Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lan Ling family fetes 30 years of Taiwan theater

By Nancy T. Lu

The Lan Ling Theater Workshop, a pioneering group in the history of Taiwan’s contemporary and modern theater, turns 30 this year. Many of Lan Ling’s drama talents have moved on to carve careers as shining lights in the theatrical world.

Li Kuo-hsiu of Pin-Fong Acting Troupe put it so well during “Lan Ling Night” at the Huashan Art District recently: “Lan Ling never officially disbanded. ‘Lan Ling at 30’ is proof.”

And so the show goes on for Lan Ling. Those who grew up with Lan Ling and all the younger talents whom they are nurturing in the performing arts world are contributing annually to a creative industry worth NT$5 billion.

For the men and women – it’s a Who’s Who list - once active in the Lan Ling Theater Workshop, a 30-year milestone celebration makes it very difficult to keep precious nuggets of memories locked away.

Old and sometimes fading photographs from scrapbooks readily open the floodgates of memories about a “crazy era.” Pictures taken of a very young, eager and idealistic group during drama training and rehearsal serve as reminders of anecdotes worth retelling with nostalgia even for the nth time.

Wu Ching-chi’s leadership

Ever-swelling enthusiasm kept these young men and women experimenting, groping for direction but finally staying right on the theater track in those days. Wu Ching-chi, Dr. Wu to most of them, was the mentor who encouraged such passion for the dramatic art over the years. He, in fact, became the founder and artistic director of the Lan Ling Theater Workshop. Through all these years, he has been an inspiration through his encouragement to many members of the Lan Ling family.

Wu had received postgraduate education in psychology abroad. But at the same time, he was into theater, having been a director at the off-Broadway Playhouse La MaMa when he was much younger. He struck the younger generation of thespians as the perfect adviser. And “Lan Ling Night” became also an occasion to fete him as he turned 70 for his inspiring and meaningful leadership.

No less than President Ma Ying-jeou in his capacity as head of the Cultural Association of the Republic of China turned up on “Lan Ling Night” at Huashan recently to award him in recognition of his significant contribution to the development of Taiwan theater. Wu responded, saying the honor was not for him alone to claim. He simply represented a group deserving it, said Wu.

The “Lan Ling at 30” program of activities has been the outcome of brainstorms involving many big names from the Taiwan theater scene. Graduates of Lan Ling like Li Kuo-hsiu of the Pin-Fong Acting Troupe, Li Yung-feng of the Paper Windmill Theater and Liu Ruo-yu (Liu Ching-min) of U Theater have gone on to organize their own companies of great renown after leaving Lan Ling. A number made their dramatic Lan Ling comeback this year, appearing in a revival of a successful production, “The Romance of Ho Chu.”

Chin Shih-chieh, acclaimed veteran actor and director, was the former Lan Ling member who personally rounded up the talents for the play. Three pairs representing three generations of actors and actresses were cast in the roles of Ho Chu and Chao Wang: Liu Ruo-yu and Li Kuo-hsiu, Ma Ting-ni and Ku Pao-ming as well as Lang Chu-chun and Chao Chih-chiang. The posturings required by the role of Chao Wang, for example, finally proved rather challenging to the much older but very professional Li Kuo-hsiu.

“The Romance of Ho Chu,” a modern theater adaptation of a Chinese opera with hilarious result, was restaged on May 9 and 10 at the National Theater in Taipei.

Chin as the director called some of the old theater talents to a casting session. Everyone whom he approached did not even bat an eyelash before agreeing to appear in the comedy and spoof on bourgeois society. This was despite their busy schedules.

“When I arrived, I was told to audition – yes, audition! -- for the role of Chao Wang,” said Chao Chih-chiang, whose professional track record has been established in children’s theater. “Chin Shih-chieh told me to audition for the part. I could not believe my ears.”

