2021, he produced The Last Story about a Dynasty, a historical drama about a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperor set in the modern day.  

Wei compares producing a drama to “mixing drinks.” Before you start, you have to get the right mix of artistic and commercial appeal.  

“For instance, if you want a project that’s 80 percent commercial value and 20 percent artistic expression, you have to spend more on set design and pay less attention to your ego. If you want to produce a strongly personal work, then you have to lower market expectations,” Wei said.  

According to Han Kun, Shanghai’s small-theater community has less trouble reconciling commercial value with artistic quality than Beijing.  

“My greatest motivation for producing for the stage is to create a sense of happiness and bring it to our audience. I want to provide a pure utopia, an urban haven for theatergoers, not just pursue high art,” Han said.

Director and playwright Meng Jinghui at the first Beijing Youth Theater Festival in September 2008, Beijing

Director Lin Zhaohua blows out candles on a cake at an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chinese small theater in Beijing, December 31, 2002