Four years after The Song of Loyalty appeared, prominent Chinese stage director Lin Zhaohua directed Signal Alarm, sending a signal to the little theater movement, which was experimental and usually avant-garde.
Emancipated in the reform and opening up of the 1980s, Chinese dramatists began to grow discontented with the development of theater in China and laid their eyes on Western modern drama. In the 1990s drama in China saw two trends: either becoming more experimental or returning to realism. Modern stage techniques were used widely and brought a modern look to the stage.
Rhino in Love in 1999, directed by 35-year-old Meng Jinghui, brought profits to small theaters in China and the director cultivated a cult following. However, Beibingmasi Theater, where Rhino in Love debuted, closed its doors in 2005, a sign of the difficult situation facing modern Chinese drama, which lacks money.
There were 3,000 drama clubs in China at the beginning of the 21st century, but many of them rarely perform and few would pay to watch them do so. "Narcissistic" and "lack of audience" are words mostly used to describe the situation. Some researchers have warned that modern Chinese drama is dying.
Art or market
To be or not to be, that's the question raised in every corner of Chinese culture and society in the midst of the new market-oriented economy that has swept the country and threatened the survival of Chinese drama.
In 1995 when prospects for the drama market looked dim, Shanghai People's Art Theater and the Shanghai Youth Drama Troupe were merged to form the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center and the move proved highly successful.
According to Shanghai media reports, the self-sufficiency rate of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center has reached 70 percent in recent years, 20 percent higher than that of its Western counterparts in Britain and 40 percent higher than its counterparts in Beijing. Yang Shaolin, General Manager of the center, is concerned about the effect market force could have on Chinese drama.
"It's a dilemma that has put drama art under test," said Lu Linyin, a Shanghai reporter who has interviewed many dramatists. "If you don't care about the market you lose the chance to survive. The another way round, if you care too much about the market you undermine the art itself."
The Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center was the first in China to introduce the "producer" to drama market management in China. It is the producer's role to take care of many things including choosing scripts, picking actors, organizing rehearsals and promoting shows.
What bothers producers most is the lack of good original scripts. "In many cases the scripts are immature and the director and actors have to try hard to make up for that, but often they end up not so satisfying," said Ren.
But Ren is optimistic about the future of drama. "The living environment for drama will get better and better," he said, explaining that people are getting richer and have more time and money to spend on culture and entertainment.
"With the development of diversity of entertainment, theater will finally find its niche," added 93-year-old Ouyang Shanzun, a veteran actor and former president of the Beijing People's Art Theater.