Building Bridges to Tradition—Dadaocheng Theater


2015 / July

Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Dadaocheng Theater /tr. by Geof Aberhart

Through its commitment to selecting the best and most promising performers, Dadaocheng ­Theater is creating a platform for authors, performers, and audiences to communicate. Here, young actors are trained in the art of Taiwanese Opera, preparing for the day they finally take the stage and begin their lives as theatrical artists.

On Tai­pei City’s Di­hua Street, in the same building that hosts the ­Yongle Market, you’ll find the home of Da­dao­cheng Theater. This organization brings together performers of a wide range of traditional performing arts, from Taiwanese, Peking, Huang­mei, and Yu Opera through Hok­kien puppetry, chant-singing, and Nanguan and Bei­guan music.

The Da­dao­cheng and Meng­jia areas were among the earliest parts of today’s Tai­pei City to be settled by immigrants from Southern Fu­jian, on China’s east coast. The culture these immigrants brought with them has been preserved over the centuries since, becoming part of Taiwan’s own local culture. And if you’re interested in Taiwan’s folk performing arts, Da­dao­cheng is a must-visit destination.

Da­dao­cheng Theater was first established in March 2010 on the eighth and ninth floors of the ­Yongle Market building. Not only does it provide a performance space, says chief executive Ye ­Meiru, through its rigorous selection process, Da­dao­cheng Theater also helps shape the creative environment of these traditional arts. This process pushes potential members to think about how to attract audiences to the space, and helps foster stronger relationships between authors, performers, and audiences.

New buds on an old tree

The Tai­pei Cultural Center, of which Da­dao­cheng Theater is part, has offered classes in the arts since 1987, with their teachers including such renowned Taiwanese Opera veterans as Liao ­Chiung-chih and Chen ­Sheng. Since the opening of Da­dao­cheng Theater, the center has taken a more active approach to training new talent, including the formation of a youth Taiwanese Opera troupe in August 2011, which uses Da­­dao­­cheng Theater as its rehearsal and training base.

This emphasis on the younger generation, says Ye, is motivated by the current state of Taiwanese Opera in Taiwan: the vast majority of performances are held at temples, with performers generally in their 50s and 60s. While there are a few younger people interested in the form who join these older performers, the veterans were generally trained through apprenticeships and lack systematic training, which can make it difficult for newcomers to find their feet.

The youth troupe of the Tai­pei Cultural Center (TCC), on the other hand, provides opportunities for drama graduates to make the move into professional performance. This professional training began in 1994, with the establishment of a Taiwanese Opera class at National Fu ­Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy (now National Taiwan College of Performing Arts). Today, the youth troupe trains young performers between 18 and 35 who have talent, promise, and a willingness to work hard. When these trainees reach freshman or sophomore year at college, they then have the chance to test into the troupe and become formal members.

Full-spectrum theatrical education

Zhao Zhen­hua, an instructor in the Department of Taiwanese Opera at the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts (NTCPA), is also a teacher at the TCC. No matter how well the students at the school perform, says Zhao, their audiences are still limited to faculty, fellow students, friends, and family members, giving them little chance to perform to the larger public; performing with the troupe, meanwhile, gives them opportunities to strut their stuff at some of Tai­pei’s biggest venues for Taiwanese Opera, including Bao’an Temple, ­Xianse Temple, and Da­dao­cheng Theater, where one good performance will see their popularity explode online, attracting attention from fans of the form.

“In the youth troupe there are no ‘stars’—as long as you put in the work and perform well, you can play any role you want, and the audience will embrace you,” says Shi Hui­jun, teacher at the NTCPA’s Department of Taiwanese Opera and director of Da­dao­cheng Theater’s June showcase. In Shi’s eyes, the youth troupe offers invaluable opportunities for students of Taiwanese Opera to get some time in the spotlight.

Da­dao­cheng Theater puts on three or four public performances of Taiwanese Opera a year, and every Tuesday night they are treated to lessons from top teachers in the world of koa-á-hì. Their lessons cover everything from posture and intonation to makeup and costuming; as Yeh says, not only do they learn the various archetypal roles, they learn everything involved in performance, and they learn to make their own professional judgments.

For example, in ordinary classes the teacher will read every­thing out and explain the proper intonation and delivery, and how to perform the piece. While the end result may be a precise and accurate performance, it lacks heart and fails to teach performers how to think on their feet should anything go awry.

This is why Da­dao­cheng Theater brings in outside teachers to teach the troupe what is needed to really put on a show. For example, explains Ye, they teach students how to handle “character introductions,” a common element in traditional Chinese theater where characters will introduce themselves when they first take the stage; these introductions, as students are taught, must quickly get the audience up to speed on who each character is while also helping tie together the play.

Reviving theater through tourism

Not only does Da­dao­cheng Theater provide a space for Taiwanese Opera, Nan­guan, Bei­guan, and Hakka Opera performances on the ninth floor, on the eighth floor other folk arts are performed, including glove puppet shows ­every Saturday.

This March, the theater made its first attempt to incorporate historical and cultural points of interest in the Da­dao­cheng area, including the Xia­hai City God Temple and the older buildings that line Di­hua Street, designing in-depth “Theatrical Dadaocheng” tours in English, Mandarin, and Japanese. The tour itinerary includes performances by the TCC youth troupe, ­Hsiao Hsi Yuan Puppet Theater, and Brainstorm Workshop. This combination of performance, culture, and history has been warmly welcomed, with the 30 places on each tour filling up rapidly.

The success of this trial has been a great encouragement to Da­dao­cheng Theater, and in August this year they plan to start putting on glove puppetry performances with subtitles in English and Japanese to engage more foreign tourists and help them understand the culture behind the shows.

From humble beginnings to becoming a platform for the traditional arts, both in performance and training Da­dao­cheng Theater has become a showcase for the reinvigoration of these valuable folk arts and has set the stage for a new generation of performers keen to step into the spotlight.

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