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Cultural sector finds new ways to tell stories

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced performers and venues to innovate. Chen Nan, Xu Fan and Wang Kaihao report.

Actor Feng Yuanzheng used to spend most Spring Festival holidays at his workplace, The Beijing People's Art Theatre.

Founded in 1952, the well-regarded venue is a 20-minute walk from Wangfujing, a popular shopping street that missed the usual Spring Festival crowds this year because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

On Jan 15, the theater began staging Family Reunion, in which Feng played the lead role of Wang Mantang, who devoted his life to repairing and protecting ancient buildings. The play spans four decades and centers on Wang's family life in a traditional alley in the capital.

Feng, who leads the theater's acting troupe, has played the role every Spring Festival for the past 15 years.

This year's performances were due to run until Jan 30. However, on Jan 23, the day before Lunar New Year's Eve, Feng received a call from a colleague who told him the run was being canceled.

"At the time, I didn't know how serious the virus was. I noticed that many audience members were wearing face masks and the actors looked concerned," recalled Feng, a member of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

He spent the holiday at home in Beijing with his wife, but the usual family gatherings were canceled.

The performing arts market pressed the "pause" button as a result of the pandemic. Theaters nationwide were closed to prevent the spread of the virus, with actors seeing jobs canceled and productions postponed.

"It was not until mid-February that we restarted our actor training courses, such as script readings, via online programs," Feng said.

"The pandemic not only forced us to undergo hardship but also caused theatergoers to avoid theaters. It has been a challenging experience for everyone."

Curtains lifted

Now, good tidings have appeared as the virus has largely been contained in China.

According to a May 12 guideline issued by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, theaters and cinemas in places deemed at low risk of coronavirus transmission can put on small commercial performances, providing they obtain government permission.

Audience members must book tickets in advance and numbers must be limited to 30 percent of the full seating capacity.

"Though it still poses a challenge for us, things are getting better," Feng said. He said his theater will reopen with some new free events, such as actors reading classic works, for the troupe's 68th birthday on June 12.

"What we want to do first is to usher audiences back into theaters. They have been waiting for a long time," he said, adding that some low-budget programs will be produced with fewer actors and creative team members onstage.

Feng said that in recent years, audiences have regarded attending plays as a new lifestyle choice. However, without revenue, some theaters and performing arts companies have closed down.

Consequently, as a top-level political adviser, Feng's proposals at this year's two sessions focus on the use of government funds to rescue the performing arts.

According to his research, Beijing has more than 5,000 theaters and companies qualified to stage performances, with 80 percent of them privately owned.

"Those companies need financial support to get through this," he said. "Next year will see the performing arts recover from this loss."

Tribute

Shows are returning in various formats. On May 18, 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Kunqu Opera a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity".

On May 16, the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe launched an online show as part of a series of events to mark the anniversary. The Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe and the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Troupe also participated. Over 600,000 people watched the performance online.

"We have not performed in our theater since January, which has been very difficult," said Gu Haohao, president of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe. "But we are now busy preparing more free online shows."

Despite the disrupted schedule, the Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center has announced a performance plan for the second half of the year.

The Eternal Wave, a dance drama, will be staged by the Shanghai Dance Theatre from Aug 13 to 16, while the Mandarin version of the Broadway musical Jekyll & Hyde will be staged from Nov 5 to 15.

The Eternal Wave, adapted from a classic 1950s film, revolves around an underground Communist telegrapher who works in the shadows to fight enemies. Since its premiere in 2018, the show has been staged more than 100 times nationwide, according to its director Zhou Liya.

"Many fans shared their anticipation of the theater reopening," Zhou said. "Though some shows have moved onto livestreams, we still need the intimate experience of sitting in a theater with actors performing onstage."

Silver screen reset

From the 100-plus day closure of nearly 70,000 screens nationwide, China's film and TV industry has seen blockbusters withdrawn and shooting suspended.

The China Film Administration estimates that box offices will face a loss of more than 30 billion yuan ($4.2 billion) this year, nearly half last year's total take.

But China-the second-largest market in terms of annual box-office revenue-is seeing signs of recovery, as noted by some industry insiders attending the two sessions.

Film director Jia Zhangke, a deputy to the 13th National People's Congress from Shanxi province, has a positive take on the suspension of business.

"China's film industry had maintained a high annual growth rate for many years, drawing floods of hot money but also creating a waste of resources," he said.

In recent years, China produced over 1,000 feature-length films annually, but most couldn't be screened in theaters due to fierce competition, he added. He predicted that the suspension will "squeeze out bubbles and shift the filmmakers' pursuit of quantity to quality".

Jia is one of China's most acclaimed directors internationally, particularly for Still Life, which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. He said the pandemic has provided inspiration.

In March, he was invited to join six other directors to make short films for a project at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece, held online last month.

Seeing the project as a way to support fellow filmmakers amid the pandemic, Jia used a smartphone to shoot Visit, a three-minute short, in just one day. It has just three actors-Jia and two friends.

