Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 13 News List

Testing the limits at CKS

Local small theater groups will showcase their talents at Taiwan's hallowed performance venue for the 15th Experimental Theater Festival

By Diana Freundl  /  STAFF REPORTER

Some love it, others loathe it. If you're looking for two hours of entertainment fluff then experimental theater is not the answer.But for content that challenges social and intellectual trends and is often poetic in nature, it supplies a healthy dose of brain candy.

Under the theme, "New Ideas Series," the National Chiang Kai-shek Cultural Center is showcasing the works of four local theater groups at the 15th annual Experimental Theater Festival. Their motivation for the series is to expand its audience among the theater-going public, which is not always receptive to new ideas.

"During our regular performances most of our audience is from members of the local theater community. With the festival we hope to see new faces emerging, said Lee Hui-mei (李惠美), manager of the program planning division at CKS Cultural Center.

Funding for the experimental theater is provided by the government and without its financial backing there likely wouldn't be any alternative to mainstream arts, Lee said. While not having to rely on private sponsorship allows for more freedom over content, it can also create laziness among performers.

"When almost all of the funding is given to you, it becomes easy to take for granted that it will always be there, no matter what," said Craig Quintero, artistic director and founder of Riverbed Theatre, one of the participating groups.

Holding a doctorate in performance art with a thesis on Taiwan's "little theater movement," Quintero is well versed in the evolution of experimental theater in Taiwan. "In the past [early 1980s] it was used as a form of expression against the government. It provided a venue for performance artists to protest government policies," he said, adding that its political content attracted a number of viewers who might otherwise have no interest in theater arts.

With the end of martial law, however, the need to disguise dissidence under the mask of avant-garde art dissipated, as did a large portion of the audience. Groups are now searching for their own sense of identity, Quintero said. While companies define themselves according to specific social issues, such as gay and gender rights or environmentalism, they do so at a cost of alienating the general public.

"As soon as you start dealing with these niche-like issues, you end up preaching to the converted and then it becomes an issue of how you're going to attract a wider audience," he said.

Experimental drama in Taiwan may have found a solution by becoming more interdisciplinary. In the last three years a trend has emerged that combines original scripts with sets designed by artists and music composed by local indie and electronic musicians. The result is more innovative productions and a new breed of patrons.

Opening the show this weekend is Honan Opera Troupe (國立國光劇團豫劇隊), one of the most established alternative theater companies in Taiwan. The group has made a name for itself by staging contemporary theater adaptations of traditional Chinese Henan opera, a style of opera that is spoken and sung in Mandarin but with a Henan accent.

Test the Wife! Murder the Wife! is their first modern opera said Ling Ming-hsia (林明霞) the troupe's writer, director and founder. The script is a loose adaptation of the legend, Da Pi Guan, about the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi who tested the loyalty of his wife by faking his own death. While maintaining its trademark Henan vocals, the troupe revives this classic tale of cruel intentions by giving it an updated and female perspective. The combination of classical opera movement with contemporary music, composed specifically for this show, creates a unique and fresh take on traditional Chinese opera, Ling said.

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