The Uhan Shii Theater Group is more than a collection of old folks acting out bittersweet life experiences from Taiwan’s past. It is, among other things, the culmination of a soul-searching journey for a Taiwan-born theater artist.

When Peng Ya-ling was studying drama in England, her Taiwanese ethnic origin always seemed to be a topic of discussion. That somehow disturbed her a great deal. She says, “To me, it sounded like I was nothing to my English classmates, unless they mentioned where I had come from.”

In 1990, Peng returned home after three years’ study abroad; but she did not choose to work in experimental theater, as she had been doing for almost ten years bore going to England. Neither did she look to conventional forms of performance to express her passion for theater, like many of her colleagues. Instead, Peng went on a spiritual journey, delving into her inner self as a source of inspiration and strength. “I wasn’t happy with the status of Taiwan’s experimental theater, but I didn’t know where to go, either,” she explains. “I needed to get hold of my self-being, so that I could carry on my search for art in the theater.”

This soul-searching journey invariably brought back memories of Peng’s experiences in England, and she was amazed by what she discovered. She says, “It just dawned on me that I had never learned to appreciate my own Taiwanese roots. Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t like it when people emphasized my ethnic background. I thought it wasn’t important. But it is. Everything about me is reflection of where I come from.”

In order to find her roots, Peng continued on a spiritual path that would back to her early years growing up in Taiwan. She had memories of going to traditional folkart performances like Taiwanese operas and hand-puppet shows, staged at temple courtyards or on the roadsides. These played a crucial role in nurturing her talent and interest in theater. When most kids her age were busy reading comic books and romance novels, Peng set her eyes on something tangible and true to life: elderly people. Peng took great interest in senior citizens, and developed the peculiar habit of following them around, asking questions of the old folks who had so stimulated her curiosity. “I would follow them home, begging them to tell me things about themselves. Somehow their stories sounded much more exciting than those in novels or comic books.”

“I asked myself, why couldn’t I present the stories of Taiwan through the voices and personal perspectives of old people who have timeless experiences of living in this land and who are eyewitness to Taiwan’s dramatic changes over the years?”

Then, in 1993, at the invitation of the Taiwan Cultural Foundation, she took the position of art director for its Modern Form Theater Group, which was to become the first theater in Taiwan featuring the elderly as performers. She willingly accepted the invitation because, as she explains, “I was anxious to work with people who’ve had rich life experiences.”

The following two years in Modern Form proved to be highly fruitful, Peng had abundant opportunities to work with people in their fifties and older who came from widely varied backgrounds but who – in stark and refreshing contrast to trained or amateur actors of her own age group and younger - had never had a single day of acting experience. Most importantly, she learned to appreciate the mature body language and inner strength of the elderly, which they had accumulated through extended and often difficult life experiences – things that one cannot possibly expect to see in younger actors. By the end of 1994, Peng was fully convinced that staging theater performances with the elderly acting out their life dramas and reflecting on different aspects of old Taiwan was right on the target.

In early 1995, Peng quit her job at CPT (Chinese Public Television) to devote herself to the development of senior citizens’ theater in Taiwan. She started in Taipei the Uhan Shii Theater Group. (“Uhan Shii” from the Taiwanese word for happy). Nearly one hundred people telephoned to sign up after Peng placed ads in local Chinese newspapers to recruit members for the theater group. Of these, sixty were chosen, and twenty to thirty are now active in the group. “The old folks came from all around, and some even commuted from cities outside of Taipei,” says Peng.

Seven months later, Uhan Shii introduced its first dramatic production: Echoes of Taiwan illustrated life in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation (1894-1945). Since Uhan Shii’s newly-recruited members were not yet ready to perform on stage, Peng asked actors from Modern Form to participate in the play. Peng also invited several traditional folk-art performers – like Taiwanese Opera singer and actress Cloudy Black Cat, whose real name is Hsu Yuan – to join Uhan Shii for Echoes of Taiwan. Through her remarkable singing skills, Cloudy demonstrated how Taiwanese opera had been driven underground during the time of Japanese colonial government’s suppression of Chinese art and culture on Taiwan.

Peng first found Cloudy in a small temple courtyard, where the late Taiwanese opera singer was performing before a small local audience. “I’d heard about her. She was born into a Taiwanese opera family in Taipei and had become very famous by the time she was twenty, playing a clown character called Cloudy Black Cat. Cloudy Black Cat has been her nickname ever since then.” says Peng. When Peng found Cloudy, the actress was in her seventies, very ill, and confined to a wheelchair most of the time. But she was still able to sing and act with a vitality and beauty rarely seen today.

