Kaite O’ Reilly opens the pages of her travel and rehearsal diaries to reflect on six weeks in Taipei, staging the 9 Fridas at Taipei Arts Festival, September 2014.
There is sun and great heat and tropical plants and Mandarin in the air alongside the song of crickets. There are no sheep, nor the blessing of Welsh rain – although I’ve been told to expect a typhoon or two in the next six weeks. In my fridge I have fresh lychee, longan (‘dragons’ eyes’), and green tea with grapefruit. There are smiles everywhere. As director Phillip Zarrilli put it last night after we were showered with greetings coming out of the MRT (underground): ‘In Taipei even the drunks are friendly.’
29/7/14. Rehearsal notes.
‘You can only cook if you turn on the fire and that’s what your awareness is. That’s why we train.’
It’s a sweltering black box studio in Taipei Arts University and Phillip Zarrilli is leading a masterclass in his approach to pre-performative psychophysical actor-training, using Asian martial/meditation arts – Chinese taiqiquan, Indian yoga, and the closely related martial art, kalarippayattu.
‘If we open our awareness in the exercise, if we follow the breath, there’s a certain quality in what you’re doing which is tangible – without that awareness, you’re just opening and closing your arms. It’s the same with acting.’
I know what he means. I’ve seen performances where the actors just seem to be going through the motions, moving around the stage in a pre-determined score that seems oddly dead, like there’s no ghost in the machine. There’s little connection to the space, or other actors around them and they converse without listening to what the others say.
This is not actor bashing. For two horrible years I was a performer in a production touring internationally, moving through my hollow actions desperately trying to keep it fresh when I was bored out of my mind and tempted to burst into an unscheduled Irish dancing routine mid-performance just to see what would happen. This staleness and boredom was the death knell for my career as a figure on stage, and I gratefully moved off it, to the other side of the rehearsal room.
How to keep it fresh, to ‘enliven’ an actor on stage has been a fascination ever since. I have the greatest respect for the profession and those who can indeed make it appear they have never been here before, or heard/said these words, even as they trip out of the mouth. My conclusion about my own sorry art is lack of training, other than a miserable (mis)interpretation of Stanislavski I was taught and the exhilarating if bruising physical theatre workshops I hurled myself into in an attempt to find a technique. Sitting in on Zarrilli’s masterclass is therefore a privilege as well as an education.
I’m in Taiwan for the Mandarin première of my performance script the 9 fridas at the Taipei Art Festival, directed by Zarrilli with Mobius Strip theatre company, in association with Bobo (Fung Wai Hang) of Hong Kong Rep. As part of his residency as Guest Director at the festival, Zarrilli is leading a three day intensive masterclass with the cast, local actors and students. His approach seeks to ‘enliven’ actors when on stage, and to create 360 degrees awareness.
‘This training… begins by focusing on the development of the contemporary actor’s interiority, i.e., how the actor might discover, awaken, shape, understand, and deploy “energy”, awareness, focus/concentration, and feeling to the “matter£ of performance—the impulses, structure, contours, and texture of the tasks or actions that constitute a specific performance score shaped by particular dramaturgies…. While the exercises are “traditional£, the pedagogy is “contemporary”.’
There is no suspicion towards the use of words like ‘bodymind’, ‘energy’, ‘chi’, or ‘ki’ in Taiwan. Unlike in the West, the importance of generating and circulating energy is accepted and everyday, at the heart of Chinese traditional medicine, and part of common daily practice.
The space between each breath is very important to Zarrilli, which is why he asks us to pay attention from the space of completion to the start of inhalation. That ‘space between’ is where he believes acting happens – the empty space – everything and nothing, filled with potential.
4/8/14. Notes for the programme:
The 9 Fridas is a mosaic, a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the 9 Hells of the Mayan Underworld. ‘F’ is accompanied by a chorus of figures who, like her, are and are not Frida Kahlo, but whose stories echo actual events from Kahlo’s life: The political activist, the national emblem, the bi-curious lover, the would-be mother, the teenager severely disabled in a road accident, the fashion icon, the struggling artist…
5/8/14. Rehearsal notes.
‘The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.’ Einstein, quoted by The Sunflower Protest.
The last living photograph of Frida Kahlo was taken several days before her death, participating in a political demonstration. She is frail and thin, pushed in her wheelchair by Diego Rivera, scarf wrapped about her head against the driving rain, her right fist raised in defiance, her left hand holding a reproduction of Picasso’s ‘Dove of Peace’.
Even before I reached Taiwan, I knew I wanted to rework what became known as ‘the political scene’ in my text, so it had resonance for a Taiwanese audience. In the 9 Fridas I’ve taken aspects from Kahlo’s extraordinary life and reframed and reinvented them, in contemporary contexts. Everyone on stage is and is not Kahlo. Bringing in recent Taiwanese political activity seemed an ideal opportunity to make parallels between Kahlo’s activism and those of the Sunflower Protest.
