China’s theater industry is experiencing a worrisome boom. Though more and more plays are being produced, and audience numbers are increasing every year, the market is flooded with foreign productions, commercial adaptations, and classic Chinese plays. Experimental theaters — known simply as “small theaters” in Mandarin — are in decline, despite their strong track record of producing original stories that reflect modern China.
According to Daolue, a research center that provides data on the Chinese cultural industry, the number of new plays last year dropped to fewer than 200, down from 375 in 2015. The box office revenue for plays in small theaters reached 164 million yuan ($25 million), a decrease of 23 percent from 2015. Audience figures also dropped by 536,000 compared to the year before.
Concerns about the future of original contemporary Chinese plays have arisen as critics worry that foreign imports and long-running classic Chinese plays are pushing innovative new productions out of the market. But before panic sets in, it’s necessary to understand the causes of this phenomenon.
First, too many directors, producers, actors, and investors show disrespect toward intellectual property and discourage playwrights from creating. Many writers lose a sense of authenticity when they discover that third parties have revised their scripts, even though they may be contractually barred from doing so.
As ridiculous as it sounds, directors sometimes make alterations to the script simply because an actor fails to grasp the idea the playwright intends to convey. Zhu Yi, an award-winning playwright based in New York, has nine years of experience working with both American and Chinese production teams. What annoys her most, she says, is that almost anyone in China can alter her scripts.
Zhu’s graduate thesis, “I Am a Moon,” has been staged in many top-tier experimental theaters in China. But performers have changed some of the play’s dialogue, such as when one actor didn’t think an important monologue made sense, or when a senior actor didn’t agree with the values of his character, an old professor. The director allowed actors and actresses to change the script without consulting the playwright because, as Zhu says, “he believed that the script must be understandable to the performers, otherwise they wouldn’t perform well.”
In the Chinese theater world, the director — not the playwright — is the head of a production, although the former is the executor and interpreter of the latter’s original ideas. This is totally different from the American and British contexts to which Zhu is accustomed, wherein she says “the playwright is the authority in the room.”
Zhu explains that while each word she writes is the product of strenuous effort, the ease and audacity with which directors and actors can change the play’s content makes dramatists feel that their work is no longer their own. For this reason, Zhu prefers to work with Americans, believing that the final production will be more faithful to her intentions as a writer.
Second, unlike in the American and British systems — where arts funding exists independent of government and corporate interference — a lack of such mechanisms in China results in many plays becoming heavily commercialized or politicized. Often, Chinese companies or state organizations offer funding to playwrights who respond to a selection of prompts, most of which provide little room for free expression. In addition, what the writer produces is subject to change by the sponsor organizations.
The system is problematic because writers must predict what their commissioners want, curtail their own creativity, and change whatever parts the funding organization doesn’t like. “But storytelling is not like fixing a car; you can’t just replace the accessories and still consider the story complete,” says Zhu.
Things get even more complicated when local government becomes intrusive. To obtain enough funding to survive, local theaters must accept interference from administrative officials. In an article on Chinese news website Ifeng, playwright Li Longyin shared an anecdote in which Beijing officials asked several of the capital’s theaters to commission plays about the city’s modernity in return for up to 15 million yuan in funding.
As a result, China Ping Ju Theatre wrote a play about Qianmen pedestrian street, the Peking Opera Theatre wrote a play about Zhongguancun — the capital’s answer to Silicon Valley — and Beijing People’s Art Theatre wrote a play about the city’s Financial Street. Except for the latter organization, which eventually rejected the script, the other two theaters produced the plays and accepted the 15 million yuan — but the productions saw low audience numbers and amounted to a waste of talent and time.
Third, Chinese playwrights lack general knowledge about subjects outside theater, which hampers aspiring writers in their pursuit of success. China’s best and most popular theater studies programs take place at specialized colleges, such as The Central Academy of Drama and Shanghai Theatre Academy, where education tends to focus on drama-related courses at the expense of holistic education. This is different from the United States, where the best programs are at universities that emphasize all-round education.
Zhu — who attended both Nanjing University in eastern China and Columbia University in the U.S., studying astronomy, physics, and mathematics alongside drama — says that budding writers who accumulate a variety of pursuits outside the classroom are more likely to draw on their experiences when they create something original, thereby making the final product more satisfying to the audience.
There are many ways to tackle the issues that hold back Chinese theater. Directors, actors, and theater managers should value our playwrights more; nongovernmental organizations, not entities with vested interests, should sponsor experimental theater; and universities should set up theater studies courses that develop aspiring playwrights into well-rounded individuals.
Behind these suggestions, however, lie more existential questions that those in the cultural industry need to ask themselves. Does China really want an art market that only serves commercial or propaganda interests? Or does it want to go the way of the American and British systems, creating an environment where fresh, original ideas are valued and promoted? Until these questions are answered, Chinese dramatists will be stuck creating plays they have been told to write for audiences who don’t want to see them.