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Taiwan shows cross the Strait

TAIWAN theater, both drama and comedy, is a big hit on the Chinese mainland where audiences like the vivid stories about human relations and daily life across the Taiwan Strait.

There still isn't a big theater scene on Chinese mainland and the offerings from Taiwan are fresh and compelling.

And for small and struggling Taiwan performance troupes, the mainland is a huge market.

Famed Taiwan director Stan Lai is now staging his drama "The Village," about life of family members of Kuomingtang soldiers who retreated from the mainland during the Chinese Civil War, at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center.

The play, which debuted in 2008, is being staged for the third time in Shanghai. It's the story of generations of families who left the mainland before 1949 to Taiwan, hoping one day to return. The story of these families is a special chapter in the history of the island province.

In recent years, mainland audiences have watched more and more dramas from Taiwan.

During the Christmas season, "Just Play It," about an American pianist and a blind Taiwan student, will be performed at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center. The play by Ismene Ting, a chief member of Lai's Performance Workshop, made a successful debut last year and is being staged for the second time in Shanghai.

Unexpected success

The success of "The Village" in both Taiwan and the Chinese mainland was unexpected. Producer Ting Nai-chu, who is Stan Lai's wife, says initial worries about how it would be received disappeared after the mainland debut in 2009.

"This is a rare feat for a stage drama and a testament to the production's star power, but probably more importantly, to the lingering nostalgia for the dilapidated yet vibrant communities that did so much to shape modern Taiwan," says Ting.

Zheng Yin, a 28-year-old local woman, is watching the play for the second time this year. She first saw it last year.

"The dialogue is humorous and the performance is excellent. I always think that dramas from Taiwan have more cultural depth. We have to admit that they are more advanced and we can learn from them."

One month ago, another Taiwan comedy drama "Crazy TV" hit Shanghai's stage at the People Grand Theater for its third run in town this year. The show is about the wacky world of Taiwan TV and drew mainland theater goers into the TV variety show culture across the Strait.

New elements were added into the latest version of the play to attract a bigger audience.

"Locals were excited to hear our Taiwanese actors speaking some Shanghai dialect, bringing them closer to the stage," says director Tse Nim-Cho.

As an increasing number of Taiwan theater groups stage on the mainland, some people worry that audience enthusiasm will wane sooner or later.

In Taiwan, where the audience is very limited, small troupes cannot survive the fierce competition.

Huge market

"The market on the Chinese mainland is huge and this is good situation, providing theater companies another chance to survive," says Ting Nai-chu.

"But finally they should accept the marketing rule 'survival of the fittest' and make progress together with the audience," says Ismene Ting, adding that more exposure will help local audiences develop a taste for Taiwan performances.

She calls it "win-win" for both sides of the Strait and for the market and culture development.

The mainland market for drama is unexpected, Ting says, citing the success of Taiwan dramas ("The Village," "Just Play It" and Lai's "Cross-Talk" series) here.

"All these prove that the market has unlimited possibilities and this strongly encourages us to try something new and out of the so-called mainstream," she says.

"Just Play It" staged its first five shows for free on campuses and for some companies. Then it took the positive feedback and suggestions and packaged the drama with light, stage effects and ticket sales.

"What we need to do is adjusting our own attitudes, and give the audiences and ourselves more time and more opportunities," says Ting, confident of big picture for drama on Chinese mainland.

"We always admire Broadway in the US, but we should believe that Chinese people will have our own."

Ting defines market success as a good audience connection, which is called guanzhong yuan (the audience's fate), but says you never know what an audience will like.

"The secret to winning the market is not considering it," says legendary playwright and director Stan Lai. "I definitely hope my work will be accepted by my audience, but a great theme does not mean a great job; different themes will attract different audiences."

"The Internet has changed audience tastes because they have access to many kinds of entertainment. They have come to expect something new and surprise and that's what they want at the theater," says Ismene Ting.

A good director should challenge himself or herself but not be enslaved to the taste of a diverse audience. "There are too many audiences with different tastes. Just be yourself," says Ting. "I sincerely tell a story and touch my own emotions first, and then I have a chance to touch my audience."

Many elements

"Just Play It" is based on a true story. "We were just talking and the idea came to mind that maybe I could put this on stage," Ismene Ting says.

"Just Play It" blends drama and music. Two pianos are played continuously through the entire show. American pianist John Vaughan and the blind young boy Xu Zhecheng talk through music in the play - blues, classical, pop, old Taiwan songs - presenting life experience.

"Adding more elements like music and dance into stage dramas may be a trend now," says Chen Yiru, producer of Ze-Ren, a Shanghai independent drama group.

Taiwan native Ismene Ting is an actress and director of both stage dramas and films.

The plays in which she has performed are considered some of the world's most exciting Chinese theater.

Her first film work "Shanghri-La" in 2006 was based on her stage work of the same name.

"Directing dramas and directing movies are totally different," she says. She remembers when she first directed a film she sat in front of a monitor and stared at the stage, which is what theater directors do. She still aims to direct another film.

As a director who used to be a professional actress, Ting says she is good at opening the communications channel with her actors by demonstrating herself whatever she wants them to play and express, especially confusion, embarrassment, insecurity and fear.

"It's the nature of being an actress and it helps me as a director," she says.

In the "Just Play It," the blind student Xu had never performed on stage; singing and dancing were new experiences. Throughout the play Xu relied on her precise directions.

"I told him how many steps he should take and where he would be. All the details needed to be taught hand in hand," Ting says.

She is not only caring but also honest as a director.

"I will tell him right or wrong, tell him if his performance is good or bad," she says.

After the show, a five-minute video features highlights of rehearsals.

Ting is now preparing her next work "This is True," combining contemporary dance and drama into a love story. Three professional actors and three dancers bring several love stories to the stage. It will debut next February and tour on the mainland as well.

"The Village"

Date: Today, 7:15pm

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center,

425 Dingxiang Rd, Pudong

Tickets: 280-880 yuan

"Just Play It"

Date: December 24-25, 7:15pm

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center,

425 Dingxiang Rd, Pudong

Tickets: 180-880 yuan


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