Live from London: the Beijing entrepreneur beaming the best of British theatre into China

Li Congzhou and his production company are giving Chinese audiences a close look at some of the world’s acting greats without leaving their city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 10:22pm

Li Congzhou’s goal is to give Chinese theatregoers the best seat in the house of British live drama without leaving the country.

Through his production company Beijing ATW Culture Media, Li has beamed British acting greats such as Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston into cinemas in China, immersing audiences in performances staged thousands of kilometres away.

It’s a growing business – last year he put more than 30 productions on the big screen and this year the plan is to do 50 as audiences seek out more diverse cultural experiences.

Li, 31, has long been a fan of Western theatre but he came to entertainment management via politics. He was studying international politics at Peking University in Beijing about a decade ago when he started helping out with campus productions and interning at the National Theatre of China.

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He then went to New York to study law for a year before transferring to Columbia University in 2012 to study theatre management and production.

That’s when Li came across “theatre live”, live broadcasts of top stage productions to cinemas and arts centres around the world.

The best known programme is National Theatre Live, launched by the Royal National Theatre in London in 2009.

“The [cameras give] an exquisite view and capture perfectly the details of the performance, some of which are easily missed by the audience in the theatre,” Li said.

Li finished his studies and returned to China in 2015, just as Britain and China were engaging in a year of cultural exchange.

It was great timing. He set up a company and teamed up with the National Theatre of China to produce the Chinese version of the Royal National Theatre’s award-winning play War Horse.

As executive producer, Li was responsible for production, finances and legal matters, building a foundation of trust that enabled him to become the sole distributor of National Theatre Live in China that year.

In the 2½ years since, Li’s firm has distributed 46 titles from the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Broadway and Russia, playing to 220,000 people in 25 cities throughout the country.

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His team has expanded from two to six and the broadcasts reach as far afield as Lanzhou and Xian in western China. He charges 120 yuan (US$19) per person and all of the money he makes comes from ticket sales.

“We don’t do other fundraising, nor do we ask for any sponsorship,” Li said.

He said the most popular productions were British plays, especially ones featuring Cumberbatch and Hiddleston in Shakespearean roles.

“The audience is mainly young people aged 18 to 35, highly educated and open to foreign culture,” Li said.

Beijing and Shanghai were the main markets but Chengdu had also proved fertile ground.

It’s an endeavour that gives him a great deal of personal satisfaction.

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“There was one wintry Sunday when there was a big snowstorm but the auditorium at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre was full at 9am to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. It was sensational. I remember that day very clearly – November 22, 2015,” Li said.

One of his favourite productions was The Audience starring Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in conversation with the 12 prime ministers of her reign.

“The lines are fantastic and full of political background. It can fan the audience’s interest in learning more about British culture,” Li said.

“There are still many people who haven’t seen theatre live [but when they do] they’ll like it and want to see more.”