野台戲新江山——小西園、明華園登堂入室

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1992 / 3月

文‧蔡文婷 圖‧卜華志


「十二月九日,美國紐約中華新聞文化中心。

 

二月廿二日,中山北路聯勤俱樂部,台北忠孝扶輪社。

 

三月三日,麗晶飯店,中國民俗之夜。」

 

翻開掌中戲團小西園的戲路本,可以發覺演出場合不再是清一色的廟會酬神戲。

 

而歌仔戲團明華園除了近來在亞運表演、獲李總統接見兩件焦點話題外,更是時有新動作:邀集各國菁英打響台北戲劇季第一炮,率先打入工地秀,並應台塑企業之邀到雲林縣麥寮鄉演出……。

 

在多數傳統劇團辛苦維持的今天,才慶祝過建團一甲子的明華園,和準備邁入八十周年的小西園,究竟如何在這蛻變的社會堙A打出另一片新江山?


今年初,小西園為慶祝創始人許天扶的百歲冥誕和為明年八十團慶暖壽,特地假茶藝館小巧精緻地舉辦了系列活動。活動前夕,由目前負責一切對外事宜的執行秘書,也是許家第三代的許國良發布新聞稿、召開記者會。

許國良在會上對媒體表示,除了原有的傳真機,將添置中文電腦作資料處理,並加強藝術行銷,主動企劃活動,開發更多文化場次及國外演出機會……。

在一旁時而含笑的團主許王不免感嘆「時代不同了!」「以前演出,只要技藝有口碑,自然有人來請戲。談妥戲金、約好時間,屆時我就去演,從來不需主動去打戲路,我是『姜太公釣魚,願者上鈎』。如今在文化場所演出機會日多,需要主動提企劃,到時還要聯絡記者、印刷節目單。這些幸好都有國良替我去負責,我的任務就是安心演戲啦!」許王以一貫謙沖帶點靦腆的笑容說道。

英雄歲月盡?

從小,我們看戲就去廟口,在台下捉迷藏、為演員行頭打扮羨慕不已。曾幾何時,廟口演起電影、唱起康樂隊、甚至電子琴花車來「清涼秀」,傳統戲曲的市場大餅一一被瓜分。

翻開簡本傳統戲曲史,民國四十至六十年代為傳統戲曲全盛時期,以內台演出為主。到了民國七十到八十年代受到電視、電影崛起影響,傳統戲曲退出內台走向野台,不少劇團都在當時解散,留下的繼續在野台廟口互相競爭,「這時的競爭已不只是團和團比,而是和各種娛樂相比」,曾以明華園為研究對象的國立自然科學博物館助理研究員王嵩山指出。

反諷的是,經濟富裕帶動的廟會活絡,並未給傳統劇團更大生存空間——隨著老一輩執事的凋零,新的廟方主持,也有不同想法;而請主謝戲往往意思到了就好,請什麼來表演並不重要,價錢便成了取決條件。在一片比價聲中,同行惡性削價,爭奪演出機會。而便宜難好貨,只好刪演員、刪後場、刪道具,七刪八刪,不「吃肉聲」(現場唱)改放錄音帶,皇上敬酒用的是保麗龍碗……,有時為了拚戲,就乾脆也「涼快」起來。在去年得獎的小說「失聲畫眉」中,便深刻的描寫一般野台劇團的窘況。

然而要比便宜,卻是誰也比不上露天電影。「一場電影,就是租一台放映機、一張銀幕、請兩個人手,成本實在低廉」,台灣省地方戲劇協進會總幹事葉子楓表示。露天電影從剛開始一場四千元,到今天一場只要一千五;比起歌仔戲一場起碼要二萬二,布袋戲要一萬多,外加搭台費,除非是較老的寺廟仍堅持要演戲,不少都淪為電影天下了。

神明飯不好吃

在新興娛樂競爭下,傳統戲團數量銳減,中華民俗藝術基金會執行秘書趙素瑩分析,「在削減戲金的壓力下,只好降低戲曲表演的品質,這樣卻又嚇走觀眾,造成惡性循環;不少劇團早已名存實亡,等著老演員凋去便收山。」

根據台灣省及台北、高雄市戲劇協會統計,目前台灣的布袋戲有四百多團,歌仔戲有兩百多團。「不過,其中三分之二沒有常態演出」,葉子楓補充。許國良則以同行所見估計,其中只有十分之一的掌中戲,仍維持一年兩百場以上的演出,要像小西園這樣一年有四百場演出數,實在是異數。

