Uhan Shii Theatre Group is an oral history theater. Our group members came from all over Taiwan. They could be old performers of traditional folk opera, homemakers, or retired businessmen... These people do not live on or around the stage. I have traveled throughout many towns and villages to find them, interview them and invite them to come to Taipei for training and rehearsals for the Echoes of Taiwan series.

1. Warm-ups:
When the members of my group came into our studio, I received the greatest shock of my entire career in the theater. Women were all wearing outlandish hairdos, long dresses and strong perfumes. Men all had greased-up hairs, suits and dress shoes. I, on the other hand, had only a t-shirt and a pair of shorts on. When they showed up dressed like movie stars, I quickly re-programmed all the warm-up exercises I had been doing for over the past ten years. All the routines were either canceled, changed or re-constructed. But still, it did not work out. They didn't like the warm-ups one bit. Their feet hurt while standing; they fell asleep sitting; their blood pressure went up lying down; they got dizzy; they were too stiff to move around... Some people even proceeded to come in half an hour late just to avoid the warm-ups.

To solve this problem, I started to get up early in the morning, go to the park and observe how ordinary citizens work out. Of course, it was a far cry from the theater training I had been used to. So, I invited the instructor in the park to teach us. The movements were simple, sort of like a watered-down version of Taichi and Chi-Gon. The instructor used popular music for the tempo. We only had to follow him, breath in and out and feel good. It worked. They got all warmed up. Then I invited a traditional Chinese doctor to teach us simple Chi-Gon movements for various ailments, such as stomachache, lower back pain, common cold and fatigue. We used these simple Chi-Gon movements to ease any discomfort there was. They worked wonders, especially when we did it together with enough Chi in the room.

2. Games:
When their bodies were finally warmed up, we started to play games. These were simple games like “Tom and Jerry” or 1,2.3 Freeze. I introduced different elements to create a new accent of the games, such as different tempos and new status, different rules of winning and losing. At this point, it was getting close to the activities common in theater. I even took them to sing in Kara OK pubs, barbecue in the park, enjoy hot springs... all in the hope to rekindle their memories of the songs, games and culinary delights of the years long past.

Then, I turned the table around and asked them to teach me games instead. Games that belong to their own era. Since we could not find those toys any more, we had to rely on miming. We pretended to be throwing mud pies on the ground and see whose mud pies were stronger. We played football with imaginary tin cans. We rolled imaginary iron wheels uphill, downhill or several at a time. Besides playing to my heart's content, I also introduced different elements into the games to change them and give them a new twist. This approach had helped me a great deal during the rehearsals later on. Group members felt that they had taught me all these games and hence they were truly the focus of our play. This allowed them to feel at ease and be able to present themselves comfortably.

3. Interviews:

A lot of people had asked me the question: " how do you conduct interviews?". I know how to conduct interviews but I don't know how to tell people how I did it because there are all sorts of variants due to different times, different places and different people. My attitude is always “listening and being there with them”. After all, all I had to give for exchange of the their life stories was my sincerity. My goal was to let things happen on their own without pushing. They didn't have to use tear-jerking and heart-wrenching stories to please me. I am not a journalist. I don't have to meet deadlines. My way of doing things is to be there with them through long period of time and keep listening. I don't rob them of their stories, nor do I prey on their privacy. I am an editor. It's as if I opened a treasure chest which contained thirty or three hundreds stories. I picked the most shiny ones---small fragments that were the most original, the simplest, the most inspirational ones in their lives.

I remember once I asked a member to tell her story in her mother tongue---Shen-Tow dialect. She said she had forgotten the dialect and refused. I called and asked her daughter. She said: "My mother lied to you." It took me four years to do this interview. With support from her families and other group members, at last she spoke in her mother tongue and told her story in a game of “Who is the bride?”.

Once, I was in a military village putting stories into Boxes of Memories, stories about their struggle to survive from mainland China to Taiwan after World War II. An old man kept switching the photos and stories stealthily. He wanted to show us the story of having five well-educated children and a pretty good life. But I wanted to present the story about him fifty years ago. He bought two comic books with the five dollars he had left and hung the books on the light post for rent. The next day, he bought more comic books with the money he earned. In two years, he had accumulated forty thousand comic books to his name. This is the story I wanted to tell. He must be one of the most resilient veterans there ever was. He kept this stealth operation up from March till July. The two of us went back and forth like a cat and a mouse doing tango together. Finally, I allowed both stories to be present and he rested his case happily.

