16 May 2008

Where are the theatre audiences in Taiwan now?: on the cancellation of Isabella's room

The director of the Taipei Arts International Association (TAIA) regretted to announce the cancellation of the performance Isabella’s room in Taipei. Isabella’s room is created and directed by Jan Lauwers who established Needcompany in Brussels Belgium in 1986. The main reason for the cancellation is on the fire of the theatre in Seoul Korea, which forced that theatre to cancel the performance and withdrew from cohosting this production. Though TAIA decided to put on this production in Taipei by themselves, they still could not overcome the financial burden arising from putting on an international production. Indeed, it is never an easy task to fly international theatre groups to Taiwan for just couple days performances without having sufficient financial support from business corporations or the government. Besides that, ticket sales is always a huge concern for those who aim to promote good art to the people in Taiwan. In this case, due to the unsatisfactory ticket sales of this performance, TAIA finally decided to quit it.

"Where are the audience?", the director of TAIA told the news journalist. I have the same question in my mind as well. It seems they only show up when the performance is done by someone important, someone they know very well, someone who has been frequently talked about. It is never about the performance itself but always on the name of the group, the name of the director/choreographer, and the name they should know. Take Cloud Gate as an example, as I have observed, their performances seem always successful because the tickets are hard to get. Whenever you attend their performances in Taiwan, it is always full house. As for open air performances, it is basically not possible to get a place to stand or sit if you are there only 30 mins beforehand.

This is a good sign indeed because it says the people in Taiwan do have a sense for arts, and Cloud Gate really does a good job to promote modern dance to these people. Their dance is beautiful and is full of symbolic meanings which aim to examine and reevaluate contemporary social fashions and modern life. It lifts up the artistic taste of Taiwanese. However, if the people here do have that sense for arts and theatre, why only certain groups with big names can attract the audience. This should be the question we should all bear in mind.

Take Le Theatre du Soleil as another example. Their production Les Ephemeres attracted many theatre goers when it was performed in Taiwan. Its performance was very successful. However, as I was there, I noticed the whole performance (6 hours long in total) was presented only three times among 6 days schedule. (The National Theatre of Taipei broke it into two parts and separated them for three days performance, which is common for presenting this production.) Since Ariane Mnouchkine intentionally designed a small auditorium, the total amount of audiences for this production in Taiwan should not be big. Furthermore, when I attended the performance, I found most of the audience were either theatre participants or students. Of course, there must be some people who do not fall into these two categories, but it will not be hard to guess the social and cultural background of these people. They came because they knew the group. What is funny during the intermission is because of the huge white tent used for the performance, most passer-by asked the staff what that thing is for and what this group is about. Some of them even guessed this occasion to be a circus and said they know that name. I guess it is because Le Theatre du Soleil recalled their memory of the great circus Le Cirque du Soleil.

This misunderstanding raises interesting questions. Do Taiwanese go to the theatre for arts, for entertainment, or just for the name? Do the people in Taiwan really have a taste for arts? In fact, before the Les Ephemeres was presented, it was hugely reported on TV, even the news channels. But still, we saw people talking nonsense right outside of the tent. They don't care if this is arts, all they care about is if this is what they have known. If they don't know it and it belongs to the field of the arts, they would just walk away. If it is about arts and it is what they have heard of, then they will talk about it and maybe join the activity. Because that is something they already know, so they must participate in it so as to be in the same level as the others. This reaction reveals the cultural competence that happens all the time. This symbolic competence guarantees a person's right for the better, and it offers symbolic power to the person which puts him/her in the right level in which he/she expects to be. All the information they gather and learn of is from the media, education and interpersonal communication. The formation of their mentality is attached to their family, social, cultural, and economic background. These two factors deeply influence their actions towards arts. This is why they have difficulties participating in cultural activities when these activities are unknown to them. When the government and the media take arts as secondary and never really develop a healthy policy to promote arts, no wander performances cannot attract enough audiences. This explains why promoting arts in Taiwan is such a mission impossible.

I was very sad to hear about this performance been cancelled. Tough I have not yet seen Isabella’s room, I believe it is a very interesting production. If the government has had a healthy policy for the arts and urged the educational system to place the arts as one of the priorities, arts in Taiwan would have been more lively and progressing. We all deserve the right for appreciating arts, and arts can help construct a more civilized and harmonious society. Everyone is a potential theatre audience; they just haven't realized that yet!

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