Impresario par excellence

By Chen Jie (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-08 10:12
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Impresario par excellence
Many world-class musicians have performed at the Poly Theater. Pictured
above is Korean-American violin virtuoso Sarah Chang and below is Russian conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photos by Jiang Dong \ China Daily

Impresario par excellence

Moving with the times, Poly Theater's general manager has steered it to become a popular choice for world-class orchestras and companies touring the capital. Chen Jie reports

Conductor Yu Long of the China Philharmonic Orchestra put much thought into picking the pieces for a very special concert last Wednesday.

Held to mark the 10th anniversary of Poly Culture Group, all the chosen compositions alluded in some form or other to the varied businesses of the group.

One piece - the overture of Mozart's opera The Impresario - was dedicated to Ren Wei, general manager of Poly Theater Management Co., Yu said.

While the opera's plot revolves around the fate of a theater manager caught between squabbling sopranos, Ren, 50, is much more powerful than his counterpart in Mozart's opera. Besides the well-known Poly Theater in Beijing, he oversees 15 theaters across China, with three new theaters expected to join Poly's list late this year.

Some 30 years ago, when Ren was a violinist with the military's Zhanyou Song and Dance Company, he never imagined he would, one day, manage so many theaters. At that time, the classical orchestra's main job was to accompany the song and dance shows.

Ren did not want to do this all his life.

He and other young players would also often help with the backstage management. Gradually, the violinist discovered he was more interested in this than being under the spotlight.

Meanwhile, a new theater was being built.

In the mid-1980s, as more cultural events began to be held, old venues such as the Beizhan Theater, the Beijing Concert Hall and the Cultural Palace of Nationalities were found to be inadequate to meet the increasing demand for seats.

Impresario par excellence

The government decided to build a large multi-functional theater. Named the International Culture Exchange Center, the Ministry of State Security raised the funds to begin construction in 1986 but owing to financial problems, it was not completed till the Beijing Foreign Trade and Economic Bureau took over in 1990. The theater opened the very next year under its new name, International Theater.

"Its opening in April, 1991, was a big event. People felt honored to watch a show at the new International Theater," recalls Ren, who left the orchestra in 1988 to become one of the first to join the new theater's staff.

In 1991, the 900-seat Beizhan Theater could be rented for 600 yuan a day. A ticket to a song and dance show cost 3 yuan. The rent for the Beijing Concert Hall was 300 yuan per day and a ticket to a concert cost just 2 yuan. In contrast, the 1,500-seat International Theater with its state-of-art facilities boasted a rent of 6,000 yuan.

"It was a sky-high price at that time, but we provided the best in terms of facilities and helped the performing ensembles market and promote their shows," Ren tells China Daily.

The theater was finally named Poly Theater when the Poly Group bought it in 1993. Founded in February 1993, the state-owned China Poly Group Corporation started as a military business, before they moved on to real estate and minerals. But as its founder and former general manager He Ping and his wife, Deng Rong - daughter of China's late leader Deng Xiaoping - both love art and are committed to cultural enterprises, arts and culture naturally became Poly Group's fourth major business.

As of now, of all the 125 state-owned companies under the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council, Poly Group is the only one engaged in the culture business.

After Poly Group took over, the theater began to take a close look at the performance market. In the 1990s, most of the shows in Beijing were either government exchange projects or company celebrations and only a few of them were paid-for shows.

"While it was easy to make money from renting out the theater, we wanted to do something different," says Ren. A visit to Broadway, Las Vegas and the Moulin Rouge in Paris made him realize that a theater, like a label, needs unique programs of its own.

With an eye on foreign tourists, in 1998, Poly Theater collaborated with China Acrobatics Company to produce Soul of China. There were 120 shows of this in 1998 and more than 200 in 1999.

"Tour agents told me that many tourists to Beijing expressed an interest in watching the show. It became a must-do night stop on their program schedule," he says.

Poly Theater's achievements convinced the Poly Group to launch the Poly Cultural Group in 2000 and expand into a wide range of cultural areas. Ren was promoted to general manger.

Although acrobatic shows sold well, Ren decided to change the direction to classical music and ballet, both of which witnessed a boom in China in the new century.

To prepare for it, Poly Theater launched a major renovation, updating the acoustic system and re-building a 110-sq meter orchestra pit, two VIP balconies and 13 dressing rooms that can now accommodate 200 performers simultaneously.

In 2001, the newly furbished Poly Theater presented more than 240 performances, including 90 concerts. The theater became the first choice of all world class orchestras and companies touring Beijing.

Ren's career, too, saw a new breakthrough when Poly Culture Group won the bid to manage the Shanghai Oriental Art Center in 2004. It was the first theater in China to have diversified ownership and management.

"Thanks to favorable government policies, new theaters are mushrooming in not only the big cities but also in some second- and third-tier cities. But while government funding can help build beautiful venues with sophisticated facilities, it is professional theater management that converts it into a real theater and prevents it from becoming just another government or company conference hall," Ren says.

Poly Culture has also spearheaded China's first theater chain.

Besides the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, Poly's management team has worked in theaters in Dongguan, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Zhengzhou, Huizhou, Yantai, Changzhou, Chongqing, Wenzhou, Taizhou and Hefei, in the past five years.

In Dongguan, Guangdong province, Poly Culture was involved in building the Poly Yulan Grand Theater.

Dongguan is known for its trading and light manufacturing industry and was considered a rising town "rich but without culture."

The local government decided to change this image and engaged Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott to design the Yulan Theater, which opened in November 2005. As one of the consultants on the project, Poly Culture took over its management.

In an area where a performance ticket can sell for 2,000 yuan, Poly Yulan Theater made sure the tickect costs for its shows were capped at 480 yuan.

"We want to attract more people to the theater," Ren says.

In Changzhou, Jiangsu province, Poly Culture collaborates with local vocational schools to train students in show business management.

"What the industry lacks most is professionals who know both art and the market," Ren says.

Despite an established theater chain under its label, Ren has found that theater is just a platform and it needs a large number of shows to fill it.

Over the past decade, Poly Culture has been involved in producing a number of original shows. But this is one area where more can be done and Ren recognizes it.

"It will be Poly's next priority while continuing to expand our theater chain," says the veteran theater manager.