Ever since the panel discussion “Who are we in the white world? – Theatre and Post-colonialism” at Berliner Festspielhaus last Thursday, I have been having a hard time figuring out why I didn’t feel like cheering at the end of the event, even though, as a member of so-called “people of color,” I should have been jumping up and down that finally somebody cares about “who we are”. And as an independent and cultural-politically engaging theater maker, I surely did have quite a couple of suggestions to make when the question “how can we make some changes” was brought up. But the only thing I could bring myself to say was “Can we go back to the essence of theater?” with a quote from my Togolese fellow theater-maker, “theater (from where he comes) takes place when a person who has a story to tell calls out “come here, people” and a group of people would gather, listen and respond.” My two cents in the whole heated black-facing, racism and post-colonialism discussion might have sounded abstract and banal. The thing is I came to Germany to make theater, through which, I believe, dialogue could be made, border issues of any kind such as race, gender, class, culture could resolve and the shared human experiences would bring people closer. This was the kind of theater making I have experienced and signed up for at the first place.
Nearly two decades ago, I first got in touch with theater through a drama course at the University of Edinburgh. In our workshop version of “Romeo and Juliet”, a Thai professor played a “wall”, standing between “Romeo”, played by a Belgium girl, and “Juliet”, played by a Taiwanese girl, during their secret meetings, while I played the “Moon,” the only witness of their love. Before I came to Germany, I had been working with an international theater group, led by an Icelandic director, in Taiwan for five years. There, I had my first stage appearance as “Miss Julie” with a Canadian “Jean” and a British “Kristin”, took over the role “Blanche” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” with a Taiwanese “Stella” and a Philippine “Stanley” by my side, and danced as “Moon” in “Salome” along with an Italian “Salome” and an Australian “Antipast”. The people I have met back then either in an academic or practical theater environment were so different from one another in every possible way that the only thing connecting us was theater. I have never seen them as white, black, brown, yellow or people of color but simply people, who are passionate about using theater as an artistic tool to make sense of human existence. That said, later on, through the lens of others, I came to learn about my “otherness” – racially, culturally and even theatrically.
Thirteen years ago, I was invited to an entrance exam of the theater directing program at Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg (Hamburg School of Music and Theater, abbr. HfMT). Sitting in front of a committee of 6 German professors and lecturers, with my till then 6 months intensive German language course in the pocket, I was beyond nervous, especially knowing that I was about to answer questions regarding my written exam on Goethe’s Clavigo. Thanks to whomever out there, sending me all the positive energy, the committee seemed to understand and even like whatever I was saying to them. Just when I thought things couldn’t go better, a question hit me by surprise: “Why are you here?” I looked at the professor who asked the question, thinking “to make theater, of course” and must have appeared puzzled so she rephrased: “Why Germany?” I paused for a while and gave an answer, without knowing that it would become my struggling reality later on: “Sometimes you need to go away in order to get closer to who you are.” The “going away” I meant was more literal, as I was more than 9000 kilometers away from Taiwan where I was born and grew up. But what I then underwent was something else at so many different levels.
My directorial training at HfMT began with a task to devise something together with my other 5 classmates and then to perform in front of a group of kindergarten children. Somehow it became quickly obvious what we were to perform if we were to use ourselves as material: a piece about “otherness.” Also very quickly, there was a clear consensus that I would best fit that role as “the other,” even though, from the perspective of having a foreigner perform as a foreigner, my Georgian classmate could have been a candidate as well. Nonetheless, my Asianness stood out in a pool of white Europeans. When “otherness” is in play, the plot “exclusion” somehow naturally follows. I don’t think it crossed any of our minds that this kind of self-evident notion of “Asianness” and “white Europeans” has been an overlooked social problem. I also don’t recall that we had asked ourselves what it meant to reproduce such a social conflict with existing hard-to-beat clichés in front of the small kids. Would they think it is a norm that a “different-looking” person easily gets excluded from the “same-looking” majority? Or did they see it simply as a common daily conflict – we don’t like someone so we bullied her?
As I went on with my directorial program, such self-evident notion of “otherness” began to creep in, expanded its dimension and bit me in the butt. Comments of some advisors for my first couple of projects such as “very Chinese” and “quite Germanized” totally confused me. What kind of Chinese theater did they mean – Yangbanxi (model opera), xiangshen (crosstalk comedy) or xiqu (Chinese music theater), just to name a few? Or did it have nothing to do with theater but where I come from? But didn’t I mention I am from Taiwan? What, Taiwan and China are the same? Ok, let’s not even go there. And what exactly is a “Germanized” theater – Stemann kind? Carstof? Marthaler? Perceval? Oh wait, Marthaler and Perceval are not even German. What they apparently all have in common, apart from theater-making, is being “white” and “male”. This can’t be what a “Germanized” theater meant, can it? Especially there were only female directors in my class.
Even the idea of theater as a common denominator didn’t seem to escape the notion of “otherness”. The supervisor of my first student project couldn’t bring himself to feedback on my run-through – “What should I say – it’s a performance.“ I was irritated – “Of course it’s a performance. What else could it be?” Then I realized afterwards that the word “performance” he referred to actually meant “performance art,” which “tended to be defined as an antithesis to theater, challenging orthodox art forms and cultural norms”. But the institution I got myself into was meant to shape directors for the German State and municipal theater system, which has a long-standing tradition of bringing out “conventional theatrical plays or formal linear narratives.” With installations all over the building, an acting ensemble travelling from one spot to another, sometimes even in the middle of the audiences and scenic fragments without linear storyline, my piece obviously fell out of the traditional framework of what a German State theater would supposedly require.
It seemed to me, now after so many years have gone by, that nobody involved was prepared to or thought it necessary or was capable of giving any in-depth thoughts about what exactly was different. On the one hand, I was back then the first student ever in that directorial program coming from the “Far-East”. As the term has already suggested, it is something far away, not Western hence unfamiliar. How do people generally deal with the unfamiliar? Surely everybody has his or her own way but an immediate hug probably wouldn’t rank number one. On the other, Theater-making through the lens of institutionalization and categorization was completely new to me. My firm belief in borderless theater certainly didn’t really help me understand the unfamiliar. All that said, I was chosen, as one of the committee members told me afterwards, because they saw “the fire that belongs to a genuine theater maker.” Whatever that meant, it was, after all, theater, our common ground, which brought us together. Even though my experience at HfMT was like the blind leading the blind, I remain grateful that I was given the chance to go away from all I knew about myself and theater, shovel all my learned “otherness” into my mouth, spit them all out again and then fight against all odds to keep a balanced self while doing that “difficult dance” – “to live with sincerity in our culture of cynicism… to tussle with two polarizing forces ripping the psyche asunder by beckoning to it from opposite directions — critical thinking and hope,” so Maria Popova.
Now, coming back to what triggered all these thoughts – the panel discussion “Who are we in the white world – theater and colonialism”, my question is where do we go from here?
(to be continued)