|National Taichung Theater (NTT)
National Taichung Theater (NTT) is the national theater of Taiwan. A curving six-story structure with two basement levels, it was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who won the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House Competition held in 2005.
As a comprehensive arts center, besides accommodating three different-sized theaters — the Grand Theater (2,007 seats), Playhouse (794 seats) and Black Box (200 seats) — it also has an Outdoor Theater, a rooftop Sky Garden area, galleries and exhibition spaces.
After unexpected problems due to its complex design and construction, the NTT finally opened on Sept. 30, 2016, with an inaugural performance of Richard Wagner’s opera “Das Rheingold”
(“The Rhine Gold”). The theater’s first Artistic Director, Victoria (Wen-yi) Wang, was succeeded in June 2018 by the former executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Joyce Chiou, who is particularly concerned to enrich its opera programs.
|Living Arts Festival
The PAA’s first Living Arts Festival was held in the Huashan Creative Park in Taipei in 2010, both as a showcase for Taiwanese arts at home and abroad and as a domestic market for Taiwanese artists.
Featuring performing arts and modern visual arts, the month-long event was then held there annually in October until 2014. However, that year’s edition was renamed as the Wei Wu Yin Living Arts Festival ahead of its move the following year to the Creative Park in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.
Since 2015, the Weiwuying (National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts) has also taken over as the main host and organizer of this event once widely known as the Huashan Living Arts Festival — but which has now become the Weiwuying Arts Festival.
|Taiwan’s National Taichung Theater opened on Sept. 30, 2016, in the Xitun District redevelopment zone in Taichung City as a major component of the government’s Creative Industry policy. Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the NTT has become a popular tourist hub due to its imaginatively curving construction and extensive open spaces where both visitors and residents like to relax and enjoy themselves. Starting as a Programming Associate at the NTT when it opened, Po-Chien Chen, who is now an Associate Manager in its Arts Education Department, has played an important part in its rapid development. Before that, she pursued a successful career as a theater producer and was a core member of the Performing Arts Alliance, a body tasked with establishing a range of platforms for the theater industry in Taiwan. In this interview, Chen talks about her overall career, her work at the PAA, and also her current job at the NTT — as well as the vibrant arts scene in today’s Taiwan.
Interviewer: Nobuko Tanaka
First, please tell us how you came to be involved in the performing arts world.
I started to dance when I was 12 and continued my training at junior and senior high school for six years. Then I went to the United States to study in the dance conservatory at Purchase College, which is part of the State University of New York that combines coursework in the liberal arts and sciences with conservatory programs in the visual and performing arts. Although I continued my dance studies there, I mainly chose choreography as my subject — what they called “dance composition.”
After I graduated from Purchase, I joined the Elisa Monte Contemporary Dance Company. Elisa Monte was a principal dancer at the prestigious Martha Graham Dance Company before she established that small company with her husband, David Brown, another former Graham dancer. It was a nice experience for me, but after two years I wanted to do something else.
That was a very difficult time in the US. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 happened during my stay in New York, so the atmosphere was not friendly to foreigners and the authorities were very strict regardless of your occupation. It didn’t matter if people were artists or educators, doctors or scholars … I think they were just trying to make many foreigners leave the country.
I felt those pressures. There was no longer the same freedom, and foreigners had to undergo lots of reviewing. So, I started to ask myself why I was working there, and at the end of 2004, I decided to come back to Taiwan.
Was it your career target to be a theater producer when you left New York?
At that time I didn’t think I would be a theater producer, but I always believed I could do different art forms. I actually took print-making and photography courses at the college in New York, thinking of maybe doing visual arts or photography. There are many ways of creating, and I have always thought there is so much I could do if I have the skills and experience.”
At the time, though, I was quite young and I didn’t really understand the current arts environment in Taiwan. So, after I came back I spent weeks doing nothing. Then one of my friends who was a professional dancer in Ping Heng
’s Taipei-based Dance Forum company contacted me. His girlfriend worked at a traditional Chinese dance company for teenagers that needed an administrator to manage its tours and other things, so he asked me to do that. I had no experience of arts administration and wondered if I could do it, but I said I would try.
