A Director with Zeitgeist: Peking Opera Meets the Western Canon — Interview with Ma, Bao-Shan ShareThisfrom Interviews 2011/06/11 12:35
A Director with Zeitgeist: Peking Opera Meets the Western Canon — Interview with Ma, Bao-Shan
The theme of Taiwan actor-director MA, BAO-SHAN’s work has been the revitalization of the traditional Peking [Beijing] Opera. With longtime, celebrated careers at both the pivotal National Guo-Guang Opera Troupe and the acclaimed Contemporary Legend Theatre, Ma is well-positioned to champion this fantastical, complex art form in search of new audiences. But he does so with a twist. He recently completed an M.F.A. degree in Directing from the nothing-if-not-contemporary Taipei National University of the Arts, with a thesis production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs.
Ma, Bao-shan began the rigorous, rarified training for the Chinese opera at the age of nine, at the Ta-Wan National Opera School. Under the mentorship of renowned actors Li Tong-Chun and Liu Yu-Lin, he specialized in the key “painted face” roles, particularly those that require superior expertise in martial arts and acrobatics. A degree in Drama from the prestigious Chinese Culture University followed.
In 1986, Ma joined with other young Peking Opera actors to found the ground-breaking Contemporary Legend Theatre (CLT), which is dedicated to fusing the Eastern opera and the Western canon, and whose productions have met with profound international acclaim. (Their website quotes Ariane Mnouchkine: “From the CLT, I see the dream of the theatre of the world.”) 1n 1995, Ma was awarded a coveted grant by the American Asian Cultural Council for an exchange program in New York.
Ma, Bao-Shan is known to his audiences and colleagues alike for his unusual talents as both actor and director, and for his long-term commitment to bridging the classical and the innovative dramatic arts. He has directed The Wind and Fire Red Child, Fan Jin Succeeded in the Imperial Examination, Mu-Lien Rescued His Mother from Purgatory, Wang Kui Ungrateful to Gui-Ying, and The First Family in the World (2008), along with a slew of other operas from the core repertoire, light opera repertoire, new children’s opera and New Style Peking Opera. Ma has also given impressive performances in Contemporary Legend Theatre’s adaptations of Hamlet and The Tempest, for example, as well as in their signature version of Macbeth—widely known by the title The Kingdom of Desire—and in Waiting for Godot, in which he played Pozzo. He played Aegisthus in the Mandarin-language Oresteia produced and directed by Richard Schechner. His newest role has been in CLT’s Run! Chekhov!, a musical that stages fourteen Chekhov short stories. He also just returned from serving as executive director, acrobatics director and actor at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which commissioned 108 Heroes, a show that combined “pop melodies, break-dancing and lavish video projections” with what one reviewer called “the veteran stagecraft” of the Peking Opera.
Efforts to shore up interest in the classical Chinese opera are similar in spirit to those for Italian opera in the West, though for a vastly larger audience: stories may be updated or otherwise re-contextualized, targeted for youth or older audiences, or made “relevant” to socially marginalized groups. With imperatives for innovation ruling the discourse on opera, in Taiwan the traditionally actor- and musician-centered art form has had to embrace a new emphasis on the director and the playwright. It is in this context that Ma, Bao-Shan took the extraordinary step of completing an arduous M.F.A program to study Western approaches to directing, and the playwrights of the modern Western theatre. Paradoxically, he did it for the Eastern theatre.
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community's shared perception of the world?— or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
During my training as a Peking Opera performer, the Peking Opera was seen in Taiwan as the highest of the performing arts; that is to say, other theatres or kinds of performance were considered to be only specific—or regional—to Taiwan. However, after 1992, regionalization became the policy of the government as well as the hope of the people of Taiwan. As part of Taiwan’s process of democratization, the national opera troupes were dismissed in three stages. [Troupes that had previously been affiliated with the army, the navy and the air force were turned over to the Ministry of Education and, in 1995, merged into the “National Guo-Guang Opera Company” — Translator’s note.] Thus, the Peking Opera was challenged as the nation’s foremost traditional performing art; it began to be seen as just another regional form of theatre in Taiwan, like its brother and sister arts, instead of maintaining its status as the highest in a performing arts hierarchy. In order to attract audiences and re-construct its identity, the Guo-Guang Opera Company began to produce shows which adapted local legends and religious tales relevant to modern society. The purpose of these has been to pass on the aesthetics of the Peking Opera on the one hand, and to justify its existence by localizing itself on the other hand—performing about what can move the people, what is happening regionally, and what relates to current events and the nation. However, we have lost many performers and artists in this process of transformation. At this moment, the direction is to perform what people care about in their own country, what is relevant to their own lives. To attract young audiences rather than those who came from mainland China with the KMT army (Kuomintang army) in 1949.
