Cheaper admission just the ticket for landmark venue

Updated: 2011-11-18 07:54

By Raymond Zhou and Zhang Yuchen (China Daily)

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Watching the numbers

NCPA keeps a database that tracks all ticket sales and provides a trove of information. The sales trend for its own production of Jane Eyre, for example, is a testament to the power of positive word-of-mouth.

For its first run, in June 2009, 20 percent of tickets went out 50-40 days before it opened; then 20 percent more the next 10 days; and finally 30 percent. For the second run, the following December, 30 percent of tickets were snatched up in the first 10 days of advance sales, reflecting a heightened eagerness among potential theatergoers. By the time the play opened, the house was sold out.

A different June show sold 90 percent for its first run, with two extra shows added at the last minute. But when it returned the next year, in late October, attendance dropped to 60 percent. Marketing director Wang wouldn't identify the show.

Wang noted that there are seasonal fluctuations, with the months after Chinese New Year and the end of March the slowest. "Some venues would simply close for the time," he said.

"Other theaters do not need such a database system because they do not participate in pricing, but only charge the fee for venue rental," Wang said.

Center as producer

In the first three years, the center had 15 productions of its own, ranging from Peking opera to dance drama to Italian opera. The productions are usually mammoth in scale and crowd-pleasing in style.

This year, the pace has quickened, to six more original productions, including two Rossini operas and a Tosca that was so acclaimed it will be revived within the year.

Some of the center's detractors accuse it of favoring foreign artists over local ones in its promotion. "Also, it would push its own productions regardless of their artistic merit," said one critic who did not want to reveal his identity. "But an outsider like Meng Jinghui, the avant-garde playwright and director, can only have his most tested and popular play staged inside the giant egg", the center's nickname.

(The prestige of getting into the national theater, which is the Chinese name for NCPA, also puts outside producers at a disadvantage in bargaining.)

Wang admitted that the center gives preference to repertory pieces. "When selecting Huangmei opera programs, I took two audience favorites, but the production company insisted on presenting a new work as well. That one flopped. You can't fight the market."

Looking far ahead

Although unable to change the status quo of institutional supply and purchase, the center, in Wang's words, is a force to be reckoned with in bringing the industry to the lines of market adjustment.

On his part, he disapproves of some competitors who deliberately set artificially low prices for top-notch programs, such as concerts under the baton of world-renowned conductors. "That throws a monkey wrench into the Beijing market."

If only a few seats are priced below cost, it could be seen as an enticement for low-income patrons. However, if a whole show is thus priced, it is not healthy competition.

One of the center's consistent endeavors is to nurture a new generation of enthusiasts of high art. It hires lecturers for its outreach program that goes into classrooms, corporate cafeterias and community centers. The benefit, which would take a long time to materialize, would go to all houses of performing arts, not just one theater.

In NCPA's first few months of operation, it experimented with standing tickets. Now, some of the performances offer orchestra seats for students that may turn current cash-shy youngsters into future patrons.

"We do not want prices to spiral out of control," Wang said. "We are working to turn the performing arts market into a virtuous cycle."

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