That was the start of my career in performing arts administration. I was 24 and the job was very short term — only six months.
Afterward, I joined Cloud Gate 2. That came about because my dean from the conservatory in New York, Carol Walker, had a great network of contacts and close friends in Taiwan and one day she invited me to have dinner with her and the artistic director of CG2.
At first, the company wanted me to join as a dancer, but I told them, “I don’t dance anymore.” In fact, I had had a very serious injury to my knees and I was always suffering during performance seasons, so I thought it was a good time for me to make a change.
I also wanted to learn something else while I was still young, and I was kind of enjoying not knowing what I was going to do. But I was sure I didn’t want to be a performer anymore.
The artistic director totally understood me, so she invited me to apply to join their management team. During the interview, they were briefing me about the Cloud Gate foundation and its structure, and they explained there were two companies — Cloud Gate 1 and 2.
They told me that though CG1 created works they would tour around Taiwan, and its main focus was on performing abroad. In addition, there was CG2, which aimed to provide dance education for Taiwanese people. So, besides staging annual performances, it had many outreach programs, among which were ones that went to lots of schools and gave lessons at universities.
When they asked me to choose either CG1 or CG 2, I opted for CG2. That was because I felt somewhat estranged from my culture as I’d left Taiwan when I was a teenager, and I thought CG2 was a great opportunity to get to know its arts infrastructure.
CG2 toured different cities and visited different kinds of cultural centers and I met many people and started to discover what was happening in the various parts of the country. I also found out that many people there didn’t know anything about dance — which was why CG2 went out and about so much.
Actually, I heard from your staff that dance is a very minor art form in Taichung even though it is Taiwan’s second-largest city.
Exactly. That is a huge issue because, as you know, Taipei is the main base for all kinds of arts. All the artists live in the capital and it doesn’t matter where you are from, you go there. Taipei is where you get resources, team members and business partners. However, as the national arts funding isn’t sufficient to support a theater or dance company’s touring costs, it makes it difficult to go outside Taipei.
On the other hand, you could say that restriction also relates to the amount of resources local governments put into culture and the arts. It used to be that Taipei, Kaohsiung and Tainan were cultural and there weren’t so many arts in the central areas of the country, so everybody tended to skip Taichung. Also, because Taichung used to have lots of free events, it’s difficult to change people’s habits and get them to buy tickets. Since the NTT opened, though, I think that’s gradually changing, as people realize that if they are paying they will get high-quality performances. So, they are starting to understand that good works need to be paid for.
Let’s get back to your career history. After you worked at Cloud Gate, and before you started at the NTT, you were active as an independent theater producer in Taipei. Were you happy doing that then?
I wouldn’t say I was an independent producer, because I actually joined the Performing Arts Alliance
— known as the PAA — after I left Cloud Gate 2.
The PAA had members from different art groups who functioned as project managers. The alliance was actually a platform to reflect the voices of various groups and people in order to create a network and foster new talent and solve their problems. We had lots of projects and collaborated with the government.
At that time, I could say I was an independent producer because the PAA allowed me to work independently even though I was on the staff. That was because we had the freedom to think independently, and despite being paid a salary it wasn’t necessary to follow a boss or a central philosophy. We were more like a collective and it was really free, and you could express your own ideas and points of view. So sometimes people argued and discussed things a lot, but then something good would emerge in the end.
The PAA was the voice of the performing arts field. Working there was when I really learned about the performing arts in Taiwan and started to find out more about the central policy, what was wrong, and what changes we should propose to improve the situation. I also got to know artists from different fields such as theater, dance, music and the visual arts, as well as collaborators such as architects and designers.
In these ways I came to know what it was like for an artist working in Taiwan, and I started to realize that you can’t ask the government to do everything. You need to make them believe you and collaborate with them.
The PAA was a bridge between artists and the government. For example, because artists normally didn’t read about it when a policy came out, we spread the information and explained it to them and advised them how to build a better relationship with the government. So, our work wasn’t in conflict with artists; it was more of a collaboration.
