Penghao's passion play
Updated: 2013-07-10 07:18
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)
Wang Xiang with performers during a rehearsal of a new play at Penghao Theater. Photos by Zhu Xingxin / China Daily
Dentist Wang Xiang made his money fixing teeth but his true love is bringing independent theater to the masses. Chen Yingqun reports.
Wearing a faded blue shirt and old gray trousers, sipping a cup of tea, seemingly without a care in the world, you would hardly guess that Wang Xiang is going through tough times.
His business has lost more than 3 million yuan ($490,000) over the past five years. But that's of little consequence to Wang, because his business, Penghao Theater - Beijing's first private theater - is more a passion than a commercial venture. A theater lover for many years, Wang's dream is to stage great dramas that are affordable for ordinary people.
The money Wang pours into the theater comes from his other job as a dentist. Wang was a pioneer of private dental clinics in Beijing and among the first to offer tooth implants in China. He now has four clinics in Beijing.
They essentially pay for his 86-seat theater, which cost him 1.2 million yuan to open in Beijing's Dongcheng district in 2008 and has eaten up more of his income every year since.
"Penghao means ordinary people in Chinese," he says, sitting in the theater's cafe, amid walls of colorful photos from a drama festival running in the building.
Wang's love of theater began in 1985 when he saw the play He Shi Bi Jade in Beijing. In the play, many people give China's emperor fake jade, so when one man named Bian gives him the real thing he believes it to be fake and orders Bian's legs cut off. Bian tries to drive his apprentice away to save him, but the apprentice refuses to leave and cries: "Don't drive me away! I love real jade."
Three decades later, Wang still recalls the director's explanation of the play: "Life is precious and even formidable. But what's more precious and formidable than life is its thrilling pleasant surprises, the enthusiasm of dreams, the admiration and yearning for kindness and beauty, and the attention of strangers."
Wang considers himself like Bian - suffering for offering the real thing.
Since watching He Shi Bi Jade, Wang has thrown himself into theater. He has seen the play Copenhagen 44 times and once invited 60 friends to the theater.
"Drama is like a necklace that connects the most beautiful pearls in life, such as wisdom, will and intelligence, and presents them in concentrated form," he says.
He believes that necklace is broken in Beijing, where ticket prices - ranging from hundreds to thousands of yuan - are too high for ordinary people and plays are too commercialized.
"Even if one can afford the price, it is difficult to watch good drama that can touch your heart. Directors and playwrights must follow commercial rules and cater to public taste, which usually makes the drama shallow and blundering."
Wang visits theaters wherever he goes and was inspired to launch Penghao after seeing the small private theater culture of Europe and the US.
"In the West, small theaters are an important part of the city culture. Whether in New York, Paris or London, there are hundreds of small private theaters that provide stage opportunities for many young playwrights and good plays that don't follow commercial rules. I want to bring this kind of opportunity to China."
There are still fewer than 10 private theaters in Beijing, one in Shanghai and none in other cities, he says.
His has staged more than 150 plays with about 1,600 performances - a fifth of which were in English. It has also hosted six drama festivals and staged plays from overseas.
"We accept all creative forms of art with rich literary and aesthetic connotations that reflect rational thinking. Also, they have to be vivid."
Critic Tong Daoming says he was unable to find a venue that would stage two of his plays for almost a decade, until he met Wang.
"Most theaters in China are very commercialized. I wouldn't expect them to accept my plays," he says.
"Penghao's slogan is 'to pursue literature and elegance', so I brought them here."
Wang is a regular attendee of drama festivals around the world.
Through this, he met Japanese director Makoto Sato, who is running a workshop at Penghao.
"Penghao Theater is small, but for me, only these kinds of small independent theaters create a close relationship between the performers and audience, and help us to form close communication with young Chinese artists," he says.
Penghao charges a maximum of 120 yuan ($20) per ticket, and mostly attracts young workers, students and expatriates.
Wang provides free stages for plays in which he has faith. He makes cash by splitting ticket revenue equally among the theater and crew.
"We want to show plays with real dramatic artistic qualities," he says.
"It's not about profit. We don't do anything without relation to real art."
Wang has received between 300,000 yuan and 400,000 yuan annually from the district government. But he still loses about 2,000 yuan a day and employs four paid staff members. Others work voluntarily.
Wang splits his time between two worlds - his dental clinics in the morning and Penghao in the afternoon.
Last year, he had a coronary bypass, but that didn't stop his pursuit of independent theater.
"It has been very difficult to continue my dream, but I never think of giving up. I'm very proud this small theater has staged so many wonderful dramas."
Now he hopes for more funding.
"I believe things will be different in three to five years, so I need to be persistent and look forward to that."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wang Xiang sees drama as a beautiful necklace, and says that in Beijing that necklace is broken.
(China Daily USA 07/10/2013 page10)