Hutong theaters revive Beijing's drama scene

On a snowy evening in Beijing, the lanterns outside the Star Theater flickered with warmth.

Inside, the seats were packed with people waiting for the play, a romantic comedy, to begin.

Fan Xing, founder of the theater, would have been surprised at the scene back in 2009, when the newly built theater struggled to fill seats.

"There were no more than ten small theaters in Beijing at that time," he recalled.

Years later, smaller theaters are flourishing all over the capital. In the central Dongcheng District alone, there are 27 small theaters in business.

Broadway in the hutong

"Those in our neighborhood have nicknamed us 'Broadway in a hutong,'" Fan said with a grin.

Located in Chaoshou Hutong, Star Theater boasts five small performance spaces in its courtyard complex, with total capacity of no more than 1,000. Some of the spaces have stages surrounded by seats, while others don't even have a stage.

This kind of intimacy between the performers and audience is exactly what Fan wanted. Fan spent two years in Europe and the United States researching smaller theaters before founding his own.

Based on his experience in theater education, Fan figured there must be a market for small theaters in China.

"On the one hand, our drama students need a platform to show off their talents," he said. "On the other hand, we need more theaters in neighborhoods to give people freer access to the art of drama."

This led to Fan's decision to open a theater in one of Beijing's hutongs, the traditional alleyways that snake through the Chinese capital.In fact, most of Beijing's small theaters are located in the city's narrow lanes, whose distinctive courtyard buildings lend an artsy and romantic ambience.

Modern stories

Small theaters seat no more than 500, and many only have room for 100 or so.

"The stage is never too far away, even if you get the cheapest tickets," said Pan Danyang, a theater fan studying at Peking University, adding that performances at smaller venues are more likely to involve interaction between actors and the audience. "That adds a lot to the experience."

Smaller theaters generally stage modern plays featuring themes young people can relate to, helping them stand out against larger, more traditional venues.

Zhang Yiwu, a literature professor at Peking University, said contemporary plays tend to tell sensitive and humorous stories of modern urban life.

"Young people today are more willing to pay for theater, making it more important for drama practitioners to meet their demands," Zhang said.

Small and innovative

In addition to audience interaction and contemporary content, smaller theaters also have lower costs, creating room for innovation.

Chinese traditional operas have taken to smaller theaters to experiment and adapt for a younger audience.

On the same frigid night when audiences filled the seats for a love story, a national opera festival kicked off in another Star Theater venue featuring more than ten opera adaptations.

"San Cha Kou," the opening opera, combines the stories, movements and music of traditional Chinese opera with lines that reflect modern social life.

"The audience's interest in traditional opera will rise due to these new elements," Fan Xing said.

As for the future of smaller theaters, many are optimistic.

Zhang Yiwu, the PKU professor, is one of them. "Smaller theaters will continue to prosper. With Chinese people's spending power growing, there might be smaller theaters succeeding in lower-tier cities very soon," Zhang said.

Meanwhile, with the culture industry a priority in the country's 13th Five-Year Plan, local governments are expected to highlight theater development.

The government of Dongcheng District has already started to boost the industry with subsidies to drama troupes and theaters. The local government has also held lectures and salons in communities to increase theater's popularity.

With favorable policies for smaller theaters, Fan Xing believes that in the next five to ten years, audiences will grow and traditional operas will see a resurgence.

"By then, no one will consider Beijing opera an old-fashioned thing anymore," Fan said.