而其中不少團其實只是一個團主,兩、三個家族演員,演出時才四處調人,演員往往也四處搭戲,後場師傅則凋零得更厲害。目前掌中戲有專屬文武場的,僅有小西園一團了,許王常以此笑稱自己是末代劇團。

「廟會的根仍在,然而以廟會一條路走下去,只有死路一條」,一心歌劇團團主孫榮發深有所感:「野台只能保命,要求品質精良,非得走向大型演出!」他自三年前接下父親的歌仔戲班,重新擬定方向,師法明華園,先奪下全省戲劇比賽冠軍,打響名號,繼而進軍寺廟以外打天下。

攻下第一關鄉鎮

說起明華園的崛起,民國七十一年的地方戲劇比賽是一個契機。當年由於評審名單加進了一批年輕學者。比賽結果,一些老演歌功頌德「模範劇本」的戲班都名落孫山,明華園則以新編衝突性強的劇本及緊湊的表演脫穎而出。賽後,新舊裁判還在報上展開論戰,召開記者會,明華園也成了媒體追逐對象。

實力之外,也有「機運」,機運所指是,當時正興起的民俗熱潮,和新一輩學者的加入。而明華園在當時已看出野台有其侷限,幾個兄弟商量後,決定請各方學者來看戲,虛心求教。在學者們的大力肯定下,終於在七十二年,繼楊麗花之後踏入國父紀念館演出,打下第一個新江山。

從野台打入內台,除了機運,更需實力。這第一關有完全不同的場地、演出形式、要求,「他們不僅有企圖心,也是有備而來的」,王嵩山觀察指出。

其實,「不能忘記內台精神」原本就是老團主對孩子們在野台打天下的家訓,期勉子弟即使在野台演出,也不可潦草,這使得明華園在野台有了一席之地。如今要重返內台,且這張台還在國家殿堂之中,明華園更是不敢掉以輕心。

因此,一次大公演,雖然國家劇院提供上百萬元的製作費,明華園卻花下更多。像是「紅塵菩提」就投資新台幣三百萬在硬體上。全新的道具、服裝、更換頻繁的佈景,在聲勢上就夠嚇唬人的。在軟體方面,進入現代劇場,劇情也必須緊湊精彩,不可像傳統野台一樣只有個大綱,內容任演員心情去發揮。於是任編導的老四陳勝國,到台北電影公司片場幹了一年場記。只要不排戲,隨時可見他手上一本筆記,心中一幕幕新劇本正在編寫中。

目標:三百零九個鄉鎮

接受西方戲劇觀點的陳勝國,在他新編的歌仔戲劇本中可見到諸多人性的探討。如「紅塵菩堤」中,探討何為生?何為死?而「濟公活佛」則對人性提出質疑。像劇中狐精為了人間情愛,舍去千年修煉功夫,剝下毛皮為聘禮,無奈人間道長卻一味逼迫,於是濟公唱出「禽獸有情比人可貴,人若無情畜牲不如。」

而企劃中的新戲「楚漢相爭」,他透露將以項羽為主角,描寫他性情可愛一面,無奈時不我予,反而敗給以亂法治天下的劉邦;屆時劉邦將以丑角出現。一談起劇本,陳勝國就眼神發出神彩,「社會複雜了,歌仔戲也不能老在教人做好人,一味只有忠孝節義、才子佳人;我們可以反諷、可以暗示,人性還有更多可以表現的。」

比起一般戲團,幾十年,就是一個說戲先生,說著腦袋中一本本古冊書,陳勝國的求新求變得到曾是電影公司老闆的三哥,也是現任製作人陳勝福的充分支持「投資是必要,也是值得的,我們的目標放得遠,也放得大。」陣勝福解釋,全省有廿一縣市、三百零九鄉鎮,平均下來一個城鎮不過投資一萬元左右。「況且投資了軟體,有好演員、好劇本、好導演,才有本錢進入大場面!」

正字標記文化場

為何傳統戲曲紛紛要向文化性場合前進?翻開小西園的戲路本按圖索驥:亞太偶戲展、各縣市文化中心、中國民俗之夜、美國紐文中心,這類由政府機關主辦的活動,藝人稱為「文化場」,約佔戲路的五分之一。

