Touches of Zen and Kungfu
By Andrew C.C. Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News)
What happens when you pour in the Zen-oriented drumming of Taiwan’s celebrated U Theatre, mix it with essence of the real-life Shaolin kungfu, and then drop in the olive of drama? The result is a dazzling glass of Zen-plus-kungfu Martini – the stage version of the now all-the rage kungfu movie genre.
“A Touch of Zen,” the new work by Taiwan’s highly acclaimed U Theatre, will make its world premier at Taipei’s National Theater on June 2. The show will run from June 2 to 4 for four performances. This dramatic musical will run for approximately two hours and contains 12 acts with an intermission in the middle. The performers include 12 of U Theatre’s drummer/actor and 22 of Shaolin Temple’s kungfu practitioners.
“A Touch of Zen” is the first part of the planned “Journey to Shaolin” trilogy which will unveil over the next five years. “A Touch of Zen” marks the first collaboration between Taiwan’s U Theatre -- which put its name on the world’s theatrical map with its Zen-themed musical pieces – and the real-life kungfu practitioners from Hunan’s Shaolin Temple. The unprecedented mixture of the mesmerizing drumming of U Theatre and the authentic Shaolin kungfu techniques coupled with the story penned by U Theatre’s director Liu Ruo-yu makes this the theater event of this summer.
While the Chinese title “Chen Wu Pu Er” literally means “No other Zen and Kungfu,” this new work’s English title is “A Touch of Zen” – a tribute to Kungfu master director King Hu’s epic masterpiece “A Touch of Zen” which claims the honor of the first ever Chinese movie to win an award at Cannes Film Festival in 1969.
As one of the most celebrated theater troupes from Taiwan, U Theatre has enjoyed international acclaim and tours globally every year. U Theatre will perform its classic “The Ocean of Sound” on June 21 at Japan International Expo and another classic "Meeting with Vajrasattva" on October 4 at at Maison de la Culture-Bourges in France.
U Theatre’s made it name with abstract, Zen-themed drumming musical such as “The Ocean of Sound” and “Meeting with Vajrasattva." U Theatre’s music director/principal performer Huang Chi-chun utilizes the aborigine-style drumming and Zen meditation practiced by himself nad his 11 drummers/actors to create minimalistic, abstract musical pieces with no visible plotline.
Inspired by the raging kungfu fever instigated by Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” U Theatre cheerfully and bravely plunges into the genre of drama for the first time.
“The idea of combining the drumming music of U Theatre with real-life Shaolin kungfu was brought up by an agent,” says U Theatre’s artistic director Liu Ruo-yu. “It sounds like a fantastic idea. I said yes right away and that agent orchestrated the collaboration for us and Shaolin Temple.”
The result of combining U Theatre’s Zen-themed drum music, real-life kungfu from Shaolin and a strong storyline makes “A Touch of Zen” a genre-defying, landmark dramatic musical with real-life, real-time Shaolin kungfu display on the stage with no film editing and special effects.
“I wrote the story according to the convention of the kungfu movie genre,” says Liu. The story of “A Touch of Zen” recounts the journey of the hero named Ao-Hsiang or literally “flying” in Chinese. Ao-Hsiang is a kid whose father is wrongly killed and whose mother is unjustly imprisoned. He is taken in by Shaolin Temple and grows up practicing Shaolin kungfu techniques. He leaves Shaolin to look for his mother and finally tracks her down. After this last reunion of the mother and the son, the mother dies after 20 years of suffering and illness. The protagonist vows to track down the villain who destroyed the lives of his parents. During his search for his hated enemy, he runs into a mad monk who turns out to be a sage. The hero comes out of the mountain, finally with equilibrium of mind and no longer tortured by thoughts of vengeance.
“Writing this story according to the kungfu genre convention is the easy part,” Liu explains. “Trying to merge the theatrical professionalism of U Theatre with the rough-and-tumble realness of Shaolin kungfu practitioners has been the challenging part.”
“I got become so fond of these Shaolin kungfu kids,” Liu adds. “During the time we spent together discussing and rehearsing, I found that there is an unmistakable honesty and innocence with people who practices kungfu that really enchants me.” The 22 Shaolin practitioners’ age range from 14 to 24.
“However, the Shaolin discipline is a very hard-core kungfu techniques. What they practices at Shaolin and performs for the tourists at the temple there are all real,” Liu elaborates. “There is nothing fancy and fake about it.”
“These Shaolin kids are not actors or performers. They come out to display their real kungfu skills. As a result, they really know nothing about anything theatrical techniques such as timing or performing for effect,” Liu explains. “I have to keep coaching them to try to use their kungfu skills to serve the drama of the story.”
Liu says that there is one scene in which the Shaolin practitioners are required to walk slowly through the scene for the purpose of the story. During the rehearsal, she bemusedly found out that the Shaolin kids laughed behind her back about having to walk slowly.