On March 18th 2014, hundreds of students occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. Their action was in protest against undemocratic procedures pushing through this trade agreement between China and Taiwan without fully informing the Taiwanese people what it would entail. Many feared this would make Taiwan too dependant on China economically, isolating Taiwan from other allies, and therefore vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. This quickly spread across the city, and soon thousands of citizens gathered on the streets outside the parliament, to support the students inside.
On March 30th, twelve days into their occupation, students organized a demonstration that saw more than 500,000 Taiwanese citizens taking to the streets in support of their non-violent cause. The support was across Taiwan and internationally, with demonstrations occurring in many cities across the world. With this support, the government had to listen and respond and the action ended officially on April 10th.
I’d been following the protest from the UK through translations of news reports provided by our translator Betty (Yi-Chun Chen). When I arrived in Taipei, I looked for people to interview who had been involved in the occupation – and didn’t have to look very far. Along with Betty, cast members as well as our excellent stage management Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chi had been deeply involved. Lunch hours have been spent with them and actor Po-Ting Chen telling me their experiences and how significant the protest has been in politicizing the younger generation. They fear Taiwan’s independence will be absorbed by big neighbour Mainland China; recent developments in Hong Kong have increased the fear.
‘It’s the evolution of control,’ one of my characters says in the script. ‘Once, it was with might, now it’s with economics.’ The section concludes with Po-Ting describing both an act of protest at dawn and the awakening of a political consciousness: ‘It was 4am, and we faced the new morning.’
Kuo Yi Chi emailed me some sections from her diary kept when she was occupying the Legislative Yuan, which she has given me permission to reproduce here, and reactions to my script:
You know, a part of me wants to stay, a part of me want to run away, and that’s the problem because I don’t know who I really am
I guess I can’t be happy ever after.
…I forgot to tell you something about ‘It was 4 am and we faced the new morning’. At first, I thought it was very positive, hopeful. But one day I suddenly felt that it was so ironic because bad things always happen at the darkest moment even though it should start to shine at the same moment. I’ve been through a hopeless 4am once, on April 27 at Zhongxiao West road. When we were in raincoats surrounded by the police, knowing we were going to be sprinkled [by water cannons, and tear gas]. We hoped to see a new, safe, peaceful morning with our dry bodies, but we didn’t have a glimpse to see. The sunshine came up just when news reporters were all expelled… However, ‘It’ didn’t come at all. Of course the sun did rise, just like people keep moving on or keep forgetting, but the morning we expected didn’t come. We were abandoned by the government that night, that morning. But we don’t give up. So yes, it was 4am and we faced the new morning, but not ‘The’ morning we want.
© Kuo Yi-Chi. August 2014.
8/8/14. Rehearsal notes.
‘Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.’ Frida Kahlo journals.
I shared this quotation with the actors today, to remind them of Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. It is easy to see her as ‘tragic but brave’ and her life as one long miserable drag of one peg leg after the other, but as a disabled woman and feminist, I reject this. One reason why I chose to make this multi-layered text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the pity-inducing mainstream representations of recent years that have reduced her to a fragment of her biography, and the little broken betrayed wife at that. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’
As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion to Frida Kahlo, and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. It can be challenging and unsettling, dealing with issues of the journey of the soul after death, and the 9 hells of the Mayan underworld during August – Ghost month – the 7th lunar month – when the door between hell and earth opens from twilight until dawn. In Taipei it’s a time of ancestor worship, remembrance and placation of the hungry, jealous ghosts.
August 10th is Taiwan’s Day of the Dead, with rituals across the city, but particularly in the north of the island, where huge burning boats are set sail into the night. I walked the back roads behind the apartment where I’m staying, finding a side road blocked off, a massive marquee stretching across. Inside hundreds of placements for a lavish meal were set, with offerings of food, fruit, cigarettes, and the ever present green tea – a feast for phantoms – a banquet where the diners are present, but invisible. Meanwhile braziers burn in the streets, fuelled by thousands of notes from The Bank of Hell, ‘posted’ to the dead via flames.
I followed a saffron robed monk as he dog-trotted through the back lanes, blessing the makeshift altars the businesses and restaurants had set up outside their premises. A man carrying a yellow lantern was in the vanguard, with various animals and children following in his wake.
14/9/14 Rehearsal notes.
The script is becoming more familiar to the actors, who are interrogating the content, asking questions, seeking clarity. It’s a hugely exciting time as the text begins to breathe and take shape. I am constantly editing and tightening the text. What may work on the page can trip, divert, or slow when put ‘up’ – the dynamics of individual moments, as well as sequences and the flow of the whole piece needs to be taken into consideration. Tempo-rhythm, dynamic and flow is of great importance to me, especially at this point in the process.
