IT'S A TYPICAL Sunday afternoon at the Bashu Theatre. Every seat in the first 20 rows is filled with elderly Sichuanese wrapped in synthetic fur and clutching cups of green tea as they gossip and wait for the show to begin. In a bare room backstage, Zhang Juhua applies the final touches to her elaborately painted face: snow-white skin lit up by thick black lines outlining almond eyes and a mass of ruby red smudged in-between. Zhang is about to play a concubine in the rendition of Iron Dragon Mountain, a typical Sichuan opera where debauchery, death and deceit are played out against the backdrop of regal China. The story follows the plight of a dead emperor's eldest son, who is convinced the concubine, a mistress of his brother, has killed the emperor in an attempt to seize the throne. Determined not to weaken the ancestral lineage with non-royal blood, and over the duration of about two hours, he attempts to disarm her. Realising the good son has unveiled her devious ways, the concubine turns her fluttering eyelashes towards him. 'All the heroes cannot pass through the gates of beauty without falling,' declares the good son's minder as his master begins to sway under the allure of the concubine's temptations. A high-pitched singing begins and the concubine dances. Twisting and twirling, her ornamental cape swishing and swirling, she enthrals the audience, who although familiar with the storyline, have left their cups of tea and are now on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the next move. Straining under the pressure, the good son seems to lose control, almost verging on the brink of madness. Snapped back to reality by his minder, he manages to resist her charms and regains his composure, sending the concubine into her own state of madness. The precious royal lineage is restored and the plebeian and now frenetic concubine is dragged into the new emperor's dungeons. With records dating back to the Qing dynasty, Sichuan opera and theatre - which is similar to Beijing opera in terms of costumes and singing style, but tells uniquely Sichuanese tales - has a long and vibrant history. Chengdu was once riddled with troupes such as the Bashu, their opera houses scattered throughout stone and wood neighbourhoods. Back then, courtyards were filled with elders passing folklore on to the younger generation. However, competing for attention with China's accelerated burst into the 21st century, many of the traditional troupes are now struggling to survive. Drawing its storylines from myths, legends and tall tales dating back to feudal China, theatre has long held an integral place in Sichuan's cultural fabric, not only as entertainment, but also as a way of outlining and exemplifying social values. 'Theatre stories illustrate what is good and what is bad,' Zhang says. 'They teach people how to behave in Sichuan culture, how to be a good person and respectful to those around you, and how to overcome fear and enduring hardship in order to follow your dreams.' For Zhang, acting is not a job, but a lifestyle. 'I always wanted to be an actress. When I was little, there were many, many theatres. Big, elaborate theatres. And being an actress was a respectable occupation,' she says. 'But now, young people don't like to go to the theatre. The government does nothing to promote it and as a result it's dying.' Less than 10 years separate the 34-year-old Zhang from the young people she describes as 'belonging to another generation', but their worlds seem light years apart. Zhang was only a child when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 and Sichuan's story-telling tradition embarked on a profound renaissance. Making up for time lost during the Cultural Revolution - when all types of theatre and the retelling of historical accounts, apart from a select few theatres staging revolutionary modern Beijing opera, were repressed - the number of troupes in Chengdu mushroomed. Sunday was family theatre day, and it was then the seeds of Zhang's career were sown. 'I would wait all week for Sunday when my father would take me to the theatre. For him it was like a new beginning, finally free to participate in the old ways again. For me it was the fabulous costumes and the way actors could captivate their audience.' The boom days didn't last. Smothered under the weight of modernisation and the digital age starting in the 1990s, scores of Chengdu's traditional theatres either closed due to a lack of funding or were forced to reinvent themselves as tourist attractions. The performances created for foreigners do incorporate local flavour into their acts - like the hypnotic changing faces, where actors transform their identity by changing masks at the speed of light, spitting fire, hiding knives, acrobatics and mimed comedy skits. However, with ticket prices starting at 100 yuan and soaring upwards, they are well out of the reach of the local people. But the real Sichuan opera - held in dark, musty theatres and lacking the snazzy elements that attract the young - might not survive. For the older generation, this isn't just an art form at risk, but the very morals and ethics of their culture. 'Social values taught in theatres were once the backbone of our culture,' says a man named Lee who, at fiftysomething, is one of the youngest viewers in Iron Dragon Mountain's audience. 'Now that local theatres are being replaced by bang-bang western computer games and movies, who's going to teach the young?' Lee says, voicing a concern of the old school theatres of Sichuan province. It's a fear that has prompted the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Bureau to address the issue. It runs the Sichuan Opera School, which trains students in the art, and is researching pre-Cultural Revolution theatre techniques and plays. The bureau has also introduced courses on Sichuan opera's history, classics and logistics into universities and schools, and putting on performances in these institutions. It has also taken several troupes under its wings, funding their development and monitoring quality. However, as troupes primarily perform in tourist venues and for government dignitaries, the price of a ticket is still out of reach for most of Chengdu's 9.9 million citizens. The Bashu is the only theatre in Chengdu giving regular daily opera performances to local people. But, relying as it does on an elderly audience to pay the actors' meagre wages and upkeep, its future is shaky. Aware that the future of Sichuan's theatre is uncertain, the cultural bureau is trying to reinvent the traditional acts to suit a modern palate and a rapidly changing culture. Meanwhile, Zhang is determined to keep the art form alive. 'As long as the audience still loves me and the older people come to watch the show, I don't mind acting like a concubine.'