After 1992, communication between the two countries on either side of the Taiwan Strait became possible and common, and afterwards there was no question of censorship in Taiwan. The Peking Opera became just a genre, with a style that tends to convey ideas and arguments in a more symbolic—or, you might say indirect—way. A national performing group takes this into consideration: when expressing ideas about government suppression, exploitation or bureaucracy in a more indirect way, the focus is usually on the “acting.” But in New Style Peking Opera, we discuss wider topical matters such as political issues, or homosexuality, and then the role of the director and the playwright become more important. We call it “secondary creation.” Here, story development and contemporary issues combine with multimedia, lighting, music, etc., where singing and acting together are the skeleton, and the flesh covering them would be the mise en scène. This creates a dilemma for the performers. The traditional Peking Opera requires real skills from the performers—skills such as coloration of the voice, precision, the playing of simple actions without relying much on externals such as make-up. On the other hand, New Style Peking Opera tends to follow a director who builds up an atmosphere, and creates various stage pictures for the performers to express the director’s ideas. This is because the directors have to deal with the audience’s concerns at the present moment in their country. Therefore, the abilities of the performers may decrease, or we might say that performers no longer need to train or work as hard as before to become as qualified as the kind of stock character players that were demanded by Peking Opera. And the binary opposites in the plots—dividing everything into good and bad—is not accepted or appreciated anymore by today’s audiences, which rejects the didactic role of the Peking Opera.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
The music always causes me trouble when I direct traditional Chinese opera. In Peking Opera, the repertoire and its music do not depend on fixed scores. And since the singing, music, and percussion actually lead or control the play, the director inevitably has differences of opinion with the musicians. Directors deal with the rhythm of the whole play, while the composers create the musical pieces from hints in the script alone. The composers might want to add unnecessary bits in order to feature the depth of their music. Thus, communicating with the musicians is usually a source of anxiety for me. We usually start working on a new performance two or three months ahead of time; we deal with the music first, and then get the script done. In New Style Peking Opera, you must not let the acting, climax or rhythm get loose. We have a saying, which may have an equivalent in the play process in the Western theatrical tradition. We say: “dragon head, pig belly and phoenix tail.” That means that a performance has to catch the audience’s eyes at the very beginning, then develop the story fully, and end as beautifully as the phoenix’s tail.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
I enjoy the entire process—but strictly speaking, sometimes it’s troublesome to communicate with actors when they are confused about how to express certain emotions. The stylized acting of the Peking Opera is less concerned with motivation; however, being a director who is also trained in Western theatre, I tend to emphasize the motivations for the actions; that is, the stage is to distill reality from life experiences. Peking Opera performers are used to reacting directly, without listening to others. The highest aesthetic goal of this tradition lies in “beauty.” Crying with no tears, laughing that is not real laughter; everything is stylized, and the actors are distanced from one another. (However, a good performer who never cries real tears on stage is capable of moving his/her audience to tears.) Therefore, I spend lots of time explaining and trying to help them recall their experiences. To integrate Western ways of directing is to expand the characterization of the stylized characters in traditional Chinese opera, which has the potential to enhance the performance. However, for actors who have trained for years to build up stock roles, undoubtedly it’s not their main concern to explore new possibilities for these stock characters. Nowadays, one of the characteristics of the so-called New Style Peking Opera is that it still keeps the traditional styles of song, pi-hung, but it might add in some of the minor keys or tonalities, which are more regional to Taiwan’s own traditional music.
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
There have been two helpful and constructive critiques so far. One was about Wang-kuai Disappoints Kua ying, which we performed at the Taipei Traditional Arts Festival in 2007. It was an experiment for traditional Peking Opera to work with a whole traditional Chinese musical orchestra. In Peking Opera, the music by the stringed, woodwind and percussion instruments tends to be quite flexible, whereas the orchestra needed a lot of work to change even a note in the rehearsals. The critic said I should have been more precise and succinct with the songs and music. The other critique about a piece I directed in 2008, The First Family in the World, focused on the rhythm of the performance. It suggested that some scenes were indecisive and diffuse, and could instead have been more concise. A performance has to be enjoyable and to express the director’s ideas explicitly.
