You may have seen him in TV commercials — the worried instructor giving advice to a guy test-driving a Ford Escape, or the astronaut who meets Wugan (吳剛), a character from Chinese mythology, while roaming on the surface of the moon.
“I thought it would be interesting to see how things were done here,” American Brook Hall said. “I pulled funny faces in the commercials, and it was fun.”
“There was a couple of times when I went to 7-Eleven, I had people coming over and asking ‘hey, aren't you the guy in the car commercial?'” Hall said.
Before he arrived, Hall was already an experienced Broadway actor, having played in classics like West Side Story, Peter Pan and The King and I. He is also a seasoned dancer, who, like Billy Elliot, spent his teenage years taking dance lessons and eventually learned ballet, tap, salsa and other styles.
But why would someone with such a resume of performing experience want to come to Taiwan and build a career here?
“I lived in New York for four years. And ironically, I got bored, which is strange to say, but I did, because everybody was doing the same shows,” he said. “
“Going on national tours and auditions, I lived like a 'theater gypsy,' moving around from place to place. I was essentially repeating shows, like I did West Side Story three times with three different companies. First time it was great fun, but you kind of lacked the imagination after the third time,” he said.
Hall came to Taiwan in 2001 at the invitation of a college friend, who started the World Artists Collective Festival in Kaohsiung. He said he was intrigued by the idea of the festival, which was to facilitate cross-cultural collaboration between local and overseas artists.
In Hall's words, he “took the bait and never left.”
Hall said it was the friendly people he met in Taiwan and windows of opportunity that they helped open for him that kept him here for seven years and why he hasn't felt the need to leave.
As Hall recalled, his performing career in Taiwan began when he won the championship at a regional tap-dancing contest in Taichung. Next thing he knew he was scheduled to compete in a national championship at the National Taiwan University auditorium, an event attended by pop singer Stephanie Sun (孫燕姿) and Japanese boy band Kinki Kids. Since then, Hall has taught tap dancing and has received invitations to perform at various festivals.
About five years ago, Hall started being cast in TV commercials.
“I was fish out of water in a lot of ways, but somehow people seem to take part in the skills I have to offer,” he said.
Commenting on his performing experiences in Taiwan, Hall said that Taiwan is very good at giving last-minute notice and that one just has to leave room for the unexpected to happen.
One time the organizer only told him to give out lavender to the guests without telling him that he was supposed to do it on stilts.
Another time he was supposed to dance with a Taiwanese female celebrity, and part of the moves was he would flip her over his shoulder. They only found out right before the show that they would perform on a small, narrow, 2m tall platform.
“Things like this make you want to shake your head,” Hall said. “You just have to be able to improvise, do your best and smile about it. It's part of the adventure.”
The fact that he is a foreigner gives Hall both advantages and work opportunities. However, Hall said that he does not want to get the job just because he is foreigner, nor does he want it to be a convenient excuse to turn down talented local performers.
Hall said that recommendations go a long way in Taiwan, so he worked hard for fear of giving a lackluster performance. He also studied Chinese with the goal of becoming involved more in the local theater scene.
Last month, Hall reached another highpoint in his career when he directed the Broadway classic Smokey Joe's Cafe, which also marked the musical's debut in Taiwan. He recruited mainly Taiwanese actors for the show and added a romantic twist to the original story.
The local actors, he said, are “just as talented as those in New York.”
While some had doubts whether the musical would be a success, Hall believed that the local audience would appreciate it as the nation has become familiar with this particular art form through popular movies like Chicago.
The ultimate goal, he said, was to grow the audience for musicals and incorporate local culture into it.
“And my part of the equation is to share what I know,” he said.
If he were given an opportunity to write a musical or play about Taiwan, Hall said he wanted it to be about people who are ostracized for being different.
“People here tend to make the choice for safety, and it would be interesting to do a story on someone who dares to be different,” he said.
“Like the director of Cape No.7 [Wei Te-sheng, 魏德聖], which is like a local hero story. He followed his dream and found a way to make it work. People can see his passion and identify with his struggle, which turned out to be most rewarding experience,” Hall said.
A series of discussions on the legacy of martial law and authoritarianism are to be held at the Taipei International Book Exhibition this month, featuring findings and analysis by the Transitional Justice Commission. The commission and publisher Book Republic organized the series, entitled “Escaping the Nation’s Labyrinth of Memory: What Authoritarian Symbols and Records Can Tell Us,” to help people navigate narratives through textual analysis and comparisons with other nations. The four-day series is to begin on Thursday next week with a discussion between commission Chairwoman Yang Tsui (楊翠), Polish-language translator Lin Wei-yun (林蔚昀), and Polish author and artist Pawel Gorecki comparing
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