Hutong theaters revive Beijing's drama scene

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On a snowy evening in Beijing, the lanterns outside the Star Theater flickered with warmth.

Inside, the seats were packed with people waiting for the play, a romantic comedy, to begin.

Fan Xing, founder of the theater, would have been surprised at the scene back in 2009, when the newly built theater struggled to fill seats.

"There were no more than ten small theaters in Beijing at that time," he recalled.

Years later, smaller theaters are flourishing all over the capital. In the central Dongcheng District alone, there are 27 small theaters in business.

Broadway in the hutong

"Those in our neighborhood have nicknamed us 'Broadway in a hutong,'" Fan said with a grin.

Located in Chaoshou Hutong, Star Theater boasts five small performance spaces in its courtyard complex, with total capacity of no more than 1,000. Some of the spaces have stages surrounded by seats, while others don't even have a stage.

This kind of intimacy between the performers and audience is exactly what Fan wanted. Fan spent two years in Europe and the United States researching smaller theaters before founding his own.

Based on his experience in theater education, Fan figured there must be a market for small theaters in China.

"On the one hand, our drama students need a platform to show off their talents," he said. "On the other hand, we need more theaters in neighborhoods to give people freer access to the art of drama."

This led to Fan's decision to open a theater in one of Beijing's hutongs, the traditional alleyways that snake through the Chinese capital.In fact, most of Beijing's small theaters are located in the city's narrow lanes, whose distinctive courtyard buildings lend an artsy and romantic ambience.

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