文化場數雖不及傳統寺廟謝戲多,但在演出場地、戲金和觀眾層次上,都不同於廟口演出。尤其是酬勞,以酬勞是同行中最好的小西園為例,廟會演出一天兩場,戲金不過二萬五左右,而在文化中心一天一場則有五、六萬左右戲金。有了較高的戲金,才有能力調齊後場師父,也有餘力來改善劇團的內涵。

而且進入內台的文化場對戲班是一種尊榮,彷彿是一張「正」字標記,間接在民間,戲金也得以水漲船高。

政府主管單位也發現這是支持劇團生存可以走的一條路,負責推動表演藝術的文建會第三處表演藝術科科長薛茂松表示:「現在我們每年都會自全國地方戲曲比賽中,邀請入選隊伍,或由學者推薦,請有心團體參加各種演出。」

除了政府機關所舉辦的文藝季、假日文化廣場等文化場之外,陳勝福更覺得只要掌握了劇種本身的特質,就能開發出更多的戲路市場。

看戲憨、憨什麼?

「你有沒聽人說『作戲呆,看戲憨?』我對這兩句的詮釋是,前者是演戲人一種投入的浪漫,後者則是戲曲對觀眾的親和力,也可說是草根性。」陳勝福認為,越是偏僻的地方越可展現歌仔戲魅力;而歌仔戲除了作為一種娛樂,更可藉親和力發揮親善、教育的功能。

有了定位,再來就需要不斷開發新市場。

傳統戲團的戲路,除了品質,靠的是團主的人際關係,尤其是和「班長」的關係。班長是一種地方戲曲經紀人,他居於寺廟和戲班之間,推薦廟方那個團好,牽成之後抽取佣金。這種作法,看在這一代眼中,都深覺不適用。

「要生存,是不能坐著等生意上門,等班長來牽線。過去的劇團都太被動了」,小西園、明華園的新一代都有如此共識。

歌仔戲工地秀

陳勝福的方法是隨時注意社會動態。去年,他發覺一翻開報紙,最大最常見的廣告,就是房屋廣告。而建設公司為招徠人群,千篇一律是載歌載舞的工地秀。他靈光一現:要人群,明華園有能力。「常有人說,看明華園演歌仔戲,宛若在看布袋戲一般。這是形容觀眾多得看舞台和演員都和布袋戲一般小」,陳勝福笑著表示:「這一點是很吸引企業的!」何況想買房子的群眾,不見得敢大大方方去看脫衣秀。於是促成了去年度藝文界大事——傳統劇團工地秀。

第一炮打響後,其他建設公司見其人潮蜂擁,買氣旺盛,紛紛跟進;針對文教區,及以中產階級為主的地段,明華園陸續又做了十次演出。除了打開工地新市場,明華園更高興的是,這也說明民眾不見得都如業者揣想,只愛看細腰豐臀的歌舞女郎。而在明華園打了先鋒之後,其他實力派劇團,如小西園、微宛然,也都陸續進入工地。

六輕和歌仔戲

聽說農委會經常到各大小鄉鎮舉辦農產品推展活動,陳勝福又有了主意——農村!正是歌仔戲魅力最可展現的地方。「一般歌舞演唱,農民都在電視中見識過了,但大型演出的歌仔戲卻很難得」陣勝福盤算。於是遞上企劃案,結果可知,在今年農漁村鄉土文化列車中,明華園每場都招徠了上萬民眾。如此針對歌仔戲的親和力訴求下,明華園還應台塑企業之託到麥寮,為中油公司到後勁,去做敦親睦鄰的建廠溝通工作。

在許多劇團還在廟會中一千、二千削價打戲路,明華園早走出了寺廟,面對更多競爭者,也擁有了更多機會。

每天陳勝福花一定的時間讀報,放眼藝文、政治、經濟、農業、婦女各版,都是他的搜索對象。在他座位旁的記事欄上,就訂著一張張近日剪報:宜蘭區運安排民俗活動演出;香港藝術季今年起不贈票;商界名人辜振甫對國劇熱衷熱……,這一張張剪報都可能是下一個市場的敲門磚。

眼觀四方、耳聽八方,找到了目標,陳勝福往往拎著幻燈片、簡報,直接殺到企業董事長辦公室,自我推薦。平日排了新戲,自然也不忘記發出邀請函,若董事長不在,就找底下主管,或找員工來看戲都可以。「總會有影響的!」

