Written by Yi-Ping Wu.
Image credit: Taipei Performing Arts Center Globe Playhouse interior by Department of Cultural Affairs / Wikimedia.
How would people of the future think of the theatre of Taiwan in 2022? A year haunted by the Coronavirus pandemic? A year in which the international situation was overshadowed by the Russian-Ukranian war? What are some lessons we learned in the past year? Undeniably, 2022 was a rapidly changing and challenging year for the Taiwanese. As to the field of theatre, 2022, in my perspective, could be recognised as the year of “change” due to the following characteristics.
Cluster Infection among the Cast and Cancellation of Shows
Since 2019, the world has been threatened by COVID-19, and the pandemic has continued to affect and change contemporary lifestyles, which has been lamented and even protested by so many people worldwide. Yet, unlike the rest of the world, Taiwan’s situation was relatively better during the pandemic until mid-2022, when the number of positive cases rapidly increased. There was, in fact, only a short period during which people were prohibited from gathering indoors as well as outdoors in Taiwan. Moreover, theatres were seldom fully “closed.” As a result, the major impact of the disaster was actually not the mass cancellation of shows due to the government ban on indoor events but the unpredictable substitution of the show cast due to virus infection or request to change the theatre setting so that the audience could remain distanced.
It became common for the audience to get a notice right before the show opened to be aware that the cast was different or that the audience seating was reassigned for social distancing. What could be even worse was the spread out of the virus among the crew, as this always led to the serious consequence of the unplanned postponement or cancellation of performances, which meant a great financial loss for these theatre groups. Performance cancellations, the frequent and sudden substitution of staff, and even a shortage of actors due to cluster infection have become a “normal” phenomenon since the pandemic outbreak. For example, the Golden Bough Theatre 金枝演社 had to cancel its show The Loser of Legend 西來庵 at the Taipei Performing Arts Center in September 2022 because the lead actor tested positive for COVID-19.
Transformation of Performance Space
The transformation of performance space is also a result of the pandemic. Theatre groups had been seeking solutions to prevent cluster infection within confined theatre spaces or avoid any potential cancellation of shows. However, the show must go on, so the answer to the problem was an innovative way of performing: virtual performances. The audience was no longer limited to specific spaces to watch the performances, and their presence was gotten rid of the happening of the performances. In other words, the audience had to think about how they could still attend performances if they were not present with their physical bodies. Also, the performing space was not constrained in theatres because of the banning on the gathering of the crew; therefore, the working mode and the performance space had to be revised to a coronavirus precautionary mode for the theatre groups, which means that the traditional way of practising and performing has to deal with the challenge of the virus. As a result, the audience had to adapt to this change by watching virtual performances, and the theatre groups had to revise their ways of producing and performing plays. Even though the pandemic was torture for everyone, it was a pleasant surprise to see the openness of the performance space for the performers and the flexibility of time and place for the audience as positive outcomes.
Finally, it has to be admitted that the impact of COVID-19 was the fear of infection, so tickets for in-person shows were hard to sell during the pandemic, and shows were always in the dilemma of postponing or cancelling. However, when in the post-pandemic period, in-person shows face different challenges. Due to the comfort of watching virtual performances from their sofa or bed during the pandemic, audiences are more selective about the shows they choose to attend. As a result, it has become a continuing task for theatre groups to seek new subjects, themes, ways of advertisement, and forms of performance to re-attract the audience into physical theatre space.
The Blooming Growth of Immersive Theatre
Although the pandemic has certainly limited in-person performances, theatremakers in Taiwan never cease to experiment with new forms of theatrical performance, and immersive theatre is certainly one of them. According to Gareth White, immersive theatre is “the performances which use installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation ” (On Immersive Theatre 221). In Taiwan, the trend of immersive theatre began growing in 2016. Surprise Lab 驚喜製造 produced their astonishing show: Dining in the Dark 無光晚餐 season 1,2,3, in 2016, 2018, and 2022. Besides this show, they also produced The Great Tipsy 2:1980s 微醺大飯店：1980s from 2021 to 2022, Sunset Terminal 落日轉運站 in 2022. In addition to Surprise Lab, the form of immersive theatre is being practised and performed by different theatrical groups in 2022, such as Light the Night 華燈初上沉浸式劇場, produced by Inception.
