1992 / 3月
Ventine Tsai /photos courtesy of Pu Hua-chih /tr. by Andrew Morton
"December 9, Chinese Cultural Center, New York, U.S.A.
February 22, Chung Shan North Road Joint Services Club, Taipei Rotarians.
March 3, The Regent Hotel, Chinese Folk Night."
Leafing through the Hsiao Hsi Yuan puppet troupe's engagement book, you soon discover their performances are no longer purely for temple festivals.
Meanwhile the Ming Hua Yuan folk opera troupe, not to mention their recent Asian Games performance and their reception by President Lee, are constantly breaking new ground: inviting the best players from all troupes to set off the Taipei Drama Season with a bang, leading the way into building site shows, and being invited by Formosa Plastics to perform in rural Mailiao, Yunlin county. . . .
At a time when most traditional drama troupes are hard pressed to survive, the Ming Hua Yuan have just celebrated their 60th anniversary and the Hsiao Hsi Yuan are gearing up for their 80th anniversary. How are they succeeding in reaching for new horizons in today's changing society?
Early this year, in celebration of late founder Hsu Tien-fu's centenary and as a warm-up for the troupe's 80th anniversary next year, the Hsiao Hsi-Yuan mounted a series of Lilliputian events in the elegant surroundings of a teashop. On the eve of this happening a news release and press conference were arranged by the troupe's executive secretary, Hsu Kuo-liang, a third-generation member of the founder's family who handles all the troupe's PR matters.
At the press conference, Hsu Kuo-liang told the media that in addition to the troupe's old fax machine a Chinese computer was being installed for information management, and that plans were afoot for intensifying artistic promotion, arranging events, and opening up more cultural appearances and performance opportunities overseas. . . .
Smiling in the wings, troupe director Hsu Wang couldn't help sighing "how times have changed!" "In the old days a troupe's reputation was spread by word of mouth and people would naturally approach you to arrange performances. You agreed on a sum, fixed a time, and turned up on the day. You never had to actively tout for business, since 'good wine needs no bush.' Today there are more chances to perform at cultural venues and you have to plan actively, contact the press and print programs. Luckily I have Hsu Kuo-liang to take care of this for me, my task is just to perform puppet plays!" Hsu Wang modestly smiles with a hint of embarrassment.
Salad Days at an End? From childhood we went to temples to watch drama, played hide-and-seek beneath the stage, and admired the actors all dressed up in costume. But soon temples started showing films, featuring pop singers, or even 'cool shows' at which scantily-clad young women gyrate to electronic keyboard music. Little by little, traditional drama's market pie was sliced up.
Turning to a simple history of traditional drama, its heyday was between the '50s and the '70s, when indoor performance was the norm. In the '80s and' 90s the rise of television and film drove traditional drama out of indoor theaters back to the outdoor stage and many troupes were disbanded, while the remainder competed for outdoor temple performances. "Competition was no longer just between drama troupes, but between drama and all kinds of entertainment," observes Wang Sung-shan, a Natural Science Museum assistant researcher who has studied the Ming Hua Yuan troupe.
Ironically, the temple revival sparked by Taiwan's economic affluence has not given traditional drama more scope for survival--as the older generation of temple attendants thins out, new temple management has taken over with a different outlook. When it comes to hiring drama troupes no account is taken of what the performance is like--cost is the decisive factor. In a clamor of rival bids, troupes slash prices to compete for opportunities to perform. But cheapness inevitably means cutbacks in actors, musicians and props, economies right and left, the substitution of recordings for live singing, and imperial toasts being lifted in polystyrene cups. . . . Sometimes a troupe gets so desperate it turns to 'cool shows.' Last year's prizewinning novel The Songthrush Loses Its Voice poignantly describes the predicament of most outdoor drama troupes.
For economy, nothing can compare with openair films. "Showing a film just means hiring a projector, a screen and two hands--it's really very economical," says Taiwan Drama Association general secretary Yeh Tzu-feng. From an initial NT$4,000 per showing, open-air films have come down to a mere NT$1,500 today; by comparison a folk opera performance costs at least NT$22,000 and puppet theater over NT$10,000, with mat-shed construction charges on top. Apart from older temples which insist on live drama performances, most have taken to showing films.
