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Illusion vs Reality in Blackbox Theatre

Words / Huang SuhuaiTranslate / Wei Shimin

photo on top provided by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre

Since the birth of the first Blackbox Theatre in Singapore in 1989, it has provided more spatial choices for theatre practitioners, and also sparked off new possibilities in creation. Blackbox Theatre has since become a standard venue option installed in public theatre spaces and arts schools, and “Blackbox” performances have proliferated and generated a rich variety of styles.

In comparison to large-scale performances, Blackbox Theatre remains rather niche. The combination of Chinese and Blackbox Theatre is perhaps even more on the fringe, and there are only a handful of such productions each year. “Chinese Theatre Festival” thus injects vibrant energy with its annual presentation of at least six overseas and local Chinese performances, set within small theatre spaces. The concept of a smaller theatre space includes the elements of Blackbox Theatre, and also embodies the qualities of being at the forefront, open, original and more. Perhaps due to limitation of resources, creators are stretched to invoke boundless imagination. Such theatre poses many challenges for both creators and audiences.

This article presents interviews with three young directors – Koh Choon Eiow (Malaysia/Taiwan), Fong Chun Kit (Hong Kong) and Chang Wei Loy (Taiwan) – to understand their construction of theatre spaces and creative philosophies.  

Chronology On Death: Wherever the planks go, the story would follow

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photo provided by Approaching Theatre, Taiwan

For founder of Taiwan’s approaching theatre, Malaysia-born Koh Choon Eiow, this is his response to why they use economical methods in the creative process:

“The most honest answer will be that it’s costless. Haha. I won’t say that I’m doing ‘Poor Theatre’, as this label carries a specific context and understanding, but I certainly have been influenced by its spirit and philosophy. The theatre is originally an empty space, and when we return to watch shows in this raw state, isn’t everything starkly revealed before our eyes, as we trigger our own magical imagination, and we are suddenly enriched from within…… I also remember watching outdoor Teochew street performances in the past, and the stage was very simply set up. But once the characters started to sing and move, I felt that the bare stage had become consumed with the vitality of the actor’s performance. And it was this magic that propelled me to do theatre.”  

His presentation of Chronology on Death is a good example of his creative mindset. At the start of the creative process, he set certain restrictions: a bare stage, music not to be used, and planks.

“Restrictions serve to explore new possibilities. The dimensions and quantity of planks are gradually determined through the rehearsal process, and act as the anchor of the show, giving a firm foundation for the story and emotions. One can step and move around on the planks, thus they act as transitions for the space and storytelling. Wherever the planks go, the story would follow. They uplift our emotions, essentially guiding us to continue with our story.” 

 The cognitive process of a theatre maker develops under various influences. Koh Choon Eiow recalls:

“When I studied theatre at Malaysian Institute of Art, Teacher Soon Choon Mee instilled important concepts in me. The most impactful was her direction of Chen Shi San Yuan, in which a bare stage was gradually transformed under the music, movement and performance by the experienced seniors. I was amazed. A bare stage is very challenging, as there is nowhere to hide, and one has to materialise in order to perform. Later, when I studied in Taiwan, I trained in body movement under Teacher Chen Wei-cheng. He worked with Jerzy Grotowski in physical theatre for two years in New York, and started to teach and impart his knowledge after returning to Taiwan. I strengthened my body under my teacher’s training, learned how to explore various body languages, and developed an awareness of my working ethics. My own productions later on are influenced by these two teachers to a certain extent. Theatre is a very humane space, how we look at people, feel people, leading into a presentation in theatre. This is what we continue to do.”

Essentially, the making of theatre always rests upon its origins and our motivations for it. “With precision in body vocabulary, to analyse humans’ state of existence.” – the philosophy of approaching theatre could well lie at the core of Koh Choon Eiow’s theatre making.  

The Last Supper: To be within a most realistic space

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Photo provided by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre

In contrast to a small theatre company with limited budget, the oldest and biggest troupe that is Hong Kong Repertory Theatre has much more staying power. However, they still hold Blackbox Theatre in high regard, as evident in how they created the first Blackbox Theatre space in Hong Kong, and organised the “International Black Box Festival” in 2014. The Last Supper is also one of their Blackbox productions.

The Last Supper has been performed many times in both Blackbox and larger venues. When asked about his thoughts on how different it is to perform in different spaces, director Fong Chun Kit replies:

“The experiences in a Blackbox and a regular theatre are completely different. In a conventional theatre, audiences experience strong emotions in watching the performance, but in Blackbox, audiences feel as if they have literally stepped into the house of the mother and son, and are within their world. As a director, I prefer having this play in a Blackbox, as it more distinctively relates to the content of the play.”

