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A Little Off-Broadway


Text by Gao Yuan Photographs by Feng Jin

Emerging as China’s cultural hub, Beijing is home to more than 20 small theaters. Oddly, 1,463 kilometers away in Shanghai, such theaters are scarce. Although prestigious theaters are even more rare, Downstream Garage (Mecooon) stands out as a hip hangout.

Hiding in southwest Shanghai, Downstream Garage utilizes a shabby four-story warehouse. If not for the various theatrical posters and notice boards on the walls of its hallways, visitors would have a hard time identifying the “garage” as a theater.

When ascending to the third floor, first-time visitors are often pleasantly surprised. A bar complements a simple stage, which emits a mysterious aura glowing amidst the black. At dusk, an amateur troupe begins rehearsing Woyzeck, a play written by Georg B¨1chner, based on the true story of a man who was executed for murdering his wife. Except for the “professional” director, the rest of the company is made up of students and white-collar workers with normal day jobs. The young people start discussing the plot and rehearsing lines. Although they’re scheduled to perform for an audience this evening, it seems that a few actors haven’t yet mastered their lines. Luckily, the audience here is forgiving - made up primarily of younger wide-eyed theater fans. Patrons learn about Downstream Garage shows on the internet and travel from every corner of Shanghai to pack the remote warehouse for a free show, making the place a big, cozy, noisy home.

The mastermind behind the theater, Wang Jingguo, watches silently from the shadows of the wings.

After graduating from Shanghai Theater Academy, Wang lived in United States for several years. In 1998, he returned to Shanghai and eventually founded the Zhenhan Cafe Theatre. Early on, he expected the endeavor to be easy: Customers would swarm to his playhouse to chat about art over a cup of well-brewed espresso. However, things turned out differently. Even though he saw increasing numbers of theater patrons over time, they were reluctant to open their wallets for coffee. And those who actually purchased coffee seemed to contrast the drama fans. Ultimately, Wang’s dream of creating a cafe theatre fizzled out.

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