Taiwan’s artists go to market

The Huashan performance showcase last month provided an opportunity for small and medium-sized groups to show international arts curators that Taiwan has a hugely diverse arts scene

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 - Page 12

Small theater groups have a notoriously rough ride in Taiwan, with limited government funding and a small and fractured theater-going public, depriving them of the financial security that might allow them to build up an established repertoire, or to support the depth of talent that permits bolder, more mainstream ventures.

One of the greatest challenges for these groups is simply to be seen, and events like last month’s Huashan Living Arts Festival (2012華山藝術生活節) provided a celebratory environment to attract a broader public to performance art events that they might otherwise ignore or avoid (see page 12 Taipei Times for Oct. 19, 2012).

Trying to grow the market for the arts in Taiwan was just one aspect of the goal set by The Performing Arts Alliance (表演藝術聯盟, PAA), the organizer of the Living Arts Festival. The other, just as important, was to get local shows seen by international festival curators who might provide the invaluable opportunities for groups to be seen by international audiences.

This aspect of the Huashan Living Arts Festival took place in an event called the Performance Art Showcase (表演藝術匯演), which took place from Oct. 24 to Oct. 26. During this time, 26 arts festival curators from around the world were in Taiwan at the invitation of the PAA, with funding from the Ministry of Culture, to view the best of local talent. In addition to a formal showcase/market, in which selected groups presented their work in 20-minute segments for these curators, guests also had an opportunity to visit nominated groups. The exercise was intended to provide as broad a coverage of Taiwan’s increasingly diverse arts scene as possible.

According to Chang Yu-kuo (張于國), secretary-general of the PAA, the focus of the Huashan showcase differed from most international arts markets in that it focused on small and medium-sized groups with limited international exposure.

“A specific aim of the showcase was to assist these smaller groups in opening up channels to the international arts scene,” Chang told the Taipei Times in a phone interview last week. Chang added that over the last three years in which the Arts Festival and showcase have been held, PAA has had to educate some local groups in their interaction with international curators. “The first year we held the showcase, the material submitted by many groups was inadequate, and we had to teach them how to maximize the efficiency of their interaction with international guests. Taiwan’s theater groups still have much to learn in this area.”

Generating global interest

For the international curators, the Huashan showcase had two major benefits. The first and obvious one was that it added to their pool of groups they might consider selecting for theater festivals in their home country, and secondly, the relatively small format shows presented at the showcase meant this selection would be relatively inexpensive.

Chang pointed out that, firstly, international festival curators are constantly on the lookout for new material to satisfy the appetite for culture and creativity, but their exposure to groups such as The Party Theater Group (同黨劇團) or Hung Sheng Lion Dance Theater (鴻勝醒獅團) — the first a small avant-garde outfit and the second a traditional lion dance group pushing at the boundaries of tradition — is necessarily limited. “These groups have almost no international exposure,” Chang said.

Both these groups felt that the experience of participating in the showcase had been useful and Chang Yuan-rung (張遠榮), the director of Hung Sheng Lion Dance, told the Taipei Times that their performance had generated significant interest. The interest from Western curators was a pleasant surprise, but Chang Yuan-rung said he was astonished by the interest shown by curators from Asian countries. “They noted that there were significant differences between our style of performance and those by groups in their own country,” Chang said, and were very positive about the possibility of invitations in future.

In a related conversation, Kim Eunhee, an assistant manager for Korea Art Management Service (KAMS), who was in Taiwan participating in the showcase, commented on the increase in regional arts exchange between Asian countries. “Compared to our knowledge of the Western arts and cultural scene, we [in Asia] do not know each other so well. So recently people have begun to think more about how interesting it might be for collaborations between artists in the Asia region.”

Kim said that KAMS was already exploring the possibility of a number of collaborations based on her experience at the showcase.

PAA’s Chang Yu-kuo said that the success or failure of the showcase did not depend on the number of invitations it generated directly. He felt that the event was very much a kind of introductory event that might plug Taiwan into the consciousness of the international arts festival community. Chang acknowledged that in this information age there is nothing stopping tech savvy young artists generating exposure of their work using modern communications technology. “But Taiwan does not have a real presence yet. We want to leave our guests with the idea that Taiwan has plenty to offer international arts festivals, things that are perhaps a bit different from what they have seen elsewhere.”

“As the international arts festival community isn’t all that big, by bringing some of these curators here, we can get the information out to many more as they communicate with each other, plugging Taiwan into the arts festival network,” Chang added.

Making compromises

The prospect of participation in international festivals is inevitably appealing for groups wishing to grow not only in reputation but also as a way of honing their own skills and seeking inspiration. Nevertheless, the format of the showcase was not universally popular. Faye Liang (梁菲倚) of Mobius Strip Theater (莫比斯圓環創作公社), a group performing in the Huashan Arts Festival but not participating in the showcase, said that the 20-minute format was a little too much like a beauty pageant for her taste.

“If curators come along and see our show, and they like it, we are happy to accept invitations to perform,” she said. She suggested, however, that the showcase could not give festival curators a full insight into what individual groups such as Mobius Strip are really about.

Chiu An-chen (邱安忱), artistic director of The Party Theater Group, who did participate in the showcase, gave a qualified agreement, commenting that the 20-minute format meant that the total concept of some performances might be substantially compromised. He nevertheless maintained that given limited opportunities for small groups, this was an acceptable compromise solution.

Whatever individual invitations might come out of the Huashan showcase, in an area where the name of the game is exposure, it can be said with some certainty that following the Huashan showcase, there are more people out there in arts festival land who know about Taiwan.

Chang Yu-kuo said that PAA will continue to organize these showcases in conjunction with the Huashan Living Arts Festival, suggesting that in the future, the organization will attempt to hold the showcase at a venue with better facilities than are currently available at Huashan. “We have held all the events at Huashan over the last three years because an important goal has been to revitalize Huashan as an arts and cultural space. This goal has been achieved already,” he said. For Taiwan’s struggling small- and medium-sized theater groups, it must be hoped that PAA will be as successful in putting Taiwan’s performance artists on the map.