THE curtain rises tomorrow on Children's Day on the spectacular new Shanghai Children's Theatre and children's entertainment complex on the former World Expo site in Puxi.
"We hope that it won't just be a simple theater but a fairyland where children can enjoy themselves for a whole day," says Cai Jinping, director of the Children's Art Theater, a troupe of China Welfare Institute, which operates the new venue.
The first performance will be the original musical drama "The Happiness of Growing Up," to be staged through June 30.
It will be followed by a series of performances in the 2013 Shanghai International Children's Drama Festival through August.
The theater, in the former SMG Pavilion of the 2010 World Expo Shanghai, is the latest incarnation of the Expo site. Situated on the Huangpu River, it is bounded by Xizang Road S. and Miaojiang Road.
It is also the city's latest attempt to fill the need for quality children's theater in Shanghai. It will be the fourth children's theater in the city, the other three much smaller.
The theater venue covers 10,528 square meters and seats 1,088 guests at its Central Theater, equipped with the latest technology and features on a children's scale. It is designed to deliver colorful, exciting and diverse theater.
The Central Theater features a 360-degree rotary stage, which can rise or descend, and a 270-degree projection curtain wall. The stage can be circular, rectangular or T-shaped for different performance requirements. It can also become a picture frame.
The theater also includes 3D and 4D cinemas, a small theater stage for children's activities and performances and a 3,000-square-meter outdoor playground.
Both original Chinese children's theater and foreign productions for children will be staged.
The target audience is aged 14 and younger.
According to city statistics, there are around 2.7 million registered children under age 18 in the permanent resident population, accounting for 11.9 percent of the total.
Nearly 2 million children are under 14 years old.
Assuming each child sees at least one stage performance a year, there is a huge demand, says Wang Luning, the vice president of the China Welfare Institute.
Only four theaters, including the newest one, cater for children and are designed for a young audience. They are the 400-seat Malan Flower Rehearsal Hall, the 300-seat Little Friend Theater, and the 200-seat Shanghai Puppet Theater Exhibition Center.
Madam Soong's push
Some theater venues also host occasional children's performances.
Children's theater in Shanghai goes back to 1958 when the Children's Art Theater of the China Welfare Institute was founded by Madam Soong Ching-ling, who devoted much of her life to children's education.
Soong insisted on giving children the best and providing them with many opportunities to learn. She said drama was especially educational because it entertains and lights up the imagination.
The first designated children's theater was established on Yan'an Road M. in the Jinmen Theater, which had around 1,000 seats. It staged 263 plays and 5,000 performances up to 1997, when the 74-year-old building was determined to be unsafe and was closed. Around 4.85 million people had watched performances, including 3.58 million children and teenagers, representing 74 percent of the total.
"The impact of education through entertainment has been widely recognized. We are proud that the children's drama produced by the theater had a positive influence on the childhood of several generations in China," says Wang of the China Welfare Institute.
Wang says she has encountered quite a few successful people who said they benefited from children's drama while growing up, learning about right and wrong, good and evil, kindness and cruelty. She has received many letters from children and their parents, saying that stage performances helped teach good habits, such as being honest and polite and saving water.
Classic dramas such as "Malan Flower," "Wild Goose Saisai" and "The Flying White Horse" were part of the collective memory of many adults and middle-aged people today, says Cai from the Children's Art Theater.
Over the years the impact of children's theater has declined, Cai says. While the theater company has staged the required 330 shows a year, most are performed in small venues in remote areas that are not well known.
"Children's drama is a low-profit industry; we cannot afford the high-end downtown venues," says Cai. When the company owned its own theater, production costs were much lower, but without its own home, "small theaters in remote areas are all we can afford."
And most of these remote theaters do not have appropriate facilities on a children's scale. Many sets and props are too large.
Though the Little Friend Theater in the Children's Palace can stage some small-scale performances, the stage is not suitable for standard children's dramas. To address the problem, the theater converted the nearby workshop for stage props into a theater with 400 seats in 2006.
Still, that's far from enough.The grand Shanghai Children's Theatre venue on the Expo site was an enormous gift to the theater and local children. For years, Cai had been urging the city to provide larger facilities.
Modern children's drama has more requirements for multi-dimensional effects and high-tech stage facilities, says Cai. The new theater stage, which can change in shape, offers more opportunities for creativity, but also poses challenges since most of the company's dramas have been designed for picture-frame stage.
The opening drama at the new theater, "The Happiness in Growing up," was designed for a traditional stage and had its premiere at Shanghai Culture Square last year. But this version has been adapted for more innovative staging.
The new, nonprofit theater will also be required to depend more on its own resources and the market, so it considering raising ticket prices, according to Cai. Tickets used to range from 16-80 yuan (US$2.6-13) and the new average price is expected to be below 100 yuan.
"We will work hard to support ourselves, but we may still need government support since the children's art industry cannot completely be dictated by the market if we want to ensure quality performances and our nonprofit character," Cai says.
Although the new theater and its related venues can help fill the need for children's theater and entertainment, one big venue is far from enough to satisfy the cultural needs of local children, says Wang from the China Welfare Institute.
"Children's cultural needs are diverse. Children's theater, library and science museums are all important."