Getting Cloudy to perform in a modern theater, however, was no easy task. Every time Peng visited her, she was attacked by Cloudy’s acerbic taunting remarks. Cloudy simply would not believe that a young woman who had been trained abroad could understand anything about Taiwanese opera. Cloudy eventually agreed to join Uhan Shii’s performance, but not as a result of being moved by Peng’s passion for art – quite the contrary. After watching performances of modern theater on television, Cloudy realized that one possible way to revive Taiwanese opera’s popularity was to incorporate the traditional form of art into today’s modern style. Peng also recruited Li Ping-huei to perform Nakasi, an old Taiwanese style of singing popular during the occupation, heavily influenced by traditional Japanese singing. Accompanying himself on the accordion, Li’s singing in Echoes of Taiwan stirred feelings of nostalgia among those who had fond memories of the Japanese period. According to Peng, a friend of hers discovered Li at a brothel in tamsui, a small town just north of Taipei, where the blind 46-year-old musician had been playing since the age of twenty. Ki subsequently recorded an album with another Nakasi musician and appeared in coffee and beer commercials, becoming quite popular islandwide.

Since most actors for Echoes of Taiwan, like Cloudy and Li, were unable to read (formal education being a luxury to kids from poor families), Peng had to show some originality in communicating with them. Instead of providing a written script, Peng literally had to draw the script for the actors. But in Li’s cased, even the childlike “picture” script that laid out the whole plot – scene by scene and act by act – became superfluous. Verbal exchange was the only solution. Difficulties arose for Peng, however, because she (like most people her age who had grown up speaking the official Mandarin language more fluently and comfortably than their mother tongue) felt awkward conversing in Taiwanese. Thus, in producing and directing the play, Peng again found herself facing the issue of her true identity. She says, “In the beginning it was very difficult, I couldn’t just talk to the actors in Taiwanese, even though I felt I understood the language pretty well. Then, one day, all of a sudden, before I realized it, I was speaking Taiwanese effortlessly, without going back to Mandarin for the right words to express myself as I had before.”

Uhan Shii’s second play came out in November 1996. Echoes of Taiwan II depicts Taiwan’s past fifty years of transition through the story of Wu Tien-Lo, godfater of Taiwan’s folk music. Wu was born in 1930 in Yunlin, southern Taiwan. He started in show business at the age of sixteen as a Taiwanese opera singer, but after motion pictures arrived on the island, Wu was forced to earn a living by singing and selling medicine on the street. By the time Wu turned thirty-five, television had become so popular that he found himself unable to make ends meet. But life must go on, one way or another. Wu reluctantly agreed to teach che ku, a traditional form of folk art performed during harvest time, in which men dress in women’s clothes and dance by moving their buttocks in a special rhythm. Wu also started his first folk-art group which performed during religious festivals. Now, there are ten or more folk-art performing groups in Yunlin, all formed through Wu’s efforts and training.
After the following six month, Uhan Shii produced its third play in June1997. Echoes of Taiwan III: The Story of Taiwanese Men explores the feelings of old men who die without knowing their true hearts, aspirations, and hidden inner selves. Peng explains the reason she wanted to focus on the inner feelings of Taiwan’s men: “Men tend to be weak when it comes to feelings. While women will tell their stories freely, emotionally and eloquently, men tend to avoid the conversation by saying, ‘It’s nothing,’ ‘It’s embarrassing,’ or ‘Forget about it.’ Peng says it is the differing responses of men and women which reinforced her determination to discover “the voices of men.”

When Peng started Uhan Shii, she was warned that one of the risks she must face in directing a theater composed of elderly actors is the fact that their physical functions may deteriorate suddenly after a certain age. She says, “I was told that old actors age one after another. Then they leaven and never come back.” It took only one incident for Peng to learn this cruel fact of life. Tsai Yi-shan, one of the leading actors in Echoes of Taiwan III, discovered before the performance that he had bladder cancer and was told by his doctor he had only six months to live. On one occasion, he was too ill to rehearse and was hurried to the hospital. Worried and in a panic about his health, Peng said to him over the phone, “Tsai Yi-shan, you cannot die now. You are my leading man in the play.” Tsai responded by answering in his barely-audible voice, “Really? All right then. Teacher Peng, please tell me again that I am your leading man.” A few days back, Tsai came back to the rehearsal. According to Peng, Tsai’s health problems are now under control, and he continues to be an active member of Uhan Shii. (However, Tsai died of cancer in October, 1998.)

While it is true that Peng set out t establish a theater group with older people in mind, young children play equally important roles in Uhan Shii. Almost anyone who has been to a Uhan Shii performance is impressed by the delightful and natural acting abilities of the child actors. Normally, the children are asked to play the childhood roles of the older characters. “By bringing children to the theater, our plays look more interesting, lively and fun. It would be boring just to see old people acting as themselves on stage,” Peng explains.

With Uhan Shii’s continuously successful theater productions, Peng has reasons to be optimistic about the troupe’s future, but as anyone familiar with Taiwan’s art and cultural environment knows, it is difficult to sustain a commercial theater group like Uhan Shii. Funds from private enterprise or government departments are minimal. Some even think it is miraculous that Uhan Shii has been able to survive as long as it has. Although Uhan Shii was fortunate enough to receive NT$ 1 million (approximately US$ 28,900) in grants from the council for Cultural Affairs this year (1998), what about next year or the years following that? Peng shrugs and flashes a relaxed smile. “We’ll find ways,” she says. “So far, we’ve never had to starve.”

After such a long journey into the heart and land of Taiwan, it looks as if Peng has finally found a home for her theater art.

(By Winnie Chang, Free China Review/Nov.1998)


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