" (In the film), you'll see how social etiquette like shaking hands, easygoing atmospheres and getting along with acquaintances have been forced to change," he said.

"But the film ends with on a hopeful note, reflecting the fact that I really miss the days when people got together."

Speaking about the Pingyao International Film Festival in Shanxi, scheduled for Oct 10 to 19, Jia-the organizer-said his team has started preparing a video connection plan with foreign filmmakers in case the outbreak has not been globally contained by then.

Exemptions

The development of the internet may rewrite the rules of China's showbiz industry, as some films have premiered on online streaming platforms recently.

Nevertheless, Zhang Guangbei, a veteran actor and member of the 13th National Committee of the CPPCC, believes watching films in cinemas will survive. "Cinema is a special art form that provides an immersive experience, and needs the audience to sit quietly in a confined space," the 60-year-old said.

The Ministry of Finance and the China Film Administration recently announced that Hubei province, one of the places hardest hit by the outbreak, would be exempt from paying the National Film Industry Development Special Fund levy-amounting to 5 percent of box-office revenue-this year.

The policy will apply to the rest of the country for the January to August period. In addition, all cinemas have been exempted from paying value-added tax-3.3 percent of gross box-office receipts-this year.

Zhang is excited to see policies enacted to boost the beleaguered industry. In addition to this stimulus, shooting is gradually resuming.

Before the two sessions began, he was in Anhui province to shoot his new film, the poverty alleviation-themed Great Things. Filming of the movie, based on a true story, was scheduled to start in early February, but it was postponed.

Zhang said the industry is recovering. "Most of the greatest films (in China) were born in historic moments," he said.

"I heard that groups of filmmakers and TV workers have already started scripting (coronavirus-themed) stories," he said. "If I am invited to join in, I will not hesitate."

Online museums

Last year, the 5,535 museums registered on the Chinese mainland saw a combined 1.23 billion visits, setting a record, according to statistics released by the National Cultural Heritage Administration on May 18, International Museum Day.

The number of visits will inevitably fall this year.

Before Spring Festival, museums nationwide closed their doors almost overnight to contain the virus. Though many have reopened since March, caps on the number of daily visitors and restrictions on the areas allowed to reopen are being strictly observed by institutions nationwide.

For example, the Palace Museum in Beijing, aka the Forbidden City, received a record-breaking 19 million visits last year-more than any other museum in the world.

It began reopening to tourists on May 1 after a 98-day hiatus, but only 8,000 visitors are allowed to enter the compound every day-from 80,000 before the outbreak.

In addition, online platforms have changed how people digest museum exhibitions.

"Thanks to the fast development of technology, exhibitions 'in the cloud' boomed during the physical closure of venues," said Liu Yuzhu, director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration and a member of the 13th National Committee of the CPPCC.

According to Liu, more than 2,000 online exhibitions were organized by museums nationwide during the Spring Festival season.

Using virtual reality, livestreamed guides, lectures and other online methods, they attracted over 5 billion views-more than four times the number of visits to China's museums last year.

"The people's warm welcome shows that physical closure never means losing the amazement prompted by cultural heritage as museums have marched toward 'smart formats' in recent years," Liu said.

He Yun'ao, a professor of history and archaeology at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province, believes that while the pandemic brought great inconvenience to museums, it also uncovered people's enthusiasm for cultural heritage.

For example, in March, He, a member of the 13th National Committee of the CPPCC, delivered a lecture about Nanjing's history via a museum's social media account. It was viewed by 460,000 people.

"I'm used to lecturing to up to 200 students in class. How could it be that so many people were interested in a topic which even I thought was a little bit too academic?" He said.

"Before, many museum operators, who are also scholars, were reluctant to adopt online formats. But now they have to look for ways to embrace change and get in touch with the people."

The attraction of cultural heritage has also gone far beyond the professionals' expectations in some areas previously considered less attractive to nonprofessionals.

During the May Day holiday, daily livestreams were organized to show the final round of appraisals to choose the country's 10 best archaeological discoveries last year.

Since the first annual list, dubbed "The Oscars of Chinese Archaeology", was issued in 1990, the appraisal had always been done behind closed doors.

However, as the experts judged the 20 finalists through online Q&A sessions packed with archaeological terminology, the live broadcasts attracted over 28 million views.

"Chinese people's scientific literacy and knowledge have greatly improved," He said.

"The surprising popularity also reminded museum operators that the visitors they'll receive are no longer tourists rushing from one stop to the next. New ways have to be continuously created through high-tech channels to make cultural relics understood on a deeper level."

Many museums have invited He to deliver online speeches. For many venues, initial trials of livestreams or social media became regular events within a few months.

"Once triggered, the 'going online' trend will not stop when the coronavirus situation is over," He said.

"As such, the spaces offered by museums can be greatly expanded."

China Daily


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