A dream that became 'Legend'
-- Twenty Years of the Contemporary Legend Theatre'
By Andrew C.C. Huang
Taiwan News, Contributing Writer
It all started with a dream.
Twenty years ago, a group of stage actors had an idea to merge eastern and western styles. As they planned their first production, little did they know that the dream will gradually evolve into the bona fide success it is today.
The internationally acclaimed Contemporary Legend Theatre, founded in 1986 by Wu Hsing-kuo with his wife Lin Hsiu-wei, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with three of its classic shows - "The Kingdom of Desires," "King Lear" and "The Tempest" - at the Metropolitan Hall.
As Wu, the artistic director of the troupe, recounts, "We were just very young actors back then with some dreams. We wanted to try something new out."
Wu studied traditional Peking Opera for eight years at Fu-Hsing Chinese Opear School and then joined the famed Cloud Gate Dance Troupe as a lead dancer during his study at the Chinese Culture University. Lin is a dancer and choreographer herself and went on to established Tai-Gu Tales Dance Theater later on.
With his training in both Peking opera and modern dance, Wu wanted to merge the elements of eastern and western culture to try to find a new form of theater. He picked Shakespeare's "Macbeth" to adapt into CLT's debut work "Kingdom of Desire." For the pivotal character of Lady Macbeth, he invited Taiwan's premier Peking opera actress Wei Hai-min.
"I had no idea what I was going into," Wei reminisces. "Hsing-kuo invited me to play the female lead in "Kingdom of Desires" and I gladly accepted. As soon as we started rehearsing, I realized that my well-trained Peking opera techniques did not work for this adaptation - with its renovated costumes and storyline from Shakespeare. We had to continually improvise and reinvent throughout the whole process."
Attempting to merge Peking opera with western theatre was an extremely difficult process. It meant basically inventing a new theatrical form. Wu and Wei were only came up with four scenes after six months of rehearsal. With only four scenes under their belt, they invited the then established art world figures including Lin Hwai-min and Hsu Po-yun to view their four scenes and seek opinions.
"We were very young actors. For us, to make those changes with the traditions of Peking Opera for 'Macbeth' was extremely risky and challenging. The artists invited to view our rehearsal had a bigger vision. " Wu says. "They loved the idea that we were trying to renovate and update Peking opera. They encouraged us to push even further and go ahead and finish the whole show."
"Contemporary Legend Theatre is sure to join Cloud Gate, U Theatre and Ju Percussion as classics in Taiwan's theater history," said Hsu Po-yun, the founder and chairman of the New Aspect Foundation and an esteened musician himself.
"It's hard to see this kind of explosive creative energy in today's young artists. Wu came of age during the post World War II era with all the chaos and cultural fusions and confusions. A Chinese proverb has it that heroes are often created during war-torn eras. Wu could be the best illustration for that saying."
"The Kingdom of Desire" made its debut at the Taipei Municipal Center and was a highly acclaimed instant hit. The group was invited to perform the show around the globe, and within three years, "Kingdom" was hailed as a classic in theater canon.
The success of "The Kingdom of Desire" inspired the troupe to adapt Hamlet into "War and Eternity" as its second show. The troupe also tried its hand in with traditional Chinese opera with "Yin Yang River" in 1991.
In addition to Shakespeare, CLT also dipped into other western classics for inspiration. In 1993, the troupe adapted the Greek tragedy Medea into "Lo Lan Nu" with Wei as the title character. The show crystalized CLT's mission of modernizing Peking opera for modern audience.
"'Lo Lan Nu' was a big challenge for me. The makeup and the costumes were completely avante-garde and looked nothing like the traditional Peking opera," Wei recounts. "I had on my modern dancer's makeup, and my two long steel clubs hidden underneath the many layers of fabric that comprised my complicated costume. I had to reinvent everything again. My gestures, movements and voice were both restricted and inspired by that difficult costume."
"Lo Lan Nu" became yet another instant classic in CLT's repertoire.
With the success of "Lo Lan Nu," CLT tackled Greek tragedy again by inviting theater master Richard Schechner to direct "Oresteia" and performed the show outdoors in the Greek amphitheater tradition.