郭元益也要新包裝

明華園主動積極地抓緊請戲者,小西園則較委婉地打算以編輯專刊方式,將小西園的銳變、掌中戲文化介紹給企業、學者以及觀眾;藉專刊打開小西園的市場,也凝聚有心人。

這概念其實不新,是父親許王「椅子會」時代就有的作法。

在台灣成千上百的戲團中,小西園的關係最為密切。戲迷們在戲台下,成為好友,便組成了獨一無二的「椅子會」,分成北縣八區。每當小西園到其中某地演出時,當地會員就準備椅子給觀眾坐,並在農曆初八舉辦每兩月一次的吃會(聚會)。當時「椅子會」就印有演出表提供戲迷,一路追戲。許國良希望借著團刊,能再如「椅子會」時期一般,吸引同好凝成一個團體,發揮更大力量。

「傳統行業都在變,百年老店郭元益即使有招牌的四季糕,也一樣要有新包裝、打廣告將自己推銷出去;掌中戲也一樣」,許國良表示。在今天,這種對外公關和主動宣傳,已成了企業化經營不可或缺的一環。

和明華園合作過的農委會便對明華園的自我包裝能力印象良深。「除了他們藉參加亞運打開國際知名度」,推廣科技正顏淑玲表示「在接洽時,他們分工很細,事事有專人負責,介紹自己有條有理,戲碼、價位一應俱全,令我很驚訝!」

企業的「多角化經營」,也開始被傳統劇團運用著。就著糕餅業例子,許國良又笑著補充了一句,「這是開發新口味!」今天小西園不只有動態演戲,也提供靜態偶戲展;而利用到大陸更換新戲偶所發掘的老藝師,合作製造出了一批批戲偶上市販賣。許國良表示,未來針對新的工作項目,或許要成立小西園木偶藝術工作室;下一步則是發行錄影帶到北區三千家左右的錄影帶出租店去。

品質保證外加售後服務

同樣企業化經營下的明華園,則常強調「售後服務和行前推銷一樣重要」——演戲還有售後服務又是一舉新招。

今年初,他們應教育部邀請,到各大專院校巡迴演出。演出期間,明華園主動對各校師生發出問卷,並有效收回百分之八十!問卷有學生對主辦單位演出內容的各方面建議及評分。演出結束,則在操場舉行露天座談會,八支無線麥克風在現場傳遞,令學生們在一問一答中,見識了明華園的台下魅力。

發問卷、座談會都是主辦單位所沒有要求的。平日活動結束後,明華園也總會附上一本活動成果給主辦單位做記錄。而在現場,則主動要求主辦單位設置流動廁所、佈置大型垃圾筒;演完之後,全體團員將現場整理完畢才離開。一點一滴,不僅在合作對象口中立下良好口碑,也令觀眾十分敬重。而這樣的善後工作,逐步建立了歌仔戲新品牌,洗刷一般人對歌仔戲藝人下九流的印象。這對明華園或其他藝人,都是感觸良深的。

明華園的孩子記得小時候,每有大廟會,常常是祝賀的神轎睡一邊;來自各地的戲班則和來自全省的「乞丐」睡一邊。一探一般野台後台,藝人大多仍是一只戲箱,幾副四色牌,你刁香煙,我咬檳榔,或衣衫不整就下台吃消夜,使得一般觀眾仍對他們存著「做戲仔」的看輕,這樣的形象就更遑論打開文化場演出了。

看慣一般野台的散漫,演員的草率,來到明華園後場,景況截然不同。

一餐便當三百個

這歸功於明華園的「組效部」,也就是人事行政部門。「明華園可以在質上求精,這和人事的穩定、團內紀律,有緊密關聯」,王嵩山指出。

今天明華園有一百五十六個固定團員,加上週邊工作人員,共約三百人,「一餐三百個便當,這件事我很清楚,雖說作戲呆,演戲時可以投入、可以浪漫,但制度上卻是浪漫不得!」陳勝福表示。尤其是這樣一個家族團體,有的要叫嫂嫂,有的叫弟妹,其他是兄弟。沒有制度,如何穩住人心?安住不是家族分子的團員?

