|How have you re-structured the management since you arrived here?
Putting NSO aside, the Center now has 10 departments. I think it is very important under the new system that each department should be motivated to make their own plans. When the Center was under government control, the staff members just listened to what their directors said.
So, I have divided the whole staff into three sections: artistic, marketing, and administrative sections. I think the biggest change is the marketing department, because the entire operation should be directed toward the audience in a customer-friendly way. For instance, the marketing section is responsible for recruiting more tenants for the Center—not in ways that just help bring in rental revenue but also to provide public services in the best way.
The Marketing section used to focus only on promoting programs. But now they also have to focus on building the image of the entire Center. In fact, we are now thinking about changing the CI for next year to celebrate the 20th anniversary, and we overhauled our monthly magazine, Performing Arts Review. Instead of spending too much energy to provide program notes, we use this magazine to give in-depth information about what is happening at the Center. For instance, this July issue has 40-page special featured article about jazz, including Q&A because we will have a big jazz festival in August.
Please explain how the Center’s programming is planned.
Before the new system, we would be informed of our budget only in April or March for the year which had already started in January. That means we had only two-thirds of the year to go. And we could not allot any carry-over: we had to finish the budget at the end of the year. It was very difficult for program planning, especially if you wanted to invite guest companies from other countries.
But now under the new system, we can make much longer-term plans. Starting from last year, the government gives us a steady budget for three years. Then, they will make a 3% cut for the following three years. After that, they will evaluate the results. This means that currently we know the budget for the next six years.
As for the National Theater, 70% of the programming consists of our own presentations of local companies, including theater, dance and traditional arts. Only 10 big companies can regularly/annually do a large-scale production suitable to this theater. Cloud Gate gets two productions per year. The Neo Classical Dance Company is given one slot a year. Others are theater groups or traditional theater groups such as the National Peking Opera Company, which mounts two productions here per year.
That provides steady opportunities for large-sized local companies to regularly develop new productions. The remaining 30% is foreign companies—we present dance more than theater because of the language issue. Rentals are rare for the National Theater.
During the Center’s early days, it used to present big theater groups from abroad. But soon, the government realized that those kinds of productions forced them to lose money. So they shifted to a more conservative approach of presenting only dance and other kinds of money-making popular productions. For long time, they did not invite foreign companies. That was not good because it cut us off from the connection with the outside world.
When Mr. Ju came in, he started to try to build relationships with foreign companies. Still, the National Theater did not have much space to invite foreign companies. For the 2002-03 season, we presented three dance companies from abroad, and in 2004-05 we had four. They ranged from the Nederlands Dans Theater, the Cullberg Ballet Riksteatern from Sweden, Saburo Teshigawara’s Karas from Japan, Compania Nacional de Danza from Spain. Last year we presented DV8 from the UK and Maguy Marin from France. This year’s program includes Rosas from Belgium, Marie Chouinard from Canada, and later in the year will be Sacha Waltz.
All of those are big companies. How are the ticket sales?
Getting better. But since few agencies in Taiwan try to bring in contemporary dance, as they think ballet is much easier to sell tickets for, the general public in Taiwan are not yet familiar with the big names in foreign contemporary dance companies. We are the main, or only presenter that presents foreign contemporary dance. Even for the big names, it takes time for us to make people understand.
A very special case was DV8 last year. It was their first appearance in this country and it was a new work, so we did not know about any audience reaction outside of Taiwan. So, we tried to create advance exposure for them as much as possible, in order to introduce them to our audience. That is, we presented a film screening of their work two weeks in advance. Also, we collaborated with Public Television to have the film shown in their TV program. So people were prepared for the live performance. As a result, all three performances were sold out and the audience reaction was remarkably positive.
Other foreign companies’ ticket sales were: 75% of the available tickets sold for Cullberg Ballet, which performed Swan Lake in 2003; 85% for Saburo Teshigawara in 2003; only 60% for Compania Nacional de Danza, which surprised me because it sold 92% at the Zurich Ballet and 95% for Maguy Marin. In recent years, I think the box office is really getting better and better for dance programs.
I want to show diversity, and that is important for the Taiwan audience. However, diversity makes it difficult to build one cluster of audience. It also challenges us to build up the habit of coming to the theater. In Japan, Pina Bausch and Nederlands Dans Theater visit quite often. So people have expectations: “What will the next piece be?” But since we have very limited slots available to introduce foreign companies, we can only try to build up a long-term cycle.
How about the programming for the biggest theater, your 2000-seat Concert Hall?
That is quite different from the National Theater. Only 25% of the year is used for our own programming and 75% is rentals. And half of that 25% is saved for NSO, for their regular seasons. So our own planning is only for 10% or so.
Since music has the biggest audience in Taipei, the demand is very high, so we have to save enough days to respond to the demand.
Having said that, though, our “rentals” are not simply a rental in the normal sense. We set the rental fee at 30% lower than what it actually costs us. This means that we subsidize and support those rentals. The applications for rental requests are received twice a year. Then members of our selection panel make the selections based on quality and artistic merit, and then make the decision who can rent. One third of the applicants will not be given the space. Once the application is approved, we set dates—but the dates are not necessarily the same as what the applicants requested.
Also, at least for one-third of those whose applications have passed the selection process, we hire a specialist to go to their concerts to give us an evaluation. This policy was seriously undertaken only last year to keep high standards. Also, we started to produce a six-month calendar of our own programs, through which the general public will know which programs are our own. In addition, last year I started to provide free playbills for all programs of our own programs.
How do you set the programming for your 180-seat Experimental Theater?
Since next year is our 20th anniversary, we have been researching the influence the Center has had in the past on the performing arts in Taiwan. We’ve found that all the existing mid- and small-size experimental theater groups and local contemporary dance companies have presented their work here at the Experimental Theater. That is, for the past 20 years we have maintained a program series that has encouraged local companies to present their new work here—and now we have given the series a new name, “New Idea.” Especially for experimental groups, they mostly started out presenting their works at the theater I used to run (i.e. Taipei Dance Forum). And then as their careers develop and mature, they are given opportunities to present their work at the Experimental Theater. In this series, about five dance programs and five theater programs are presented every year. As for music, we have another program for young talent, where six to ten artists per year are presented.
My intention in running the Experimental Theater is to give as many opportunities as possible to smaller local groups. And, we encourage them to do experimental productions. They cannot afford rentals, and the box office income is never enough to cover their production costs. So, trying to do work that is self-produce is impossible.