Temple Earnings not a Living Wage: With competition from modern entertainment, the number of traditional drama troupes has dropped sharply. According to ROC Folk Arts Foundation Executive Secretary Chao Su-ying, "Pressure of reduced fees has meant a lower quality of performance, and this frightens away audiences, leading to a vicious circle; many troupes are just a hollow shell and will fold up once the old actors are gone."
Figures kept by the Taiwan Province, Taipei and Kaohsiung drama associations show that there are over 400 puppet theater troupes and over 200 folk drama troupes in Taiwan today. "But two-thirds of those don't perform regularly," adds Yeh Tzu-feng. According to Hsu Kuo-liang's professional estimate, barely a tenth of the puppet troupes still maintain over 200 performances a year. And 400 performances a year like the Hsia Hsi Yuan troupe is really exceptional.
Many of these troupes are really just a director plus two or three relatives as performers. Extra people are roped in for a performance, and a given performer is often filling in all over the place. Backstage musicians are even harder to come by. Currently the Hsiao Hsi Yuan is the only puppet troupe with specialists in civil and military dramas, and Hsu Wang often refers to himself jocularly as puppet drama's "last emperor."
"Our temple roots are still there, but performing in temples alone is a dead-end." Sun Jung-fa, director of the I Hsin Ko drama troupe, speaks from the heart: "The outdoor stage can only keep you alive, if you want fine quality you must go in for large-scale performance!" Since taking over the folk opera troupe from his father three years ago he has adopted a fresh direction, taking a leaf out of the Ming Hua Yuan troupe's book. After winning the province-wide drama championship and making a name for themselves, they have set out to conquer the wider world beyond the temples.
Storming the First Stronghold: Actually, winning the 1982 local drama competition was also a key turning-point in the Ming Hua Yuan troupe's rise. A group of younger scholars were included among the panel of adjudicators that year. As a result some troupes who always performed 'model dramas' singing the praises of virtue failed to make the grade, whereas the Ming Hua Yuan's new drama, strong on confrontation and tightly performed, stood out from the crowd. Afterwards the new and old adjudicators carried their disagreement into the papers, a press conference was called, and the Ming Hua Yuan were much sought after by the media.
Ability apart, 'luck' also played a part. This was supplied by a new enthusiasm for folk art, plus the arrival of a new generation of scholars. But the Ming Hua Yuan had already seen the limitations of the outdoor stage, and after discussion it was decided to ask various scholars along to watch and humbly seek their advice. With the scholars' enthusiastic backing they followed in Yang Li-hua's footsteps and performed at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, thus breaking their first new ground.
Moving from the outdoor to the indoor stage takes not just luck, but skill. The first time meant a completely different venue, style of performance and demands. "They weren't just ambitious, they were well prepared," observes Wang Sung-shan.
"You must never forget the spirit of the indoor stage" was what the old troupe director told his children as they embarked on the outdoor stage, expecting them not to be lackadaisical even there, and it took the Ming Hua Yuan to the forefront of their profession. Returning now to the indoor stage, and in a building of national importance to boot, the troupe did not dare take things lightly.
For this big public performance the National Theater provided over NT$1 million in production expenses, but the Ming Hua Yuan spent even more. NT$3 million was invested in hardware for Red Dust Bodhi, for example. All the new props, costumes and frequent backdrop changes were terribly expensive. On the software side, going into a modern theater meant the plot had to be tight and polished, not like the traditional outdoor stage with just a broad idea and the content left to the actors' emotions to elaborate. Writer-producer Chen Shengkuo, the fourth brother, went to a Taipei film company's studio to spend a year as script holder. Outside rehearsals, he could always be seen with notebook in hand, writing up the latest scene to go through his mind.
