A theatre troupe rebuilds after a fire and the pandemic – James Chater
In August last year, when Liu Ruo-yu, the artistic director of U-Theatre (優人神鼓), saw the charred remains of the group’s rehearsal space and spiritual home on Taipei’s Laoquanshan, her first thought was not to what might have been incinerated, but a question: “Heaven, what is it you want to tell me?”
The devastating fire destroyed much of the group’s compound, and with it numerous drums, props and other musical instruments essential to their performances. It was the beginning of what, on the surface, should have been the most challenging year in the group’s history; just six months after the blaze, the worsening pandemic forced Liu into canceling all of their upcoming shows.
However, even as Liu posed the question to the heavens on the day of the fire, indistinctly, she already knew the answer: “We had to stop…we had to come home.”
It was this response that catalyzed a far-reaching reflection on the natural surroundings of the mountain compound that U-Theatre calls home. On the one-year anniversary of the fire, this re-examination culminated in ‘Conversation with Heaven’ (祭天), in one sense, a summation of the year’s experience, yet in another, a manifestation of the refreshed relationship U-Theatre now enjoys with their place of origin.
Since its inception in 1988, U-Theatre has become one of Taiwan’s most celebrated performance art groups. Through abstract narratives which employ a variety of media – drumming, dance, light – U-theatre performances seek to manifest a central principle, 道藝合一 or “Tao and Art as One”.
Beyond their stirring performances, U-Theatre is also well-known for its unique rehearsal method. Some members live on-site in their mountain home; in rehearsals, emphasis is placed on three elements – meditation, martial arts and drumming. It is a highly spiritual artistic practice, one that places great emphasis on entering into a simple, yet meaningful, connection with oneself, and by extension, nature. For Liu, this is encapsulated by their mountain home and in conversation with her, the place takes on almost human quality.
Because of this, the international success of U-Theatre came at a certain price. “Once the group reached a certain level of completeness, it became more and more routine,” she tells me. Yet the frequency of U-Theatre’s international tours in Europe, the United States and China meant the group would often spend months away from their home in Taipei.
In the earlier years, things were “a little bit better”. On tours to Europe or America, the group would stay in regular hotels; Liu fondly recounts breakfasts of croissants, cheese and coffee during stays in France. However, as their international reputation rose, so too did the environments in which they found themselves away from home. During recent trips to China, five-star hotels became the norm. Liu audibly exhales, “people are impacted by their environment.”
But perhaps more important than the time away, was the lifestyle the touring demanded, one which Liu describes as increasingly divorced from the modesty of their origins and guiding philosophy, creating a stark incongruence from U-Theatre at its inception.
For at the beginning, U-Theatre could not have been further removed from the world of five-star hotels. In 1988, when Liu founded the group and also received the land that would become the group’s home on Laoquanshan, the space had “the feeling of walking into a forest”. (It’s a feeling the compound still retains.) She describes the two years spent clearing the site, building the rehearsal space and crafting the compound as, “I don’t know how many times more difficult than now”. All the work was physical and completed outdoors; comforts were few. No pipes meant water had to be driven up the mountain.
Liu repeatedly describes this period of time as the “hardships endured by pioneers”. Yet, despite the struggle, the process instilled in her a profound appreciation for the compound’s natural surroundings; the process of working the land became the “source of the group’s strength.”
Naturally, as time passed, earlier members moved on, and new ones arrived. Slowly, Liu felt that this growing distance in direct experience of the group’s early adversity – coupled with the literal distance from the mountain necessitated by touring, often in luxurious residence – was causing a growing estrangement with their natural home in Taipei. By the last few years, she estimates around two-thirds of the group had not experienced any time of intense physical work and connection with the land.
“At times I questioned whether we could keep up this state,” Liu says. “But because you need to keep on making a living, you keep on accepting invitations to perform.”
Then, in August last year, the fire struck. The group’s estrangement with the mountain had reached breaking point. To Liu, the blaze was a message from their mountain home. “This space used self-immolation to call us home,” she says meditatively.
The call was impossible to ignore. They had to go home.
Looking at the ruins of the rehearsal space, Liu saw not just a message from their natural surroundings, but a favour. The fire was a “God-given chance for us to have an even greater strength as a group.”
To do this, she needed to re-calibrate the U-Theatre’s relationship with their natural home. However, how to achieve this required ingenuity.
Soon after the fire, but before any news about a virus emerging in Wuhan had broken, Liu made the prescient decision to cancel all of U-Theatre’s upcoming performances requiring long periods away from Taipei; a number of the cancelled performances were in China. Later, after the pandemic had paralysed many Chinese cities, she recounts friends jokingly asking whether she was a prophet.
With time suddenly plenty, Liu began the work of re-engaging with their mountain home. The method lay in the group’s origins, when the compound was nothing but a forest clearing with no running water. The first step: getting not only workers, but the performers themselves, to help clear away the charred remains of their rehearsal space and begin rebuilding their house.
“By just telling them, they wouldn’t understand,” she says. They needed to experience first-hand the work that went into caring for the space at the advent of U-Theatre.
It was work many of the members – more used to the stage than the construction site – accepted only reluctantly.
At the time the group began working on the ruins, a few performances remained in the calendar. However, such was the importance Liu attached to work on their home, even as performance dates approached, she would hesitate to let them practice.
