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A generous learning and sharing

Sarah Miller: The 8th Asia Pacific Bureau Theatre Schools Festival

Professor Sarah Miller is Head, School of the Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong, NSW.

Gaspar Cortes, Site: The Ramayana Revisited Gaspar Cortes, Site: The Ramayana Revisited
photo Crispian Chan
Today’s environment, distinguished by an active hostility from government to its constituents in the public education and arts sectors, suggests that more than ever graduating students need great resilience to survive as artists, actors and performance makers. Consequently, our concern at the University of Wollongong (UOW) is to ensure that students know not only what it means to be in a show, but what it means to make a show, to produce, promote and resource the work and put it out there in the world. This year six UOW students crowd-funded their own airfares in order to travel their production to the Asia Pacific Bureau Theatre Schools Festival and Directors Conference or APB, accompanied by Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Chris Ryan and myself.

The APB was established in 2008 under UNESCO’s International Theatre Institute with the mission of embracing diversity and sharing theatre. Key to its inception and critical for Australian interest, is the contribution of well-known Australian and Singapore-based theatre director Aubrey Mellor and Vietnamese festival director, playwright and graduate of NIDA Directors Studio Lê Quý Du’o’ng, among other founding members. The APB, whose secretariat is hosted by the Shanghai Theatre Academy, has several key objectives including: opportunities for student and staff mobility, pedagogical exchange and, critically in this instance, an annual festival for theatre schools, and an annual regional conference for the directors of theatre schools in the region.

Hosted by institutions in the region, each iteration is different according to its location. This year’s festival was held at LASALLE College of the Arts, in their fantastic facility in the heart of Singapore. An astonishing 19 performances at various stages of development and 28 workshops took place over six intensive days, representing work and training regimes from schools in Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. A completely immersive experience, the festival began each day with a 9am warm-up, and ended more than 12 hours later, with the final performance of the day. The hospitality was sensational, but as always, it was the informal socialising between students staying in microscopic but impeccably clean hostels in Little India that was essential to this wonderfully student-centred, participatory event.

Workshop fever

This year’s festival was focused on the body and voice of the performer, providing an opportunity to foreground the multifarious training regimes and approaches. Workshops in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, Butoh and Suzuki training and mask-work were on offer as were hip-hop and a workshop to unleash your inner pop star, as well as martial art forms including Chinese Wushu, Malaysian Silat and Indian Kalaripayattu. Somatic practices such as Tai Chi, Alexander Technique and Feldenkreiss, acting workshops in Grotowski, Viewpoints and Meisner ran in tandem with introductions to the role of spiritualism and/or traditional vocal and movement techniques from Indonesia and India and hybrid practices from the Philippines. With so much on offer, the students were spinning like tops.

The performances

And the shows—at least three a day, each no longer than 45 minutes—were each followed by a Q&A session thoughtfully facilitated by LASALLE’s Adam Marple, through which it was possible to see many of the workshop strategies in action, coming from an astonishing range of cultural and art-form perspectives. LASALLE’s 1st year Technical Production students, thrown in at the deep end, did a great job with only three hours to bump-in and plot each work under the expert guidance of lecturer Toby Papazoglou. Some of the productions relied on incredible virtuosity and skills-based training. I really didn’t expect to see impeccably performed corporeal mime using Etienne Decroux’s methodology emerging from the Korean National University of Arts (South Korea) although the outrageous double sword fighting by students from the Mongolian State University of Arts and Culture was, weirdly, perhaps more predictable. Sadly, flaming swords were not permitted.

Contributions from Malaysia and Singapore used forum theatre to focus on issues of violence and repression. LASALLE students invested in representing attitudes to violence against women in their work, Project Ram adapted from RAM—the abduction of Sita into Darkness by South African writer/director Yael Fraber, itself a contemporary retelling of the ancient Hindu text The Ramayana. Conversely, The Sound of Silence, presented by students from the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, took a highly critical look at the workings of Malaysia’s security laws and the impact on a family of a death in custody. Interestingly, students from the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology Integrated Performing Arts Guild in Mindanao, Philippines also undertook a ‘transcreation’ of The Ramayana. Their Sita: the Ramayana revisited, was a visually and theatrically rich reworking of the epic by a wonderful ensemble of young performers distinguished by both vocal and physical dexterity and vivid characterisation. Equally physically dynamic and visually stunning was Pembayun, presented by the Indonesia Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta, which told a traditional story with a strong focus on female warriors and women of power, unsettling many audience members’ preconceptions about the role of women in Muslim society.