Objective: 3O9 Rural Districts and Townships: With his exposure to the Western dramatic outlook, Chen Sheng-kuo's new folk opera scripts show evidence of investigations of human nature. Red Dust Bodhi, for example, discusses the meaning of life and death. And Chi Kung the Living Buddha poses questions about human nature. In the play a fox spirit abandons 1,000 years of spiritual exercises and strips off its fur coat as a marriage gift, exposing itself to a life of subjection, all because of its love for a mortal being. So Chi Kung sings, "An animal's affection is more to be valued than a human's, for a human being without love is lower than a beast."
A new play in the pipeline, Rivalry between Ch'u and Han, has Hsiang Yu as the chief role and depicts the good side of his nature. Far from putting himself first, he concedes defeat to Liu Pang, who rules by disrupting the law. Liu Pang will appear as a comic role. Talking of this script, Chen Sheng-kuo says with a gleam in his eye: "Society is complex, and folk opera can't forever be telling people to be good and featuring nothing but paragons of virtue and scholarly love affairs; we can be ironic, use understatement--there's a lot more to human nature."
As opposed to most drama troupes where the resident dramatist goes on for decades reciting the old texts in his head, Chen Sheng-kuo's search for innovation and variety is fully supported by the family's third brother Chen Sheng-fu, a former film company boss and currently the troupe's producer: "Investment is necessary and worthwhile, our goals are far-reaching and ambitious." Cheng Sheng-fu explains that there are 21 counties and metropolises in Taiwan plus 309 rural districts and townships, and investment averages about NT$10,000 per town. "And investing in software means having good actors, good plays and good directors, which gives you the clout to get into major venues!"
Certified Cultural Happenings: Why are traditional drama troupes flocking to feature in cultural events? Taking a cue from Hsiao Hsi Yuan's engagement book, we see the Asia Pacific Puppet Theater Exhibit, county and city cultural centers, Chinese folk culture nights, New York Chinese Cultural Center. Government-sponsored events like these are called 'cultural happenings' in the profession, and account for about 20 percent of all engagements.
Cultural happenings are less frequent than traditional invitations to perform at temples but are very different in terms of venue, earnings and audience level. In terms of fees in particular, the Hsiao Hsi Yuan for example, who are top earners in their field, will earn only about NT$25,000 for two performances at a one-day temple event, but can command about NT$50,000 or NT$60,000 for a single performance at a cultural happening. Higher earnings make it possible to hire better backstage musicians and enhance the troupe's standards.
Getting in on indoor cultural happenings is an honor for a drama troupe, serving somewhat as a mark of approval and giving an indirect boost to their popular standing and the fees they can command.
Government officials are also finding this is a feasible way of supporting the existence of drama troupes. According to Hsueh Mao-sung, head of the Council for Cultural Planning and Development's performing arts section: "Now we invite selected teams from each year's national local drama competitions, or troupes recommended by scholars, to participate in a whole range of performances."
In addition to government-sponsored cultural happenings such as arts festivals and weekend cultural plazas, Chen Sheng-fu feels there is a wider market for folk drama to be opened up provided its unique features are borne in mind.
Play-goers in Grip of Obsession? "Have you heard the saying 'actors are soft in the head, and play-goers are in the grip of obsession'? My interpretation of these phrases is that the first one refers to the romanticism actors put into drama, and the second one refers to audiences' affinity for folk drama, its grass-roots nature." Chen Sheng-fu believes the more remote a district the more folk drama's attraction shows; for entertainment apart, people's affinity for folk opera allows it to serve goodwill and educational functions.
Once established, the next thing is to open up new markets.
Quality apart, traditional drama troupes depend for their engagements on the director's social contacts, especially his links with local impresarios. These occupy a position mid-way between the temples and the drama troupes, recommending certain troupes to the temples and taking a fee once the deal is sewn up. To today's generation, it's a system which looks very out of place.
"To survive, you can't sit and wait for business to turn up, until the local impresario gives the nod. Drama troupes used to be far too passive," is the consensus shared by the new generation at both the Hsiao Hsi Yuan and the Ming Hua Yuan.