5. When you studied for your MFA in Directing, you brought professional actors from the National GuoGuang Opera Company to work on projects that combined Western and Eastern theatre. For example, in your program notes for these, you described a scene you directed from the traditional British Punch & Judy as "performed with the beauty of traditional opera”:
The scene unfolds with the martial art techniques of Chinese opera; then moves into more developed performance techniques. The rhythmic and twisting relationship between man and space on stage is shown through the posture, physical action and interaction of Punch and the Horse. Later, the fight scene between the Master and his Servant signifies the violence, struggle and conflict between the two classes. With this intense exchange, the sense of black humor and comedy is triggered and catalyzed.
And you described the “hat sequence” from the Beckett scene you directed:
The scene from Waiting for Godot is performed expressively through the actors’ body language, simple in style and utterance. From waiting, discovery, excitement, hatred to despair; the game of the three hats suggests the absurd insignificance of man.
Why are you interested in doing these experiments, combining or even creating clashes between Western and Eastern theatre?
I find that the process of transforming these texts, or moving between the acting of the Peking Opera and a more realistic Western style, is a kind of dialectic of symbolism and realism. It becomes a kind of locus for the clash between traditional and modern acting styles, but also between tradition and modernity in the larger sense, and between East and West, as well.
My Peking Opera background gave me the training to perceive very subtle shifts in the acting. And from my training as a Western director, I learned also to pay attention to how the audience will perceive a work, which is in one sense not really the main point of concern in traditional opera.
It is a journey for me to create these “meetings” between, for example, the Theatre of the Absurd and Peking Opera, in order to look for an appropriate theatrical form that can encompass them both. Integrating the impressionistic characteristics of Peking Opera with contemporary theatrical elements might be a way to create a performing art with zeitgeist.
6. For your final thesis production for the MFA degree in Directing, you directed — and, along with your professional colleague, acted in — Ionesco’s The Chairs. Would you say something about your challenges and process?
Naturally, I faced difficulties with everything from getting the script done to finding the right acting style. We applied Peking Opera techniques, and then broke them into pieces and rearranged them. The stylized acting techniques of Peking Opera are very diverse relative to the fragmented plots, lack of language, and repetitive movements in the Theatre of the Absurd; thus my experiment focused on how to make a combination and a balance between realistic and impressionistic acting. I tried to apply realistic acting to dialogue, since dialogue contains sound, tone of voice, facial expression, blocking and gestures in order to represent the reality of life. In addition, if an actor tried to use symbolic acting for a character, then singing, recitation and stylized dance could be employed to foreground the inner life of the characters. Surely it takes a lot of experimenting to observe the interactions between Peking Opera’s stylized acting techniques and the characteristics of realistic acting.
For example, when an actor tries to enter the inner world of a character, something might pop into his mind; images will emerge, and emotions, lines, voices, smells and feelings. Then the actor tries to transform these, to create an organic collage out of them, to sort through them to produce dream-like and reality-like movements and sounds. Then the “collage” of stylized elements from the Peking Opera—which is based on the concept of no-sounds-without-singing, no-movements-without-dancing—makes use of four areas of technical skill from the Peking opera: singing, recitation, acting and acrobatic fighting, and blends these with the characters’ movements, letting the actors’ imaginations go freely, and ultimately bringing forth something that couldn’t have been predicted. Generally: if it is working, keep it; if not, keep searching.
7. Now that you've completed your MFA degree, will these East-West projects continue to be the direction of your immediate work? And speaking more broadly, what do you feel is the purpose or direction of your overall work?
I hope my next experiments will be with Genet’s The Maids and, if possible, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As both an actor and director for the Peking Opera, I accept it as my mission to revive this traditional art form. I hope that it will not only flourish again, but also endure.
 Lissa Tyler Renaud, (M.A. Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training in California. She has taught acting and voice throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, she is an award-winning actress and a recognized director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009; paperback 2011). In 2010 and 2011, she was guest speaker (Theatre History) and master teacher (Directing, Voice and Speech) at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy in Russia.
 Lin, Yu-Chen received her M.A. in English in 2003 from National Chung-hsing University, and a second M.A. in Theatre from Royal Holloway University of London (RHUL) in 2006, with additional training in Athens, Greece. She has been both director and performer at, among others, RHUL and ACS International School, London, 2006; she has taught university-level English and Graduate Performance for some years. She was rehearsal interpreter for Dr. Renaud (2006-07), and translated Gertrude Stein’s texts into Mandarin for their joint international 100th Anniversary recital. She is writing her Ph.D. thesis at the Taipei National University of the Arts, on traditional Javanese Court dance, and doing fieldwork in Indonesia.