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China’s booming Children’s Theatre sector

An opportunity for the UK

Children’s Theatre is the fastest growing sector in China’s live entertainment industry. As education policy encourages greater integration with the arts, the number of theatres expand, and disposable income amongst the middle class continues to rise, the country provides opportunities for UK children’s theatre companies.

Last year President Xi Jinping announced that the “lack of innovation ability has been the Achilles’ heel for economic development.” Drawing direct links between creativity, the arts and economic success, arts programmes are being rolled out across the country to schools. Many schools are including drama classes as part of the curriculum and drama summer schools are becoming popular in the major urban areas.

Furthermore, alongside the major dedicated children’s theatres like Shanghai International Children’s Art Theatre and Beijing Children’s Art Theatre (two of China’s new 120 theatres built in the last 15 years with over 1000 capacity) new smaller children’s theatres are appearing like the Xiao Wan Jia Theatre in Shanghai and Madame Tussaud’s new venue in Beijing - discussed further here.

Despite a slowdown in the economy, there remains a massive increase in disposable income amongst the middle class. Tickets prices for children’s theatre reflect this, increasing 150% between 2014 and 2015, making the national average ticket 250rmb (approx. £30 GBP, almost £10 higher than the UK average). With higher prices, parents are also becoming increasingly discerning of quality.

Consequently, the children’s theatre sector in China is booming, with revenue increasing by £18 million in 2015 to a total of £102 million (the UK’s 2014 gross revenue from family theatre was £12.3 million). This is an increase of over 20% from 2014, almost three times faster than the musical theatre sector. Children’s theatre now claims 13% of the revenue from all the performing arts in China.

Looking abroad

Following demand, leading children’s theatres are looking abroad for productions and according to their deputy director, Zhao Yajing, the Shanghai International Children’s Art Theatre imports 80% of its performances. Even smaller venues like Little Ones Big Views (seating just over 100) have booked 15 foreign performances for their 2016 programme.

The same applies to children’s theatre festivals: in 2016 Beijing’s Children’s Theatre Festival hosted 46 international productions, seen by a total of 160,000 people. Based on the success of this and other festivals such as the Shanghai International Children’s Festival, the number of international festivals is growing: the Mianyang Children’s Theatre Festival in Sichuan is a new addition to 2017.

In China, UK theatre for young audiences is already highly regarded. ‘We love Scottish Theatre’ affirms Forrina Chen, founder and programmer for Little Ones Big Views theatre; this year the theatre has already hosted a three-week run of White by Catherine Wheels for Shanghai’s 2-4 year olds. Forrina is also excited about working with Barrowland Ballet, who will be back in the city this year for their second consecutive year.

However, despite opportunities for UK children’s theatre in China, cultural differences remain a barrier, and direct personal connections are crucial - ‘We’re not going to consider a collaboration unless we involve a partner we trust’, warns Luke Ma, Vice President of Shanghai Media Group, which frequently programmes international and children’s theatre in its eight theatres across Shanghai.

- BOP China Team