Censors to join the crowd at Beijing's small theatres

Call for volunteers to monitor performances speaks to the success of edgy drama scene, but also seen as new threat to freedom of expression in capital

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 4:35am

Beijing has long been known for its rich history of cultural attractions. Among them are small, community theatres that not only help serve the cultural needs of local residents, but also introduce tourists to some of the capital's traditional performing arts.

Interest in modern dramas, Peking opera, crosstalk (a form of comedy), acrobatics and other performances has been booming in recent years as more private and public capital is injected into the industry. As a result, the number of small theatres has surged from just a few a decade ago to dozens today.

Many forms of new media, such as microblogs, are far more critical than theatre productions. I don't understand why they would impose these new regulations

But that success of relatively small, local troupes has also been a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, the booming industry offers more choices for patrons of the arts, as well as more opportunities to industry players.

On the flip side, however, authorities are growing increasingly uneasy that some dramas or shows might touch on sensitive topics such as social stability, and this means more control is being exerted over performances.

Earlier this month, guidelines issued by the city government sparked some concerns of censorship among culture watchers. The guidelines call on the city's neighbourhood administrative units to assemble teams of volunteers to monitor performances. Those selected for the task must have a strong sense of responsibility, political acumen and a good knowledge of cultural performances.

After some proper training, the teams will be dispatched to watch live performances to be on the lookout for harmful elements that violate laws and regulations.

The teams will report their findings to cultural administrative officials, and any theatres presenting content deemed inappropriate may be punished.

Officials with the city's cultural bureau said only that the guidelines were drafted by its security supervisory department, but would give no further details about how the scheme would be implemented.

According to the bureau's website, one of the security department's main roles is to ensure that cultural performances are politically acceptable. That may particularly apply to crosstalk (rapid, witty dialogue between two actors) and modern drama, which try to attract audiences with their critiques or reflections on society at large.

"The scripts of all dramas are [already] scrutinised by district- and city-level cultural offices," said one staff member at Nine Theatre in Chaoyang district, questioning the need for the new measures. "We really have nothing to be censored."

All small theatres across the city were required to install CCTV systems several years ago, with monitoring by cultural censors. The staff member, who did not want to be named, was also worried about overreactions by the volunteers, who she suspects will mostly comprise older people with relatively little education.

"Will they feel it is too much to see actors kissing on stage?" she said.

Most performances in Beijing's small theatres are of crosstalk, known as xiangsheng in Beijing, and modern drama. Many famous actors trace their roots to the theatres.

Guo Degang, a popular comedian, originally performed in a small teahouse and then in the tiny Guangdelou Theatre. Now, Guo operates several crosstalk theatres across Beijing. Wang Zijian, another famous crosstalk performer, has built a following with his performances at smaller theatres. He has a sharp wit closely tied to current affairs.

Avant-garde director Meng Jinghui also got his start in local theatre drama. Rhinoceros in Love, a play he originally directed in 1999, has since been performed more than 1,000 times across the country.

Some in the local theatre business support the move towards greater oversight.

"In the past few years, regulations of crosstalk at small theatres was quite loose," said Li Jing , a popular crosstalk performer who runs several small theatres. "But some performers have gone too far in reflecting the actual world, by utilising direct verbal attacks and abuse.

"This is no more the type of crosstalk art that it should be. So I would say that shows need a certain degree of monitoring."

But Wang Xi , modern drama fan, said it was absurd to censor community theatres.

"Many forms of new media, such as microblogs, are far more critical than theatre productions," he said before taking in a performance at the Nine Theatre.

"I don't understand why they would impose these new regulations. Unfortunately, audiences just have to accept this fact."

Playwright Li Yi noted: "Shows in little theatres are more experimental and pioneering than those in big theatres. But the censors still view today's dramas with a mindset from the 1960s and 1970s ."