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At Its Inception

叶霖耘Lerra Ye 2018-07-05 14:21

For some old Shanghainese, the theatre is a place as familiar as old friends. Down the streets with all those London Planes, there had been good old times when the locals would slowly take a stroll after dinner, walk all the way to the nearest theatre, and settle themselves to a long expected film or drama for a lasting inspiration that would recall their memories of some wild and free fantasy from time to time. And such is the same case that once happened here,right at the venue of the previous Shanghai Cinema.


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Ups and downs


On the bustling Middle Fuxing Road, near South Shanxi Road, sits one of Shanghai’s oldest cinema, Shanghai Cinema.

Built as the last cinema in the city before the New China, Shanghai Cinema was initially designed to be a “theatre” rather than a cinema in the year of completion, 1942. The premiere show was put on in 1943. It was a comedy called “Women” of which the leading actress was Sun Jinglu. The poster was published on Shenbao on July 9th that year, with striking slogans like “A noble theatre of peerless gorgeousness” printed next to the “Grand Opening” . There’s no doubt that the theatre, though not massive in size, did live a time when all seemed ourishing and promising. Especially after the widely-admired  “Wilderness“ achieved a success of all time, the theatre started to add dancing performances to the playbill. They did even invited Hawaiian dance troupes for exclusive entertainment.


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But the prosperity was just a ash in the pan. Due to mismanagement and constant property disputes between successive sponsors, the theatre had no choice but to switch to movie projections since 1944, in order to sustain a subsistence level of operation. However, at the historical turning-point of liberation, the proprietor abruptly ran off to Hong Kong, regardless of the theatre’s fate, taking almost all the fund along with him. So that the staff had to constitute a guild to maintain the very least of the operation. As for Shanghai Theatre, it was the nale of the old days. In 1956, the theatre was nally taken over by the government, reconstructed into the proverbial “Shanghai Cinema”. At the French concession of Xuhui district, it was regarded as “cinema at the door” by generations of residents nearby ever since.

“In the 1990s, it wßas named ‘Shanghai Cinema’, a very common cinema that played second round of lms and having nothing special. So were the people coming in and out. Sometimes there were parents with children, or young couples holding hands.” said Chen Danyan. “The posters outside were not as fancy as what you see at Guotai, but instead of the sophistication, they remind you of the easy local vibe.”


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Out of the ashes


Before the reconstruction started in 2011, Shanghai Theatre was of no signi cance among the Millennials. After walking through 70 years of turbulent history, Shanghai Theatre looked shabby and outdated. Buried amid a mass of supermarkets, shabby diners and budget pharmacies, the theatre remained unvisited, with her edges and fringes worn out to nothing. Eventually, threatened by potential safety hazards, the theatre closed her door, again.

One could say that Shanghai Theatre had never had her lucky days, but, she did nally welcome her renascence after all.

Neri&Hu Design and Research Of ce was the one who took the refurbishment project. Though at the arriving of Lyndon Neri, the founding partner of the company, who graduated from College of Architecture at UC Berkeley, the case wasn’t as easy. The whole space was scattered into pieces with orders and disciplines entirely lost. As he thought, “Now and then the place have been refurbished for four or ve times, yet we have no idea which part is original and which one is a latter add-on. We have to realize that many things have been irrevocably changed, and it is when a new de nition must be found.”


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Nevertheless, few took Neri’s “rede nition” seriously enough to expect such a huge surprise on the theatre’s March debut. After six years of conversion, the theatre is now equipped with a brand-new façade. The rst oor adopts vertical copper stripes in shape of cameo to decorate the façade while the other parts are all covered with slates. The whole building looks like a magni - cent piece of huge stone oating above a golden curtain. The theatre entrance stretches inward, forming a semi-open public square, where locates the ticket of ce. Meanwhile as an extension of the street, the design enables curious audience and passers-by to peep into the inside of the structure. On the other hand, the huge stone hanging above the lintel is a golden touch to the theatre. At rst glance, it looks like a sheltering device, yet when you approach the entrance you’ll see it’s actually a terri c design of a skylight, creating a shift of light and shade effect. The majestic dignity of the cultural building is kept, so is the transparency for the light. "We hope this new theatre could become a place to slow down our life, to offer a tranquilized, still and digni ed experience, and to guide us to focus on the theatre art," said Neri.


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Staff working for the theatre also witnessed the difference brought by the designer's refurbishment decision. "One of the most distinguishable features of the new theatre is there are lots of skylights." During the designing process, the designer eliminated lots of traditional windows on the premise of retaining the original structure of the building. Rather, he focused on highlighting the natural light introduced by the three skylights on the rooftop. "Since the theatre is located at the downtown, it is surrounded by residential houses. If the windows open against housing estates, the effect would be barely satisfactory," the staff explained. While the three skylights exactly add to the last and the most poetic touch to the perfection of the theatre. "On a snowy night, I saw the full moon shining brightly through the skylight. And I began to realize there would be utterly different experience in different seasons and weather. I was amazed," said Tong Xin with emotion, the founder of Mouse Strap Theatre Studio, as well as the current Director of Operations of the theatre.


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Back to eden


It has been nearly half a year since the notable reopening of the theatre. And the theatre successfully attracted audience to come once again with the classical drama “Wilderness” played in April.

As the most successful play at the spot, “Wilderness” , which was rstly staged on Oct 9 ,1943, is adapted from Cao Yu’s namesake masterpiece. It was a story of revenge at Chinese countryside but is more renowned for its touching depiction of complex humanity. And this year, taking this signi cative drama as the reopening debut shows an af rmative prospect to correspond to the once glory time.


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Though the drama didn’t make every show to be full house, young faces showed up to everyone’s delight. Among those content people dedicated to the theatre’s renaissance, He Nian, director of the new-edtion “Wilderness” were also ful lled. “We saw audiences who’re not familiar with drama, staring at the poster at the entrance and asking how to buy a ticket. The theater brings people closer to drama as within a mere walking distance. It could have been 20 years since the last time they watched a drama, but when the audience come here once again, they can still experience the pains and joys through characters,thus to approach their true being and a feeling of presensce.”.


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