Of course, Shakespeare was in the house, but as is often the case, the play was not the thing. The Shanghai Theatre Academy presented a one-man version of Richard III, while the University of Tehran’s excellent offering explored the personal lives of two performers making a movie about their rehearsal of Hamlet’s Act III, Scene IV.

Christopher Aaronsen, Songs of an Electric Soul Christopher Aaronsen, Songs of an Electric Soul
photo Crispian Chan,
Two impressive solo works were presented by Te Kura Toi Whakaari O Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School: Gaggle—a tough, delicate, funny, creepily frightening take on femininity devised and performed by Ella Gilbert; and Perry, about an uproarious old man with no purpose in life except to make fun of himself, devised and performed by Tom Clarke. Impressive too was each performer’s ability to reflect on the importance of ‘purpose’ as understood in Maori culture, and understood as fundamental to the making of their work. Another great solo was Christopher Aronson’s Songs of an Electric Soul. A graduate of the Ateno de Manila University Theatre Arts Fine Arts program and a member of the Filipino ensemble Sipat Lawin, Aronson used electronic music via smart phones, tablets and the net to create an ecstatic shamanic persona, with the late Robin Williams as one of three spirit guides.

Two shows were set—albeit differently—in outer space. Beijing’s National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts presented Man from the Earth, which saw Henry the astronaut arriving on the moon with “moon-landing dreams of mankind” only to unexpectedly encounter Chang’e, the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology, and the jade hare Yu Tu. This ‘modernisation of traditional drama’ was beautifully performed and surprisingly moving. On the same day, students from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand presented 0110, the story of a lonesome star inhabiting the outer reaches of the universe, yearning for a moon to respond to her gravitational pull. In one of the few works to use digital projection, the relationship between the physical presence of the lonely star, the disembodied voice of the guardian of the universe and the scale of the projection was highly evocative.

India’s National School of Drama presented Silent Speech by four compelling dancer/actors moving from what my uneducated eye perceived to be traditional Indian movement into more contemporary forms. Melbourne’s VCA contributed a beautifully considered devised work titled Unplugged. Created by nine 2nd year performers, this work, “provoked by Chekhov, and fuelled by body, rhythm and vocal training,” was a tribute to the collaborative and generous working environment created by Rinske Ginsberg and Tony Smith. WAAPA’s intensely athletic contribution was UK playwright Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, co-directed by Andrew Lewis and Frances Barbe. The emphasis on Butoh and Suzuki training for the actors was evident in the virtuosic performances, and an indication of the potential of WAAPA’s new degree in performance-making. The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts presented an edited version of Kuo Pao-kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral directed and choreographed by Tony Wong. Using the metaphor of castration, this physically articulate ensemble animated the extraordinary story of the 15th century Muslim, Admiral Zheng He, commander of the Chinese Navy. A parallel is drawn between “the power struggles of court eunuchs and the displacement of modern Chinese who make enormous sacrifices to survive in a highly competitive and industrious society.”

From Wollongong, third year student Mark Churchill directed two short Daniel Keene plays. Both darkly intense, Duet is about two men living in a sewer while Bogeyman is about a farming couple dealing with the aftermath of a stillbirth. Watchtower presented by South Korea’s Hoseo University was a witty, sharply presented movement and sound work that imitated the fantasy logic of the computer game. Smart, cool and with a sound design that moved from darkly atmospheric to K-pop, the tension between the omniscient authority of the game and those determined by its rules played out. Darker still was the startling work from Taipei National University of the Arts. Come to Sleep is a two-hander set in an eponymously titled inn. A man with a broken leg arrives looking for somewhere to sleep. His cute, but increasingly disturbing landlady cohabits a single sleeping room filled with soft toys. They discuss a bombing from 30 years ago. By the end we understand that the soft toys represent the bodies of dead children. This impeccable production of a Japanese play apparently written in the 1960s paid tribute to the 2014 protest by Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement.

The liberating power of the level playing field

There’s so much more that could be said about this festival, but beyond the diversity of practice on display, what made it such a blast was the level playing field it established. Whether students came from elite training colleges or were working with the barest of resources, this event was about the calibre of the ideas, the inventiveness of their realisation, the high standard of movement and vocal skills and the intensity of creative and intellectual investment. These students work hard. The imbrication of traditional practices with contemporary concerns was arguably a determining characteristic, but the explosion of forms, concepts, themes, skills and generosity of spirit, made it a liberating, exciting and enriching event. Our students think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them!

The 8th Asia Pacific Bureau Theatre Schools Festival & Directors’ Conference, Body and Voice in Contemporary Performance Practices, LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore, 6-11 June

Professor Sarah Miller is Head, School of the Arts, English and Media at the University of Wollongong, NSW.

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 5

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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