Issues of translation: ‘Can you translate ‘cheeky’ into Mandarin?’
My work is very musical and dependent on tempo-rhythm for tone, emphasis, and to help create meaning and flow. Punctuation is essential and I think every director I have worked with has commented at some point on the precision of my signification of pause, beat, or length of line. In translation, it becomes complicated. One word in English can become six in Mandarin, therefore there is an issue of balancing the line – there can be an emphasis on part of a sentence I hadn’t intended. As an example today, the balanced line in English we were working on was: ‘I lived, dying.’ In Mandarin the equilibrium is gone – it becomes in effect ‘I lived, but in actuality I was dying’ – which gives too much emphasis to death, thereby weighting the meaning too much in that direction, and bringing a more somber tone. We changed the translation to be more balanced – ‘in life, there is death,’ re-establishing the equilibrium I had sought in the original. Everyone has complimented the translation by Betty Yi Chun Chen, but additional help has come from our outstanding cast.
Asked by the British Council to give a workshop in writing and then a public lecture: ‘Representations of Impairment in the Western Theatrical Canon’. This has been an area of my research for some time, developed partly during my on-going fellowship at Freie Universitat’s International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures in Berlin, where I’m reflecting on my work between mainstream culture and disability culture, between hearing and Deaf cultures. I’m encouraged by the responses to the talk, especially the understanding that disability is a social construct. It is not my impairments that disable me, but the prejudices, fears, physical and attitudinal barriers of a society with little value in human variety that are disabling.
In the dinner hour between the events I and my spontaneous girl gang – a group of fabulous creative Taiwanese women – head for fermented ‘stinky tofu’ at a street cafe and the auspicious temple for match-making nearby. I am introduced to the local gods by name, and promised divine protection in my travels around the city if I buy a blessed charm of a fierce looking ‘god gangster’ for about £1.20. Bargain.
A great silence fell over the rehearsal room today when our extraordinary costume designer, YS Lee, brought in two reproductions of Frida’s corsets. One is leather, the other plaster, with the tender depiction of an embryo curled beneath a defiant hammer and sickle. I saw the original at an exhibition of Kahlo’s work in Berlin some years ago, and it looks identical. The sweltering room became chilled as Mobius Strip co-artistic director and performer Faye Leong was strapped into it.
YS Lee’s work is phenomenal and he and designer YY Lim are having the time of their lives working on this project. Their work is visually stunning.
Gearing up to show time, but the time difference between Taiwan and the UK allows me to work a full day in Taipei, then skype into rehearsals at Forest Forge Theatre Company in England, who are beginning rehearsals on my new play Woman of Flowers, a reinvention of the story of Blodeuwedd from the Fourth branch of the Mabinogion. ‘I’ am present and active in rehearsals via the screen of a laptop placed on a chair, facing the actors. Performer Sophie Stone and I practice signing to each other over thousands of miles and director Kirstie Davis and I relish our conversations, with me seven hours into her future. It is exhausting but strangely exhilarating, and at night in my dreams Frida tangoes with Blodeuwedd to a sound track of owl calls and the sexy smoky croak of Chevela Vargas.
Our performances at the Taipei Art Festival have been sold out for more than a month and we’re slightly surprised to see a handful of Kahlo fans turn up dressed in Day of the Dead outfits. Although officially the most famous female artist in the world, we weren’t sure how well known she was in Taiwan.
Tears, laughter at the filmed sequences, gasps at the multiple live reproductions of ‘The Two Fridas’ and an impromptu speech of congratulation from the former ambassador to Taiwan, Jorge Pinto, ‘the only Mexican in Taipei.’ Some were nervous about how accessible the Mexican and Mayan cultural references might be to the Taiwanese audience, never mind the complex post-dramatic script, multiple protagonists, and psychophysical approach, but all fears are proven unnecessary. In the after-show dialogue, Keng Yi Wei, director of the festival, spoke of Phillip Zarrilli’s long experience of ‘multi-layered intercultural work’ and how welcome that is to the Taipei Art Festival, and encouraged me to think of this as the first part of a trilogy. There are talks of a transfer to Hong Kong, and further tours around Taiwan and perhaps Mainland China, and there are plans for the publication of the script in Betty’s Mandarin translation.
We head for the airport after the last show and a celebratory banquet, a crowd of Mobius Strip Theatre Company, the Taipei Art Festival, new friends and Phillip Zarrilli’s former students all waving us off in our taxi. All I feel is gratitude for this experience – the generosity and welcome I have encountered, the talent I have witnessed and the understanding I have had enhanced. I am tender- hearted leaving Taipei and the extraordinary people I have met there, but am hopeful I will be back.
Kaite O’Reilly’s Woman of Flowers produced by Forest Forge is at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Oct 29th.
Banner photo copyright: Mobius Strip theatre company