At the PAA, what were you actually in charge of?
In those days there was a big focus on building international connections. There was a very interesting project for the creative industries commissioned in 2010 by the Creative Industries Department of the Ministry of Culture. That project oversaw the establishment of five Creative Parks — in Taipei, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Hualien and Chiayi. It was a vibrant time, with lots of investment in creative industries and companies.
Also, the Ministry of Culture started setting different goals for the Creative Parks. For example, it transformed a no longer used old Taipei sake brewery into the Huashan Creative Park, which it designated as a center for the performing arts with attractive galleries, performance spaces, live houses, restaurants and shops.
That was interesting, because the original facilities were not made for the performing arts. But it was kind of fun, because there was a competition to find different ways to think about the site and many people and organizations proposed ideas. Finally, the PAA won the competition, so we were able to run the project for five years.
Then we started to seriously plan what we were going to do, because we had this great opportunity and a big annual budget. The project’s main target was getting lots of people to come along and be involved with the performing arts, but at the start no one wanted to. If people were already theatergoers, they would come — but if they weren’t, they didn’t.
So we planned what we called a Living Arts Festival, because we wanted the name to signal it was about people’s daily lives and also about the arts. We started to find different ways to make it a platform that would draw the public to the Park to experience something without noticing it was art. For instance, we might transform a performing arts idea or concept into an exhibition or game, or maybe we’d just present a very simple reading performance.
The festival wasn’t a full production that you needed to buy a ticket for. There were some free events and others that weren’t, but in general we tried to find elements from the performing arts to transfer into different media.
For example, we had installations on the arts boulevard in the Park and invited performance artists to do something with them. Or we gave them small box-style cabins and asked them to do something there. Then they started to think in different ways from their usual theater productions.
A playwright decided to do a project called “Fortune Teller” in which she sat in a cabin and met and talked with lots of people. Then she gave them brief poems she wrote that were like those on the “omikuji” fortune-telling slips of paper people can get at random at many shrines and temples in Japan. That’s a different way of experiencing the performing arts — as an actual face-to-face communication between creators and audiences, not something happening in a proscenium-arch theater. So, we tried to change the way people saw things, as well as the way artists presented their works.
We also invited lots of artists to share the background stories behind their work. So, we held talks every night during the festival and invited actors to share their thoughts about how they act, what acting is to them, and what are their difficulties they feel. They were very casual talks, so lots of young artists took part.
We also held open rehearsals in which we invited groups of artists to use the space for their rehearsals, and people would just come along to watch them before seeing the public performance onstage. Those people could then stay there to talk to directors and performers, so it made them feel that theater was not so scary.
There was lots of progress taking place all the time, and we invited audiences to witness it. That was the main spirit of the Living Arts Festival.
For instance, the Taipei-based Riverbed Theater company is renowned for presenting unique theatrical works, and it has always been deeply involved with visual arts. So when it staged an exhibition at our festival, its members created spaces which encouraged different ways of seeing performing arts — sometimes with the audiences getting involved and taking part. In another presentation, audience members could climb ladders and look down from the ceiling to see the performance.
Meanwhile, we also encouraged the creative industry’s productivity, because the performing arts is an industry that needs to get more money. Obviously, we were very honest about the fact that there is no way to get money instantly, like with films or pop music can do— that’s impossible. So we stressed that if you want to get profit from a production, you need to give profit first.
In practice, every year we asked our programming team to select new productions to be performed at such places as a warehouse in the festival park area rather than in conventional theater buildings. So the work had to fit into a non-theater venue like that and we would give money toward the production of a new work, and also start to sell tickets for it. For every 100 Taiwan dollars in tickets sold we would give the artist’ team 175 dollars, which was far more than they normally received.
That incentive encouraged many artists. It was also very good because we started to find artists who were working very wisely. Some used the extra revenue to make their work better, while others reduced their ticket prices to attract bigger audiences, of younger people especially.
So we found that through these kinds of ideas we created things we had never thought would happen. That was a very good demonstration of good arts policy in action, so we were able to continue our Living Arts Festival project for the next four years.