陳勝福強調,「第一,明華園沒有明星,所有機會、工作,人人平等」,每個演出日子,卡車一到現場,不論導演、當家小生、小演員一一捋起袖子,卸戲籠、下布景;女生們一樣拿起鉗子搭架布景。

排戲時間,準時集合,負責風紀的老五陳勝在表示:「戲可以學不來,規矩不可學不懂。」團內曾有一名當家小生,連著遲到三次,被罰從第一團調到第五團三年,這樣嚴明的風紀,使團員們的向心力更強。免去了一般戲團,團主往往喊不動大角色的無力感。這些主角因為班銀(向團主支借的無息貸款)在身,不能離團。平時演出態度大多潦草,高興了唱個沒完,不高興上場道兩句、唱一曲就下台,留下劇情,忙壞小角色去補白,團主幾乎是莫可奈何。

明華園為建立制度,在選角時,一個角色,三、四個來練,如同訓練棒球員,到時誰的狀況最好,誰就上場。「李總統說,做總統人人有機會;在明華園,做主角,也是人人有機會」,陳勝福大笑形容。

永續經營看未來

建立制度、培養人才,為的是將劇團當作一個企業體般「永續經營」,和一般戲團還都是「打帶跑」——今天拿到的戲金,按照角色分攤一盡,各自回家打零工,等待下一場演出——的消極心態迥異。

「以目前明華園財力與實力,加上下一代高學歷的智慧,放眼未來,我們更有把握」,負責導演的老四陳勝國表示。

因此每年一度的新戲大公演,對導演、團長、尤其演員都是挑戰,時時挑動他們的工作情緒。小旦張秋蘭,也是老七陳勝順的太太,就覺得在明華園最大的不同是,演員極有幹勁。「一年交一次成績單,觀眾期待越來越高,對明華園就非有突破不可的壓力」,陳勝國不疾不徐的說。「他們每年有新戲、有新步數,因此我們一家都是固定觀眾」,北部戲迷呂美琳表示。年度公演的確推動著明華園每一份子的自我突破,並培養出龐大的觀眾群。

陳勝福的一天

每天早上,明華園製作人陳勝福一邊讀報,一邊整理一天行程,在私家轎車上,他撥起「大哥大」,向各部門交辦事情。到了安和路辦公室——也是全省傳統劇團唯一的辦公室——和主管們展開會議,行政主任提醒待會兒得去文建會談文藝季演出。

下午他得趕到南台灣和演出團員會合。演出前精神講話,陳勝福提醒著演員,演古裝是否卸了手錶,演乞丐是否戴了金戒子。演出中他負責換布景,時而跑下台,看看觀眾反應。

晚上,和大夥一起拆台,趕回潮州大本營。明早,還得趕去縣政府商談拍攝錄影帶事宜呢!

〔圖片說明〕

P.27

明華園所到之處,無不吸引蜂擁人潮,長距離下使得「看明華園演出如同在看布袋戲!」。

P.28

年年新戲,時時挑戰演員的工作熱忱。

P.29

台前演得熱滾滾,台後也忙得不亦樂乎!連製作人都脫下西裝一起忙碌。

P.30

圖中為製作人陳勝福,擁有辦公室和固定行政人員,在民間傳統戲團中,明華園是唯一的一個。

P.30

一到現場,都會捋起袖子,搬置道具,可見其內部風紀及向心力。

P.30

台上投資動輒百萬,生活開銷卻是能省就省。團員們經常是在卡車裡的戲籠上睡覺,日夜奔馳於各演出場地間。

P.31

在老四陳勝國的編導下,明華園劇本中寓含豐富的人性,不落一般歌仔戲教忠教孝或才子佳人的俗套。

P.32

精緻演出及道具,是戲團脫穎而出的基本條件。圖為小西園在七十八年,耗資百萬,自大陸泉州訂製的全新古典戲台。(鄭元慶攝)

P.32

從廟口野台到國外一流劇場,傳統戲團打出了另一片新天地。

P.33

近四十年來,不論晴雨,上厝庄新丁宮的老戲迷總是跟著小西園追戲。然而一旦老輩凋零,新生代還會「逐廟而看」嗎?

P.34

(上、下)一批批自大陸生產的嶄新木偶已陸續上市,使得戲團可以多角經營。

P.35

隨時代不同,新一代許國良(下)和老一輩許王(上左一)有截然不同的經營手法。

P.36

第七屆薪傳獎晚會上,明華園以戲劇述說歌仔戲的成長史,也慶祝老團長陳明吉的獲獎。(邱瑞金攝)

相關文章

近期文章

EN

Traditional Drama's Brave New Horizons--The Hsiao Hsi Yuan and Ming Hua Yuan Step out in Style

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!

[Picture Caption]

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)

 

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