Although I was doing interview with one individual, the whole family often became my greatest support and ally. They helped to reconstruct old memories, offered emotional support, and joked around. There was one family with five grown children. The kids talked about the extra-marital affair their father (my subject) had and made the whole thing seemed funny. Even the wife seemed to forget the hurt and joined in the conversation jokingly. Yes, I want my subjects to still have warm understanding from their family after they poured out memories long ago in my theater. More over, the families became our volunteers and drivers. They made props and served as stage hands.

4. Rehearsals:
I wrote the script according to the members' stories. Even when I already knew what I wanted to do, I waited for my group members to show me how. They taught me how to work in the rice field, how to run for shelter during an aerial attack, how to do the laundry by the river... I could transform all these experiences into stage performance. But, they did not want to present anything they considered negative. For this, I had to use daily codes as rituals. For instance, at the beginning of "Story of the Taiwanese Men", the wife bathed her husband continuously for five minutes. Five minutes is a long time on stage. The smooth music and the ritualistic daily movements mesmerized and captured the audience and made their hearts full. Through this daily activity, the relationship between men and women was presented in the most natural way.
Another example is that they told me their strongest impression of their mothers was “hands stretched out for money”. So I used repetitive image of a mother standing, head down, child on her laps, with her hand stretched out for money. She was almost like a live statue and makes the audience breathlessly touched.
"If You Had Called Me” tells the story on the day when people left mainland China to come to Taiwan. There were a lot of separations. The performers repeated the same movement: They raised their hand, pulled out a strand of hair, waved in the air and then let the hair fly away. At the same time, there were some kids on stage playing 1,2,3, Freeze. When they called out the word “Freeze!”, these old men and women froze in position and we could see what was happening at that particular moment.
I also search for daily objects to be used as metaphorical props. In the Hakka play “We Are Here”, the blue scarf represents Hakka---a migrating people. When they left a place, they needed the blue scarves to wrap things in. Carrying the blue scarves on their backs is also a burden. From these, the blue scarf became a metaphor for self-discovery and self-recognition.
My group members are not professional performers. I had to make all the movements common to daily life. In the Hakka plays, there was an old woman with the face and body sculptured by age I especially like. She could just sit there quietly and was full of stories already. When the curtain was raised, I arranged for her to sit in the middle of the stage, folding nine layers of blue scarves, one after another, as if she was going to take off. At the end of the play, she opened up each layer of the blue scarves, as if smoothing over all the pains in her bitter and difficult life.

I also found sensual rituals from their stories. A little girl who missed her mother held her own little cloths, smell and called out for Mom. An old man who missed his wife sniffed the grocery basket looking for familiar scents. A woman who had lost her mother held on to her mother's cloths and kept sniffing. Aroma is a very unique experience in our memories. Visual and audio elements are always present in the theater. The element of aroma adds to the personal flavor. I have to reserve large enough space in my rehearsals for the performers to get ready both physically and emotionally. Plus, they might at any given time add more personal experiences, or experiences they had come to accept during this process.

Childhood games are my favorite rehearsal tools. In the Hakka plays, a lot of the group members came from large family with 40 or 50 family members. The scene was in the kitchen. These people who came from large families claimed that they got along so well that they never fought. This surprised me a great deal. My parents have been fighting in the kitchen for the past 50 years. My husband and I have been fighting in the kitchen for the past 10 years. How come a family of 40 or 50 people could live like angels in heaven and do not fight in the kitchen? So we played the game of “Tom and Jerry”. Each one of us had a white towel on our back, stuffed around our waists. The point was not as much as grabbing others' towels, but intimidating them. Eventually aunts, cousins and uncles all joined in the fight. That's how we worked out the scene for a fight in the large family.

5. Exploration:
Although I had lots of stories to choose from and I knew which ones were the best choices, after I intuitively made my choices, I still often asked myself: "Why this one?"," What are you trying to tell me?", "Why should I hear about this story?" . Very often, I realized that something about the story had touched a certain place in my soul. This particular place might be a void in my life, even a black hole. When the subject told the story bravely, they forced me to face it myself. Every story brought me into a room full of mirrors of humanity. Amongst the mirrors' reflections, I had to find myself , without hiding, without pretense, in order to present it on stage for the audience. Therefore, choosing and rehearsing the stories became a journey of self-discovery.

(本文刊於《The Open Page》no.11,Ma 2006,p.210-213)


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