Wed, Jul 17, 2013 - Page 12 News List

From philosophy to theater and back

Taipei Arts Festival artistic director Keng Yi-wei says Taipei’s performance art scene should avoid creating a theater environment similar to Broadway and the West End

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff Reporter

Keng Yi-wei believes the world is a stage for Taiwan’s artists.

Photo courtesy of TAF

This year, Keng Yi-wei (耿一偉) enters his second of a three-year assignment as the artistic director of the Taipei Arts Festival (台北藝術節, TAF). A part-time assistant professor at the Department of Theater Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts (國立台北藝術大學), Keng has spent many years traveling the world watching theater, and has engaged in a wide range of theatrical forms, from children’s theater, through experimental theater to theater for the disabled. In a telephone interview with the Taipei Times, Keng spoke about his new role as an arts festival administrator.

Keng didn’t start out in the theater. He majored in philosophy at National Taiwan University (台灣大學), and then traveled to Prague, where a series of accidents saw a detour in his academic plans into the realm of music and theater. He returned to Taiwan in 1999, and has since been particularly associated with the Guling Street Avant-garde Theater (牯嶺街小劇場).

“I have been involved with many different aspects of theater,” Keng said, “and this is an advantage for a festival director. A broad network is important for this job, and because I have been involved in so many areas, my network is pretty good.”

While this network, and his wide-ranging experience, has proved invaluable, Keng said that there was still much to learn in his current position. Last year, his first as TAF artistic director, he sought to provide theater with a broader audience base by focusing on comedies, which he believed would have greater popular appeal than more serious theater.

“Last year was my first as an artistic director. I wanted more people to know about this arts festival … I chose material that tended toward comedy, as a way of bringing in new audiences. But actually it didn’t make much difference to our ticket sales. I had an insight: if you make a play about laborers, laborers will not necessarily come and see it. A play about doctors will not necessarily attract doctors. Whatever the material, the people coming to the theater are usually the same … Last year I thought that the content of the shows would impact on ticket sales. Now I realize that is not the case, I feel less constrained. My job is to pick shows because I think they are interesting enough and will make up a diverse and exciting program. Ticket sales can be left to the marketing side of the operation.”

Keng has brought in a diverse range of productions for this year’s festival, but more importantly, he has followed on from an initiative begun last year of encouraging collaborations between local and foreign artists.

“Firstly, because these are co-creations, this necessarily means that what emerges is a new production. And the festival needs new productions. Secondly, it is a question of networking. If foreign artists come here to work, they will get to know local theater groups, and this relationship will grow. If it were not for the platform of this festival, most local theater groups would not have the experience to collaborate with foreign groups. This kind of stimulus is important, because our perspective [in Taiwan] can easily become too narrow. The best way to provide stimulus is by bringing people together … It can establish international relations [between artists] that will lay the groundwork for other collaborations in future.”

Overcoming obstacles

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