Folk Drama Construction Site Shows: Chen Sheng-fu's method is to keep track of social trends. Last year he found the most common advertisements in the newspapers were for housing. In order to drum up custom, construction firms would arrange site shows with singing and dancing. He saw in a flash: if you want to draw crowds, Ming Hua Yuan are the people. "People tend to say watching a Ming Huan Yuan folk opera is like watching a puppet play. In other words, the audience is so huge the actors on stage look as small as puppets." Chuckles Chen Sheng-fu: "And that's a plus point for businessmen!" After all, prospective house purchasers won't necessarily be bold enough to turn up for a striptease show. This is what led to last year's artistic phenomenon--traditional drama construction site shows.
Once the first shot was fired, other construction firms saw it was a crowd-puller and good for business, so they jumped on the bandwagon; Ming Hua Yuan put on ten more performances at sites in downtown areas aimed at middle class home-buyers. Besides opening up a new market, they were delighted that it showed audiences didn't just want to see wasp-waisted dancers with shapely buns, as the developers guessed. Once Ming Hua Yuan had led the way, other reputable drama troupes like the Hsiao Hsi Yuan and Wei Wan Jan got in on the construction site act too.
Sixth Naphtha-cracker and Folk Opera: On learning about regular Council of Agriculture promotional events for farm products in rural townships large and small, Chen Sheng-fu had another brainwave--rural communities! The very place to display folk opera's attractions to best advantage. "Farming folk watch ordinary song and dance shows on TV, but a large-scale folk opera performance would be a rarity," he calculated. He submitted a proposal, and lo and behold this year Ming Hua Yuan have drawn in audiences of tens of thousands in their progress through the villages. With folk opera in such popular demand, they were even invited by Formosa Plastics to Mailiao and by China Petroleum to Houchin to help mollify local residents and sugar the pill in their dialogue on plant construction.
With many drama troupes still busy slashing their fees by one or two thousand NT dollars on the temple cirouit, Ming Hua Yuan have already advanced beyond the temple scene to face even greater competition and gain even more opportunities.
Chen Sheng-fu spends a certain time each day reading the papers, scanning the arts, politics, economics, farming and women's pages for ideas. On a memo pad by his desk are pinned all today's cuttings: a folk arts event for the Taiwan Area Games in Ilan, no more complimentary tickets at Hong Kong Arts Festival as from this year, noted businessman Koo Chen-fu's devotion to Peking opera. . . . Any of these cuttings may provide an opening gambit for the next market.
When ever-vigilant Chen Sheng-fu finds his target, he often takes along slides and literature and goes straight to the chairman's office to introduce himself. Of course he always remembers to hand out an invitation to his new play, and if the board chairman isn't available he tracks down junior executives, or else asks employees along. "After all, every little bit helps!"
Even Kuo Yuan-i Needs New Packaging: While the Ming Hua Yuan actively invite people along, the Hsiao Hsi Yuan plan to introduce their developments and puppet theater culture to firms, scholars and audiences by means of a newsletter designed to open up new markets and hold their devotees together.
This isn't a new idea, it goes back to old Hsu Wang's 'chair club.'
Of all the hundreds of drama troupes in Taiwan, the Hsiao Hsi Yuan has the closest relationship with its audience. Its long-standing fans became good friends and formed a unique 'chair club' in eight separate districts of Taipei county. Whenever a Hsiao Hsi Yuan performance was due in their area, the local membership would prepare chairs for the audience, as well as having a meal every eighth day of the lunar month. The 'chair club' used to print a table of performances to help fans follow the troupe from place to place. Hsu Kuo-liang hopes to use a newsletter to draw devotees together as in the days of the 'chair club' and so provide greater leverage.
"Traditional professions are changing, and even old-established firms like Kuo Yuan-i with their famous 'four seasons' cakes still need new packaging and advertising to promote themselves; it's the same for puppet theater troupes," says Hsu. Today, public relations and active publicity are an essential aspect of businesslike management.
Having collaborated with Ming Hua Yuan, the Council of Agriculture is highly impressed by the troupe's packaging skills. "Apart from their international fame thanks to participation in the Asian Games," says Yen Shu-ling, head of the COA's promotion department, "they are well prepared for meetings, with dedicated staff to handle every aspect. I was amazed at how they introduced themselves, with full details of plays and pricing levels off pat!"
