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CHUPPIE LOVE: White-Collar Theater in Shanghai
Why are all those twenty-something professionals rushing to the theater these days?

From THAT'S SHANGHAI June 2008 Print & Web Edition


By Mina Choi


"They've tried karaoke and bars, and now they want to try theater," says vice president of Shanghai Theater Academy William Sun, referring to local white collar workers, a group whose disposable income level has risen almost as fast as that of hedge fund managers.

Indeed, for these well-educated urban dwellers, Western food, holidays abroad and theater tickets are the new status symbols. Movies no longer cut it, since it's impossible to verify that they were viewed in the cinema's VIP section at RMB 70 a pop, rather than at home on an RMB 5 DVD. When it comes to culture, theater has thus developed a certain level of cachet. Why? First of all, theater is live, not mass produced and disseminated via discs or downloads. Second, most plays in Shanghai only have limited runs, typically no longer than three weeks (unlike New York's Broadway, where many of the popular, tourist-targeted plays run for decades). Hence, catching the latest play adds cachet to one's cultural resume.

Third, the pricing seems to be right: with ticket prices ranging from RMB100-250 at Shanghai Dramatic Art Center (SDAC), it's not prohibitively expensive, but represents a respectable sum spent on a date for two.

Consequently, most of the Shanghai theater-going audience is in its twenties, says Nick Yu Rongjun, a playwright and the marketing director of SDAC. Yu breaks down Shanghai audiences into three tiers: the first-tier audience is composed of novice theatergoers attracted by the prospect of seeing their favorite radio station DJ or television actor in comedies that play "like a television show". The second tier has seen a play or two and is looking for something more meaningful, something that reflects the twenty-something obsession with love, relationships and break-ups. Meanwhile, the third-tier audience (the one which Yu addresses in his own plays) is made up of theater lovers who are looking to rediscover classic plays or experience avant-garde experimental theater.

The second-tier audience is the largest, judging by the programs on offer at SDAC, Ke Art Center and the Grand Theater. Ke recently produced Love Letters, an Albert Gurney play concerning the half-century long epistolary relationship between two lovers. Love Letters was launched at the Ke Center as a "party", featuring readings of famous love letters accompanied by a film montage of the most popular love scenes in film history. The play sold out at the SDAC during its run in April and at the Grand Theater in May. However, the launch felt more like a Valentine's Day celebration than serious theater. The date-play, it seems, has replaced the date-movie.

Take the recent adaptation of Patrick Marber's Closer, for example, which ran at the SDAC. Titled Stolen Heart, it was extremely popular with young office workers. As the play's translator Fan Yisong matter-of-factly explains, white-collar workers "identify with the instant messaging and the dating issues". When a young reporter mentioned that her friend liked the play very much, Fan asked, "What does she do?" When he heard that she worked in marketing, he replied, "You see?"

In May, the trend continued at the SOAC with The Newlyweds. Although The Newlyweds also pandered to the taste of white-collar workers, it nonetheless highlighted some of the more thorny problems of their moneyed existence. Adapted from a very popular Internet story-turned-novel by Wang Hailing, The Newlyweds tells the tale of a pampered city dweller, Xiaoxi, who marries Jianguo, a rural boy made good. Although the latter is a college graduate with a successful white-collar job, his family back on the farm hasn't fared so well. His younger brother is a migrant laborer and his father frequently turns up, bag of corn in hand, to ask for a hand-out. Jianguo is a soft touch, but his wife isn't. She points out that after expenses – mortgage, insurance, clothes and dining – what remains of their combined annual income of RMB 170,000 is barely enough to save for a baby. Jianguo tries to comfort Xiaoxi by imagining that they have just won the lottery, listing all the things they would buy with that money – Ferragamo shoes, a black Mini Cooper, a nice apartment with a luxurious Jacuzzi in their bedroom, the sort of life portrayed in the glossy magazines. But alas, there is no lottery, just RMB 170,000 a year, which is respectable by most standards, but not enough for the pesky rural family members, who continuously dip into the cookie jar.

What will Jianguo and Xiaoxi do? Ignore their country relatives or find a way to integrate them into their privileged urban existence? Can the young couple rein in their aspirational spending habits and make financial sacrifices? It may be a question too big for Jianguo and Xiaoxi, and perhaps the rest of Shanghai, to answer.

For a complete list of Theater Articles by Mina Choi click HERE