Thu, Dec 17, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Mining a town’s history for a musical

In a stark departure from its Zen-based, meditative drumming works, U-Theatre has produced a musical that explores the history of the former gold mining town of Jiufen in New Taipei City

By Diane Baker  /  Staff reporter

U-Theatre founder Liu Ruo-yu will appear in the company’s new musical, Town of Gold, which tells the story of the old gold mining town of Jiufen.

Photo Courtesy of U-Theatre

Liu Ruo-yu (劉若瑀) has been best known in recent years for her work with the Zen-based drumming troupe U-Theatre (優人神鼓) that she founded in 1988 and the rather ascetic lifestyle it entails.

The company is renowned for its drumming, martial arts training system and its very long yunjiao (雲腳, “cloud feet”) walks — around Taiwan and in several other nations. It just held a three-day walk for young drummers early last month in Taitung County.

So pictures of Liu dressed in a bright red, flower-bedecked cheongsam, hair in a bun, might come as a shock to those who are used to seeing her in more simple cotton and linen outfits.

However, those who remember Liu from her days as one of Taiwan’s most prominent stage actresses with the Lan Ling Theatre — she won a Golden Bell in the early 1980s — are less surprised by the glamour shots for the company’s new show, Town of Gold (淘金去), which opens in New Taipei City’s Jiufen District (九份) on Friday next week.

Liu quit the stage to go to the US to study for a masters’ degree in theater arts at New York University. After graduation, she was selected to join a one-year-workshop in California led by famed avant-garde Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

It was Grotowski’s challenge her to explore herself and her heritage that led her found U-Theatre upon her return home, and focus on more traditional Taiwanese folk rituals and music. She wanted to create theater works that would enable both the performers and their audiences to transcend conventional visions.

The company’s latest production, which is a big departure for U-Theatre, promises to do just that. It is a musical and its 21-member cast includes several actors, actresses and singers, in addition to Liu herself.

Liu and U-Theater were invited to create a show by the New Taipei City Cultural Affairs Bureau, which wanted to give visitors a better understanding of Jiufen’s history.

Company members spent about a year interviewing elderly residents of Jiufen and surrounding area, looking for stories about the town’s history, its culture and the changes it has seen, as well as collecting folk songs and once-popular tunes.

The show focuses on changes to the town during the Japanese era and after World War II and is largely told through the eyes of the women in the story.

While Liu’s skills as an actress focused more on straight theater, she said singing is something she enjoyed as a child, and she grew up listening to her father singing.

Town of Gold will be performed in Jiufen’s Shengping Theater (昇平戲院), which was built in 1914 during the Japanese colonial era. It was Taiwan’s first — and for the time, biggest — modern theater.

The Baroque-style building was renovated in 1961, but closed in 1986 amid the decline of the town’s mining industry.

The theater, like much of Jiufen, was highlighted in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) 1989 award-winning film A City of Sadness, which triggered a revival of interest in the town, and the theater became a popular backdrop for several commercials and other productions.

The theater was renovated and reopened as a cinema in September 2011. Now it will serve as the backdrop for a new telling of Jiufen’s story.

Jiufen is a bit off the beaten track for a theater production, but the town can be reached by bus No. 1062 from the Taipei Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT stop, or by a combination train/bus trip to the train station in Rueifang District (瑞芳) and then changing to bus numbers 788, 827 or 825.

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