"Multi-angle" business management is also beginning to be applied by traditional drama troupes. With the cake industry example in mind, Hsu Liang-kuo adds with a smile: "We're developing new flavors!" Today the Hsiao Hsi Yuan not only performs, it also provides static puppet exhibits, as well as collaborating with old puppet craftsmen (discovered in the course of trips to mainland China to renew their stock of puppets) in making sets of puppets for sale. According to Hsu, new initiatives for the future may include setting up a Hsiao Hsi Yuan puppet theater workshop, then bringing out videos for distribution to the roughly 3,000 video rental shops in northern Taiwan.
Quality Warranty plus After-sales Service: The similarly business-oriented Ming Hua Yuan often stress "After-sales service is as important as advance promotion"--after-sales service in the field of dramatic performance is a new one!
Early this year, they were invited by the Ministry of Education to tour universities, colleges and schools. During the performances they handed out questionnaires to teachers and students, with an effective return rate of 80 percent! The questionnaires contained all sorts of suggestions and criticisms from the students concerning the program content. After the show, an open-air question-and-answer session was held on the recreation ground, with eight cordless microphones available, so that students could familiarize themselves with the troupe off-stage.
These questionnaires and question-and-answer sessions weren't required by the organizers. Normally after an event, the Ming Hua Yuan provides a post-mortem as a record for the organizers. At the venue they also insist that the organizers install mobile toilets and large litterbins; and after the show, the whole troupe clears up the site before leaving. Gestures like this create a good impression on business partners and audiences alike. These clean-up operations have gradually established a new image of folk opera, dispelling the common notion of folk opera artistes as low society. It all makes for good vibes, whether for Ming Hua Yuan or other performers.
Children in the troupe remember how at major temple festivals they often used to sleep on one side by deity's palanquins, while troupes from all over and 'beggars' from every corner of Taiwan slept on the other. Behind the scenes at most outdoor stages the actors just had a trunk and a few packs of cards, and the way they smoked, chewed betel nut, or went off for a late supper all dishevelled, gave audiences the impression they were nothing but 'drama jobs,' never mind being ready to appear at cultural happenings.
After the usual disarray of an outdoor stage and the lackadaisical attitude of the performers, going backstage at the Ming Hua Yuan is a different world.
300 Lunchboxes Per Meal: This is thanks to Ming Hua Yuan's personnel department. "Their ability to achieve high quality is closely linked to their low staff turnover and internal discipline," says Wang Sung-shan.
Today Ming Hua Yuan's 156 permanent staff plus peripheral workers make for a total headcount of about 300. "We need 300 lunchboxes for each meal, that I do know. They say 'actors are soft in the head,' and you do get involved, you get romantic, but you can't afford to be romantic about organization!" says Chen Sheng-fu. Especially with this sort of family group, where some people are 'aunt' and others are elder or younger brothers, without organization how can you keep everyone happy, including performers who aren't family members?
Chen emphasizes: "Firstly, the Ming Hua Yuan has no stars, everyone has equal opportunities to work." On every performance day, as soon as the truck arrives at the venue, directors, principal actors and junior performers alike roll up their sleeves to unload the trunks and backcloths; women players similarly take up pliers and set up the scenery.
Everyone arrives punctually for rehearsals. According to fifth brother Chen Sheng-tsai, in charge of discipline, "You can fail to learn a part, but you must understand the rules." One principal actor turned up late three times in a row and was demoted from first to fifth troupe for three years. Strict discipline gives the players stronger coherence. It's a different story from the average drama troupe, where the director is often powerless to order major actors about. These actors cannot be sacked because they have borrowed interest-free loans from the troupe director. They tend to have a couldn't-care-less attitude. On good days they'll sing to their heart's content, but on off days they just spout a couple of lines and sing one number before quitting the stage, leaving the plot in mid-air while the junior actors desperately ad-lib, and there's almost nothing the director can do about it.
