There's need for smarter theatre management in China, a recent government report cautions. Wang Kaihao and Zhang Kun report in Beijing and Shanghai.
Most theatres in China aren't professionally run and don't make profits, according to a recent government report.
There were about 873 professional theatres (stage performance theatres 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 40,500 shows in total.
But about 60 per cent of them were unable to make profits. And 80 per cent lacked professional management systems, the Ministry of Culture report says, adding that the number of theatres isn't enough for the country's large population.
In 2013, for instance, only 0.64 professional theatres were available to every 1 million Chinese. By comparison, the ratio in United States in 2007 was 1.8 and in Japan it was 4.4 that year.
The report also points out that geographical distribution of theatres is unbalanced: Beijing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, Shanghai, and Guangdong－six developed province-level administrative regions－house nearly 40 per cent of the country's theatres, while western China has less than 20 per cent.
"Theatres 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 theatre in many counties, but in some counties, the theatres are too large for the local populations," says Kang 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 and Urban-Rural Development to set the national criteria for the construction of professional theatres, began in February. The criteria are to be released in 2016.
"The criteria for theatres will be more complex than other cultural institutions like libraries because most theatres are multifunctional, requiring more parameters to be considered," Kang says.
Chinese theatres made 6 billion yuan (S$1.3 billion) in 2013, but 47 per cent came from government aid, and ticket sales only amounted to 36 per cent.
"Many theatres are still public institutions, which makes us unable to purely consider how to make 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 theatres is high, and one-third of their income comes from government subsidies.
"We have to draw audiences who have stereotypical notions about stage performances and gradually nurture a market."
In 2013, on a average, one Chinese visited a professional theatre about 0.024 times, the report says. Even in Beijing, which shows the country's highest theatergoing interest, it was 0.12 times.
The NCPA has about 850 commercial shows a year, but they also organise more than 1,000 free performances and lectures, which Meng describes as "drip irrigation".
"What is urgently needed for a theatre is clear orientation," Meng says, recalling the centre's seven-year journey from being a newly established theatre to becoming the country's top venue for operas. Adding to its fame is the diverse cultural tastes among Chinese.
The theatres can learn a few things from how Shanghai has made progress in becoming the country's hub for musicals.
"We are more than just a performance venue," says Zhang Jie, manager of Shanghai Cultural Square.
"The theatre aims to become an artistic landmark, a performing arts agency, an art education centre for the public and an incubator of original theatre ideas and productions."
Zhang's theatre presents an established musical from the United States or Europe every autumn, popular musical productions in Chinese every summer and reserves springtime for the promotion of original Chinese musicals.
"China's musical industry will ultimately produce successful original plays," says Fei Yuanhong, programme 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 expertise in operating theatres professionally.
Only 30 per cent of all theatre staff members in China have an education background in the fine 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 theatre managers is also being planned.
"The ministry might appeal for public attention by offering technical guidance first, and then things will naturally go forward with more social efforts," he says.