The yearly French amateur play has become part of the social life in for Shanghai French people. Their latest performance happened a few days ago at the drama art center on Hua Shan Lu. The French community does not seem to be the only one producing amateur plays, as I have heard before about performance in English, made by British or other communities. Amateur theater is often a feature of life remote from home countries. Little of home cultural live ever makes it to far away cities like Shanghai, thus people create it locally. It may not always be as good as the original, but there is little to compare it with. Besides the cultural experience, it has also become one of the yearly ritual of the community, a social event where people can catch up with the latest news of each other. Amateur French or English theater are not new to Shanghai, as foreigners in Old Shanghai also created plays. At least three foreign drama societies can be found in the excellent “Old Shanghai Clubs & Associations” book from Nenad Djordjevic.
Amateur theater plays started in the late XIX century in a theater on Yuan Ming Yuan Lu. It was rebuilt in 1874 as the Lyceum theater and the premier was a play from the English speaking Amateur Dramatic Club, with the orchestra playing compositions by Mendelssohn and Strauss. I read that about 600 people attended, that must have been a large share of the foreigners living in Shanghai at that time. The ADC was the merger of Footpads and Rangers, the two (!) amateur art troops of Shanghai in 1866. The Lyceum theatre must have been the place to be then, as the first screening of cinematograph took place there in 1897, just tow years after the first commercial presentation in France by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. The theater was located next to the Lyceum building on the Rock Bund project, but does not exist anymore. ADC was not the only amateur art troop as the French community also created its “Association Dramatique Française“, a tradition restarted in 1998.
The Lyceum Theater was rebuilt in the French Concession, at the corner of Rue Cardinal Mercier and Rue Bourgeat (today’s Maoming Lu and Changle Lu) in 1931. Located next the new Cercle Sportif Français (now Okura Garden Hotel) and the Cathay apartment (now old Jing Jiang hotel) as well as near to Cathay Theater, Tian Shan apartments andBrooklyn court, it helped making this part of the French Concession the new place to be for culture and lifestyle. The theater saw the early career of Margaret Hookham who was born in England but followed her parents to Tianjin and then Shanghai for a few years, before going back to England in 1933 and become know as dance star Margot Fonteyn.