Management drama takes place offstage

Updated: 2012-07-27 07:33

By Yan Yiqi (China Daily)

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Management drama takes place offstage

Robin Auld, director of operations at the National Skills Academy, teaches a lecture at the NCPA's training program. Provided to China Daily

Number of theaters in China rises, but there are not enough people to run them

In a rehearsal hall of China's National Centre for the Performing Arts, 15 people are busy working on the set of La Boheme, measuring, drawing, moving props, checking marks and sightlines.

Two foreign experts are noting down their actions, sometimes interrupting to issue instructions and advice.

This is neither preparation for the Puccini opera at the center, nor an exam for new recruits. It is part of a course the center is carrying out to train senior managers for China's fast-growing performing arts market.

According to the Beijing Trade Association for Performances, the 85 profitable performing arts venues in Beijing staged 21,075 shows last year, a 10.37 percent increase on the previous year. A total of 10.26 million people attended these shows.

"With the development of the economy, China is now experiencing a boom in its cultural industries, and the performing arts, which used to be exclusive to the upper classes, are reaching the lives of Chinese citizens, not only in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but also in second- and third-tier cities," says Wang Zhengming, vice-president of the center.

But Wang says there is a severe shortage of senior managers needed to run the increasing number of theaters. Beijing alone will have more than 200 by 2020.

This was also highlighted recently by Wu Jiangbo, deputy director-general of the department of cultural industries under the Ministry of Culture, who said the country's performing arts were in desperate need of high-level management.

Almost all 31 provincial capital cities have at least one grand theater, and at least 20 more will be built in other cities.

"Qualified senior theater managers in China are as rare as pandas, and if the situation goes on, it will definitely hamper the development of a healthy performing arts market," he says.

The shortage is already being felt.

Although the number of theaters in Beijing grew from 48 in 2008 to 85 in 2011, sales revenue of these theaters only grew 50.6 percent from 506 million yuan ($79.4 million, 64.7 million euros) in 2008 to 762 million yuan in 2011.

The management standards of a theater directly influence show performances, as well as business ones, says Chen Ping, president of the center for performing arts.

"Even the behavior of audiences tests the management efficiency of a theater, and that will further influence the performance on the stage," he says.

Chen says a grand theater like the NCPA needs 500 professional managers to keep it running smoothly, and 150 to 300 are required for medium-sized ones.

Its management system includes 21 departments, involving the skills of more than 112 professions.

However, major universities in China do not provide professional training courses for theater management. Students of related majors are mainly trained in design or technical subjects.

"And most of the managers in Chinese theaters have transferred from acting or technician positions," Chen says.

Qi Jinsong, the staging director of National Ballet of China, thinks the lack of a systematic approach to stage management is the biggest problem for people like him.

"I started this job midway, while working as a technician, and have never had any professional training on how to manage the whole stage efficiently. To logically think like a stage manager would is the most urgent problem for people like me and also for our theaters," he says.

In February the NCPA launched a five-year training program with 20 million yuan, aimed at educating 300 to 400 senior managers for performing arts theaters in China.

The program includes courses on creative and administrative management, needed during rehearsals and pre- and post-production; backstage departments in charge of staging apparatus, sound and lighting; marketing; and front-of-house and seating management for dealing with audiences.

The first group of 15 trainees from various Chinese theaters finished its two-month training program in April. The second round will start in the second half of this year.

Working with renowned foreign theaters has also helped Chinese theaters develop. The NCPA program involves cooperation with eight international organizations, including the National Skills Academy for Creative & Cultural and the Royal Opera House in Britain, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and Japan New National Theatre.

Robin Auld and Simon Catchpole from Britain are lecturers for this program. Auld is director of operations at the National Skills Academy, and Catchpole is a senior stage manager at the Royal Opera House.

"The UK has a much longer history of developing performing arts than China. By inviting experienced senior managers from the UK and sharing their vast experience, I believe our future managers will benefit a lot," Wang says.

Both Auld and Catchpole value the opportunity to work with the NCPA.

"I came to China with the director of Royal Opera House three years ago, and from then on we were thinking about putting on such a program. It is a great opportunity for both sides to communicate in terms of improving staging techniques, and I hope Simon and I can bring some inspiration to our Chinese counterparts and also to us," Auld says.

He says China's newly built theaters are all excellent constructions and fitted with the latest technology.

"But how to combine the excellent hardware with experienced managing skills to bring out the best of the performances for audiences is a big problem, not only to Chinese theaters, but also to theaters around the world," he says.

Trainees on the program are also given the chance to visit these world-class theaters and experience how they organize a show. Lu Ping, one of the trainees who now works for the stage management department of the NCPA, has just returned from studying at the Royal Opera House in London.

She says the program is totally different from courses she took at university, in that she was given on-the-job experience of what she was being taught.

"The Royal Opera House is one of the best theaters for performing arts in the world, and their organization has been long and well established. They did not teach at a macro level. They just asked you to form the habit of systematic thinking about every detail of your life."

The NCPA's training program will ease the talent shortage problem for Chinese theaters in the long term, but the question remains: Will it be enough?

(China Daily 07/27/2012 page16)