Theatre transcending cultures and languages: Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio and Teatro de les Sentidos premiere work-in-progress in Barcelona4.9.2018 | theatre.
The 10,047-kilometre distance separating Barcelona, Spain and Hong Kong was minimised dramaturgically over the past three years by Hong Kong’s Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio and Teatro de los Sentidos (Theatre of Senses) from Barcelona. And this July, Our Death Won’t Hurt Anybody – Freely inspired by The Art of War by Sunzi (Part 1), a collaboration between the two companies, was presented as a work-in-progress at the world-renowned Grec Festival de Barcelona.
Teatro de los Sentidos and Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio both attended the International Workshop Festival of Theatre in 2015, where the seeds for collaboration were sown. The West Kowloon Performing Arts team became the co-producer and facilitated the research and development informing the work-in-progress. Spanish reviews praised the 2018 performances: “Beyond binding two languages from different parts of the world, [the work] has found a language comprised of two different theatrical universes”.
How it started
The collaboration could be described as something destined. For over two decades, Teatro de los Sentidos’s independent work has enjoyed wide acclaim in the theatre world. When Enrique Vargas, the ensemble’s founder/artistic director and anthropologist, lectured at the International Workshop Festival of Theatre in 2015, he was introduced to Hong Kong theatre director and theorist Tang Shu-wing. During and outside of the workshops, the two engaged in in-depth conversations on philosophy and the performing arts.
Afterwards, they kept in touch, and Tang suggested conducting a nine-month research project. He planned to study Teatro de los Sentidos’s language of the senses in terms of physicality and memory, and to contrast it with his own pre-verbal expressive methods. In May 2017, West Kowloon invited two members of Teatro de los Sentidos to Hong Kong to experiment with Tang Shu-wing and the research team. After presenting the research and delivering a showcase at the Producers’ Network Meeting and Forum, the two companies decided to develop a theatre piece together, and the West Kowloon team immediately sought a co-commissioning body. The Grec Festival was a perfect fit, and the performance titled Our Death Won’t Hurt Anybody was premiered as a work-in-progress at the 2018 edition.
Our Death Won’t Hurt Anybody was inspired by the ten cardinal military tactics in Sunzi’s The Art of War, an ancient treatise on military tactics from around 500 BC. How do the 2,000-year-old strategies relate to our lives today? Looking at the status of present-day Hong Kong and Barcelona as regions in relation to a sovereign country, the creative team saw striking similarities in terms of language, identity and political situation. The absurdities of modern society and international relations gone awry similar unrest in the Qinqiu period when The Art of War was written. Conflicts are a constant part of our existence – from the struggles we encounter navigating our interpersonal relationships, to national wars and our own internal struggles between sense and the senses.
This collaboration marked many firsts. It was the first time for Teatro de los Sentidos to work with another company, the first time that the current issues facing the people of Hong Kong and Barcelona were given artistic treatment on stage, and the first foray of Teatro de los Sentidos into pre-verbal theatre.
Theatre is where cultures intersect and bond
Cultural tension can drive divergence, but it can also drive integration. The team behind Our Death Won’t Hurt Anybody itself is a cultural melting pot. Although the main languages for the two companies are Spanish and Cantonese, the native language of people from Barcelona is Catalan not the official Castilian Spanish. Many members of Teatro de los Sentidos are not local-born either, and it’s not unusual to hear European languages like Italian and French during rehearsals, when an array of sounds, intonations, syntaxes and meanings are thrown around in all directions.
The team behind Our Death Won’t Hurt Anybody itself is a cultural melting pot.
Language and words also denote cultural connotations. The same point or manner of speaking may be interpretated differently by people speaking different languages from different cultures. Case in point, the creative team deliberated whether the Spanish national anthem or an ardent Catalonian folk song should be used in a particular scene. With both cultures in the midst of heated political debate, and an as yet unknown outcome of the Catalonian independence movement, either of the choices could have caused controversy and potentially distracted the audience towards a politically-informed reading of the performance, rather than one based on theatricality. The final decision was to select the instrumental works of Catalonian cellist Paul Casals to imply historical transition in the scene.
An impactful work for the audience and Teatro de los Sentidos
Performed inside an intimate performance venue, the work features four scenes requiring participation from members of the hundred-strong audience. Many volunteered in each performance. In one of these scenes, a Hong Kong actor cooks up a meal of seafood – a Barcelonian delicacy – in Hong Kong style live on stage, while an Italian actor invites impromptu six audience members to share the meal. Few can resist the mouth-watering food on offer. While they tuck in on stage, the actors launch a discussion around the table about the pitfalls of healthy eating and the “fake news” crisis brought on by modern media and technology, eventually requesting the volunteers to reveal their own dark side and confess situations where they have lied. Another scene, one requiring an audience member to voluntarily give a drop of blood, also saw many hands raised in response.
The audience in Barcelona said that they were more used to traditional narrative theatre productions. And while they were surprised by the performance and the four-hour running time, it offered them the chance to experience a new kind of performance. Those familiar with the work of Teatro de los Sentidos commented that the ensemble usually performed in unconventional venues on a much more initmate scale, and with a high actor to audience ratio (sometimes with one-on-one performances). The production with Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio showed a shift in their performance style that opened up new possibilities.
Lessons learnt from cross-cultural exchange…
At West Kowloon, the Performing Arts team continues its commitment to facilitating the creation of quality works, putting on first-rate local and international productions, collaborating with artists and organisations on venue-partnerships, and completing the district’s new performance spaces. Working with Teatro de los Sentidos and Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio was not only about trans-national and trans-cultural collaboration, it also allowed the team to reflect on the role and duty of the producer. Traditionally, for most commissioned works, an organisation commits funds then sits tight in anticipation of the opening night. Nowadays, this process is no longer desirable for international collaborative projects. The arts, crudely put, are about craftsmanship with a humanistic vein. And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach for performing arts production and commissions, the commissioning party/producer should create favourable conditions and facilitate understanding between artistic parties, and help establish productive modes of communication. They should also encourage in-depth studies that ensure that the dialogue is an on-going one that helps shed new light on the way forward for contemporary performing arts.
In 2019 we will see both the opening of Freespace, West Kowloon’s multi-genre performing space, and the development of Our Death Won’t Hurt Anybody for its future premiere in Hong Kong. While the presentation in Barcelona was a conventional frontal stage set up, the Hong Kong Freespace version will include a revised production design that invites multiple perspectives and spectating angles. This change, we hope, will encourage the audience to move from a passive spectator position and to participate as ‘spect-actors’, performers and creators.