Under the Ming Hua Yuan's system three or four players rehearse any given role, and just like baseball players, whoever is performing best on the day is chosen to go on stage. "President Lee said everyone has a chance to be president; in the Ming Hua Yuan, everyone has a chance to play the leading roles too," quips Chen Sheng-shun with a broad smile.
Continuous Operation, Looking to the Future: The idea behind having a system and fostering skilled personnel is to give the troupe a corporate-style 'continuous operation' totally different from the negative outlook of most drama troupes who live from hand to mouth--all the money earned today is split among the actors, who go their various ways until the next performance.
"With our financial clout and abilities, and with a better educated younger generation, looking to the future we will be in an even stronger position," says the family's fourth brother, director Chen Sheng-kuo.
The annual big public performance of a new drama is a challenge for the director, for the troupe leader and especially for the performers, often rousing their feelings to a new pitch. Female player Chang Chiu-lan, wife of the seventh brother Chen Sheng-shun, feels the biggest difference about the Ming Hua Yuan is the performer's enthusiasm. "We are assessed once a year, and audience expectations are getting higher and higher, creating pressure for us to make new breakthroughs," Chen Sheng-kuo calmly states. "They introduce a new drama each year, with new steps, so our whole family is a captive audience," says Lu Mei-lin, a drama fan from northern Taiwan.
A Day in the Life of Chen Sheng-fu: As he does every morning, Ming Hua Yuan producer Chen Sheng-fu arranges his schedule over the paper, then delegates tasks by calling colleagues on his mobile phone from the car. Arriving at his An Ho Road office--Taiwan's only traditional drama troupe office--he holds a staff meeting and the executive secretary reminds him he is due at the Council for Cultural Planning and Development to discuss an arts festival performance.
In the afternoon he has to hurry down to southern Taiwan to join his players. In a pre-performance pep talk, he reminds the actors to remove their wrist watches if in period costume and not to wear gold rings if they're playing beggars. During the performance he's in charge of scenery changes and occasionally leaves the stage to observe audience reaction.
In the evening he pitches in with everybody in dismantling the stage before hurrying back to base camp at Chaochou. Next morning he's due at the Taiwan Provincial Government to talk about shooting a video tape!
Wherever Ming Hua Yuan appear they draw vast crowds, and seen from afar "watching a Ming Hua Yuan performance is like watching a puppet play!"
A new play each year constantly challenges the performers' enthusiasm.
With a performance in full swing on the stage, things are pretty busy backstage too! Even the producer doffs his jacket to lend a hand.
Shown here is Ming Hua Yuan producer Chen Sheng-fu, who has the only office and permanent administrative staff of any traditional drama troupe.
Once arrived at the venue, even women roll up their sleeves and shift props in a demonstration of the troupe's internal discipline and togetherness.
An NT$1 million investment may go into the stage, but living expenses are spared wherever possible. Troupe members regularly sleep in trunks on the truck travelling day and night between performance venues.
Dramatist Chen Sheng-kuo ensures that Ming Hua Yuan librettos are rich in philosophy of life, avoiding conventional folk opera morality lessons and scholarly romances.
Sophisticated performances and props are basic conditions for a drama troupe to stand out from the crowd. Shown here is a new classical stage made in Chuanchow, mainland China, for the Hsiao Hsi Yuan in 1989 at a cost of NT$1 million. (photo by Arthur Cheng)
From temple outdoor stages to first-rate theaters abroad, traditional drama troupes have conquered new horizons.
(Above) For the past 40 years, come rain or shine, the drama fans of Hsin Ting Temple, Shangtsochuang, have faithfully followed Hsiao Hsi Yuan performances. But once the older generation has passed away, will the next generation still "watch them from temple to temple?"
(Above, below) Batches of brand new mainland-made wooden puppets are coming on the market, allowing puppet troupes greater versatility of operation.
With changing times, new generation Hsu Kuo-liang (below right) has developed totally different management methods from older generation Hsu Wang (above left).
At the 7th Living Heritage Awards gala evening, the Ming Hua Yuan recount the history of folk opera in dramatic form while celebrating the award won by their old troupe leader Chen Ming-chi. (photo by Diago Chiu)