In contrast to the imaginative and minimalistic format, The Last Supper has a more realistic set design. Fong Chun Kit’s first discussion with the set designer was: what kind of space would best suit this play? The conclusion was “this play needs a most realistic space”. He feels that the greatest appeal of this play is the intimate transitions between the emotions and relationship of the two characters, and a constant yet detailed set design would be most fitting for it. Hence, that was how they developed the set.

Evidently, “Blackbox Theatre” does not dictate a standard format, and its style should rightly be determined by the spirit of the piece.

Fong Chun Kit very much likes the creative process that takes place within the minimalistic space of a Blackbox Theatre. He says:

“Besides having fewer audiences, the space also pushes you to expand your creativity to utilise the entire space. Just like our rehearsals for this play at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, we only used a third of the space in the Blackbox in one corner, in order to construct the feeling that the two characters were on a secluded island of their own. In the ‘burning charcoal’ scene, we even switched off the air-conditioning, so as to let the audience experience the uneasiness that comes before death. Such things are easier to organise in a Blackbox.”

Into the Flood: Wild children playing seriously

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photo provided by Sun Son Theatre, Taiwan

Sun Son Theatre’s Into the Flood is inspired from a two-year long period of re-occurring typhoons, which flooded their theatre space. As one of their most popular productions, Into the Flood has been performed over a hundred times. It has two versions: one performed in a conventional theatre space; and one for the community, toured in public areas and schools. When asked of the differences between indoor and outdoor performances, director Chang Wei Loy says: “The non-conventional or outdoor space is organic, breathable and especially full of character; it comes with many surprises and challenges.”

In the early days when he started his creative process, Chang Wei Loy had a thought – to be like the wandering artists of the past, and perform wherever they travelled to. Hence, he adopts a more straightforward and raw style of storytelling, with a performing energy that is rather “coarse” in nature; hopefully in search of a certain “wildness” – “just like ‘wild children’, unpolished and relatively structure-less, but to ‘play seriously’ in a performance that literally uses up all of one’s energy in playing such games.” He feels that: “The outdoor and non-conventional space has this natural charm. As it is a space familiar to the ‘audiences’, one in which they live in, feel comfortable in (such as their school, community spots or parks, etc……), and perhaps the ‘at-home’ feeling would enable audiences to ‘be at ease’ to a certain extent. This easiness brings forth a certain ‘playful’ nature that is emphasised in this production.”

 “I recall that in one touring show, we were performing under a huge tree in a school right next to the mountain. When a character finished his part on ‘the reasons for the flood’, there was a sudden loud ‘explosive sound’ from afar (it should be the explosion of stones in the cement factory), and it was such perfect timing. Another time we were performing on grass, and it was the last scene where the flood had subsided; as the show quietened down, a few butterflies suddenly passed by us.”

Of course, Chang Wei Loy acknowledges that the outdoors poses challenges in terms of its instability. “The indoor/professional theatre space provides for a more ‘focused/concentrated’ effect, and can better showcase the intricate sound quality. Performers face a different set of homework as well. With lighting effects, focused sound and such in the professional theatre space, we can create a more layered dimension. Therefore, different spaces have their own strengths and weaknesses.”  

Into the Flood emphasises the relationships of man with nature, and man with environment. In that case, within the restricted theatre space, how would the many faces of nature be presented? Chang Wei Loy replies: “The performance taps on the body movement and vocals of the actors, and uses live instruments to ignite the audience’s imaginative powers. This is one of the themes that Sun Son Theatre is striving to explore in our productions. Traditional world music is created from many instruments that are integrated with nature (the sounds of nature are mimicked in the Rain Stick, the Ocean Drum, Wind Gong, etc…); ‘Sun Son’ frequently derives knowledge from our ancestors to learn, spread awareness, and utilise these instruments to ‘play’ and evoke creativity. We also borrowed a number of traditional performing formats, and used the ‘playing’ style for transitions. These include shadow play, masks, puppets, flag dance, stilts, etc. With different formats and items, we break down the boundaries of the space.”

Three different Blackbox Theatre pieces, three unique creative styles, yet they all speak of how theatre is a space filled with magic, where reality is presented from illusion, and abstract art is created within realism. As a result, we are able to search for and create infinite possibilities within our limitations……

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 7 / July 2015:From Finite To Infinity