Persistence pays off as dentist fills cultural void with groundbreaking small theatre

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

Wang Xiang , 55, is a dentist and businessman who owns four dental clinics in Beijing. Last August he renovated a courtyard next to the Central Academy of Drama and turned it into a small theatre, the Penghao Theatre, which seats 80 and is also a coffee shop. More than 150 performances have been staged there so far.

You are the first person to get a private licence to run a small theatre. Was the application process difficult?

As far as I know they haven't issued a private licence for a small theatre since the founding of the People's Republic because the standard was set for big theatres with more than 150 seats. The officials were at a loss about how to approve the 'theatrette' because they'd never done it before. First we got approval from the bureaus of tax and industry last September and then from environmental protection, sanitation and the fire department in February. I should say I was able to get the licence thanks to me being a very persistent person.

Drama, especially in small theatres, is all the rage in Beijing at the moment. Has this meant you've enjoyed good returns on your investment?

When I first began thinking about this theatre I wondered whether to run it as a business venture or as a realisation of my dream and to promote drama. I chose the latter. The theatre is a professional theatre, and the coffee shop is an extension of it. I don't take commercial factors into account when deciding what kind of drama is played. You won't see any plays that leave you with nothing but a few jokes. My mission is to promote drama that is intense, and has an impact on literature and people's minds. The plays are not commercially oriented, nor do they have a political agenda.

It sounds as if you are losing money.

I invested 1.2 million yuan (HK$1.36 million) renovating the courtyard into a theatre, which I don't expect to get back. I estimate I will lose 100,000 to 200,000 yuan a year for the first two years and probably break even after that. Renting a theatre in Beijing costs from 8,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan a night, I only charge 2,000 yuan. For most plays we don't even charge performance companies, but instead split ticket sales to lower their risk. The admittance fee is very low, less than 100 yuan, and 50 yuan for students. Because of the costs, some people may not be willing to pay to see plays even if they enjoy them. I make ticket prices low to attract them.

So you must be a huge fan of drama?

I think I hold many records in Beijing in terms of seeing plays. For years I bought tickets for friends and employees to see plays. I have seen more than 40 plays five times each and I watched Copenhagen 35 times. I used to go to see a play every night but the priority is running this theatre now.

Do you have a role in the theatre beyond being the investor?

I produced eight plays in the past year and I am involved in selecting plays, planning and promoting them. We are not only a stage provider but also a promoter of theatre. I set up a platform and also set a standard - a very strict artistic standard. We welcome all kinds of performances, such as modern dance, but, objectively speaking, the plays should be classic or experimental and performed in plain drama language and costume. We are also open for good original plays. If the play does not feel right I'd rather have an empty theatre than let it be played here. But we have had around 150 performances since it was opened six months ago. I am very happy with the result.

Who performs, and what is your typical audience?

My stage is open for professional performance companies who do not get a lot of opportunities because there are just so few theatres in Beijing. Another group is drama students and amateurs. Some foreigners who performed at home, some drama students hang out here but most of the audience are young office workers and middle-class people with spiritual needs.

Can you tell me more about yourself?

My mother was a daughter of a landlord and my father was in the military. I got my persistence from my father and my taste from my mother. I joined the army during the Cultural Revolution and started university when admissions resumed in 1977. I became a dentist and was sent to work in Beijing's Navy General Hospital. I am a doctor first and foremost. I left the hospital and started my own clinic in Beijing, which has four branches now. That makes me a businessman who has to think about his 50 employees. For historic reasons I studied medicine, but my passion was literature and then drama. I am an artist.