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Candor Impressario, Melody Chen

Melody Chen is the owner, director, and everything else of Candor; your host for dinner and a show from Wednesday to Saturday night in the two-story speakeasy-style venue in the Lyceum Theater. On stage: original cabaret productions from the mind of Melody herself, drawing on classic Western cabaret history, modern theater and dance, and pop culture from the past, present, and beyond. Tickets to the show are 200rmb and table packages are available for guests that want to splash out more for the full experience. Look for "CandorShanghai" on WeChat for more information and booking.

SmSh talked to Melody about life on a stage and life as a stage in Shanghai.


What is Candor?

It's a cabaret. I think it's right there in the name: Candor means honesty. It's an intimate place. Our stage is not big and our audience is all in one room on the same level as the show. Performers come off the stage and interact, and I believe you can feel the energy and the honesty of the show. You can feel our performers deliver their messages, express themselves, and so on. And hopefully, you can have a lot of fun!

But yes, it's a cabaret, and we can talk about what that means. It's a big category and really versatile. I mean, it started in the 1890s in France and had its heydey in German in the '20s, which is like 100 years already. It's theater, it's music, it's dance, it's drag, it's ballroom, it's burlesque, it's comedy, it's drama — it's all these things. Along with eating and drinking, of course.

I always look to the UK-centric definition of cabaret which is basically performance without a fourth wall. The performers directly talk with the audience for example, and interact with them, dancing and performing in the audience's space. So it's all about intimacy and performance and a conversation between people. And honesty, which goes back to the name.

Maybe it fits with Shanghai at this moment, because people are looking for something all in one place. Before you used to go to have dinner here and then drinks somewhere else. But these days people are looking for something all-in-one.

Rebellious Beginnings

I began studying drama when I was in high school. Actually, it's kind of a funny story. Our Headmaster was so stupid. I think they went to Japan or something because one year they came back and brought in a school uniform for all of us. The sailor outfits — which are actually pretty cute. But all the girls were made to cut their hair super short. I didn't want to cut my hair so I started a drama club. I was just 16 but so no, no, no, there's no way.

I mean, I just don't like being told what to do. So, I was searching all the rules to figure out a way to get out of it. So, I found out that in this school, there's no drama. For performance, sometimes you need long hair, right? So the headmaster let me put together a drama team, and I invited old retired actors to come and teach us. But from then on I began to love it.

Finding Inspiration

I write the shows at Candor, and we're trying to do a new one every month. That's the goal. Inspiration comes from no place in particular. You could hear a song and it gives you your story. Or a movie or a dream you had last night — you can get your story from that.

Our opening show is called "The Lyceum". It's inspired by the history of this venue, the Lyceum Theater, one of the oldest in China. If you go and walk around the halls you can see all the old shows and actors who performed here over the years. It's really amazing. But yes, it's about a girl that comes to Shanghai from Paris to perform in a cabaret club. And she comes here, and all these ghosts and spirits performing different art forms from the past come out to her. So, the show is looking at what's happening now, the theater that came before, and then also, what might happen in the future...

We have a small team doing the shows. And we do everything ourselves. There's me but also Alexander doing the choreography and Kate, who also sings in the show, she's also helping with the costumes. She's super talented. She has a million ideas. Really, we are all doing like five jobs. I try to tell this to my investors, like: "You should see how expensive this would be if we actually hired all the people we need! Producers, costume designers, songwriters!"

So, it's a small team and our performers are coming from all over the world and we come together...

Setting: Shanghai. Enter, Stage Right.

My mom is from one place my dad is from another. I was born in another place and then my family moved to another place again, which none of us are from. Shanghai is the longest city I've ever lived in. I studied stage direction in Beijing drama school, which I really, really loved. It was my best year there, like one of the best years of my life. After graduation, I was working in production and film, and it wasn't really what I wanted to do. So I came to Shanghai...

My favorite part of the city is Xuhui, just walking around the streets, enjoying the trees and the architecture. I've lived in the area for a while now and I still appreciate it every day. They just tore down a wall that used to cover a park and I pass it every day like, "Oh my god, this is so beautiful."

I'm in the industry and I'm working all the time so I don't really get out to bars or restaurants much. I mean, any place is good if you have the right company.

On Overcoming Challenges and Finding Special Moments

My favorite thing about doing Candor... well, when the people watch the show, I watch the people. And I love seeing girls giggling at the jokes or couples getting close during romantic moments. And I love the sound of applause. Yeah, when I feel the energy from the audience, I think, "Oh yeah, this is why I'm doing this. This is why I've spent my whole life doing this..."

The most challenging part is... well, all the forced closures, of course. We're a theater space so we were the first to close and the last to reopen. On top of that, this is a protected heritage building, which undergoes mandatory refurbishment every 10 years — so we were closed for that as well. I thought I was being smart, escaping to Bali in 2020 but got stuck there. So it was torture, just trying to draw plans for this place, and then on top of that trying to find investors who would take a chance on cabaret which is... you know, not the most stable investment!

So, that was the hardest part. When everything stopped. Everything. Construction, deals, agreements, everything had to be redone.

Shanghai These Days...

I guess people are a little more careful with their pockets these days. Because you never know.

Well, at the same time, you know you have to leave the past behind. You don't forget the past but you leave it behind. And then you don't take things for granted.

You enjoy what you have right now. And then probably be more humble.


[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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