It is clear to see how immersive theatre works as a rebellious form to resist the traditional regulation of separating audience and actors to break the fourth wall. The trend of immersive theatre invites the audience to participate in the plays, perceive the performances with their sensations, to respond or interact with actors; all of these factors could summarise why immersive theatre has become a more and more popular methodology for theatre groups to attract audiences in recent years. Moreover, the government eased restrictions in the autumn of 2022, which benefited the emergence of immersive theatre. I believe that the development of immersive theatre should be paid attention to for its amazing potential and charm.
The Advancement of Musical
In addition to the flourishing growth of immersive theatre, another advancement that deserves applause is the explosion of musicals in Taiwan. The blossoming beginning could be traced back to 2020, for more than fifteen musicals competed in the market throughout the year. With the pandemic under control, 2022 became the high point of the development of musicals in Taiwan, with over seventy productions appearing in one year. It is difficult to determine the cause of the emergence of musicals, but the subsequent change should be examined and observed. Specifically, we must appreciate Studio M 瘋戲樂工作室, Taipei Philharmonic Theater 愛樂劇工廠, C Musical, and Total Musical Theatre 唱歌集音樂劇場, whose efforts and energies inspire a magnificent firework of Taiwanese musicals. An interesting phenomenon is that the languages and lyrics of the musicals are multilingual and cultural hybrids, honestly reflecting Taiwan’s history as a colony of many different cultures and their influence on the island. The general public can appreciate the different artistic choices. For example, Taiwan’s production of the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, although performed in English, was extremely well received and ran for more than 150 performances in 2022. The explosion of the musical performance genre in 2022 is undeniable progress, but it isn’t easy to distinguish how it will continue in the future.
Even if we summarise these main characteristics of Taiwan theatre in 2022, this does not mean that there are no other important events and changes that have been dismissed in the previous discussion, such as the opening of the Taipei Performing Arts Center in July 2022. In this article, we try to pinpoint the representative changes of 2022, through which we could draw a clear picture of what the future path of Taiwan theatre might have, could have, and should have been. It is as if the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is slowly receding, but its damage to the theatre industry needs to be repaired and compensated. As to the flexibility of performance spaces, how should the virtual theatre be judged, what kind of experience should the audience look forward to, and what kind of boundary should be defined between performers and audience?
When it comes to the issue of immersive theatre in 2022, there is another question worth discussing: the original concept and definition of immersive theatre comes from London and is still a relatively new methodology for Taiwan’s theatre field. Can we create our original way of interpreting immersive theatre to make it a uniquely Taiwanese style? Could we sell Taiwanese immersive theatre as a product to the international market to reverse the cultural installation? And the question also resonates with the explosion of Taiwanese musicals. Suppose the Seoul and New York musicals could attract Taiwanese to see them. How can the Taiwanese learn from them to develop their own original musicals to encourage diverse audiences to appreciate the beauty of Taiwanese musicals? 2022 was such a tough year, with all Taiwanese, including the theatre field, dealing with the pandemic, full of chaos and challenges, and everything changed rapidly. As the motto says, “there is nothing permanent except change” I propose that we could embrace all good and sad changes in the theatre in 2022 and keep working on our precious dreams in theatre, for that is what theatre stands for. Whether in Goblin mode or not, in 2023, we are coming!
Yi-Ping Wu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio and Television at Ming Chuan University. Her research interests focus on Taiwan studies, theatre and performance studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies. She recently worked on examining old Taiwanese stories with theories of performance studies and feminism.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Theatre in Taiwan 2022-2023‘.