Liu recounts one such debate with a member who, concerned he would be rusty come performance day, implored Liu to let him go down the mountain to practice drumming. Liu refused to be swayed. But he persisted.
“Fine,” Liu conceded. “You can drum. But on the mountain!”
From the perspective of some members, the insistence on helping at the compound was, at times, concerning. After a performance at Taichung’s Lantern Festival, one expressed reservations that neglecting practice in favour of working was beginning to impact their playing. Liu remained unmoved. “It doesn’t matter,” she said plainly. “You continue to help build.”
It was a routine that endured for a while; a bit of clearing, a spell of rehearsals, the odd performance. Then, in March, as the pandemic took a swift and alarming turn, came news perhaps even more serious than the fire. All upcoming performances were cancelled. Suddenly, U-Theatre had very little except their half-destroyed home.
The group had reached a nadir. With scheduled performances in Russia and Australia now cancelled, concerns moved from the welfare of the compound, to whether U-Theatre would be able to sustain themselves financially.
Fortunately, money donated in response to the fire was enough to sustain the members’ salaries for a short while. Still, Liu remembers, when all performances were scratched from the diary, “This was when everyone’s hearts really fell.” In the context of Liu’s broader aim of reinvigorating their relationship with their home, the nadir had a paradoxically positive outcome.
Before the pandemic, although the group spent much time working on the site, they still performed. And whilst performances were in the calendar, thoughts would always eventually return to this. Given her underlying aim, performances almost functioned as a diversion from the focus Liu hoped they would place on the reconstruction.
But with all performances cancelled, the diversion evaporated in an instant. Focus could be squarely put on the re-development of the compound, as now, it was close to all that they had.
“In a sense, the virus was an even greater help than the fire,” she says, before correcting herself. “It’s only when you’re faced with an extraordinary challenge, that you thoroughly wake up.”
For the group as a whole, this awakening was underway. For Liu personally, closures of theatres and sparse performance opportunities catalysed an even deeper look inward. This time, the prevailing question was arguably broader: “if performance art is something that humans don’t need when there are disasters or difficulties, then what is my lifelong work?”
Liu thought long about the question, but the answer, in part, lay in an unexpected invitation to Jiufen. Soon after all performances were cancelled, Jiufen Qingyun Temple (九份青雲殿) asked Liu whether she would lead a meditation. She had spare time, so happily accepted.
Staff at the temple told her that because of the virus, fewer and fewer were now coming to worship. Arriving on the day of the meditation, she was shocked to see a queue of over 300 people outside – all wearing masks – waiting to speak with a spirit medium who was working there that day.
There, Liu observed people earnestly asking the mediums about their own health, the health of their family, and the future. More importantly, what she observed was people entering into a dialogue with the divine. This was the moment that the idea for ‘Conversation with Heaven’「祭天」 really crystallised. Liu continues, “the more problems people face, the more they turn to gods for protection.”
By coincidence a few months earlier, Liu had been given a document by a professor concerning Shang Dynasty ceremonies. Inspired, she now turned to this document as a source of inspiration for her burgeoning vision. Ceremony – the connection between people and the divine – would become a central principle of her new work, “ceremony as theatre”. In a way, it was a perfect answer to the uncertainties she was having about the role of performance art.
In ‘Conversation with Heaven’, this ceremony formed the final part of the performance. A large fire was lit just below the stage, close to the audience, with surrounding performers making highly deliberate gestures to the beat of drums.
Yet the importance of ‘Conversation with Heaven’ was most evidently marked by a feature that had never before appeared in a work by the group: words.
Breaking this habit was an idea that arose shortly after the inception of the work. Reflecting on the questions that had swirled in her own mind since the fire, Liu turned to her members, inquiring what they had asked of the heavens in these difficult recent times. The stories they told before their colleagues – some for the first time – were inspiring and moving in equal measure. Some recounted experiences that other members had no idea had occurred. After hearing them, Liu knew they had to be featured in her new work.
One member retold the story of the period after his mother’s death, another the effect of a cold and emotionless family life, and another the difficulties reaped on his loved ones by long tours away from Taiwan. The stories, voiced by those that experienced them, served as the moving opening to ‘Conversation with Heaven’. The performance, a work with both ceremony and story, was then, “Even more complete.”
Watching ‘Conversation with Heaven’, it was clear that all these features – the ceremony, the performers’ dialogue with heaven, nature and each other – were intrinsically related to the group’s experiences in the past year. “This work is completely, totally the result of the change that happened in this period of time,” Liu says.
‘Conversation with Heaven’ resolved an internal conflict within U-Theatre of whose importance, without the fire and the pandemic, they might not have recognized. For Liu, this recognition begins and ends with nature. But if you don’t realize this, she says, “you only think that you need to rely on it, not that you need to protect it.”
Since the fire, she says this recognition has become the central difference in the behaviour of U-Theatre’s members. Now, they are much more meticulous about the state of the rehearsal compound; no-one would now say taking care of their home was unimportant. Members take more time clearing away and are much quicker to point out when something looks out of place.
From Liu’s perspective, even more important is the manner in which their home is viewed by the members; now, it is not like coming to work, “but coming to another home.” This has been the greatest shift for her in the past year – a refreshed and more profound appreciation for the natural landscape on Laoquanshan, and the significance of this for U-Theatre’s artistic mission.
In this light, if judged by the question Liu first posed on seeing the fire last August, ironically, you might say it was U-Theatre’s most successful year. ∎