Please tell us how you went about tackling the challenge to reach out internationally.
Well, there was another very important program during Living Arts Festival project, and that was the international showcase.
Because the Festival operated in a creative industry, the government expected it to return a profit. So we had to sell products of the performing arts. However, if you want to sell something you have to get people to see it first, so we needed to create a platform for people to see the works.
As part of our planning, we visited lots of arts markets, such as CINARS
in Montreal, Canada, PAMS
in Seoul, South Korea and TPAM in Yokohama
, Japan, to see the international market situation for ourselves. That opened our eyes, because we found they were using different methods to communicate and collaborate rather than just selling things.
At that time, we didn’t have the ability to have a full-scale performing arts market in Taiwan, so we selected 20 to 24 works every year from different fields like dance, theater, music, traditional arts or traditional puppet theater and combined them into one international showcase.
In doing that, though, we faced another challenge because there weren’t enough good venues at the Huashan Creative Park for all those showcases.
So, we took our concerns to the Ministry of Culture and finally, from the festival’s third year, we were able to collaborate with the National Theater and Concert Hall in Taipei. That allowed us to present some mainly small-scale, experimental dance, installation or interactive kinds of works at the Huashan Creative Park, along with large-scale ones at the National Theater and Concert Hall.
During that time, we started to communicate with other countries, especially Japan and South Korea, and we shared our experiences at those foreign arts fairs with the Ministry of Culture and our main funding organization, the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF).
We told them that to reach out overseas, they needed to support us in forging international connections and collaborations, as these were the main priority.
However, because Taiwan is so small, with only 23 million people and everything concentrated in Taipei, many works were very similar and lacking in diversity. Also, we didn’t have enough resources. So, if we could find foreign partners, we aimed to co-create works in partnership with them. That’s why we visited PAMS and other places to introduce our Living Arts Festival and to showcase programs.
Although people didn’t know Taiwan very well and didn’t think of stopping here to see world-class performing arts, in 2010 we began presenting its performing arts at international events. Since then we have started to connect with many people who we have invited to see our showcases and artists. So nowadays, Taiwan’s unique and interdisciplinary works — for example, new-media pieces using digital technology or installations — are gradually being recognized more widely by international curators and theater lovers.
In addition, the Living Arts Festival’s international showcase became a very good platform for young artists to find the latest information from presenters and artists from different countries invited to share their knowledge. Through these forums, I think many Taiwanese artists were able to embark on international collaborations.
Over the five years that PAA ran the event, from 2010 to 2014, people’s horizons broadened and new ideas were introduced, so Taiwan’s performing arts industry benefited a great deal and awareness about the importance of international connections rose considerably.
Finally, some artists were invited to the OZAsia Festival in Adelaide, South Australia, and venues in Singapore and Canada also expressed interest in Taiwanese theater. It was a great outcome.
However, we then encountered a new problem with the administration resources in our performing arts environment. This arose when a foreign curator wanted to do an overseas tour with a contemporary Lion Dance company — but the company had no administrators to work with foreign theaters. As a result, they couldn’t do the tour.
Around that time, however, the PAA started to collaborate with colleagues in Japan, South Korea and Australia to create the Asia Producers Platform (APP). This focused on support for independent producers, on fostering cross-cultural interaction and learning about each other’s performing arts environments.
Besides holding regular annual meetings, the APP chose producers through its committees or by invitation, and it was heartening to see emerging professionals collaborate together even though many of their projects were small and experimental.
Moreover, the APP played an important part in creating a different image for this field of the performing arts. That’s why, after the five-year project, we asked the NCAF to support our platform, not just independent artists or companies.
Consequently, the APP got funding for three more years, during which we developed a larger-scale project with seven platforms. These included one for playwrights writing in Chinese, who mainly went to Singapore, Malaysia and China. There was also a digital performing arts platform that supported visits to European countries and Australia and collaboration works there.
Besides raising awareness about the importance of international connections to Taiwan’s performing arts, the APP also did a lot of research in the performing arts area and managed several databases of arts organizations.