Along the way, it was no surprise that CLT attracted talents from different areas to collaborate with Wu. Oscar winning designer Tim Yip of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame has been a long-term designer for CLT. In 2004, Hong Kong film master Tsui Hark and Yip joined forces to help Wu stage "The Tempest."
As the premier Peking opera performer, Wu has been invited to portray the title role in Nobel Laureate Gao Xinjiang's opera "Snow in August." This December, Wu has also been invited to be the only Asian performer in Chinese director Zhang Yimou's new opera "The First Emperor" at New York's Metropolitan Opera, which stars Placido Domingo. Wu will portray the role of the wizard and sing in the "Snow in August" east-meets-west style during the opening scene.
Since 2001, CLT started producing a new production every year. Its recent works include "King Lear" (2001), "The Hidden Concubine" (2003), "A Play of Brother and Sister: a Hip Hopera" (2003), "The Tempest," directed by Hong Kong film master Tsui Hark (2004), and "Waiting for Godot," which was staged last year.
In addition to "Kingdom of Desires," CLT's adaptation of two other Shakespeare classics - "King Lear" and "The Tempest" - join the list of this month's 20th anniversary performances.
With "King Lear," Wu portrayed 10 different roles all by himself in a one-man tour de force show. "When I brought up the ideas that I wanted to try to perform all the characters by myself in 'King Lear,' people thought I was crazy and it was mission impossible," Wu says. "But it worked. It's extremely demanding and rewarding at the same time. I also have to thank Tim Yip for designing the costume that allows me to shift among different characters in a flash."
The third show is the highly lavish "The Tempest" directed by Tsui Hark and with costumes and artistic direction by Tim Yip.
Because of Tsui Hark's busy filming schedule, "The Tempest" has been slowly evolving since its world premier in Taipei with revision tips from Tsui via long distance calls. For the 20th anniversary, CLT will present a revamped musical version of "The Tempset."
"We have tried out Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and traditional Chinese opera," Wu explains. "For the 20th anniversary, we decided to focus on Shakespeare works because we want Contemporary Legend Theatre to be identified as an Oriental Shakespeare group."
Asked about his passion for acting and the longevity for an actor, Wu responds gleefully, "It depends on which kind of actor you are. If you are a "Wu Shen" or an action male in Peking opera term, then you only have certain years of career because you keep using up your body's physical resource with each performance."
"For me, it's different because I'm an actor type. I do my best to keep my body and voice in good shape so that I could continue acting for the rest of my life.'"
Wu's wife Lin agrees. "Acting is the love of his life. He will continue doing it as long as he physically can. Even when he is old, he could still do cameo roles. We once saw a show in Europe in which a 60-plus old actress was literally carried onto the stage by a troupe of young actors. When she got to the stage, the the old woman suddenly came alive, delivered her lines for the scene without missing a beat, and collapsed afterwards from of exhaustion. After that, the troupe of young actors pulled her off the stage again. It was hilarious!"
"The past twenty years has been a very difficult path," says Wu. "But we are very proud of what we have accomplished.
"We have managed to find ways to convey all the beautiful ideas within the framework of traditional Chinese opera in a different way, and our innovations have even won the admiration of western audiences."
Wei concurs, "Peking opera is such a beautiful art form and deserves to be appreciated and enjoyed. It's a form that has been shackled by its own sophistication and richness. However, there are endless possibilities to this art form."
"For now, we are trying to marry the costumes and techniques of Peking opera with the ideas and story from western drama," said Wu. "But it paves the path for the future. Who knows? Maybe some day we will manage to find a new form of hybrid drama that would really appeal to the audiences."
"Twenty Years of Legend - Oriental Shakespeare" will run at the Metropolitan Hall from October 10 to October 29. "The Kingdom of Desire" will run from October 10 to 15. "King Lear" will run from October 27 to 29. "The Tempest" will run from October 20 to 22. For ticket info and schedule, please call (02) 3393-9888 or check out www.artsticket.com.tw.