Down Memory Lane

“Lan Ling Night” recently saw Chin Shih-chieh and Chuo Ming recalling the smell of body sweat and even the stink of a pile of dirty shoes left at the door of a Taipei apartment during the founding days of the Lan Ling Theater Workshop. But such vividly remembered details made even more interesting the opening page in the history of Taiwan’s modern theater.

Chuo Ming wrote the script of “Cats’ Paradise” many years ago. This Chinese adaptation of a work by Emile Zola was restaged at the Novel Hall for Performing Arts in late April this year to kick off the series of events in celebration of Lan Ling’s 30th anniversary.

As the roles in the play required a lot of energy, only young actors could tackle them. The original cast could not do it. But the choice of the play, a critique of the times, could probably be explained by Wu Ching-chi’s facial resemblance to a feline, suggested the naughty Chao Chih-chiang.

Something new was introduced during the recent restaging of “Cats’ Paradise” in Taipei. A narrator was added in the 2009 version of the social commentary on the middle class.

Meanwhile Li Kuo-Hsiu and the Pin-Fong Acting Troupe brought back a spoof on a Shakespearean play “Shamlet” on May 5 and 6 at the National Theater. This hilarious production left the audience rolling in the aisle.

Performances of other productions kicked off at the Red Playhouse in Hsimending, too. The Uhan Shii Theater presented “Cats Wake Up” on May 15 to 17. The Fireflies Theater staged “Count to Three…Cockroaches Will Pile up into a Hill” on May 22 and 23. The Comrades Theater will bring to life “Come to Daddy” from May 29 to 31.

In these days of global economic downturn and swine flu scare, everyone wants to have a good laugh. Waxing nostalgic over “Lan Ling at 30” gives those closely associated with Lan Ling a good excuse to go into funny details. Talking about “The Romance of Ho Chu” did leave Chin Shih-chieh and Chao Chih-chiang chuckling uncontrollably on a radio program.

Chao remembered working with the more senior Chin many years ago. He described Chin: “Chin Shih-chieh was a stickler to discipline. He did not tolerate tardiness at rehearsals. But one day a television taping session resulted in his arriving late for a rehearsal at Cloud Gate’s studio on Nanjing East Road. He was very upset and angry with himself. He, in fact, went to one corner and cried.”

As for bringing Liu Ruo-yu and Ma Ting-ni back to the drama stage limelight, Chin Shih-chieh said with amusement: “The two have not worn high-heeled shoes for maybe 30 years. Liu Ruo-yu, the original Ho Chu, has over the years become more like a farmer’s wife, running barefoot up in the mountain of Mucha. So can you imagine her going back to wearing high-heeled shoes in ‘The Romance of Ho Chu’?”

During “Lan Ling Night,” Liu revealed that Christopher Doyle pulled her into the Lan Ling Theater Workshop. Another former Lan Ling member spoke of how Liu, fondly called Ho Chu and Hsiu Hsiu by her close circle of friends in those days, used to serve everyone food and tea during rehearsals.

As for Doyle, now an internationally-acclaimed cinematographer, he was once the resourceful young man who removed the lamp over the mahjong table to improvise as stage light for use on the Lan Ling actors and actresses.

Shen Hsueh-yung, former chairman of the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA), said she first got acquainted with the gifted Lan Ling group when she headed the CCA’s third division in charge mainly of promoting the performing arts. For her part, Huang Pi-twan, the incumbent CCA minister, narrated how a friend took her to a performance of “The Romance of Ho Chu” at the venue on Nanhai Road not long after her return from studies in the United States in 1986.

There was no end to the fond reminiscences of the early days of the Lan Ling Theater Workshop. Remembrance of Lan Ling’s past did not stop bringing everyone to a new high.

Li Kuo-hsiu summed up the Lan Ling experience, saying dramatically that while he owes his biological life to his father, he is indebted to Lan Ling for his professional life in theater.
Blogger took the picture of the Lan Ling family with President Ma Ying-jeou during "Lan Ling Night" at Huashan.

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