As well as all this, I believe you were also involved in the Performing Arts Network Association at the same time.
I was. The Performing Arts Network Association, or PANDA as it’s known, is a private-sector body aimed at linking administrators via a platform through which they can communicate and share their ideas and networks. There is no office and I am one of the board’s four founding members. We do everything ourselves or in collaboration, and if we want to do something, we share our ideas with the members, or they can propose their own. Mainly, though, PANDA’s purpose is to assist art administrators. So, we share networks, resources and insights into possible solutions to problems, including those of benefit to Taiwan internationally.
Because everyone has their own network, PANDA is a kind of sharing group incorporating administrators working with performance groups, some with independent projects and others in the music industry. So, if any arts administrator has difficulties, we share their questions and problems to try and reach better solutions. It’s a great network for knowing what’s going on in each field.
In 2015, you got a job at the NTT in Taichung as a Programming Associate. How did that happen?
I was invited to join by the NTT’s first Artistic Director, Victoria (Wen-yi) Wang. We had worked together several times when I was at the PAA.
Once, when she was the Artistic Director of Taipei Arts Festival in 2010, we invited her to be a consultant to our Living Arts Festival, and she also worked with us as a speaker and panelist.
Another time, the PAA collaborated on the performance programs for 2010’s Taipei International Flora Exposition, a huge six-month international event organized by the city government. A body called the Taipei Cultural Foundation — of which she was a member — was in charge of the performance programming for that.
However, the reason I joined the NTT was not just to do programming, but because I could work in that venue (theater) which I had previously studied in theory.
At the PAA it was more like doing R&D because we didn’t actually produce things, which I always thought was a pity. So, moving from a platform organization into that venue was very different. Though I might have previously understood problems theoretically, now I got to really understand why they arose.
In a theater venue, especially in this government-funded one, there are lots of missions to fulfill, as well as lots of limitations. That made it more “real” than when I was doing research, because rather than observing and judging, this was about actual experiences. That’s why I decided to join the NTT.
How do you feel working at the NTT? Have you had any particular difficulties?
It’s very hard to run the NTT, especially as it’s in the newly culturally developing city of Taichung, where many people walk in but don’t know what the building is for. Although the news media and various TV programs reported on the NTT when it opened in September 2016, the coverage always emphasized the building and the architect. Consequently, no one really understands it’s a performing arts theater; they only know it is Toyo Ito’s building, so they come to see it without knowing what it’s for. That creates a very difficult challenge for us to explain to people what we are doing, why we are here, and why it’s important to participate in the arts. So, there is still a long way to go.
For instance, at the end of 2015, before the opening in 2016, we put on a month-long program of free special events. At that time there were no contemporary performing arts in Taichung, and you just wouldn’t see words like “contemporary.” Maybe “theater” and “dance” might come up — but what was “contemporary” all about?
Well, as this theater’s goal is to showcase the best domestic and international contemporary performing arts, for one of those free pre-opening events we invited the La Machine company from France. They presented “La Symphonie Mécanique,” a music piece using original metal instruments, in the front garden area of the NTT. It was great fun and the audience enjoyed it without feeling it was “high-classical music.” We also invited the Xarxa Teatre from Spain, who performed their spectacular “Veles e Vents” program using lot of new media, projections and striking visual effects.
Through their exposure to artists such as these, people started to understand there could be different ways of performing, and that ideas can be presented using different media. It was very exciting for the audiences, and we also realized that their obvious curiosity presented opportunities for us. So, it was a good (pre-) start.
Now I think more and more people are accepting what we are doing. I also feel they believe it’s a good thing to have an arts theater here, because we are the only theater in Taichung doing its own programming. Most of the others are just for rental purposes.
Although you are now the Associate Manager of the Creative Engagement Division of the NTT’s Arts Education Department, when you joined you were a Programming Associate. What did you focus on most in that role?
I’m reluctant to say “education,” but I do feel the programs here need to offer a fundamental base for people to experience the performing arts.
During our opening period, for example, we had to present, huge, high-art masters’ works to make a big impact for that special occasion. That was exciting but my main concern was that if we didn’t continue to present anymore programs like that, people just might not come.