“Because they are real kungfu practitioners, their first instinct always is to come out and attack right away. They had trouble understanding why they had to walk slowly through that scene when they could just fly or leap across the stage. I had such an amusing time coaching and convincing them that this slow scene is necessary for the story.” Liu laughs. “I also found out that these Shaolin kids cannot speak dialogues convincingly because they are not trained actors. There were too much dialogues in the beginning drafts of my play. I had to cut the dialogues to the bare minimal and keep only the most essential and precise languages only. As a result, it’s the body languages of these Shaolin kids that are serving the drama.”
In order to make this project come to fruition, U Theatre made a total of six trips to the Shaolin Temple in Hunan in order to discuss the collaboration details.
“The toilet is really a terrible big headache for me. It’s so dirty – it’s actually just a hole on the ground…,” Moans Liu with a laugh. “However, seeing the Shaolin Temple in person is such an amazing experience. Also, watching those Shaolin kids performing Shaoling kungfu in the mountain right in front of you is such an unimaginable experience. It’s literally pyrotechniques kungfu movements seen in kungfu movies happening right in front of your eyes.”
Because of China’s decades ban on all forms of religion since 1949, the spirit of Buddhism has long disappeared from Hunan’s Shaolin Temple despite the temple being preserved until today.
“When we arrived at Shaolin Temple for the first trip, we realized to our shock that Buddhism has disappeared from mainland China for decades. Even the people residing at Shaolin Temple have not seen Buddhism scriptures for decades,” Liu explains. “I decided right in the beginning that I want to put the holy Buddhism scripture of Vajrasattva into the story. So, I showed the scripture of Vajrasattva to the people at Shaolin Temple for the first time in more than 50 years.”
“One night, I purposely stayed up and chanted aloud the scripture of Vajrasattva in my room as my own personal practices,” Liu bemusedly reminisces. “Then, the second day, I found out that those Shaolin kids were mesmorized by the scriptures. They already learned the scripture the night before and were already walking around, reciting the scripture by heart the next day.”
If the real-life Shaolin kungfu practitioners from Shaolin Temple have become the main attraction in “A Touch of Zen,” U Theatre’s music director and principal drummer Huang Chi-chung has decidedly not taken a sideline for this production. In fact, Huang has used this chance where he does not need to dominate the whole show to expand his range as an artist.
“This is the first time I do not have to be in most of the scenes in a U Theatre production. In fact, I portray the third stage, the oldest version of the protagonist Ao Hsiang when he starts practicing meditation and achieves peace of mind. Literally, I am on stage only one third of the time,” Huang explains. “Therefore, I use the spare time to concentrate on composing the entire score for this production. If the music of U Theatre’s works before were episodic, then “A Touch of Zen” marks the first time U Theatre presents the music as a whole, coherent, continuous music work because I had the time to do it this time.”
“The process of creating the score for this production is very spontaneous,” Huang recounts. “The whole U Theatre went to Shaolin Temple to discuss with them and to experience the life there. Day in and day out, I was seeing these fantastic landscapes of mountains and sky and interacting with these innocent people in the mountain. The ideas simply poured out.”
During the rehearsal session on May 10, glimpses of the ingenuity of this landmark production could be sensed even in its burgeoning stage. While the drumming music of U Theatre’s past works before mostly derived from imageries and abstract ideas, the music this time is far more ambitious and achieved. The music of “A Touch of Zen” grows out of the plotline of the story and puts the musicality of the different musical instruments in the service of the central story about revenge gone and equilibrium acquired that holds the whole production together.”
With the act entitled “Little Monk,” a cute, delightful music that is would be considered improbable in U Theatre’s past work is used in order to convey the mood of innocence and glee during the protagonist’s childhood.
With the act entitled “Thinking about Mother,” Huang jettisons U Theatre’s trademark drumming music in favor of cello and flute in order to convey the mood need for this scene. The sad, ringing sound of the flute playing against the music of a weeping cello vividly brings the atmosphere of an orphaned child yearning about his mother’s love alive.
“I want to lead U Theatre into a new direction with more drama as a theater troupe,” concludes artistic director Liu. “At the heart of ‘A Touch of Zen’ -- underneath all the kungfu trappings -- are the themes of ‘ordeal,’ ‘meditation’ and finally ‘growth.’ The message and the central theme of this dramatic musical is redemption. I think, in this day and age when the world is so full of chaos and turmoils, we all need redemption in the end.”
(“A Touch of Zen” by U Theatre will make its world premier at Taipei’s National Theater on June 2. The show will run from June 2 to 4 for four performances. For ticket and schedule info, please contact Taipei’s National Theatre at (02)3393-9888 or check out the website at www. artsticket.com.tw or the U Theatre at (02) 2938-8188 or www.utheatre.org.tw)