Though it is all very well and good to schedule very famous pieces, lots of foreign works and prestigious Taiwanese ones, there are many options apart from those. For instance, there are definitely many emerging artists’ works and experimental works worth seeing — but we found it was very difficult to attract audiences to anything that’s not famous. I thought that was because people weren’t understanding what the performing arts actually are.
While I was working in the programming team, our main concern was whether tickets were selling or not. So, I thought a lot about finding ways to communicate with people to expand our audiences. We had numerous discussions with artists and asked them to do talks or give all kinds of information to the audiences about their work. Though we also do various kinds of outreach programs, I still don’t think that’s enough. Hence we still need to have education-based activities to communicate with people and think together what we can do with the arts.
I think that’s a crucial element in this theater, and it’s why I am now in the education department.
Back when I was at Cloud Gate we would laugh between ourselves because when we made a program booklet for its “Moon Water
production” for example, we had to insert the words “modern dance” before the title so people would know what they were going to see was classified as. We always had to explain things so clearly and remove any mystery. People needed those kinds of descriptions to understand what the theater was doing.
Now it’s much better. When we opened, people would come in and ask what movie was on, so we had to explain that the NTT is a theater, not a cinema. However, many people didn’t know what a theater was, or that they needed to buy a ticket and go to the theater space to see a performance. In fact many people didn’t have any basic knowledge about a professional theater performance. They didn’t know to switch off their mobile phones, or that they weren’t allowed to eat or send messages during the show. They really were beginners. Although there were some experienced theater-goers, the existence of all those first-timers meant there were huge gaps between sections of our audiences.
I think curiosity is a key first step on the way to expanding our audience, and it’s definitely an active ingredient here. That’s why we have many pre- and post-performance talks, and why so many people come to talks given by our staff or other speakers. At this stage, I think many of them want to find out what it is we are showing them. However, as we are now in our fourth year there are increasingly more people able to express their ideas and their points of view, and also pose questions. From now on, I believe the situation will change very quickly.
What tasks are you tackling now as the Associate Manager of the Creative Engagement Division?
I am trying to reach out to as many people as possible. That’s why we are designing activities and programs for everyone. I find it is more challenging than doing programming because the artists you invite have already created their works, whereas with arts education you start from nothing.
So the Arts Education Department is a bridge between artists, the theater, audiences and the community and we are saying we are part of the production team: we are the arts education, production and programming team.
It is very exciting because we get to collaborate with artists and explore new possibilities with them. Normally, artists focus on their creative process and they might regard any educational role as extra work. But when they collaborate with us, it extends that creative process into designing education or learning programs for young audiences, or for the general public, or doing open-entry workshops. So, it’s another challenge for them, but a good way to understand about different targets.
Happily, even though those activities are not about selling tickets, but about understanding each other, many artists have shown their interest and willingness to collaborate with us.
The Arts Education Department also runs programs for professionals’ development, though their main emphasis is on the general public, schools, families, creative aging and arts knowledge programs.
For example, at our NTT salon we endeavor to deepen people’s understanding in areas such as opera, classical music, dance history and technique, and the technology of theater, etc. We invite artists, researchers, or other professionals to come and share their knowledge and give demonstrations. In addition, especially for people who may not have had any contact with the performing arts, we have lecture-style programs in which we invite professionals such as designers, documentary film-makers, photographers, flower-arrangers and scriptwriters to come together and discuss topics such as: What is beauty?
As we invite specialists from different fields to share their experience and how they see things, people become curious to participate in our salons. Thankfully, the programs are really well received.
As our arts education staff also offer participants the chance to voice their own ideas and opinions, during the meetings there can be many discussions between them and with the speakers.
The point of all this isn’t to get people to buy tickets; it’s not like that anymore. We don’t hold the events to sell tickets, but to encourage people to understand about this theater and what it offers. Yet for many young people and families, we find that the talks, the salon, exhibitions, workshops for teenagers and various free events open the door for them to visit the theater and then become new customers.